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Sir Arthur John Evans (8 July 1851 – 11 July 1941) was a British archaeologist and pioneer in the study of Aegean civilization in the Bronze Age. He is most famous for unearthing the palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. Based on the structures and artifacts found there and throughout the eastern Mediterranean, Evans found that he needed to distinguish the Minoan civilization from Mycenaean Greece. Evans was also the first to define Cretan scripts Linear A and Linear B, as well as an earlier pictographic writing.

Knossos was beginning to be known as a major site. It was first discovered in 1877 or 1878 and partially excavated  by Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretan merchant and antiquarian. He uncovered parts of the building complex that he identified, following Homer, as the ‘Royal Palace or Megaron of King Minos I’. In February 1879, the Cretan parliament, fearing the Ottoman Empire would remove any artifacts excavated, stopped the excavation. Crete was under Turkish occupation at the time.


In 1894, Sir Arthur Evans visited Crete and to be informed about the excavations that had taken place over a decade previously. He was impressed and bought ¼ of the Kephala Hill for 6,000 drachmas. Evans got permission using the Cretan Exploration Fund to excavate the site.


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Sir Arthur Evans (left), Theodore Fyfe, and Duncan Mackenzie, Knossos (1900)



Assisted by Duncan Mackenzie, who had already distinguished himself by his excavations on the island of Melos, and Mr Fyfe, an architect from the British School at Athens, Evans employed a large staff of local laborers as excavators, and began work in 1900. Within a few months they had uncovered a substantial portion of what he called the Palace of Minos. The term "palace" may be misleading; Knossos was an intricate collection of over 1000 interlocking rooms, some of which served as artisans' workrooms and food processing centers (e.g. wine presses). It served as a central storage point, and a religious and administrative centre.

On the basis of the ceramic evidence and stratigraphy, Evans concluded that there was another civilization on Crete that had existed before those brought to light by the adventurer-archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae and Tiryns. The small ruin of Knossos spanned 5 acres (2.0 ha) and the palace had a maze-like quality that reminded Evans of the labyrinth described in Greek mythology. In the myth, the labyrinth had been built by King Minos to hide the Minotaur, a half-man half-bull creature that was the offspring of Minos's wife, Pasiphae, and a bull. Evans dubbed the civilization once inhabiting this great palace the Minoan civilization.


By 1903, most of the palace was excavated, bringing to light an advanced city containing artwork and many examples of writing. Painted on the walls of the palace were numerous scenes depicting bulls, leading Evans to conclude that the Minoans did indeed worship the bull. In 1905 he finished excavations. He then proceeded to have the room called the throne room (due to the throne-like stone chair fixed in the room) repainted by a father-and-son team of Swiss artists, the Émile Gilliéron Junior and Senior. While Evans based the recreations on archaeological evidence, some of the best-known frescoes from the throne room were almost complete inventions of the Gilliérons, according to his critics.


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"Time and chance had made him the discoverer of a new civilization, and he had to make it intelligible to other men. Fortunately it was exactly to his taste: set in beautiful Mediterranean country, aristocratic and humane in feeling; creating an art brilliant in color and unusual in form, that drew inspiration from the flowers and birds and creatures that he loved. It provided him with enigmas to solve and oracles to interpret, and opened a new world for eye and mind to dwell in: a world which served to isolate him from a present in which he had found no real place."

- Joan Evans, Evans's half-sister, 1943


Restoring the Grand Staircase
(Evans upper right in white), 1905


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