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The Old Harrovian who discovered Knossus was a brilliant foreign correspondent

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Architecture, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Monday, 28 October 2013

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This edited article about archaeology originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 442 published on 4 July 1970.

Arthur Evans, picture, image, illustration

Arthur Evans visited many trouble spots in Europe, and more than once he was arrested on charges of spying and expelled

Arthur Evans was a short-sighted coin collector who found a forgotten civilisation.

Entirely by accident he discovered the remains of a beautiful city that dated back to 2000 B.C. It was the oldest city in Europe, and much to many scholars’ surprise was the birthplace of civilisation in the eastern Mediterranean.

He made his discovery on the island of Crete. The city that he unearthed is Knossus, which was a thousand years old when the Greeks were clambering into their wooden horse at Troy. The Knossus civilisation was already confused with myth long before the great Classical days of Greece.

Although the beginnings of Knossus are about five hundred years more recent than the pyramids, and some five thousand years younger than Jericho, believed to be the oldest city in the world, it was a surprising find.

It was also a very upsetting find for many scholarly theories, for it proved that civilisation had not flowered first on the mainland of Greece as had been thought. The warrior cities of Greece, it seems, learned many of their cultured ways from earlier Knossus and other Cretan kingdoms.

The story of the discovery of Knossus begins with the character of Arthur Evans. He was born of a wealthy and brilliant Victorian family and received his education at Harrow and Oxford.

Although he had a keen, scholarly mind, he also had a fiery and determined temperament coupled with a restless nature. As a young man he spent many years travelling in Eastern Europe. In those days the Balkans were part of either the Turkish or Austrian Empires, and it was fashionable for wealthy young Victorians to support, or at least sympathise with, the oppressed Slavs and Greeks in their struggle for independence.

Evans was no exception. He visited all the trouble-spots and sent home lively reports to a British newspaper. Apart from his political activities and journalism, he also found time to study the ancient history of those lands, to explore ancient ruins and collect coins, pottery and other artefacts.

About this time the German Schliemann had discovered the ancient site of Troy, and had unearthed many fine relics.

This proved without doubt that Homer’s epic poem of the famous long siege was based upon fact. The stories of ancient Greece were not, as had been believed, pure myth and legend.

At the age of thirty-three Evans had been appointed as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, a task that allowed him great opportunity for travel.

In the course of his roamings he came upon some ancient small stones in a market place in Athens. They were being offered for sale by one of the many dealers in such things. Being very short-sighted Evans could see with great clarity tiny details on the coins that most people would need a magnifying glass to detect.

The coins, or stones, were drilled as though for a thread, and some of them had tiny markings. They were not in the familiar Greek letters but in some unknown hieroglyphs, a style of writing used by the ancient Egyptians but not previously known in Europe.

The dealer said that the stones had come from Crete. Determined to solve the mystery, Evans set out for that island, hoping to find some more of these stones with the strange symbols, and if he were very lucky to come across a clue that would enable him to decipher the writings.

Evans found plenty of the stones. The local women still wore them as lucky charms.

He noticed that there were numerous signs of ancient ruins on the island. He assumed them to be old Greek settlements, until he began digging at the beginning of this century.

As he and his assistants probed into the Cretan soil he found many hundreds of samples of the writing that he sought. He also unearthed walls, stairways, pavements, brightly coloured frescoes depicting youths and maidens in garments very unlike those worn by Greeks or any other ancient people.

The passageways seemed to him like a maze. Was this the legendary maze of King Minos, who was supposed to have dwelt on Crete?

Images of bulls were found by the dozen, paintings of men and maidens performing the most extraordinary acrobatics on the backs of bulls were revealed.

Evans called to mind the story of Theseus, who entered the maze to slay the minotaur, a creature half-man half bull. Was this the city that gave rise to the legend when the Greeks were for the most part still simple cottage-dwelling shepherds?

He discovered a great palace and the throne which he believed had belonged to King Minos. He gave the name of the king to this brilliant and cultured civilisation, calling it Minoan.

Evans worked at the site for many years, restoring the ruins to something like their original state . . . largely at his own expense. It is estimated that Knossus cost him a quarter of a million pounds.

The Bronze Age island people of Crete had been able to develop their civilisation undisturbed by warring and raiding neighbours, as often happened to mainland peoples. The sea had been their defence. Not even the might of Egypt dominated them, for the Egyptians were no great seafarers.

On the contrary, the people from Crete visited Egypt and traded with the Pharoahs. They probably gave a system of writing to the very early Greeks.

This was the script that inspired Evans to visit Crete and brought about the accidental discovery of a noble, cultured and forgotten civilisation.

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