Arthur Evans - In search of the Minotaur

Evans' reconstruction of a section of the palace of Knossos - the work while popular with tourists i

Evans' reconstruction of a section of the palace of Knossos - the work while popular with tourists is controversial (Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sir Arthur Evans went from childhood in rural Herts to the mythical island of Minos – uncovering a palace complex so advanced it fired the public’s imagination for archaeology. On the 75th anniversary of his death this month, Stephen Roberts explores the man and his discoveries

Portrait of Sir Arthur Evans by William Richmond, 1907 (Ashmolean Museum)

Portrait of Sir Arthur Evans by William Richmond, 1907 (Ashmolean Museum) - Credit: William Richmond, 1907 (Ashmolean Museum)

Like father, like son, you might say. Sir John Evans was a paper manufacturer, who from 1864, became a renowned geologist and prehistorian – driven by his work mapping watercourses for mills – and published numerous books and articles on both topics. John was outshone by his son though. Sir Arthur Evans who became a famed archaeologist, most remembered for his discoveries in Crete, particularly the Bronze Age palace of Knossos.

Hertfordshire looms large in the tale. John Evans worked for his uncle, John Dickinson, who invented a continuous papermaking process, founding paper-mills at Croxley Green, Apsley and Nash Mills. John, clearly a man of intellect, married Dickinson’s daughter, Harriet, in 1850, leading firstly to a junior partnership, then, ultimately, to him taking over the business in 1858, inventing the envelope along the way by all accounts. It was at the sylvan environment of Nash Mills, Hemel that Arthur was born in July 1851, the first child of the marriage.

The papermaking connections and his father’s interest in antiquity served Arthur well. Schooled at the Hertfordshire prep-school, Callipers, in Chipperfield, which no longer exists, Harrow and Oxford with profits from the mills, John’s connections and advice also proved invaluable to his son. As Arthur developed, he assisted his father’s search for, and classification of archaeological artefacts, and his own enthusiasm for the ancient past was fired.

The first home Arthur remembered would have been a purpose-built brick house, constructed near Nash Mill, known as the ‘red house’, distinguishing it from other, sooty houses on the ‘estate’. This was John and Harriet’s unpretentious abode, until they moved to the latter’s grander childhood home in 1856 with a large garden, where the children ran free. Arthur would have been around five and already had two younger brothers, with two sisters arriving in the next couple of years. It was a large, happy family. Tragedy was to strike when Harriet’s health declined, and she died in 1858, when Arthur was just seven. He was later raised by a stepmother after his father’s remarriage.

Reconstructed storage jars at Knossos (the original sherds can be made out in the lower section and

Reconstructed storage jars at Knossos (the original sherds can be made out in the lower section and rim) Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The career of the archaeologist would be a slow-burn for a while. He completed his education at Göttingen in Germany, then, accompanied by his younger sibling Lewis, went adventuring in the Balkans from 1875, which included a night in an Austro-Hungarian cell, wrongly suspected of being Russian spies. A stint as a reporter for the Manchester Guardian followed, where he was, thanks to his escapades, quickly acknowledged as an expert on Balkan affairs, a region to which he returned in 1877.

He married Margaret Freeman in 1878 and they lived in Ragusa (modern day Dubrovnik). Their stay lasted four years. Evans surpassed his first incarceration when in 1882 he was locked up for six weeks by the Austro-Hungarians, who regarded him as an agent-provocateur, stirring up dissension among the empire’s subjects. He was deported for favouring the freedom of the Slavs. Evans was certainly no dusty academic.

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Arthur returned to Oxford, where he became keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in 1884, aged 34. During his 25-year tenure he transformed the Ashmolean into a museum of national importance, buying artefacts and carrying out research in the Balkans, Greece, Italy and north Africa.

Enduring a second tragedy, the death of his wife in 1893, Evans’ thoughts turned that year to Crete, which looked like it might become the next big thing in terms of archaeological discoveries. This was the island of King Minos with its labyrinth of Ancient Grecian myth where hid the monstrous Minotaur.

When Evans pitched up on the Aegean island he started a dig a few kilometres south of the capital, Heraklion. He was in search of pre-alphabetic writing - administrative records on clay tablets and inscriptions – a search which resulted in the identification of three of the world’s earliest writing systems which Evans called Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B.

After a five year campaign he began what would become a 31-year excavation at Knossos, uncovering a large palace complex and claiming to have found the labyrinth of ancient myth. It was one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, propelling Knossos into the public consciousness and affording us the name of a new sophisticated, Bronze Age, pre-Greek civilisation, Minoan. The excavations unearthed some 2,800 inscribed tablets.

Many of Evans’ pet theories would be blown out of the Aegean a dozen or so years after his death, when the tablets were deciphered. It turned out the Minoans were Greek, not a unique pre-Greek civilisation, as Evans had postulated. But he was a pioneer, working in previously unexplored country, theorising as he dug.

Evans was described as ‘small, dreadfully near-sighted’ and sporting a ‘small cane in order to feel his way along’; no great physical specimen then, but he countered this with endurance.

The family wealth came in handy; he bought land he was interested in, fending off the attentions of other, unwelcome, archaeologists. Once he was in situ, he devoted the remainder of his life to a single goal – the excavation of the palace of Knossos. That lack of physical gusto may have paid dividends, as Evans worked slowly and meticulously, preserving rather than destroying, over a period of a quarter-century.

Evans controversially took his plans for the palace to another level - ‘reconstructing’ the complex as he imagined it using reinforced concrete and art-nouveau wall paintings. Was Knossos true to its original design or just some film set Evans had in his mind’s eye? From the 1930s archaeologists began criticising, one calling it just that, a ‘movie-city’.

Despite the controversy, Evans’ passion and ultimate dedication to archaeology pushed the scholarly field forward in leaps (he was a founding member of the British Shool at Athens and the British Academy) and also caught the public’s imagination and desire for our collecive past.

Arthur Evans died 75 years ago this month on July 11, 1941, three days after he’d achieved the grand age of 90. He had been knighted 30 years before by George V for services to archaeology.