Sir Arthur Evans and the Minoans
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when they were persecuting the Christians—and later denounced the same Christians when, once Turkish troops were withdrawn from Crete, they took to persecuting the Muslims.
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.
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.