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Restoring the Minoans: Sir Arthur Evans
Famous for the uncovering of the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete, Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) placed his own unique interpretation on what he revealed. His controversial theories about the ancient Minoans were scorned by many. Sir Arthur was also criticised for his restoration work at Knossos using materials unknown to the Minoans, such as reinforced concrete. His liberal approach to the restorations of several frescoes also came under fire, yet no one can deny his success as a founding father of archaeology.
He was one of the first archaeologists to use a large-scale systematic methodology. His legacy survives him in the classic works he published and in the name he gave the civilisation he uncovered: the Minoans. He is remembered for his excellence in scholarship, his intuitive grasp and his creative imagination. We owe our knowledge of the Minoan Civilisation to Sir Arthur Evans.
Who Was Sir Arthur Evans?
Sir Arthur was the son of Sir John Evans, an eminent numismatist (coin expert), prehistoric archaeologist, and successful businessman. As a boy, he was fascinated with the inscriptions on his father's coins and artefacts. Sir John's wealth allowed the young Arthur to be well educated.
Sir Arthur achieved notoriety and success as a student and through his adventures as a young man. He served as a war correspondent in Bosnia in the 1870s, identifying many Roman roads and towns. Physically he was a small man but was noted for his toughness and tenacity. He was also a respected scholar and held the curatorship of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford from 1884-1908. He went on to become a professor of prehistoric archaeology at Oxford in 1909. He was knighted in 1911.
Excavations at Knossos
Crete was a Turkish possession until 1898. After independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Crete's local government allowed excavations at Knossos. They had previously banned excavations for fear that anything discovered would be seized by the Turks and removed to Istanbul.
Sir Arthur had been to Crete in 1894-5 with a friend, John Myres (who was later to win fame for his excavations on Cyprus). The two were hunting for artefacts and sites. They both believed the ancient Greek myths were based on historical fact. Myres and Sir Arthur had an interest in digging at Kephala (Knossos) along with another famous archaeologist—Heinrich Schliemann. At that time, the Turks were still in control, and no one was successful in terms of excavation.
Sir Arthur eventually purchased the site at Kephala. It took roughly four years from when he commenced the dig in March 1900 to uncover the 13,000-square-metre palace complex site. He continued to work on the site for approximately thirty years, during a period that encompassed two world wars. Work still continues at Knossos.
Knossos Was a Literate Society
Among the spectacular finds of Knossos, Sir Arthur uncovered many clay tablets or stone seals containing a style of hieroglyphic script. Sir Arthur postulated a theory of the picture-writing literacy of the Cretan island languages "Linear A" and "Linear B," found on these stones. Linear A has never been deciphered. Michael Ventris ultimately determined Linear B to be an ancient form of Greek in 1953.
Deciphering Linear B
Criticism of Sir Arthur
Sir Arthur restored parts of the palace at Knossos during his excavations. He used reinforced concrete to rebuild walls, rooms and columns. He painted the renovated columns and other structures in tones that reflected paint fragments he found on the structures. See the picture below for an example. He has been much criticised for this on the basis that the ancient Minoans could never have used reinforced concrete.
Sir Arthur was enthusiastic about what he found, declaring one room as the 'Throne Room' of King Minos, relying heavily on Greek mythology. He restored the throne room in what he thought was a fitting manner. He has been criticised for this type of enthusiasm. Modern archaeologists avoid 'over-interpretation' and the use of modern materials in restoration.
The chronology Sir Arthur created for Knossos was inconsistent with the work of others in the same field. Later investigations of Knossos revealed the miscalculations made by Sir Arthur and showed that the connection with King Minos was closer to romance than reality. Some have even condemned him as a falsifier of history. He overrated the importance of Cretan culture in early Aegean history.
Nonetheless, no one can doubt the truly spectacular nature of what he uncovered or the brilliance of his scholarship. Sir Arthur Evans was not a treasure hunter, unlike several earlier archaeologists. He genuinely loved his work and was dedicated to studying ancient history. Sir Arthur is celebrated by a large bust placed at the palace at Knossos (pictured above).
- Ager, Simon. "Linear A." Omniglot, https://omniglot.com/writing/lineara.htm.
- "Evans, Arthur J., Sir." (n.d.). Dictionary of Art Historians, https://arthistorians.info/evansa.
- "The Palace of Knossos." (2021). Odyssey: Adventures in Archaology, https://www.odysseyadventures.ca/articles/knossos/articleKnossos01.html.
- Bain, Paul (Ed.). (2008). The Great Archeologists. London: Southwater.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
miff on April 29, 2017:
how did he become an archaeologist?
arthur evans III on June 02, 2012:
this is amazing this man looks totally like my grand father arthur evans senior and my father arthur evans jr always wondered were the name evans came from
Mel Jay (author) from Australia on January 28, 2012:
hubber088 from Baltimore, MD on December 08, 2011:
A lot of good info. Good hub!
Mel Jay (author) from Australia on April 24, 2011:
Much appreciated toknowinfo! What I love the most about Sir Arthur is that he was a real dreamer - and he took the action to make his dreams come true. BTW I love your animal hubs - especially this one - https://hubpages.com/health/Big-5-Personality-Trai... . It really got me thinking about dog people I know and how there are some really famous dog people out there - It has become almost expected to see US Presidents with a dog, not to mention the Royal Family and the ever-present Corgis - Cheers - Mel
toknowinfo on April 24, 2011:
Thanks for the enlightenment about Sir Arthur Evans. He sounds like a brilliant man and certainly a pioneer. Well written and fascinating facts. Thanks for sharing. Voted up and useful.