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The Archaeologist as Minotaur

The evocative power of archeological sites stems at least in part from their promise to put us in touch with the reality of an ancient past. The ruined shell of the Roman amphitheater, the terracotta soldiers unearthed near Xi’an, the sandstone façade of Al Khazneh in Petra: all collapse centuries and millennia into a single moment of contact. In some cases, the ruins themselves are so familiar as to generate a sense not of authenticity but of déjà vu, as with Sigmund Freud’s famous “disturbance of memory” during his 1904 visit to the Acropolis in Athens. But as many a visitor to the ruins of the bronze-age palace at Knossos has found to his or her surprise, some of the palace’s most iconic sights—the throne room complex, the squat red pillars, the frescoes of the priest-king and the "Ladies in Blue"—do not in fact represent the glories of a bygone Cretan civilization. Instead, they owe their appearance to the fervid imagination and wild reconstructive efforts of a single man, Knossos’s twentieth-century excavator—perhaps inventor is the better term—the British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans.  

This disappoints terribly, of course: one wants the echt experience, notwithstanding the presence, especially in the United States, of any one of a number of faux Venices, Parises, and other reproductions of the "old country" that represent commercial pandering to the popular longing to come face to face with the past. And yet it turns out that even a garishly recreated Knossos can offer a rich history of its own, and it is the particular triumph of Cathy Gere’s book to have traced the powerful impact of Evans’s reconstruction of the site and his vision of a "Minoan" civilization upon the most fecund thinkers and artists of his day. In the pages of this fascinating book, Freud, de Chirico, Joyce, Picasso, Graves, and H.D. mark out labyrinthine paths as intricate as the mythical Minoan dancers of Evans’s imagination. Fueled by the idea of ancient Crete as Evans crafted it from the ruins, artifacts, and paint fragments of his excavation, and encouraged by Nietzsche’s notion that the modern era was actually repeating the history of antiquity in reverse movement, these figures went on to embed the myth of Evans’s peaceful and matriarchal Knossos into their own response to the twentieth century. For them, the preoccupations of modernism—the loss of faith in the Enlightenment’s legacy of rationalism, the search for an alternative to the malaise of the modern state, the theological angst accompanying the death of the Christian God—were anticipated, confronted, and resolved in the ruins of what Evans was convinced was the palace of the mythical King Minos.

Evans himself did not discover the site. It had already been identified as the location of bronze-age Knossos, and the preliminary excavations of a local antiquarian named Minos (yes, Minos) Kalokairinos had unearthed painted murals and terracotta jars. Kalokairinos was prevented from further digging by the local Cretan assembly, which feared that his finds might be appropriated by Crete’s Ottoman government. Still, as Gere writes, "in the spring of 1894 the mound of Knossos finally met its destiny in the shape of the British petitioner for its favors, Arthur Evans." Our petitioner was sniffing out the trail of an unknown script found on seal stones that he had encountered in Greece, and whose source he believed to be Cretan; it was a belief confirmed by the similar characters on some of the stones exposed by Kalokairinos. By 1900, Evans was able to buy the site outright, and what followed were forty years of self-financed digging and reconstruction—self-financed and also self-conceived, since (as Gere suggests in a section on Evans’s early loss of his mother) the archeologist was saddled with a goodly amount of psychic baggage from his own childhood, all of which found some expression on the interpretive playing-field of Knossos.

Of Evans, Gere remarks that "his methods were distinguished by a delirious interpretive incontinence." And so they were. What Evans actually uncovered as he dug further into the mound was not insignificant: the oldest throne in Europe (a gypsum chair plastered to the wall behind it), goddess figurines, fragmentary frescoes. But upon these findings Evans brought to bear the volatile combination of his own imagination and a recent innovation in the construction industry: reinforced concrete. Where the rotted-out wooden pillars of the palace had once stood, Evans erected concrete pillars to take their place, and over them, originally to protect the finds, a concrete ceiling. In the course of the next decades, a three storey modernist structure over the throne would be erected under the supervision of the architect Piet de Jong, and the Swiss artists Guilliéron père et fils, also working for Evans, would generate frescoes from the most fragmentary remnants. A particularly egregious case of invention resulted in the “restoration” of the painting of a red-skinned Minoan captain leading a troop of black soldiers, the whole troop created almost ex nihilo from a few patches of black pigment. The second volume of Evans’s excavation report accordingly included a disquisition on Cretan relations with sub-Saharan Africa, an association that would be indirectly echoed in later scholarly attempts to link Cretan and Egyptian culture.

Interpretive incontinence, certainly. But there was a good precedent for such excess. Evans was following in the footsteps of Heinrich Schliemann, the wealthy German merchant-turned-archeologist who, having tunneled a destructive path through nine archeological strata at Hisarlik near the mouth of the Dardanelles, claimed in 1873 to have found the Troy of Homer’s Iliad at the penultimate level. (We now know that this was a Bronze Age settlement, and that Schliemann’s spade-wielding haste actually destroyed much evidence of the most likely Iliadic Troy.) The claim was based on the discovery of a trove of gold and copper artifacts that Schliemann promptly labeled ‘Priam’s treasure’ and which cemented his fame in the public eye. In his subsequent excavations at Mycenae in mainland Greece, Schliemann’s imagination again did not fail him: uncovering, in 1876, the figure of a corpse wearing a gold death-mask, he suggested he had unearthed Agamemnon himself, and in later accounts of his excavations he created a backstory in which it had always been his childhood dream to find and excavate Homer’s ill-fated city. By publishing this archeology of ambition, as it were, he was able to mythologize himself as well as the skeletons he had summoned to the light of day.

Where Schliemann had been merely destructive, Evans, we might say, was constructive. But a greater contrast between these series of excavations—Troy and Mycenae on the one hand, Knossos on the other—would eventually shape two different modern myths about the origins of European civilization. Schliemann’s work on Troy was a crucial step in the construction of a Greek proto-identity for the German race. His discovery of swastika figures scratched onto some Trojan loom-weights—together with a female figurine also found at Troy, onto whose pubic triangle Schliemann himself had helpfully carved a matching swastika—coincided with the development of the Teutonic scholarship that identified the ‘Aryas’ of the Sanskrit Rigveda with none other than the Germans themselves. The presence of similar swastikas on some ancient German pots meant that "the Iliad could now join the Rigveda as the historical record of the military prowess of a racially pure people, who left a trail of swastikas in the wake of their irresistible westward advance and whose true heirs were the Prussian army." The hoisting of the swastika flag as the symbol of the Reich in 1933 was merely the final step in this "invention of archeology." And in the same year, fittingly enough, Emil Ludwig’s biography of Schliemann was burned in Berlin: written by a Jew, it apparently lacked the wherewithal to recognize the particularly German nature of Schliemann’s heroic idealism.

If Schliemann’s Iliadic proto-Germans were the mythical forbearers of Nazi Germany’s own military ethos, Evans was sickened by the atrocities of the civil war during the Cretan fight for independence, and Gere suggests that his emphasis on the pacific and matriarchal aspects of his ‘Minoan’ civilization was at least in part a reaction to these horrors. When he announced that he had found the "throne of Ariadne" at Knossos, he was staking out an allegiance not to Homer’s warriors but to Johann Jakob Bachofen’s argument that a matriarchal culture had preceded patriarchy on Crete. Support was lent to the theory when in 1884 an Italian archeologist found near Gortyn the inscribed marble remains of a fifth-century B.C.E. law code with favorable legal provisions for women. Evans’s greatest invention, in fact, was this archetype of the Great Mother Goddess, whose religious sway over the early Cretans he derived from the discovery of female statuettes, seal stamps showing a "Mountain Goddess," and the putative dancing floor of Ariadne, daughter of Minos. 

But Evans went so far as to put aside evidence he himself had discovered pointing to a network of fortifications on the island in order to present the Cretans as wholly peace-loving: "His King Minos was a famous lawgiver rather than an infamous tyrant; his labyrinth was a dancing floor rather than a monster’s prison. So successful was he, that Mycenae and Knossos eventually came to be seen as opposite extremes, one militaristic and patriarchal, the other peaceful and feminine. Out of the violent hell of the struggle for Cretan independence was born the pacifist paradise of Minoan Crete." In sum, Evans’s multi-volume work The Palace of Minos presented this civilization as taking place in a prelapsarian time, "a gilded infancy suckled by a benevolent mother goddess." Although Evans shared the racist biases of his times, he had no use for Aryan theories: his peaceful and semitic Crete was a world influenced and improved by its neighbors to the south, Egypt and Libya.

Here, then, was the new childhood of Europe, a world cooked up by an archeologist eager to show that a pacific matriarchy lay at the origin of a people caught up in the increasingly violent twentieth century. It was a popular vision: as Gere demonstrates, Evans’s appealing articulation of bronze-age Cretan civilization was appropriated over and over again by its twentieth-century audiences, each adapting it to their own needs in the service of feminism, psychoanalysis, art, Afrocentrism, and the like. For Freud, archeology had already come to stand as the master-metaphor for the "talking cure"--perhaps not surprisingly, given the reverse chronology of both disciplines and the idea that the analyst, like the archeologist, was on a search for the buried sources of the present. "A neurosis or a hysterical symptom," as Gere observes, "was like an archaeological tell—a mound of memories that had to be peeled away, layer by layer, starting from the present and working back to the past, in search of a primal scene."

But more strikingly, Freud went so far as to identify Evans’s Knossos with a pre-Oedipal stage putatively experienced by the West in its Cretan infancy and to identify this historical moment in the development of civilization with a stage in the psychic development of the child: the presence of the Minoan mother goddess in pre-patriarchal Crete (as he argued in Moses and Monotheism) represented a parallel to a young girl’s primary attachment was to her mother. And into this pottage of correspondences between the dig at Knossos and the analyses in his Viennese study, Freud then added an odder still ingredient: "inherited memory." According to this Lamarckian twist in his thought, the history of the human species had left traces in the brains of modern individuals, so that Minoan civilization, which was thought to have perished in a cataclysmic earthquake or eruption against which its Great Mother Goddess had offered no protection, "actually laid down the psychic structure of the pre-Oedipal stage and its termination" in the maturation process of every generation of children. The unfortunate Mother Goddess thus went the way of all Freudian mothers: both Cretan civilization and the pre-Oedipal child realized that these feminine forces could not hold a candle to a paternal God and a pater. Not Freud’s brightest hour, perhaps; Gere amusingly quotes the complaint by Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi, the great Jewish historian, that the theory of inherited memory relies on "structures of thought and modes of discourse as alien as those encountered by an anthropologist studying the Bororo or Nambikwara tribes in the Brazilian unknown."

Freud, of course, was hardly the only appropriator of Cretan symbolism. Gere pays witty homage to many equally fascinating figures. Evans’s contemporary, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, was likewise convinced by the goddess seals and statuettes of Knossos that the island contained coded references to the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy. In a famous chapter entitled "The Making of a Goddess" from her Prolegomena to a Study of Greek Religion, Harrisonpresents the Olympian gods of the Greeks not as the rational deities of a civilized Hellenism, but as the patriarchal usurpers of female rule: as she wrote in some disgruntlement, "Woman who was the inspirer, becomes the temptress; she who made all things, gods and mortals alike, is become their plaything, their slave, dowered only with physical beauty, and with a slave’s tricks and blandishments." Meanwhile, the painter Giorgio de Chirico was painting his own likenesses of Ariadne, the heroine isolated in a industrial modernist landscape that perhaps not coincidentally resembled Evans’s reconstruction of the throne room complex. In an odd twist of fate, De Chirico had earlier taken drawing lessons from none other than Émile Gilliéron pere. Among the other figures for whom Gere traces out Minoan connections and coincidences, the biographical material on Robert Graves is particularly striking. Graves, like Harrison, lamented the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy in his Minoan-themed best-seller of 1948, The White Goddess, but in this he was apparently influenced by the years he spent in erotic thrall to the unbalanced American poet Laura Riding, who magnificently declared herself a figure of destiny named "Finality." Graves threw himself out a third-story window on Finality’s behalf but survived to write Goodbye to All That.

The final part of the story is dedicated to the role that Knossos played in the ongoing debate about north African civilization’s influence on the eventual cultural and intellectual hegemony of classical Athens. Starting in 1917 with an article by George Wells Parker on "The African Origin of Grecian Civilisation," Gere traces the modulations of this argument in the work of the Senegalese polymath Cheikh Anta Diop and in the "Black Athena" hypothesis championed by Martin Bernal. Both Diop and Bernal have argued that the Egyptian pharaohs were black Africans, the former most notably in his book The African Origin of Civilization, the latter in the three volumes of Black Athena. Crete enters the picture already with Parker, who thought that the red-skinned figures of the frescoes had African facial features; Diop believed that Crete was a colony of Middle Kingdom Egypt, and that its inhabitants had fled to the Peloponnese after the volcanic eruption on Thera. Gere does not delve into the bitter controversy around the Black Athena thesis, but she does point out that Evans’s belief that Minoan civilization had political hegemony over Greek Mycenae lost steam after it became clear that the unfamiliar script on the tablets dug up at Knossos, Linear B, was in fact archaic Greek and not a Semitic language from north Africa. This cast doubt upon the straightforward narrative of cultural inheritance from Egypt to Crete, and Crete to the mainland.

Recently the fabled Minoans have fallen farther still, with the discovery of new archeological evidence that suggests the possibility that they carried out human sacrifice and even cannibalized children. It is interesting to speculate on what Evans would have done had he come face to face with this evidence: would it have gone the way of the other material that had no place in his Pax Minoica? It is surely difficult to find a spot for human flesh on the pacifist’s dining table. We cannot know, but what Gere’s stimulating study repeatedly reminds us is that archeology can be not only a recovery of the past, not only a reflection of the present, but also a projection about our own culture and its ideals. "There is no escaping the fact," as she concludes, "that we read the human past to understand the present, and then interpret it in the light of the future that we fear or desire."

Shadi Bartsch is the Ann L. and Larry B. Buttenwieser Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago.

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