The dreamer who invented a lost world

<i>Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the archaeology of the Minoan myth </i>by J Alexander MacGillivray (Jonathan Cape, &pound;20)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Edward Lear did a sketch of Knossos, Crete, in 1864 but thought its landscape boring. Neither he nor anyone else believed that the "scattered brickwork" was a famous ruined city. Historians knew that everything Greek before the 5th century BC was mere legend. The Trojan War, the House of Mycenae, the Cretan King Minos with his daughter Ariadne and bull-headed stepson Minotaur: fairy-tales, the lot of them. Lear stalked away to more paintable spots, unaware that his stool had set its feet in earth a few inches above a whole lost world - staircases, frescos, statues, pottery, jewels, roads, written records. Within 40 years, it would rise up, like Sleeping Beauty, to overturn the history of Greece and change the story of civilisation and of art.

Edward Lear did a sketch of Knossos, Crete, in 1864 but thought its landscape boring. Neither he nor anyone else believed that the "scattered brickwork" was a famous ruined city. Historians knew that everything Greek before the 5th century BC was mere legend. The Trojan War, the House of Mycenae, the Cretan King Minos with his daughter Ariadne and bull-headed stepson Minotaur: fairy-tales, the lot of them. Lear stalked away to more paintable spots, unaware that his stool had set its feet in earth a few inches above a whole lost world - staircases, frescos, statues, pottery, jewels, roads, written records. Within 40 years, it would rise up, like Sleeping Beauty, to overturn the history of Greece and change the story of civilisation and of art.

The prince who kissed this world awake was Arthur Evans. Small, wealthy, high-handed and defiant, with a genius for describing artefacts, he was born in 1851, scraped a first at Oxford, alienated the academy with his prehistoric archaeological interests, was the Manchester Guardian's Bosnian war correspondent and then, at the start of the new century, found everlasting fame. He arrived at Knossos in March 1900 and, by 10 April, was uncovering the first of the famous frescos to which he gave Tarot-like names. This one was "The Cup-Bearer". But he first dubbed it "Ariadne", for as the fragments emerged you couldn't see much of the slender bearer's naked front.

Minotaur is the history of Evans, and of how he invented this world by the way he interpreted it. When he found a chair, he called it "Ariadne's throne", but its narrow seat curled annoyingly up at the edges. Everyone around (well, men) said a female bottom would overflow it. It became "The Throne of Minos" in the "palace" of Minos. Hence patriarchy. Hence the name: Minoan.

Because everything began crumbling on exposure, Evans shored up and roofed over the palace in his style. Hence the Art Deco pillars you see today. They are magical; but not "true". Both the physical site, and the postcard version of Minoan Crete, are Evans's dream of that lost world.

Evans was helped greatly by three things: a private income, his furious energy and cavalier way with rules, and the fin-de-siÿcle longing to reinterpret human origins in the light of what was hidden, both in the soil and in the soul. While Freud hit the world with The Interpretation of Dreams, a confident civilisation, about to see its civility vanish in world war, woke up to the fact that other confident worlds had disappeared without trace. At Troy and Mycenae, Schliemann had shown that Homer got pre-classical art and society right. Now came the shock and glamour of "Minoan" Crete.

A biography of this conquistador of the unknown, written by another Cretan archaeologist (MacGillivray has worked at Knossos for 20 years), is fascinating and timely. The chapter about digging up the palace is unputdownable. MacGillivray has an achingly scrupulous feel for artefacts and sets Evans's discoveries fathom-deep in their political context while arguing that his poetic interpretations misdirected archaeology for a century.

In a book about the dangers of false interpretation, MacGillivray might have been charier of over-analysing Evans's psyche - he suggests, for example, that Evans was "haunted" by the Minotaur because it represented his own homosexuality, and fancied mother-figure interpretations because he lost his own mother young. Though he often says that Evans "would have done better" to avoid some wild explanation or other, he never says what he should have deduced instead.

Still, this is the story of a man who changed history, written by one of his most dynamic heirs. MacGillivray, the archaeological Prince Theseus in the labyrinth of Minoan interpretation, roughs up the old king's throne a bit. But he leaves Evans's achievement - and his "intellectual alchemy" - thrillingly intact.

The reviewer's book 'I'm a Man: sex, gods and rock'n'roll' is published by Faber

Comments