The Real Minotaur…ok, maybe not

I thought The Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth by Joseph MacGillivray would be a nice nonfiction companion to The King Must Die (a retelling of the myth of Theseus) and it was, once the author got us to Knossos.

The author is an archaeologist specializing in Crete, so I expected the book to focus on Evans’s excavations at Crete. For the first hundred pages, though, I wondered what was going on. MacGillivray details the lives of Evans’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father; Evans’s early life; and miscellaneous other tidbits about a range of topics, only a few of which have any bearing on the main topic. I almost stopped reading, but once we finally got to Evans arriving on Crete and beginning the process of acquiring the right to excavate, things picked up. If you read this, just skim through the early parts and skip to the excavations.

It’s fairly well known that (1) Evans believed Knossos was the site of a palace of a real King Minos with a real Labyrinth and some kind of sport related to bulls (perhaps bull-leaping, a central feature of The King Must Die) and (2) Evans made a mess of the site by current archaeological standards. The book explains how this unfolded, including Evans’s desire, driven by racism, to find a literate society of “Europeans” that predated literate societies in the Middle East and Egypt, preferably one that originated with “white” Libyans. Evans also had a strange desire to find evidence of a kind of tree worship that would tie to the Norse myths of Yggdrasil. These compulsions led Evans to unfounded conclusions about the age of the different layers uncovered at Knossos, the meaning of the objects he found, the nature of the society, and whether the Minoans influenced the mainland Mycenaeans and/or Egyptians, or the reverse. Although he had mocked Heinrich Schliemann for claiming he found the “real” Troy, Evans wound up doing the same, claiming he found the throne of King Minos, Ariadne’s dancing floor, and other mythical sites.

As the book shows, despite Evans’s erroneous conclusions, he did uncover tremendously important artifacts that changed the entire picture of prehistory in the region, and he also sparked and prodded scholarly interest in the entire subject of prehistory, where British academics in particular had previously shown no interest in anything pre-Hellenic. And, as much as his predetermined goals drove Evans’s conclusions, the same is true of most of his contemporaries. Crete was a pawn between the waning Ottoman empire, the emerging modern nation of Greece, and the great powers of Europe, and what different scholars thought of the archaeological discoveries had much to do with where their sympathies lay and where they thought the artifacts should land. Where there is no contemporaneous written record–or no record that has been decoded–it’s easy to impose preexisting ideas onto archaeological objects.

Evans also made it nearly impossible for modern archaeologists to apply more scientific methods to the site at Knossos. He kept scattered records of the exact location and stratigraphy of his finds, employed artists to “reconstruct” and “conserve” artwork by painting in missing bits, turned a blind eye on his staff making reproductions and selling them as real artifacts, rebuilt sections of the buildings, and, in some places, just dug through layers that didn’t interest him without any concern for artifacts in those layers. But this was very much the practice of his time, and it’s difficult to fault him for failing to anticipate modern methods. In fairness, and as the book relates, absent some kind of scholarly effort at excavation, sites on Crete were frequently looted, with objects ending up in Athens flea markets, and Evans built new structures in part to preserve ruins that would have quickly degraded in the elements (unfortunately he did so in a way that was intended to recreate the original buildings, rather than protect the remaining authentic parts).

If you’re interested in archaeology generally or Crete specifically, this is definitely worth a read. Just do yourself a favor and skip ahead to the good parts.

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