Evans Discovers Crete’s Minoan Civilization Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Evans altered the chronology assigned to the development of Hellenic civilization through his excavations of the Bronze Age site of Knossos, initiating a scholarly controversy on the dominance of Minoan culture on the Greek Peloponnisos.

Summary of Event

Well into his middle age, a period at which most individuals settle into careers and comfortably contemplate retirement, Arthur Evans, the eldest child of Sir John Evans and Harriet Ann Dickinson, discovered a civilization to which he gave the name “Minoan.” Although the Minos of legend is familiar to even the most casual reader of myth, no one until Evans’s excavations were under way could appreciate its distinctive character. Evans, Arthur Minoa Greece;Minoan civilization Archaeology;Minoa Crete;Minoan civilization Mackenzie, Duncan Greece, ancient [kw]Evans Discovers Crete’s Minoan Civilization (Mar. 23, 1900) [kw]Discovers Crete’s Minoan Civilization, Evans (Mar. 23, 1900) [kw]Crete’s Minoan Civilization, Evans Discovers (Mar. 23, 1900) [kw]Minoan Civilization, Evans Discovers Crete’s (Mar. 23, 1900) [kw]Civilization, Evans Discovers Crete’s Minoan (Mar. 23, 1900) Evans, Arthur Minoa Greece;Minoan civilization Archaeology;Minoa Crete;Minoan civilization Mackenzie, Duncan Greece, ancient [g]Greece;Mar. 23, 1900: Evans Discovers Crete’s Minoan Civilization[6490] [g]Mediterranean;Mar. 23, 1900: Evans Discovers Crete’s Minoan Civilization[6490] [c]Archaeology;Mar. 23, 1900: Evans Discovers Crete’s Minoan Civilization[6490] Pendlebury, John Ventris, Michael

By Evans’s calculations (restated by most contemporary archaeologists to begin only about 2600 b.c.e.), Cretan origins, dated from 3500 b.c.e., reached their zenith around 2200 b.c.e., and ended suddenly about 1100 b.c.e., probably because of a devastating earthquake Earthquakes;Mediterranean that necessitated the relocation of government from Crete to the eastern Peloponnisos.

A fortuitous combination of circumstances made Evans’s discovery possible. He had intended as early as 1871 to write an archaeological history of the Balkans. Balkans;archaeology of Indeed, he planned permanent residence in the town of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) and emigrated there after his marriage to Margaret Freeman Freeman, Margaret in 1878. The couple shared an enthusiasm for the Balkans, in general, and Ragusa, in particular. They lived in Ragusa for almost four years, through a combination of support from Evans’s wealthy father and regular articles Evans wrote for The Manchester Guardian on the tense political situation in the Balkans under Austrian occupation. Ultimately, it was these articles and Evans’s increasingly outspoken position on Balkan independence that led to his arrest, imprisonment, and expulsion in April, 1882. It was only through the concerted efforts of his wife, brother, and sister that he avoided trial.





Once returned to the family home in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, England, Evans’s family secured for him the post of keeper of the Ashmolean Museum Museums;Ashmolean , Oxford, in 1884. The Ashmolean did not resemble the prestigious institution it would become under Evans’s leadership. Essentially, it was like a disorganized warehouse, a polyglot collection of archaeological, geological, and historical artifacts. Evans organized and refined the collections, placed the institution on a firm financial basis, and supervised the construction of its handsome building in 1894.

Evans traveled often during his tenure at the Ashmolean and incurred frequent criticism for his long absences. The sudden death of his wife in 1893 was partly responsible for his extensive forays to possible archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, but it is certain that having met Heinrich Schliemann Schliemann, Heinrich in 1873, only three years after the latter had astounded the archaeological world by unearthing Troy Troy, ancient Archaeology;Troy , had excited Evans’s imagination to the possibilities of even earlier sites awaiting discovery.

What led Evans to Crete, however, was his having come upon in 1894 several three- and four-sided sealstones of Cretan origin that were offered for sale in an Athens Athens antique shop. They were engraved with the distinctive picture writing Evans would eventually call “Linear A.” He recalled similar markings on two vases found by Greek archaeologist Chrestos Tsountas Tsountas, Chrestos at Mycenae on the Greek Pelponnisos. Evans was convinced that this picture writing indicated a distinct Cretan culture, one that antedated that of the mainland and one that was truly pre-Hellenic. He was determined to prove his hypothesis through excavations on the great mound at Kephála, the modern name for the region that surrounded Knossos, considered the site of the palace of Minos. Evans coined the word “Minoan” to distinguish this culture from that of Mycenae. He used it to identify the culture not only with the king associated with the Daedalean labyrinth and the Minotaur of myth but also to delineate the palace period that preceded the Trojan War.

Evans’s friend Federico Halbherr Halbherr, Federico , an Italian archaeologist, convinced him that important discoveries were likely to be found at Knossos. In 1878, Halbherr had unearthed several pithoi (large storage jars) on the site, about 6.5 kilometers from the town of Candia. Schliemann, Schliemann, Heinrich still fresh from his work at Troy and Mycenae, had expressed an interest in excavating there as early as 1878, and he might have done so were it not for his inability to reach financial agreement with the owner of the land. The Turkish authorities then administering Crete repeatedly posed obstacles, but Evans eventually surmounted these by purchasing the land outright. He combined substantial family resources with contributions from the England-based Cretan Exploration Fund he created and, thus, became one of the few archaeologists ever to own the site upon which he excavated.

Evans’s unflagging success at Crete lay in his ability to marshal shrewd managerial talent with an uncanny ability to dig in the right place. Immediate and continuing success ensured constant financial support, and though there were interruptions because of the onset of World Wars I and II, the Knossos excavations never lacked the substantial funding they required.

Never had any excavation paid such immediate, continuing, and spectacular dividends. The first day of digging on March 23, 1900, yielded walls and pottery fragments a mere 33 centimeters beneath the topsoil. The second day produced an ancient house and fresco fragments. The third day revealed smoke-blackened walls and broken pottery, including the rims of pithoi similar to those discovered by Halbherr. Exactly one week after excavations began, Evans unearthed baked clay bars inscribed with the intriguing linear script, which had first interested Evans in 1894. He would discover two kinds of linear script at Knossos. The first, designated by him as “Linear A,” is hieroglyphic in genre and virtually indecipherable, because no inscription bilingual with some known language exists to function as a starting point for translation. “Linear B,” however, is different; Evans had hoped until his death that he would be able to decipher it, and he even withheld unpublished several thousand tablets at his home.

Not until 1953 did English classicist Michael Ventris Ventris, Michael , a cryptographer during World War II, establish that the Linear B script was ideographic (syllabic) pre-Greek. Working from the earlier hypothesis of American Alice Kober Kober, Alice that the upright strokes marked word divisions and by noting repetitions, Ventris proved the script’s syllabic character and prepared a grid with the ideographs’ syllabic equivalents. In effect, Ventris broke the code and revealed, thereby, that the Linear B tablets were largely shorthand inventory lists. The mud-brick upon which they were written was ideal to keep a changing inventory of larder stores and exports. Subsequent discoveries of large tablets at Plyos, Mycenae, and other locations on the Peloponnisos are evidence that Evans’s hypothesis regarding the distinctive and independent character of Cretan civilization is questionable.

Evans defended Minoan civilization as dominant and discrete until his death, relegating Mycenaean Greece to the role of its successor, important because successive earthquakes Earthquakes;Mediterranean at Knossos necessitated transference of power to the mainland. Archaeologists have subsequently advanced Evans’s chronology of Minoan palace settlement and argued that Knossos more likely fell by Mycenaean invasion than by earthquake, probably as early as 1500 b.c.e.

While he was still actively involved in excavating, Evans received severe criticism for the comprehensive restorations of the great palace and its environs. His architect Theodore Fyfe Fyfe, Theodore in effect rebuilt large portions of it, often with considerably less evidence than would satisfy contemporary archaeologists. Similarly, the bright colors Émile Gilliéron Gilliéron, Émile used in restoring the palace frescos left Evans open to the charge of commercializing the excavation and catering to popular imagination. Still, Evans’s daring and flair were responsible for the dramatic unveiling of a brilliant civilization whose discovery might otherwise have been postponed indefinitely.


For more than thirty years of his active involvement in the Knossos excavations, Evans repeatedly captured scholarly attention and popular imagination. In part, his colorful personality sustained progress at Knossos, for Evans was the stereotype of an English archaeologist: immaculately dressed in tropical white linen suit, tie, and always photographed with his walking stick (named Prodger), which he used as a magic wand to uncover astonishing finds. Evans carefully nurtured his public image as a wizard of archaeology. He used it and his facile writing ability to keep the Knossos excavations on a firm financial footing.

Evans’s radical restorations also satisfied the general public’s notion of what archaeology should be. “Minoan red,” the distinctive color used extensively in Gilliéron’s restorations, became familiar to the world of art. Wealthy patrons of the Cretan Exploration Fund, as well as others who could afford them, purchased reproductions of Minoan palace art. The homes of European art lovers in the early twentieth century often displayed a bull fresco, a painting of a wasp-waisted serving boy, or the like.

Although such popular attention assured financial stability, the professionals connected with the excavation often found it vaguely embarrassing. Duncan Mackenzie, the rough-edged Scottish archaeologist who supervised daily operations, often disagreed heatedly with Evans’s flamboyant methods, and this caused his temporary dismissal on several occasions. Nevertheless, Mackenzie’s “day books,” painstaking accounts of daily progress, remain the primary source for scholars concerned with the early progress of the excavations. Mackenzie’s scientific approach, his careful measuring of soil strata, and his drawings of principal objects found to scale and in context provided a method used by subsequent archaeologists worldwide. After Mackenzie’s death, John Pendlebury Pendlebury, John filled this post and wrote The Archaeology of Crete: An Introduction (1939), the comprehensive single-volume account of Minoan archaeology.

The most significant effect of Evans’s work was, however, the restructuring of the pre-Greek chronology of settlement on Crete and the eastern Peloponnisos. Evans posited a Neolithic period, which ended about 3500 b.c.e. Likewise, he maintained until his death the preeminence of Minoan over Mycenaean civilization, rejecting the theory of its fall by Mycenaean invasion. Many contemporary archaeologists reject this position and have adjusted Evans’s datings, but without Evans’s work, the debate would never have begun.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Arthur. The Palace of Minos. 1921-1936. Reprint. 4 vols. New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1964. This profusely illustrated account of the excavations gives its entire history with numerous color plates, many prepared especially for the set, and numerous painstakingly executed drawings and plans, many of these from Mackenzie’s day books. Evans explicates every major object found, discusses the frescos at length, and provides an excellent index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilakis, Yannis, ed. Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking “Minoan” Archaeology. Oxford, England: Oxbow, 2002. A scholarly collection investigating the cultural history of archaeology as a discipline and how the discipline forms the types of questions asked about, in this case, Minoan civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horwitz, Sylvia. The Find of a Lifetime: Sir Arthur Evans and the Discovery of Knossos. New York: Viking Press, 1981. Popularly written, this volume provides an account of Evans’s early life, his experiences in the Balkans, and the circumstances that led him to excavate at Knossos. A good selected bibliography suitable for general readers concludes the volume.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macgillivray, Joseph Alexander. Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth. London: Random House, 2001. A biography that suggests that Evans anticipated his discoveries in Crete.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacKendrick, Paul. The Greek Stones Speak: The Story of Archaeology in Greek Lands. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962. Contains a good account for general readers on the important particulars of the Knossos excavations. Includes photographs of the palace excavations, principal finds, and a reproduction of the syllable grid Ventris published in connection with the deciphering of Linear B.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palmer, Leonard R. A New Guide to the Palace of Knossos. London: Macmillan, 1969. Ideal for general readers and for travelers, this volume provides plates, figures, and plans adapted from Evans’s magnum opus on the site, as well as an easy-to-follow text written to incorporate subsequent scholarship on the excavations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. On the Knossos Tablets: The Find Place of the Knossos Tablets. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1963. A companion volume to the book cited above, this work discusses the locations and contexts of the tablet hoards. Provides a less technical discussion of linear scripts than the Ventris and Chadwick work, cited below.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pendlebury, J. D. S. The Archaeology of Crete: An Introduction. Reprint. 1939. New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1963. A classic study of Minoan civilization by Evans’s site supervisor at Knossos. Discusses the island’s geography and principal sites, including those other than Knossos, and provides a concluding discussion of post-Minoan Crete.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherratt, Susan. Arthur Evans, Knossos, and the Priest-King. Oxford, England: Ashmolean Museum, 2000. A history of the excavation at Knossos and an examination of the famous “priest-king” fresco image. Includes notes and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ventris, Michael, and John Chadwick. Documents in Mycenaean Greek: Three Hundred Selected Tablets from Knossos, Plyos, and Mycenae. 1956. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973. This volume offers a complete account of discovery, the linear script writing system, the language, and several hundred of the most representative tablets. The second edition includes commentary on additional tablets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willetts, R. F. The Civilization of Ancient Crete. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. Traces the history of Crete’s development and emphasizes the Dorian aristocracy which Evans denied and about which Pendlebury, because of his association with Evans, wrote only obliquely. There is also a good bibliography on the Minoan and Mycenaean world.

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