On this day in 1851, the great archaeologist Arthur Evans was born. What I find fascinating about Evans is that he was an incredibly important scientist, and yet he was totally wrong in his central idea that the Minoan civilization was distinct from the Bronze Age Greeks who he thought were just a backwater. But that take on his career is undoubtedly colored by my love of the Iliad and my admittedly childish wish that it be true. But Evans really blasted Heinrich Schliemann’s idea that the Trojan War had taken place, and during Evans’ lifetime, it was generally thought that the war was a myth. Now the evidence is overwhelming that it was not—it was a real thing.
Of course, that was just one thing and he was hugely important, especially his excavation of Knossos. And he was the guy who first discovered early Bronze Age Greek writing. Of course, he was absolutely certain that it is was not Greek. And then right after he died, the linguist Alice Kober noticed that the language seemed to have the some words with different endings. This indicated that the language had inflections. For example: call, called, calling. This indicated that although the writing had more the look of Egyptian, it acted more like Greek or Latin. This clue led the brilliant young self-taught amateur linguist Michael Ventris to make some brilliant educated guesses, which eventually led to his discovery that the Minoans spoke Greek—or at least a very early form of Greek. (Ventris died in an auto accident at the age of 34, a couple of weeks before the official publication of this work, but by that time everyone in the field knew.)
All of this perhaps makes Evans seem less than a brilliant scholar. That is wrong. As for the writing, I think the man can be forgiven. Here is a little Linear B. It looks nothing like Greek to me. And I understanding the issue in translating is not really the look of the text, but this was a difficult problem that many great minds worked on with little success for 65 years.
More important, Evans excavation of Knossos is arguably the greatest of any settlement ever. I’m especially interested in his work on the Neolithic settlements. It seems that around 9,000 years ago, a group of people arrived in Crete, most likely from the sea. Of course, Evans wasn’t really interested in the Neolithic settlements. His great interest was the palace that was first constructed around 4,000 years ago. I think I have a greater interest in the earlier periods because of the relative egalitarianism of it. It seems that as humans have advanced, they have used technology more and more to separate themselves. The rich were further above the poor 4,000 years ago than 9,000 years ago because they could be, not because they were better. This is a problem that haunts us more today than ever, and one I’m afraid that we must solve or will eventually destroy us.
Evans was also a curious fellow. He not only excavated the palace at Knossos; he restored parts of it as you can see in the following picture. I still don’t really get it. I guess it gives visitors a better idea of what it was like 3,000 years ago. But I doubt that’s why Evans did it. And that blue on the wall? I don’t think that flies. Homer lived a thousand years after the palace was abandoned, and he didn’t seem to know the color blue. Blue is a hard color to make, and only showed up much later. But what the hell?
Happy birthday Arthur Evans!