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Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery

The masterpieces of Minoan art are not what they seem. The vivid frescoes that once decorated the walls of the prehistoric palace at Knossos in Crete are now the main attraction of the Archaeological Museum in the modern city of Heraklion, a few miles from the site of Knossos. Dating from the early or mid-second millennium BC, they are some of the most famous icons of ancient European culture, reproduced on countless postcards and posters, T-shirts and refrigerator magnets: the magnificent young “prince” with his floral crown, walking through a field of lilies; the five blue dolphins patrolling their underwater world between minnows and sea urchins; the three “ladies in blue” (a favorite Minoan color) with their curling black hair, low-cut dresses, and gesticulating hands, as if they have been caught in mid-conversation. The prehistoric world they evoke seems in some ways distant and strange—yet, at the same time, reassuringly recognizable and almost modern.

The truth is that these famous icons are largely modern. As any sharp-eyed visitor to the Heraklion museum can spot, what survives of the original paintings amounts in most cases to no more than a few square inches. The rest is more or less imaginative reconstruction, commissioned in the first half of the twentieth century by Sir Arthur Evans, the British excavator of the palace of Knossos (and the man who coined the term “Minoan” for this prehistoric Cretan civilization, after the mythical King Minos who is said to have held the throne there). As a general rule of thumb, the more famous the image now is, the less of it is actually ancient.

Most of the dolphin fresco was painted by the Dutch artist, architect, and restorer Piet de Jong, who was employed by Evans in the 1920s (and whose watercolors and drawings of archaeological finds in Athens, Knossos, and elsewhere were featured in a 2006 exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens, curated by John Papadopoulos). The “Prince of the Lilies” is an earlier restoration, from 1905, by the Swiss artist Émile Gilliéron (see illustration on page 60). In this case it is far from certain that the original fragments—a small piece of the head and crown (but not the face), part of the torso, and a piece of thigh—ever belonged to the same painting.

The records of the original excavation suggest that they were found in the same general area of the ancient palace, but not particularly close together. And despite Gilliéron’s best efforts, the resulting “prince” (there is, of course, no evidence beyond the so-called “crown” for his royal status) is anatomically very awkward; his torso and head apparently face in different directions. The history of the “ladies in blue” is even more complicated. This painting was first recreated by Gilliéron after the discovery of a few fragments in the early years of the twentieth century, but that restoration was itself badly damaged in an earthquake in 1926 and re-restored by Gilliéron’s son (also Émile). So in this case, several of the small parts of the painting that now appear to be authentic are in fact mock-ups of the original surviving fragments that were themselves lost in the earthquake.

It is perhaps no wonder that when Evelyn Waugh visited Heraklion in the 1920s he found a disconcertingly modern collection of paintings in the museum. “It is impossible to disregard the suspicion,” he wrote in Labels (an account of his Mediterranean travels, published in 1930), “that their painters have tempered their zeal for accurate reconstruction with a somewhat inappropriate predilection for covers of Vogue.”

The story of the ancient palace of Knossos itself is much the same. Instantly recognizable with its squat red columns, ceremonial staircases, and “throne rooms,” it is the second most visited of all archaeological sites in Greece, attracting almost a million visitors each year. Yet none of those columns are ancient; they are all restorations (or, in his words, “reconstitutions”) by Evans. As Cathy Gere crisply puts it in her brilliant study of the role of Knossos in twentieth-century culture, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, the palace “enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the first reinforced concrete buildings ever erected on the island.” Evans’s own house nearby, the Villa Ariadne, named for the mythical daughter of Minos and the bride of Dionysus, is another.

There is still debate about just how misleading Evans’s reconstitution of the prehistoric palace is. Certainly, there is little justification for any of the elaborate upper stories that are now visible on the site, or even for the exact location of the frescoes that he reproduced on the rebuilt walls. In some cases what we now see must be wrong. A copy of the dolphin fresco, for example, is displayed on one of the walls of the “Queen’s Megaron” (or Hall). In fact the places where the fragments were found make it much more likely that it was a floor decoration on an upper story, which fell through into the “Queen’s Megaron” when the building collapsed.

It is also clear enough, as the title “Queen’s Megaron” itself hints, that Evans’s preconceptions about Minoan society—a peace-loving monarchy, with a powerful role for women and a mother goddess at the center of the religious system—strongly influenced his reconstructions, not only of the architecture and decoration, but of the other finds too. A classic case of this is two famous faience figurines of “snake goddesses” (a key figure in Evans’s Minoan pantheon) unearthed on the site. “Snake goddesses,” or “snake priestesses,” they may have been, but once again considerably less of the original objects survives than what you now see in the museum display. Everything below the waist of one is a restoration; most of the snakes as well as the head and face of the other are the work of Halvor Bagge, one of the other artists in Evans’s team.

In some recent accounts of the history of Minoan archaeology, Evans himself has taken a lot of criticism. At best, he has seemed a dupe of his own obsessions with a particular vision of prehistory and of his fixation with the idea of a primitive mother goddess (a fixation unconvincingly explained in J.A. MacGillivary’s hostile 2000 biography, Minotaur, by the loss of Evans’s own mother when he was only six years old). At worst, he has been presented as a rich, upper-class racist, working out his sexual hang-ups and his British imperialist prejudices on the archaeology of Minoan Crete.

Evans is vulnerable to some of these charges. On any estimate, he was an archaeologist of “the old school.” He was only able to excavate Knossos because he bought the site wholesale, and he lived almost a parody of an English expatriate life there. According to the account in Dilys Powell’s memoir TheVilla Ariadne (1973), Evans refused ever to drink Cretan wine and had French wine, gin, and whisky, as well as English jam and tinned meat, specially imported to Crete at huge cost. (Though she is better known as a movie critic, Powell had been married to the British archaeologist Humfry Payne and knew the set-up at Knossos well.) Evans was also capable of writing with contempt of the “inferior races,” and at the age of seventy-four he was convicted in London of “an act in violation of public decency” with a young man (he had been married briefly—but whether this offense was part of a habitual pattern of conduct or a one-off incident we do not know).

There is also the question of quite how far he was aware of the brisk trade in Minoan forgeries during the early decades of the twentieth century, many of which he authenticated, some of which he bought for himself. Apart perhaps from prehistoric “Cycladic figurines,” no category of objects has ever been more systematically faked than Minoan antiquities. In a brilliant real-life detective story, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess,1 Kenneth Lapatin has tried to track down the provenance of all the known snake goddess figurines, apart from those definitely excavated at Knossos or other major sites. These have often been the prized objects of major museums (one is owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, another by the Fitzwilliam Mu- seum in Cambridge; another—bought by Evans himself—is in the Ashmolean at Oxford).

Lapatin shows that almost all of these, as well as a substantial number of other “Minoan” objects, are certain forgeries. But more than that, he makes a strong case for the involvement in this business of the Swiss restorers Émile Gilliéron, père and fils (“restoring” by day, as it were, and “faking” by night). Evans may well have been entirely ignorant of the clandestine activities of his trusted staff. But his desperation to identify more artifacts that would confirm his own vision of Minoan culture certainly encouraged their activities and he was, no doubt, easy to persuade to add his authority to their productions (after all, the bona fide “restorations” and the “fakes” really must have looked identical—they were made by the same people).

Yet some of the accusations now commonly leveled against Evans look very glib. It is easy to claim that archaeology is a branch of imperialism, but much harder to make that accusation stick in any particular instance. It is often said, for example, that Evans was interpreting Minoan civilization and the basis of its power in the early second millennium BC according to the model of the British Empire: the Minoan control of the sea (“thalassocracy”) was a reflection of the power of the British navy. As one archaeologist has recently—and crassly—put it, Evans’s Minoans were “travelling and trading all over the Mediterranean, thanks to their British (sorry, Minoan) ‘thalassocracy.’”2

Maybe. But it was no British imperialist who first identified the importance of Cretan sea power; it was the Greek historian Thucydides, writing in the fifth century BC, who claimed in his History that “Minos was the first person to organize a navy…he ruled over the islands of the Cyclades in most of which he founded colonies.” In all likelihood, this well-known passage was the direct inspiration of the classically educated Evans, not any desire to find his own imperial experience prefigured in prehistoric Crete.

One enormous virtue of Cathy Gere’s Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism is that she leaves to one side the barren debate over whether Evans himself was a good or a bad character, either archaeologically or politically. Her subject is not so much the excavation of Knossos but the role that Minoan archaeology played within twentieth-century culture (and, conversely, how twentieth-century culture, from Evans on, projected its own concerns onto Minoan archaeology). It was at Knossos, she argues, that prehistory gave shape to a prophetic modernist vision, which repeatedly reinvented the Minoans as Dionysiac, peaceable protofeminists in touch with their inner souls.

Admittedly, they were presented in subtly different shades as time and politics moved on (more or less free love, for example), but they almost always appeared in stark contrast to the militaristic Aryan culture of their roughly contemporary prehistoric rivals, the Mycenaeans. From de Chirico to the Summer of Love, from Jane Ellen Harrison to Freud and H.D., theorists, artists, and dreamers found their future in the remote Minoan past.

  1. 1

    Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

  2. 2

    Yannis Hamilakis, “What Future for the Minoan Past? Rethinking Minoan Archaeology,” in Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking “Minoan” Archaeology (Oxbow, 2002), p. 3.

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