Ancient History & Civilisation


Section One


What can we know about the distant prehistoric past of ancient Greece? How do we get back to those earliest civilisations in the Mediterranean that flourished hundreds of years before Pericles sponsored the building of the Parthenon, or Socrates drank the hemlock? Sir Arthur Evans is one of the key figures in the rediscovery of Greek prehistory. In 1899 he bought a piece of land outside the Cretan city of Heraklion, excavated the remains of a vast palace, dating back to almost 2000 BC, and then proceeded to rebuild it in the form that we still visit today. It’s sometimes jokingly said that this apparently ‘prehistoric’ palace is actually one of the first reinforced concrete buildings on the island of Crete.

The first chapter in this section takes a look at what Evans discovered at Knossos, and at ‘Minoan civilisation’ (as he was the first to call it) more generally; it asks how accurately, or imaginatively, he reconstructed the palace and its famous paintings, and how his aims, methods and motives continue to be argued over even now – stopping briefly, en route, to wonder why it is that disagreements among archaeologists so often turn into nasty personal vendettas.

That underlying theme of how we know what we think we know about ancient Greece continues through the rest of this section, in different ways. Chapter 2 asks how we can ever recapture the voice of Greek women, when so little writing by them survives. The truth is that we do have a little bit more than we often assume (not many people, for example, have heard of the poets Korinna, Nossis or Melinno, who wrote – probably in the second century BC – a ‘Hymn to Rome’, which we can still read). But, all the same, it doesn’t amount to much. And when it does survive, what it means is often fiercely debated; never more fiercely than with the poetry of Sappho, who lived and wrote on the island of Lesbos in the early sixth century BC. She has always been by far the most famous of Greek women poets (in fact some Greeks dubbed her ‘the tenth Muse’). But what her work is really ‘about’, and in particular how erotic her lines on other women were intended to be, is still controversial. She has given the modern world the sexual sense of the word ‘lesbian’, derived from the name of her home island. But whether she was a lesbian in our terms, or simply very emotionally invested in female friends and pupils (as many buttoned-up nineteenth-century critics wanted to believe), is another matter.

Different issues of interpretation come into play when we look at the fifth-century Greek historian Thucydides, or at the life story of Alexander the Great. Thucydides’ account of the great ‘Peloponnesian War’ between Athens and Sparta is usually thought of as a landmark in careful, rigorous history writing – and its sometimes chilling analysis of ancient power relations has made it a favourite of modern foreign policy analysts. Here, as Chapter 3shows, the question is not merely whether Thucydides’ explanation of why Athens lost the war is correct (did they really, as Thucydides suggests, overstretch themselves by going off to invade Sicily? Were they wrong to reject the cautious policies of their great general Pericles, after his death early in the war?). Even more to the point is quite how we make any sense at all of Thucydides’ extraordinary difficult Greek. It turns out that some of his most famous bons mots are woeful, or at least very over-optimistic, mistranslations and that we’re still trying to work out what quite a lot of his Greek actually meant. True, we’re getting closer, but it’s one nice example of how even the basic groundwork of classical scholarship is far from finished.

In the case of Alexander the Great, the problem is that we have plenty of vivid ancient accounts of his campaigns and occasionally extravagant lifestyle – but none of the many histories and memoirs that were written by his fourth century BC contemporaries has come down to us. Instead we have accounts written hundreds of years later, all of them composed against the background of Roman imperialism. Chapter 4 chances its arm a little (and a bit provocatively, I suppose I should warn you) to suggest that we should see Alexander the Great not as a Greek hero/thug at all, but as a Roman literary creation.

The final chapter in this section takes one of those subjects that everyone knows they can’t really answer: what made people laugh in the past? It tries to bring back to life some ancient jokes from the one surviving ancient joke book (though whether we have understood them right, who knows – ‘Monty Pythonesque’ as some of them seem to be). And it wonders quite why the city of Abdera (in north Greece) was so closely associated with people laughing and being laughed at. How many Abderites did it take to change a light bulb …?



Evelyn Waugh was characteristically unimpressed by the remains of the prehistoric Minoan palace at Knossos and its famous decoration. His 1930 travelogue, Labels, contains a memorable account of his disappointment, not so much at the excavation site itself (‘where,’ he writes archly, ‘Sir Arthur Evans … is rebuilding the palace’) but at its collection of prize paintings and sculpture, which had been removed to the museum in Heraklion. In the sculpture, he ‘saw nothing to suggest any genuine aesthetic feeling at all’. The frescoes were much more difficult to judge, ‘since only a few square inches of the vast area exposed to our consideration are earlier than the last twenty years, and it is impossible to disregard the suspicion that their painters have tempered their zeal for accurate reconstructions with a somewhat inappropriate predilection for covers of Vogue.’

It seems to have been relatively easy for Waugh, visiting soon after the paintings’ restoration, to spot quite how little of these masterpieces of Minoan art was actually Minoan. Almost a century on, and after a good deal of fading, most visitors to the Heraklion museum today are happily unaware that the icons of prehistoric Cretan culture that feature on thousands of postcards, posters and museum souvenirs (the ‘Dolphin’ fresco, the ‘Ladies in Blue’ or the ‘Prince of the Lilies’) have only an indirect connection with the second millennium BC, being largely recreations of the early twentieth century AD. Nor do most of them realise that those distinctively primitive, stumpy red columns, which are the trademark of the site of Knossos, are built wholly of modern concrete and are part of the ‘rebuilding’ by Evans.


1. Prehistoric art or Vogue cover? The ‘Prince of the Lilies’ was one of Arthur Evans’s favourite Minoan paintings – but it is a hotch-potch of misleading restoration.

Arthur Evans directed the excavation and restoration of the palace at Knossos over the first twenty-five years of the last century, though most of the best-known discoveries were made in the earliest campaigns, between 1900 and 1905. Born in 1851, the son of a well-known antiquarian (who had made a fortune from paper manufacture), Evans read Modern History at Oxford. When he failed to win a college fellowship despite a first-class degree, he turned to travelling in Eastern Europe, combining his interest in archaeology with service as Balkan correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Investigative journalism, then as now, had its risks, especially in the Balkans. Accused of spying in Herzegovina and unceremoniously banned from the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire, he returned to Oxford, where in 1884 he was appointed Keeper of the Ashmolean (beating his father to the job, or so the story goes).

It turned out to be a revolutionary appointment. In the face of all kinds of objections from Benjamin Jowett and the like, Evans set about raising money to develop the Ashmolean collection into a research resource for the whole of European archaeology, from prehistory onwards; and he orchestrated its move in 1894 into large new premises behind the University Galleries in Beaumont Street, where it remains. From the mid-1890s his interests increasingly focused on the island of Crete. To start with, he was on the trail of prehistoric writing systems, for Evans had become convinced that Crete would provide the evidence of early literacy that Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at Mycenae had so signally failed to turn up. As time went on, however, it became clear that a vision of Greek prehistory was at stake: he was searching for a site that could challenge the dominance of Mycenae and the macho, warrior version of early Greece that went with it.

Evans took advantage of the family money and by 1899 had succeeding in buying the site of Kephala outside Heraklion, which small-scale excavations had long suggested was the location of prehistoric Knossos, in legend the city of King Minos, Princess Ariadne and the murderous Minotaur in its labyrinth. Others had tried to get their hands on the place; Schliemann himself had made a half-hearted attempt to acquire it in the 1880s, boasting that with a hundred men he could excavate it in a week. But in the end, Evans’s cash up front, and his persistence in dealing with the various local landowners, won out. Excavations began in 1900 and within weeks the famous ‘throne’ had been discovered in its ‘throne room’, complete with ‘bathing pool’ (or ‘lustral basin’ or ‘fish pond’, according to choice), as well as a whole series of enticingly fragmentary pieces of fresco that had once decorated the walls. Evans was instantly drawn into imaginative interpretation. No sooner had a few square inches of faded plaster come out of the ground than he was busy restoring it in his mind’s eye (was it Ariadne herself? or perhaps a cup-bearer?); and at the same time, he was giving evocative names to the rooms he discovered: the ‘Hall of the Double Axes’, the ‘Queen’s Megaron’ – tentative titles originally, maybe, but they have stuck. All this contributed to a powerful image of the civilisation he was excavating (‘Minoan’ was his name for it), which in due course was accorded material form by his team of artists and architects, who ‘completed’ the fragmentary paintings and rebuilt much of the palace to Evans’s specification.

From the very beginning, this procedure was controversial. Waugh was not the only one to have doubts about what he saw in the Heraklion museum and its suspicious similarity, if not to the covers of Vogue, then at least to Art Deco; nor the only one to feel uneasy about Evans’s role as a ‘builder of ruins’ (as one French newspaper called him) on the site itself. R. G. Collingwood (pp. 257–63) declared that ‘the first impression on the mind of a visitor is that Knossian architecture consists of garages and public lavatories’. There were plenty of other comments along similar lines.

It was not only a question of ‘modernising’. These elaborate restorations also included what have proved to be some notoriously embarrassing mistakes. Most notorious of all was the so-called ‘Blue Monkey’ fresco. Its few fragments were originally restored by Evans’s artists as a delicate young boy gathering saffron flowers: a perfect emblem of the carefree folk, with their innocent love of nature, that were supposed to inhabit this Minoan world. It was only much later, when someone questioned the strange blue colour and spotted what appeared to be a tail, that the painting was re-restored as a blue monkey in a field of crocuses. A similar question mark still hangs over the ‘Prince of the Lilies’ (Fig. 1) – a powerful silhouette, with a loincloth, a necklace of lilies and an elaborate plumed headdress featuring more lilies. Despite some early doubts about how this figure was to be restored, Evans soon convinced himself that it was the representation of the ‘priest-king’ of the Minoan state, and he had the headdress expensively gold-embossed on the cover of each volume of his publication of the site. It now seems very unlikely that the three surviving fragments of the silhouette (headdress, torso and parts of a leg) originally belonged to the same figure at all; and much more likely that the headdress, far from being the royal crown of a Frazerian priest-king (p. 254), adorned the head of a neighbouring sphinx.

But neither controversy nor blatant error did much to dent the popularity of Evans’s recreations. Celebrity visitors trooped to see Knossos (Isadora Duncan was said to have performed an ‘impromptu’ dance on the grand staircase). And tourists more generally found it a sufficient reason to visit Crete. The 1888 edition of the Baedeker Guide to Greece had no entry for Crete: by 1904 it included fifteen pages on Knossos and other attractions; today, a million people a year visit the site. Evans’s images have also fed strikingly back into the culture out of which they came. The palace’s aesthetic may well have derived directly from the artistic world of the earlier twentieth century (Evans compared a fragment of Minoan painting to a piece of William Morris wallpaper). But later in the century, artists, film-makers and novelists (notably Mary Renault) in their turn found inspiration in what he and his team had created. There are very few movies set in the heroic age of Greece that do not derive their backdrop, at least in part, from the ‘Palace of Minos’.

This popularity is hardly surprising. It was not simply that Evans took some rather unexciting ruins and dull fragments of painted plaster and made them worth seeing; if he had left the site in the state in which he excavated it far fewer than a million visitors would be queuing up at Knossos today. More influential was the fact that he gave (or rather fed back to) the early twentieth century exactly the image of a primitive culture that it wanted. The Minoans were not the rather off-putting, violent heroes of Schliemann’s Mycenae; nor were they the darkly sinister people that the Minotaur myth might have suggested. Instead, they were by and large peaceable, in tune with nature, keen on the appropriately lusty (and quasi-religious) sport of bull-leaping, and satisfyingly tinged with the fashionable current of matriarchy. In his biography of Evans, J. A. MacGillivray resorts to some crude pop psychology to explain this stress on the mother-goddess in Evans’s vision of Minoan culture: namely, the ‘vacuum’ left in his life ‘by the death of his mother when he was six years old’. I suspect that current trends in anthropology and the study of myth had rather more to do with it; just as James Frazer was a major influence in the whole idea of the Minoan ‘priest-king’.

But what of the archaeology underneath these elaborate reconstructions? The paradox of Evans is that, while it is easy to ridicule the romantic version of Minoan culture that he reinvented in concrete and paint (and publicised with the ready pen of a journalist), the excavations on site were hard-headed and, by the standards of the time, extremely careful. Some of this care, perhaps the majority of it, may have been the achievement of his excavation assistant, Duncan Mackenzie. Evans might have had the wherewithal to buy a large parcel of Cretan land, but when he started work at Knossos in 1900 he was relatively inexperienced in practical archaeology. The advice of the director of the British School in Athens was to engage the help of someone who knew how to dig; so he employed Mackenzie, who had supervised excavations on the island of Melos. Mackenzie was, as Colin Renfrew has put it, ‘one of the very first scientific workers in the Aegean’, a zealot for accurate recording, who kept a whole series (twenty-six all told) of ‘Day Books’ which detailed discoveries at Knossos and often formed the basis of Evans’s later published accounts. He also used his experience on Melos to help Evans fathom the stratigraphical layers of the site, and so ultimately to arrive at some idea of a dated sequence of occupation.

The relatively high quality of the work, however, cannot entirely be put down to Mackenzie. For all Evans’s superficial enthusiasm for Minoan culture, his trailing of the names of the mythical Minos and Ariadne, the glamourising titles that he all too quickly applied to newly excavated rooms (‘throne room’ etc.), his excavation reports and multi-volume publication of the site have stood the test of time extraordinarily well. Even in terms of modern scholarly theory and debate, there are very few major errors of interpretation. As Michael Ventris and John Chadwick were to show half a century later, Evans was quite wrong to conclude that Linear B script, preserved on hundreds of clay tablets from Knossos, was not a form of Greek (though the credit for inventing the names we still use, ‘Linear A’ and ‘Linear B’, for the pre-alphabetic writing of early Greece goes to him). He was also wrong to cast his ‘Minoan’ civilisation as the primary culture of the prehistoric Aegean, with the ‘Mycenaean’ palaces of the mainland demoted to a subsidiary phenomenon. Those errors apart, however, and despite a series of bitterly hostile attacks from other scholars in the field (pre-Hellenic archaeology is not a particularly friendly discipline), most of the rest of Evans’s major arguments remain if not accepted, then at least arguable. And the problems he raised still, by and large, set the agenda for discussion: what was the function of the palace at Knossos, and the others like it? What social and political structure do the remains imply? What brought about the end of this culture? Contrast this with the fate of Schliemann, whose finds remain central, but almost none of whose questions or arguments (chronological or interpretative) have survived the hundred or so years since his excavations. Who cares very much, after all, whether he did, or did not, gaze upon the face of Agamemnon?

MacGillivray’s biography, which is centred on Evans’s work at Knossos, does not trade in any such subtleties or paradox – but in snide put-downs and innuendo. MacGillivray himself worked for several years at Knossos; and it is hard to resist the conclusion that this book is partly a settling of old scores with a ghost whose presence must still be felt heavily there. Evans is not, from the outside, a particularly plausible villain and the tactics that MacGillivray must adopt to paint him as such become increasingly desperate as the book progresses: never let a sentence pass without the insertion of a pejorative adjective; never suggest a decent motive on Evans’s part if a bad one will do. So, for example, Evans is dubbed a ‘mediocre’ journalist, when all the evidence suggests that his reports from Bosnia-Herzegovina were perceptive and influential. His degree is dismissed as ‘barely managing to get a “first”’ and corruption on the part of the examiners is hinted at – flagrantly stretching a point made in one of the obituaries of Evans. His generosity to the young Mortimer Wheeler, whose meagre scholarship money of £50 he doubled out of his own pocket, is bizarrely written off as ‘merely observing the third and ninth Scout laws’ (whatever they may be, it cannot possibly be true). And his enthusiasm for Minoan civilisation is insistently tarred with the brush of racism, Aryanism and blindness to the influence of African and Semitic culture when, in fact, one of the criticisms of Evans has always been that he was far too eager to find Egyptian influence in Crete – no doubt for that reason, he was let off relatively lightly by Martin Bernal in Black Athena. One of the strangest claims in this litany of ‘faults’ is that Evans ‘never grew much beyond four feet’, an assertion which is glaringly contradicted by the photographs that illustrate the book (unless all his fellow archaeologists were similarly diminutive, or he insisted on some very deceptive camerawork).

Inevitably, sex plays a walk-on part. Evans was briefly married, his wife Margaret dying of tuberculosis in 1893; there were no children. In 1924, at the age of 73, he was fined ‘for committing an act in violation of public decency in Hyde Park’ with a young man. MacGillivray makes a good deal of this, devoting a few suspicious pages to an analysis of Evans’s role in the Boy Scouts, and even suggesting that his most conspicuous act of generosity was intended precisely to cover up this conviction. For, on the same day as the court hearing, his gift of the site of Knossos to the British School at Athens was announced. No doubt, there was more than a convenient coincidence of timing here; but the idea that this gift came as ‘startling news’ or that its main motive was to deflect attention from the court hearing is simply false. As Joan Evans (the art historian and Arthur’s half-sister, more than forty years his junior) makes clear in her family memoir Time and Chance, his plan to make the site over had been actively in preparation since at least 1922. MacGillivray has little time for the understated irony of this elegant account of the Evans family, published in 1943 shortly after Arthur’s death; he accuses it of ‘lacking depth’ and of reading ‘as flatly as Sir William Richmond’s portrait’ (the flamboyant, and far from ‘flat’, painting of Evans surrounded by his finds that now hangs in the Ashmolean). More often than not, however, Joan Evans’s story seems a far better guide to her half-brother’s life and motivation than the cheap and often unsubstantiated innuendo of MacGillivray.

Partly because of its faults and its transparent desire to assault Evans’s reputation, the book prompts an important general question about the history of archaeology. Why is it that, more almost than any other academic discipline, archaeology (and prehistoric archaeology in particular) invests its own past with such venom? Why is it that distinguished practising archaeologists are bothered to debate, not just the archaeological record, but the moral failings of the likes of Schliemann and Evans, often with almost no attention paid to the different historical and social context within which those predecessors were working? The fact that, in the grand seigneurial style of late nineteenth-century archaeology, Evans bought up his site as a private fiefdom (something which MacGillivray holds against him) should be no more or less relevant to his archaeological ‘achievements’ than Newton’s treatment of his servants is relevant to the theory of gravity. Why then is it looked on as if it were? Or why does it seem to matter that Schliemann wasn’t a very nice man?

Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in the usual heroic image of these early excavators-cum-explorers; they are obvious targets for taking down a peg or two, and any trick in the book will do (even nasty and very politically uncorrect insinuations about their height). But it also has something to do with the nature of the archaeological material itself and the impossibly close relationship between the excavators and their data. It is a truism that traditional archaeological ‘excavation’ is a euphemism for archaeological ‘destruction’. What this means is that we must rely on the probity of the archaeologists: we cannot check up on them after the event or replicate their procedures (as we can with most scientific experiments) because the material for that has been destroyed in the course of excavation. Almost inevitably, this throws us back onto a whole range of desperate strategies to test archaeological trustworthiness: if Schliemann was a liar about his private life, is that not a hint that he might have been equally unscrupulous about his finds and excavations?

It also means that the excavators of the past have a powerful hold over the future of the subject. The sneaking thought arises that if Evans’s work still provides much of the agenda for modern discussion of Knossos, it is not so much because of his own acuity in spotting the central issues, but because (unlike Schliemann?) he presented the material in such a way that those are the only questions that can, even now, productively be asked. How far that is true is obviously a much bigger question in the development of the whole discipline. But it certainly suggests that the giants of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century excavation are likely to remain central to live debates in contemporary scholarship for some time to come. Evans, Schliemann and their contentious data still matter too much to be dispatched to a quiet corner of the ‘history’ of the subject.

Review of J. A. MacGillivray, Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth (Jonathan Cape, 2000)

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