Ancient History & Civilisation


It was Arthur Evans, an Englishman, who succeeded in revealing fully the Minoan culture glimpsed by Schliemann. Born in 1851, Evans was thirty-nine years old when the great German student of antiquity died.

Evans was the complete antithesis of Schliemann. Educated at Harrow, Oxford, and Göttingen, he became interested in hieroglyphics and found certain characters that pointed to Crete. There he began to dig in 1900. In 1909 he was made Extraordinary Professor of Prehistoric Archæology at Oxford, steadily rose to become the acknowledged authority in his field, was knighted and showered with honors to the end, receiving the distinguished Copley Medal of the Royal Society as late as 1936, when he was eighty-five. In a word, he was in character and education the exact opposite of the roving, impetuous German.

But for all the respectability of his career, the results of his researches are no less interesting. He had come to Crete to confirm his theory of hieroglyphic interpretation. He had not expected to stay long. But he wandered over the island and saw the vast piles of rubble and ruins that had fascinated Schliemann before him. And one day he laid aside his theories about the origin of writing and reached for a spade. A year later, in 1901, he announced that he would need at least another twelve months to lay bare everything of archæological interest. He was mistaken. A quarter of a century later he was still digging on the very same spot.

Like Schliemann, Evans was guided in his quest for buried cultures by old legends and other folklore. Like Schliemann, he dug up palaces and treasures. He provided the frame for the picture Schliemann had drawn, and added sketches of his own for many more pictures in which we have not yet filled in the colors.

Crete lies on the periphery of a great curve of mountains running from Greece through the Ægean Sea to Asia Minor. The sea in which these peaks are drowned did not, as one might think, act as a cultural barrier. Schliemann had demonstrated this fact when he found objects at Mycenæ and Tiryns that must have come from distant parts. Later Evans found ivory from Africa and statuary from Egypt on the island of Crete. Commerce and war are the prime movers of social intercourse, and in this regard the little world of antiquity was no different from the greater world of today. The islands of the Ægean were culturally and economically coextensive with their two motherlands. With their motherlands? Motherland in this case was not a continental entity. The real matrix of the ancient Ægean culture, its creative source, may have been one of the islands in the complex—namely, Crete.

According to myth, Zeus himself was born on Crete, of Rhea, the Earth Mother, in a cave on Mount Ida. He was nourished with honey brought him by bees. The goat, Amalthea, gave him suck from her udders, and he was attended the while by nymphs. Youths of military age banded together to protect him from his own father, the pædophage (child-eater) Cronus.

Minos is said to have ruled Crete, Minos, the legendary king, son of mighty Zeus, a figure regarded with awe by the ancients.

Evans dug at Knossos.

The masonry walls lay close to the surface of the ground. A few hours of work sufficed to yield some results. After a few weeks the astonished Evans found himself looking at the remains of buildings covering an area of 8,480 square feet. As the year passed, the ruins of a palace extending over an area of two and a half hectares (equals 5 ½ acres) were exposed.

The ground plan of the structure was clearly defined, and showed a certain relationship with the palaces of Tiryns and Mycenæ. But the greater massiveness and splendor of the Cretan buildings strongly suggested that Crete had been a cultural headquarters, whereas the mainland citadels of Mycenæ and Tiryns had been the capitals of outlying provinces, or colonies.

About the gigantic rectangle of the largest courtyard on all sides rose the wings of various buildings, their walls made of stone rubble, their flat roofs held up by columns. The rooms, corridors, and halls of the various stores were laid according to a confusing plan. So many were the opportunities to go astray in moving from room to room that the term labyrinth came naturally to mind, even to those who had no inkling of the legend surrounding King Minos. This legend tells of a labyrinth built by Dædalus for Minos, a model for all subsequent structures of its kind.

Evans promptly announced to the world that he had found the palace of Minos, son of Zeus, father of Ariadne and Phædra, master of the Labyrinth and of the terrible monster, the Minotaur, that it housed.

Thereafter he revealed a whole series of wonders. The people who had lived in Knossos—a people known to Schliemann only by their colonial offshoots, and to the world at large only as described in legend—had evidently reveled in riches and lived lives of elegant debauchery. At the height of their development they had apparently reached a state of sybaritic decadence that contained the seeds of decline; for those who habitually lie in bed, even on a mattress of rose petals, in time will suffer from sores.

An economic golden age made this decadent culture possible. Then, as today, Crete was a land of wine and olive oil. But in its ancient heyday it was a commercial center, an island entrepôt for the Ægean area. A puzzling fact was gradually revealed by the excavations. The most pretentious palace of Greek prehistory had completely lacked any sort of protective walls or fortifications. The paradox was resolved by the discovery of the relics of a Cretan fleet, useful both in commerce and as a mobile weapon to repel invaders, a weapon far more effective than static defenses.

Reconstruction of the south palace steps at Knossos (after Thomas Fyfe).

The palace of Minos did not look like a fortress to the seafarers of the period as they sailed into the harbor of Knossos. They saw it as a marvel of the coast. Its columns were chalky white, its decorated walls shone under a burning Cretan sun. It was a maritime jewel flaunting Crete’s riches and superiority from every sparkling facet.

Evans discovered, among other things, the old storerooms of Knossos. In them were rows of huge vaselike oil-containers, richly ornamented vessels, elegantly decorated in a style already known from Tiryns. Evans took the trouble to measure the capacity of this oil store and judged it to be about 19,000 gallons. And this was the oil supply for a single palace (see Plate IV).

Who were the beneficiaries of this opulence?

Presently Evans discovered that his finds did not all stem from the same period. Walls were of various ages; the ceramics, faïence, and painting showed a variety of styles. After making a close survey of Cretan artifacts Evans was able, he believed, to distinguish the different periods of the cultural whole. He divided Cretan history into three parts: an Early Minoan period from 3000 to 2000 B.C.; a Middle Minoan period, lasting until 1600 B.C.; and a Late Minoan period, shortest of the three, which lasted until about 1250B.C. Evans found signs of human occupation prior to the earliest period, indeed, dating back to neolithic times, when the use of metals was unknown and implements were made entirely of stone. He assigned an age of ten thousand years to these prehistoric traces, but later investigators have reduced this figure to five thousand years.

Old Cretan goddess with a lion. The imprint of a seal ring from Knossos (about 1500 B.C.).

How were these dates arrived at? How was it possible to work out such a scheme of periods?

In each epoch Evans found objects of foreign origin, particularly ceramics and pottery ware from Egypt that belonged to exactly dated Pharaonic times. He named the period of transition from the Middle to Late Minoan—that is, the decades around 1600 B.C.—as the golden age of Crete. It was at this time, apparently, that a Minos lived, commander of the fleet and ruler of the sea. It was a time when splendor and luxury were generated by a high degree of economic well-being. The cult of beauty was in universal vogue. The wall paintings show youths wandering through the meadows, gathering saffron flowers, which they placed in Kamares bowls, and maidens wading through fields of lilies. During this transitional period the Minoan æsthetic was on the verge of becoming sheer ostentation. Painting, which hitherto had been strongly bound by conventional forms, showed a tendency to erupt in a riot of color. Luxury was becoming a prime consideration in the appointments of habitations, of equal importance with utility. The style of dress was no longer dictated by the needs of protection against the weather and of modesty. On every hand the whims of a refined leisure class made new demands.

It is not surprising that Evans used the word modern to describe what he saw. The palace of Minos was as large as Buckingham Palace. The great structure contained drainage sumps and luxurious bathrooms, ventilation systems, ground-water conduits, and waste-chutes. But the parallel with modernity is even more strikingly evident in the people themselves, in their manner, clothing, and modes.

The “bull-dancer.” Impression of a gem from Crete.

At the beginning of the Middle Minoan period the women were still wearing high peaked caps and a long, gaily figured gown, slit in front and held in with a belt. The collar of the bodice was high and stiff, and in front the breasts were exposed (see Plate IV).

At the high point of Cretan history this traditional costume became much more refined. The originally simple arrangement developed into a tightly bodiced affair with sleeves. The buttocks were closely sheathed, so as to show the curves of the figure as boldly as possible, and the breasts were now exposed with as much thrust and coquetry as could be devised. Skirts fell in long, brightly figured folds, covered with designs showing hillocks of earth out of which grew stylized lotus blossoms. Over the skirt a bright apron was worn. The old peaked cap had now become a sort of helmet.

Among the pictures found by Evans, paintings that, as he says, had “a magic and enchantment felt even by our uneducated workers,” one in particular is very familiar, that of the bull-dancers (see Plate V).

Dancers? Performers? So Schliemann had thought when he discovered similar representations at Tiryns, though in that obscure outpost there was nothing to remind him of Cretan legends centered on bulls, sacrifices, and smoking blood in the temples.

As for Evans, he was standing on the very ground where Minos had held sway, the King with the Minotaur, the taurine monster. And the legends spoke about these dim scenes from the past.

Minos, King of Knossos, Crete, and all the Ægean, sent his son, Androgeus, to the mainland as a contestant in the Athenian games. Being stronger than any of the Greeks, Androgeus was consistently victorious. Out of jealousy, he was murdered by Ægeus, King of Athens. The enraged father thereupon sent his fleet to Athens, took the city by storm, and imposed a fearful reparation. The Athenians were ordered to send every nine years the pick of their youth, seven young men and seven virgins, to be sacrificed to the monster of Minos. When this expiatory obligation was about to fall due for the third time, Theseus, son of Ægeus, recently returned from a long journey filled with heroic deeds, offered to sail with the victims to Crete, and there kill the monster.

Through the Cretan sea rushed the ship’s

Blue-streaming prow. With it went Theseus

And seven pairs of Ionic youth.

The boat was outfitted with black sails, which were to be exchanged for white ones on the homecoming if Theseus was successful in his mission. Ariadne, daughter of Minos, seeing the doomed youth Theseus, lost her heart to him. She gave him a sword with which to do battle, and a ball of wool to guide him out of the Labyrinth, she holding the other end, when Theseus went in to seek the Minotaur. In a terrible battle Theseus killed the monster. Using the woolen thread, he found his way out of the maze and made haste to flee homewards with Ariadne and his companions. But he was so excited at having got away that he forgot to change sails as previously agreed. Ægeus, his father, seeing the black sails, believed his son dead, and in anguish threw himself into the sea.

Does this legend offer any solution to the mystery of the bull-dancers? Two girls and a boy are shown playing with a bull. But were they actually playing? Could this not have been a representation of the sacrifice to Minotaur? And was not the monster simply a large bull owned by Minos?

Cult niche in Knossos. After a sketch by Evans.

When the legend is checked still further against the reality of the excavations, other arguable points arise. The fact that there was an actual labyrinth indicates that the story definitely has a kernel of truth. It could be assumed that Theseus’ victory over the Minotaur in the legend is a symbol of the conqueror who came from the mainland and destroyed the palace of Minos. It seems highly improbable, however, that a personal act of revenge on the part of Minos could ever, by itself, have occasioned the retaliatory destruction of the Cretan kingdom.

Yet there is no doubt that the kingdom of Crete was wiped out. It was annihilated with such suddenness and thoroughness that apparently the destroyers themselves had no time to see or hear or learn anything of the Minoan culture. The debacle was as complete as that visited three thousand years later on Moctezuma’s kingdom by a handful of Spaniards. In sum, nothing afterwards remained but ruins and dead stone, which could not speak.

Where did this civilization spring from, and what were the circumstances of its disappearance? The genesis and fall of the Cretans is to this day one of archæology’s most teasing problems, of central interest to all students of prehistory.

According to Homer, five linguistically separable peoples lived on the island. According to Herodotus, Minos was not a Greek, though Thucydides maintains that he was. Evans, who more than any other man has delved into these mysteries, believes that the Cretan culture had an African-Libyan origin. Eduard Meyer, the profound historian of antiquity, is content to make the observation that probably it did not stem from Asia Minor. Dörpfeld, Schliemann’s old collaborator, in 1932, as an octogenarian, took up the cudgels against the Evans theory. Dörpfeld held that Cretan-Mycenæan art derived from Phœnicia and did not develop indigenously in Crete, as Evans claimed.

This discus remains a mystery. Even after Ventris, it is not yet decipherable.

Where is the Ariadne’s thread that will lead us out of the labyrinth of conjecture?

Minoan writing may some day provide the clue. It will be recalled that Evans’ original purpose in Crete was to study Minoan script. By 1894 he had already described the first Cretan characters. As the years went by he discovered countless hieroglyphic inscriptions. At Knossos he found two thousand small clay tablets covered with the symbols of a linear system of writing. Schliemann’s “learned friend” Émile Burnouf, in reference to the writing on Trojan vases, once said: “The symbols are neither Greek nor Sanskrit, nor are they Phœnician, nor … nor …” This sort of negative definition was the only one anyone had yet been able to apply to the Minoan script. In 1910 the Egyptologist Erman entertained some mild hopes of solving the riddle. “These Cretan inscriptions have yet to be deciphered,” he wrote, “but at least we see much more clearly into the matter.” In a most exhaustive work on ancient forms of writing, Die Schrift by Hans Jensen, published in 1935, the author flatly stated: “The deciphering of Cretan writing is still completely in the rudimentary stage, and we are not at all clear about its real nature.”

The end of the Cretan kingdom is a mystery as dark as the mystery of the Minoan script. There are many daring theories on the subject, however. Evans, for example, believed that Crete was destroyed three different times. Twice the palace was rebuilt, but the third time it fell not to rise again.

If we scan the history of this distant period from the broad viewpoint, we note that hordes of fair-skinned Achæans drifted down into Greece out of Danubian country or perhaps out of southern Russia. These nomads overcame the citadel cities of darker races and destroyed Mycenæ and Tiryns. This same barbaric invasion may well have extended across the sea itself and so spelled the finish of prehistoric Crete. A little later we see new campaigns, waged by the Dorians, as a result of which the Achæans, in their turn, were overcome. The Dorians brought even less culture with them than had the Achæans. Whereas the Achæans were plunderers who at least knew how to hold onto and make use of their booty, a race worthy of being memorialized in Homeric song, the Dorians were brute destroyers, who permanently wrecked whatever they touched. From their midst, however, sprang a new Greece.

Thus it was with Crete, says one school of thought. But what do the others say? Evans discovered evidence suggesting that the palace, the focal point of Minoan life, might have been destroyed by geological rather than human intervention. Pompeii was the classical example of such an occurrence. In the chambers of the Minoan Palace Evans found signs of sudden death analogous to those first found by d’Elbœuf and Venuti at the foot of Vesuvius. Tools had been left lying about, there were unfinished objects of art and utility, and evidence of suddenly interrupted domestic activity.

On the basis of these findings Evans formulated a theory that was later dramatically confirmed. On June 26, 1926, at nine forty-five in the evening, Evans was lying in bed reading when without warning he was tossed about by a heavy earth tremor. His bed shook; the walls of the house trembled; things fell on the floor; water was spilled out of a bucket; the earth emitted sighing sounds, which became groans, then curious bellowing roars, as if the Minotaur, the mythical bull, had come to life. When the earth had stopped quaking, Evans jumped out of bed and ran to the palace. His work of reconstruction had withstood the shock, for through the years he had installed steel pillars and props wherever possible. But throughout the villages of the district, and as far away as the capital city of Kandia, the earthquake had caused great devastation.

Even before this demonstration of the destructive power of natural forces, it had been well established that Crete is one of the most active quake areas in Europe. But Evans’ experience certainly gave point to his notions. Many centuries ago the earth had shuddered, causing man’s architectural monuments to split asunder and tumble down. Nothing less than a very heavy tremor, he maintained, could account for annihilation so complete that throughout succeeding millennia nothing but miserable huts ever rose on the ruins of the palace of Minos.

So much for Evans. Most archæologists do not subscribe to his interpretation. A later day may clear up the mystery. Evans, at any rate, was able to define the cultural pattern first suspected by the credulous Schliemann when he explored the ashes of Mycenæ. Both these men were pioneers, breaking the trail for the current phase of research, which may succeed in unraveling Ariadne’s thread.

The preceding paragraph was written in 1949. Midway in 1950 came the news that Ernst Sittig, professor at the University of Tübingen, had solved the problem on which the Finnish scholar Sundwall had been laboring for forty years, followed by the German Bossert, the Italian Meriggi, the Czech Hrozny (who had deciphered the Hittite cuneiform scripts from Bogazköy), and Alice Kober of New York, who said resignedly, in 1948, that “an unknown language, written in an unknown script, cannot be deciphered.”

Apparently a great triumph had been achieved. Sittig was the first philologist to apply consistently the art (and science) of the decipherment of military secret codes, based on statistical frequency studies, which had been perfected in the course of two world wars. He believed that he had deciphered eleven signs, and later on, as many as thirty signs of the so-called Cretan Linear-B script.

A second development came in 1953, when a clay tablet dug up by Blegen in Pylos came into the hands of an Englishman, Michael Ventris. It showed a grouping of symbols such as Sittig had not yet seen, and which the brilliant Ventris, another outsider, could indisputably read as Greek. This invalidated part of Sittig’s interpretations: only three of his thirty readings had been correct. And so there began a new effort that will probably go on for a long time. While ancient philology is approaching the final solution of its problem, a far greater problem has come to confront us regarding the entire history of antiquity. Why should the language of the Greeks, a far from highly developed people at the time, be written in Cretan script on Crete, the center of an independent, highly advanced culture, about 600 years before Homer? Did these two languages exist side by side? It is possible that our entire chronology of early Greece is all wrong? Is Homer becoming problematic again?

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