Arthur Evans Begins to Dig in Crete

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Arthur Evans Begins to Dig in Crete


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


March 23rd, 1900

In Greek mythology the island of Crete was the birthplace of the supreme god Zeus, the domain of the revered royal law-giver Minos, and the home of the Minotaur, the monstrous man-headed bull that lurked at the centre of the Cretan labyrinth. The hero Theseus, heir to the throne of Athens, penetrated the labyrinth and killed the Minotaur.

Archaeology was to show that this romantic legend had a basis in fact, when Arthur Evans began excavating the mound of Kephala near the north coast. It was the site of the prehistoric settlement of Knossos and the dig was to yield sensational results.

A short-sighted little fellow, only 5ft 2in tall, Arthur John Evans had the advantages of a substantial private income and an inherited footing in the academic world. His father Sir John Evans was an eminent authority on British prehistory and coinage, while his mother was one of the rich Dickinson paper-making family. As a young man he dabbled dangerously in Balkan politics, married the daughter of the historian E.A. Freeman and in 1884 was appointed curator of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. He was influenced by Heinrich Schliemann's exciting discoveries at Troy and Mycenae and by Arthur Milchhofer's suggestion that Crete had dominated the Mycenaean culture of the Greek cities of the Bronze Age (in the period around the sixteenth to the thirteenth centuries BC, before the Trojan War). Travelling in Crete in the 1890s, Evans contrived to acquire the estate which included the Knossos site. Schliemann had tried to buy the land earlier and failed.

It was 11am on a Friday morning when thirty-two workmen began to dig, and within a week Evans was employing about a hundred -- entirely at his own expense. They soon uncovered the remains of a Bronze Age palace of astonishing splendour, which yielded superb frescoes and objects that amply testified to the Cretan religious cult of the bull and the perilous, athletic ritual of bull-dancing.

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