Curator's choice / Ashmolean museum

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The Independent Culture
The exhibit that perhaps most appeals to the visitor is a spectacular storage jar (above), painted with an octopus, from the palace at Knossos in Crete. What people remember most about the Minoan civilisation is their fine painting, and this also evokes the island's very strong links with the sea. Yet, despite its dull appearance, a far more interesting exhibit is an example of the famous clay tablets, found at the palace, which date to about 1500 BC. It's a small, narrow strip of clay with a single row of signs incised on it and a clearly recognisable representation of a chariot towards the end. It's in a script called Linear B which Evans discovered but could never read.

Its discovery must have been a tremendous boost for him because it was the first confirmation that he had discovered a civilisation that was actually literate, comparable to the Egyptian, Babylonian and Hebrew peoples.

I find it evocative because it illustrates how archaeology works. It's something of a detective story and requires a great deal of co-operative effort over a long period of time. It started with Evans's hunch that there was a literate civilisation lurking somewhere under the ground in Crete and then you had to wait for the next generation for someone to find out what the tablets meant. So it was a discovery that threw new light on the Minoan civilisation and Bronze Age Greece in general.

Roger Moorey is the keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont St (0865 278000). 'Arthur Evans: Life and Times' runs to 14 Aug, 10am-4pm Tues-Sat, 2-4pm Sun

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