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Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery

Gere writes with clarity and wit, but she never sacrifices the fascinating complexity of her tale to a simple story line. She is excellent, for example, on the “blurry boundary between restorations, reconstructions, replicas, and fakes,” insisting that there is no clear and undisputed line that separates the processes of archaeology from those of invention or forgery. One of her most telling examples is the so-called “Ring of Nestor.” According to Evans’s own account (which is suspiciously vague on some of the details), this gold signet ring had been dug up by peasants on the Greek mainland near the site of Pylos, the legendary home of King Nestor, one of Homer’s heroes—hence the ring’s nickname. On the death of the finder, it passed to a neighbor, at which point Evans got to hear about it and “thanks to the kindness of a friend” (as he put it) he was shown an impression of its design. He immediately went to Pylos to acquire it. For, although it was not strictly Cretan, he believed that the intricate image on its bezel represented the Minoan Mother Goddess among scenes from the afterlife; and he was particularly excited by the vague traces of what he interpreted as butterflies and chrysalises (of the common white), “symbols of the life beyond.”

There are strong reasons to suspect that this ring was a forgery by the younger Gilliéron, who is actually supposed to have confessed to its fabrication. If that is the case, then there was—as Gere nicely observes—a bizarre sequel. For Evans employed Gilliéron to make a whole series of images of his new “find” in support of his own interpretation of the iconography,

beginning with a photo enlargement, moving to a drawing of the figures enlarged twenty times, and finally transforming the scene into a full-color fresco, in which all the little scratches and blobs in the original engraving were turned into faithful depictions of Evans’s interpretations.

This is where the boundary between restoration and forgery is at its most blurry. The idea of Gilliéron, as artist and restorer, dutifully producing beautiful, and increasingly magnified, images of his own handiwork as forger is close to absurd. Like Gere, we cannot help wondering whether he would have been “delighted or disconcerted” when Evans gave him that particular job.

Gere is also good at tracking the two-way influences between the restorations of the material at Knossos and contemporary art movements. Waugh was quite right to spot the similarity between what he saw in the Heraklion museum and the covers of Vogue, but the relationship between the two was surely more complicated than he thought. Art historians have been happy to concede that the influence on Art Nouveau of the frescoes from Knossos (albeit as restored by Gilliéron) was almost as strong as the influence of Art Deco on Gilliéron’s restorations. Early-twentieth-century painters and sculptors were closely observing the newly discovered primitive masterpieces of Crete and incorporating them in their work.

On the dust jacket of Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism is a splendid photograph of Evans’s huge concrete replica of what he called “the Horns of Consecration,” one of the most characteristic Minoan religious symbols, supposedly derived from the horns of the “sacred bull.” This replica now stands prominently just next to the ancient palace at Knossos, and (as Gere points out) looks more like the work of Barbara Hepworth than anything else. Modernist sculpture may, in this case, have inspired the work of Evans’s restorers. But Hepworth herself visited Knossos in the 1950s. How “the Horns of Consecration” appeared to her then, and what artistic inspiration she may have drawn from it, we can only guess.

A particularly intriguing artistic link with Knossos is found in the work of the painter Giorgio de Chirico. An Italian by origin, but born in Greece in 1888 and schooled there, de Chirico produced a series of Cretan paintings, focusing on the figure of Ariadne set within a bleak and troubling modernist landscape. His Ariadne is based on a famous Greco-Roman statue from the Vatican Museum, showing the Cretan princess sleeping after she has been abandoned by Theseus (whom she had helped to kill the Cretan Minotaur), though before the god Dionysus has arrived to “rescue” her. But as Gere notes, the setting in which she lies, with its industrial columns and open piazzas, is strikingly reminiscent of the concrete reconstruction of the palace at Knossos (see illustration on page 58). It turns out (and seems almost too good to be true) that as a child, de Chirico had been taught drawing by Emile Gilliéron, and when the de Chirico family moved to Munich in 1905, Giorgio attended the very art school where Gilliéron himself had been trained.

Yet even with these biographical details and with such clearly documented links between the characters, the pattern of influence remains hard to pin down. Whatever the young de Chirico learned from his childhood teacher, those drawing lessons took place before Gilliéron had undertaken any major work at Knossos. And indeed the apparent reminiscences of the modernist architecture of Knossos in de Chirico’s paintings predated the large-scale architectural reconstruction of the palace site by more than a decade. Perhaps we should be thinking of the influence flowing from de Chirico to the restorers of the palace. More likely, as Gere implies, the reinvention of primitive Knossos was a much more communal cultural project than that. We should not see it simply as the construction of Evans and his staff, but as a shared obsession of the early-twentieth-century intellectual elite. This obsession drew not only on a powerful combination of archaeology and modernism, but also on new views of the nature of ancient Greek culture (largely inspired by Nietzsche—who was certainly de Chirico’s bedside reading) and on a radical sense that the distant past could provide a way of rethinking the present.

Not that Gere entirely neglects the investment of Evans himself in the whole Minoan project. Apart from the occasional flight of fancy (we find more speculation here on how the loss of Evans’s mother caused his fixation with the Cretan Mother Goddess), she is much more levelheaded, and evenhanded, than many recent writers—particularly on questions of race. There is no doubt that Evans shared the casual disdain for other cultures and ethnicities that was typical of his age and class. Gere admits that it is not hard to assemble from his writing a dossier of quotations about “niggers” and “negroid influence” that would make a strong case against him “as an unreconstructed Con-radian villain.” Yet, she argues, that would be to miss the puzzling contradictions that must complicate any such simple picture. Virulently prejudiced he no doubt was; but at the same time he believed that the origins of the distinctive character of Minoan civilization lay partly in Egypt and Libya, partly in sub-Saharan Africa.

For Evans, the Minoans were emphatically not pure Greek, and he would have been irritated to learn that the “Linear B” tablets, which he excavated at Knossos (and which remained undeciphered in his lifetime), were actually written in an early form of the Greek language. In his view, as Gere summarizes it,

Crete rose above the inertia of her northern neighbors as a result of successive waves of immigration from the south, including that of “negroized elements” hailing from Libya and the Nile Valley.

And Evans lays particular stress on the trade and caravan routes leading from the African interior (for example, from Sudan and Darfur) to the coast— and so to within easy sailing reach of Crete. This is not so very far from the arguments of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987).

It is ironic, given his modern reputation as an out-and-out racist, that one of the most tendentious restorations of a Minoan fresco, carried out under his direction and partly to his bidding, actually introduced a pair of black African soldiers as major figures. Known by Evans as the “Captain of the Blacks” fresco, it was restored to show a Minoan warrior running ahead of two black comrades or subordinates. In fact the only evidence for the black soldiers is a handful of fragments of black paint, which need not have been from human figures at all.

But Evans was keen to find visual confirmation of his view that the Minoans used black “regiments” in their conquest of mainland Greece (these peace-loving people at home did not always hold back from military expansion overseas). He did not envisage an equal collaboration between black and white, of course. Even here, ideas of white racial superiority still hover awkwardly at the margins: not only in the very British military title given to the fresco but also in part of Evans’s imaginative description of the restored scene. “There is no reason to suppose,” he wrote condescendingly, “that negro mercenaries drilled by Minoan officers…were otherwise than well-disciplined.”

Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism traces the story of the modern engagement with Knossos from Evans’s first visit to Crete in the late nineteenth century almost up to the present day. It leads from the avant-garde art of de Chirico, through the famous archaeological obsessions of Freud and H.D. (“a psycho-archaeological folie à deux” that brought a version of Minoan primitivism to the analyst’s couch), to the frankly dotty ideas of matriarchal goddesses floated by Robert Graves and Marija Gimbutas.

The final act in this drama, however, has seen a strange reversal. Soon after the 1960s, when the Minoans had been conscripted into the popular imagination as a prehistoric version of hippie culture (lilies pointing to the ancient equivalent of flower power), the archaeological mood changed. Some controversial discoveries close to Knossos of children’s bones (carrying suspicious marks of butchery) raised the nasty possibility that the peace-loving Minoans had actually been human sacrificers. New research projects in the 1970s and 1980s focused on the networks of roads and fortifications with which the prehistoric elite of the palace of Knossos had strictly controlled their home territory—while scholarly attention also turned to the high- quality state-of-the-art weaponry that had generally been ignored in favor of Evans’s “lustral areas,” “bull dancers,” “saffron gatherers,” and lilies. So much for the pax Minoica.

But for Gere, this change of emphasis was essentially a return to the state of play before the excavation of Knossos began in 1900. As she points out, Evans’s first visits to Crete had been mainly concerned with the study of Bronze Age defenses and the road network. It was only after he had started excavating the palace that he coined the term “Minoan” and that early-twentieth-century archaeologists, artists, and thinkers combined their efforts to create an image of a peaceable, prepatriarchal prehistory to match.

The surprise is, however, that some discoveries of this latest period of archaeology have actually come to Evans’s support. As Gere reports, one of the most striking of these is a gold ring found in an excavation of a tomb at the site of Archanes, not far from Knossos. It carries a design that bears a clear resemblance to the “Ring of Nestor,” even featuring those otherwise unattested chrysalises. Is this proof then that, despite Evans’s suspicious story of the acquisition and despite the rumors of Gilliéron’s confession, the “Ring” was actually genuine?

Perhaps. And indeed some recent studies of the technique of its manufacture have tentatively pointed to a similar conclusion. But a rather more troubling explanation is also possible. Perhaps these early excavators and restorers of the site had so internalized the prehistoric culture they were partly uncovering and partly reinventing that their forgeries occasionally turned out to be accurate predictions of what would one day be discovered. That would be a yet more radical blurring of the boundary between authentic Minoan artifact and Minoan fake than even Gere has in mind.

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