Sir Arthur Evans and the Minoans
Arthur Evans at Knossós
Arthur Evans, born in 1851, wasn’t an aristocrat by birth, but his family had a considerable fortune founded on a paper mill and its products. Given a gentleman's education at Harrow and Oxford, he had the leisure to pursue his interests in archaeology and ancient languages, and the character to pursue these studies with diligence and thoroughness.

Evans wasn’t the first to suspect that ancient ruins might be lying beneath the ground he dug up at Knossós, but he was the first to have a free hand at digging there, having bought most of the property from its Turkish owners during the 1890s. The Ottoman authorities had required such purchases, deliberately making them difficult to complete as a means of stalling off western archaeologists. They may have feared that the discovery of archaic ruins might increase Europe’s interest in knocking Crete loose from their empire.

However, when Crete finally (under western pressure) was granted a semi-independent government formed by the Greek Orthodox majority, the new authorities were also reluctant to foster archaeological exploration—they were afraid that the glories of their past would be carted off to European museums as soon as they were unearthed.

But an exception was made for Evans, who had two things going for him—legal title to the land, and a reputation for sympathizing with subject peoples struggling against Ottoman rule. In the 1870s, as an independent author and later as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, he had had taken up the cause of the Slavs in Bosnia. 20 years later in Crete, he again served the Guardian as a correspondent. Always on the side of the underdog, he denounced the Muslims when they were persecuting the Christians—and later denounced the same Christians when, once Turkish troops were withdrawn from Crete, they took to persecuting the Muslims.
Prince George of Greece
This last piece of advocacy might have cost him some favor within the governing council, but he found Prince George of Greece, the first High Commissioner of the autonomous Cretan State, sympathetic. This was in the prince’s honeymoon period, before he and the council became antagonists, and Evans received permission to dig.
Evans, Fyfe, and Mackenzie
He recruited an expert and competent staff, including Duncan Mackenzie, a Scottish archaeologist who had done good work on the island of Melos, and Theodor Fyfe, an architect at the British School at Athens. Both are shown with him in this picture (from the left: Evans, Fyfe, Mackenzie).
Evans and some of his team
Evans also hired two local foremen and a corps of laborers, some of them visible, along with the directors of the project, in this picture. (Evans in his linen suit and solar topee looks every bit the Edwardian gentleman explorer.)

The team worked from 1900 through 1905, excavating the entire site. The work was done with meticulous care: according to one account at least, Evans was among the first archaeologists to sift every shovelful of dirt through a sieve, lest small fragments be overlooked. Mackenzie took careful notes on everything that was uncovered.

Once this huge task was finished, Evans indulged in some restoration work that goes beyond what most modern archaeologists consider the legitimate scope of their profession. For example, he employed two Swiss artists, a father and son (both named Émile Gilliéron), to complete wall paintings of which only a few fragments had actually survived. He also rebuilt some stairways and walls, using concrete as necessary to provide structural firmness and fill gaps. Well and good, but the concrete also made it impossible to know what might still lie underneath.

Evans was also a bit overconfident in assigning functions to the various rooms he'd unearthed—this was the main throne room, this was a lesser one that—being located on a lower level, on the side of the palace where it was once possible to approach it by water—must have been used to receive foreign ambassadors. An alabaster throne was found in the first of these rooms; Evans had copies made and placed in two other rooms where he thought thrones belonged.
Life in the Queen's quarters (artist's conception)
These were declared to be the king’s quarters; these were the queen’s, and so on. Evans’ hand was extremely free: in the “queen’s megaron” (‘great room’), for example, the décor was restored so creatively that pictures like this were suggested to the imagination of some artists. (The assumption that Minoan women weren’t in the habit of covering their breasts—a notion that this artist seems to have found particularly inspiring—was suggested by pictures and figurines that some contemporary scholars believe represent priestesses engaged in the performance of religious rites, rather than Minoan ladies in—and out of—their everyday clothes.)
Detail of the dolphin fresco
In fact, the famous dolphin fresco in this room (at the upper left in the picture above) was found overlooking a courtyard outside. Not only was it moved into its current position, but it is almost entirely a restoration: this partial picture makes clear what the artists had to work with (the rough spots) and what they ultimately made of it.
Heinrich Schliemann
Evans was an astute scholar and had good instincts, and many of his speculations are supported by at least some archaeological evidence and may well represent the truth—but if any of his guesses were wrong, evidence that might prove this is now unavailable—inevitably lost to time and decay, or perhaps in a few cases buried under the concrete. Like Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy and Argos, Evans believed that it was safe to take many classical texts literally, but fortunately his speculations never reached the spectacular heights of Schliemann's. Although the German's explorations made real and valuable contributions to our knowledge of the past, he didn’t hesitate to identify his finds as the jewels of Helen, the death mask of Agamemnon, and so on. His spadework was also a bit less painstaking than Evans’, although in his defense it’s relevant to note that, when he did it, in the 1870s and -80s, archaeology was a less developed science than it was even two decades later when Evans began work at Knossós.

At least some of Evans’ guesswork was good enough to influence the more cautious archaeologists who followed him in their interpretation of the other Minoan palaces they excavated. And his reconstructions made Knossós the only site where non-experts like ourselves can get any idea of what ancient Minoan buildings might have looked like, even if some of the details may be wrong. Other sites offer little more to see than foundations; I think it’s fair to say that, for layfolk like us, these sites are more interesting to learn about than they are to look at. But seeing Knossós first gave us some help with the job of visualizing the vanished magnificence of the Minoans.

That name, by the way, was assigned to them by Sir Arthur Evans, who based it on the name of King Mínos, whom Greek legend identified as the ancient ruler of Knossós and collector of sacrificial youths and maidens to satisfy the Minotaur—until King Theseus of Athens, wishing to put an end to the tribute of young people his city-state was compelled to supply, entered the Labrynth and killed the monster.
Bust of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossós
Since no one has been able to learn anything about the Minoans’ language, we have no idea what they might have called themselves, so Evans’ label served a useful purpose and has endured. He would have studied their language if he could. It was Evans who first described the two scripts found on Minoan tablets and gave them the names Linear A and Linear B. In fact, it was two stones inscribed with Minoan characters that had brought him to Crete in the first place. He had bought the stones in an Athens flea market, and the dealer's information that they had come from Crete was what first got him interested in studying the island's archaeological record. This was a piece of good luck for all of us.