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Sir Arthur Evans: Knossos, Myth & Reality

The Ashmolean Museum’s temporary exhibition ‘Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality’ opened in February and features over one hundred objects on loan from Athens and Crete. The objects are on display together with materials from Oxford’s unique archive based on Sir Arthur Evans’s excavations and documentation on the uncovering of the Palace of Knossos in the early 20th century.[1] Many of the objects are seen together for the first time in over a century, in what a Greek curator describes as “a reunion of two institutions who share the same interpretation and admiration of the past” and the Ashmolean Museum’s Sir Arthur Evans Curator, Andrew Shapland, calls a “happy collaboration” with the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, the Heraklion Ephorate of Antiquities and the British School at Athens.[2]

Figure 1 - Photograph taken of the marble minotaur statue in 'Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality' at the Ashmolean Museum

The exhibition explores the evolving myth of Knossos, tracing how the search for the mythological Labyrinth led to the discovery of an archaeological site and how contemporary research continues to explore and shape ideas about the society that inhabited from Crete 9,000 years ago. When entering the first room, the visitor’s attention is immediately captured by the probably most impressive piece in the exhibition: a shimmering marble sculpture of the minotaur. According to Greek mythology, the fabulous monster was captured at the centre of the labyrinth commissioned by King Minos of Crete, who was terrified by a single look at the infant minotaur.[3]

Though the myth of the minotaur may be the most captivating part of the exhibition, my main interest when visiting was the famous British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, a pioneer in the study of Aegean civilisation in the Bronze Age and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in the late 19th century. The second part of the exhibition that focuses on the excavations of Knossos was therefore particularly interesting for an in-depth exploration of his work, the role of the archaeologist in knowledge production, and a critical investigation of the museum space. Rather than seeing this part of the exhibition as the transition from the ‘myth’ of fabled creatures and legendary locations to the ‘reality’ of the archaeological site at Knossos, a more fruitful way of looking at Sir Arthur Evans’s work is to view it as another layer of ‘myth’. His activities have irrevocably impacted the archaeological site and, as a result, our understanding of the society that inhabited it, so that the central question becomes: is this an exhibition about Europe’s first great civilisation, or Evans’s imagination?

Figure 2 - Portrait painted by Sir William Richmond and depicting Sir Arthur Evans in a Cretan setting and somewhat freely interpreted reconstruction of ruins at Knossos.

The view that the archaeological site was completely constructed through the lens of one highly prejudiced Victorian gentleman with an imperialist mindset is probably most strongly articulated in Alexander MacGillivray’s book Minotaur:

“Evans’s Minoans are an example of how an archaeological discovery occurs first in the mind, born of the thinker’s need to prove something of vital importance to himself. Finding proof in the dirt is the final stage of a process of wish-fulfilment.”[4]

Undoubtedly, since Evans dominated the field with his lectures, publications, and exhibitions for almost half a century, he deeply shaped our understanding of the society he called ‘Minoans’ (after the legendary King Minos) and his ideas have heavily influenced our understanding of the site.[5] Another scholar described Sir Arthur Evans’s work at Knossos as follows:

“He bought the land and paid for the excavation out of the proceeds of his father’s paper mill, and he supervised the dig in a fine aristocratic fashion, floating down to the site in the evening to bestow mythological titles on all the rooms and objects that had emerged that day.”[6]

To some extent, the Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition goes along with this scholarly view by subtly deconstructing many aspects of Evans’s work. The part about ‘Minoan’ life and culture is littered with corrections of Evans’s proclamations, such as “Evans suggested that the finest pottery was used by a royal family, but there is no clear evidence that one existed” or “only one small stone axe was found in the Shrine of the Double Axes, despite the name that Arthur Evans gave this room.”[7] The most interesting part was Evans’s treatment of women in ‘Minoan’ society, as many frescos depict women in positions of power. Andrew Shapland points to some of the contradictions and underlying misogyny in Evans’s work: “in the 19th century, there was this idea that primitive societies were matriarchies before they went through the patriarchal stage and Evans was happy to apply this idea to Minoan Crete” but at the same time Evans had the “preconception that women could not have held secular power and the powerful women he saw depicted on the frescoes must have been priestesses or goddesses.”[8] When discovering the throne Evans at first thought Ariadne (the daughter of King Minos) might have sat in it, but when he discovered two seats that were wider, he immediately changed his opinion and suggested that the throne would have been too narrow for a woman’s hips, so a woman could not have sat on the throne. This was his onlyevidence’ for concluding that there must have been a male ruler in the palace.[9]

Nonetheless, we can go further in challenging Evans’ ideas. The recent discovery of several human skeletons on a platform who were seemingly ritually killed, together with other finds across Crete, supports the challenge made by Greek archaeologists Yannis and Efi Sakellarakis to perceptions of the ‘Minoans’ as a peaceful and utopian society.[10] This vision was central to Evans’s work. Cathy Gere argues that the origins of Evans’s romantic picture of the matriarchal, unfortified, prosperous, law-abiding ‘Minoans’ can be found in Europe’s deeply traumatic experiences of modern warfare.[11] His vision of a contrasting ancient society of peace and plenty was thus projected on the ‘Minoans’ and Gere suggests that he even suppressed evidence of military installations to uphold the illusion.[12]

Figure 3 - photograph of the 'Palace of Minos' with Evans's modern concrete reconstructions and frescoes. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, Evans also added modern, physical elements to the archaeological site that have become difficult to disentangle from the real Bronze Age remains. Some of the elements were added to protect the buildings, but with others Evans wanted to bring the palace to life. His later reconstructions were only partly based on the archaeological finds and rather ‘imaginatively’ reworked.[13] Many scholars heavily criticise this reconstruction, and especially the additions of reinforced concrete. Ironically, the fabled Bronze Age Palace of Knossos was one of the first reinforced concrete buildings to be erected on the island. The red square pillars are pure modernism and Cathy Gere even cynically likens the reconstructed palace to Alexei Shuchev’s Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow that was built at around the same time, calling it the most eccentric archaeological reconstruction that has ever been accepted by scholars.[14]

The exhibition treads relatively lightly around some of these critiques of Evans, which may reflect some of the complex transnational context behind its creation. In Crete, Sir Arthur Evans’s work is still seen as almost completely uncontroversial and even widely admired, leading to an interesting dynamic in contemporary scholarship. If you go to Crete and the palace the figure of the ‘Priest-King’ is everywhere, but Evans completely made it up. “The deconstruction and critique of Evans’s work”, Andrew Shapland explains, “can be found mainly in Anglo-American scholarship while much of the traditional Greek scholarship is less critical. We have the situation again where Anglo-American scholars are trying to tell Greek scholars what to think so this post-colonial dynamic is not quite what you’d expect.”[15] This is certainly an interesting observation and the close collaboration of Greek institution with this exhibition that is not overly critical of Sir Arthur Evans confirms this. Would such a collaboration be possible when it comes to Lord Elgin’s legacy?

Using the Ashmolean Museum’s ‘Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality’ exhibition as a starting point to explore Sir Arthur Evans life and work – his controversial modernist restorations and his revised claims about ‘Minoan’ culture – has led to completely new questions and topics I did not expect to encounter. The permanent legacy of this colonial-era scholar on the archaeological site and our understanding of Knossos has many layers and the exhibition has certainly provided a starting point for my research. Andrew Shapland told me that the general feedback for the exhibition so far was that people who already like Evans are not challenged by the exhibition and people who dislike him see their dislike confirmed. This was ultimately their aim: to allow a more open-ended engagement with the collection rather than being too didactic. This certainly conforms with my experience of exploring the exhibition. Although the curatorial decisions and especially Elizabeth Price’s accompanying film go some way to critically engaging with Sir Arthur Evans’s legacy, I had to look beyond the Ashmolean Museum’s walls to be able to read about theories of Critical Museology, the creative processes of archaeology, Evans’s controversial claims and contemporary debates among scholars.

Written by Anja Segmüller

The exhibition 'Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality' is open at the Ashmolean Museum until 30 July 2023.


References [1] 'Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality', (2023) [2] Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality Exhibition Audio Guide (2023) [3] Ignatiadou, D., ‘Statuary Group of Theseus & the Minotaur’, in Shapland, A., Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality (2023), p. 52. [4] MacGillivray, J. A., Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth (2000), p. 6. [5] ‘Aegean World’, Permanent Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum [6] Gere, C., Knossos & the Prophets of Modernism (2009), p. 5. [7] ‘Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality’, Temporary Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum [8] Interview with Sir Arthur Evans Curator Andrew Shapland [9] ‘Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality’, Temporary Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum [10] ‘Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality’, Temporary Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum [11] Gere, C., Knossos & the Prophets of Modernism (2009), p. 13. [12] Gere, C., Knossos & the Prophets of Modernism (2009), p. 12. [13] ‘Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality’, Temporary Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum [14] Gere, C., Knossos & the Prophets of Modernism (2009) [15] Interview with Sir Arthur Evans Curator Andrew Shapland

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