Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth

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9780809030354: Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth

The intrepid Englishman who shaped the way we think about Europe and the Middle East.

Sir Arthur Evans was the diminutive, fiery archaeologist who, at an excavation in Knossos in 1900, discovered what he called the Palace of Minos and presented to the world his stunning re-creation of Minoan civilization. This is the first biography of a flamboyant and very influential man--written by a scholar with unparalleled expertise in the archaeology of Crete.

When Evans went to Greece after a mediocre career as a journalist in the Balkans, Heinrich Schliemann had recently uncovered what he claimed were Troy and Mycenae, famed cities of Homer; Evans, too, wanted to verify the factual basis for the myths that meant most to him. He found what he was looking for in Crete: he believed he located the origin of "tree and pillar worship," at the heart of Teutonic mythology in Europe but somehow linked to an early cult of the Greek god Zeus.

Joseph Alexander MacGillivray shows that Evans in fact anticipated what he found. Evans's Minoans were perfect Victorians: a peaceful, literate, aesthetic, just society where wise men held political office and powerful women ruled the people's hearts. Yet Knossos was not simply a lucky find, and MacGillivray shows Evans was a heroic figure struggling with many central themes concerning the origins of civilization. He concludes with his own assessment of our current knowledge about ancient Crete.

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Review:

Arthur Evans leapt into the public imagination with his 1900 discovery of Crete's Palace of Knossos, interpreted as the lair of the mythical Minotaur. Though his findings were a crowning achievement of archaeology's golden age, then, as now, questions have been raised about Evans's excavations and the conclusions he reached. In the richly detailed Minotaur, Joseph Alexander MacGillivray, who has himself excavated Crete, suggests that the man who gave us the very term Minoan provides a prime example of "how archaeological discovery occurs first in the mind." By examining Evans's life and work through his actions and correspondence, MacGillivray shows that Evans's evidence was "fully, even exaggeratedly exploited" but rarely reviewed. Adventurous, energetic, and highly observant, Evans also displayed "single-minded arrogance," "pomposity and manifest racism"--traits that invited misinterpretation, MacGillivray writes. The book also incorporates an interesting history of war-torn Crete and the Balkans as well as Evans's involvement in the region's politics. It finally outlines modern theories on Minoan civilization, though the "Palace and surrounding buildings are crumbling as fast as Evans's intellectual reconstruction," so that solid proof of any thesis is increasingly problematic. Fascinating as a portrait of the man who "gave the world a new chapter in its ancient history" and for its portrayal of the developing discipline of archaeology, Minotaur also poses some important questions about whether archaeologists are ever impartial observers. --Karen Tiley

About the Author:

Joseph Alexander MacGillivray was educated at McGill and Edinburgh Universities. Since 1980, he has worked on the Cretan sites supervised by the British School of Archaeology in Athens, of which he was assistant director for some years.

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