Rich archaeologists are different: they have more opportunity. That is true at least of archaeology’s heroic age, in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy and Mycenae and the father of modern archaeology, used the vast wealth that he had accumulated in the first half of his life to fund his activities (which included paying off the Turkish authorities for finds that he had illicitly removed). Gaia Servadio’s Motya and Joseph Alexander MacGillivray’s Minotaur are very different kinds of book, but they have this in common, that they are both concerned at least in part with Englishmen who were able to conduct important excavations because they had money. And both, as it happens, were uncovering the remains of ancient civilizations which lay on the fringes of the classical Greco-Roman world.

Motya was a Phoenician, or Punic, settlement on an island in a lagoon at the western end of Sicily, excavated by the amateur archeologist Joseph Whitaker in the early years of the twentieth century. Servadio’s book is an agreeable mixed salad of reminiscences of visits to Motya over forty years, memories of alfresco meals with local characters, potted extracts of ancient history, angry descriptions of mafia corruption and environmental degradation, and, most interestingly, an account of the Whitaker family. Anthony Powell has described

the “third generation” type, [the last in] that trio of descending individuals in which the grandfather makes the money, the son consolidates the social position, and the grandson practises the arts (or sometimes merely patronises them) in some “decadent” manner….

Remove the decadence, and the pattern fits Joseph Whitaker well enough. An ancestor had prospered originally in the wine trade during the Napoleonic Wars. Later generations of the family developed into Anglo-Italian merchant princes, and Joseph Whitaker, a sweet and gentle soul not much interested in business, was able to use his inheritance to buy Motya, erect a hideous “castle” on it, live there the life of an Edwardian gentleman, tweeds, teacups, and all—and dig. He had two daughters, one of whom never married, while the other was widowed young; Servadio has an elegiac description of them decaying in a gloomy villa in Palermo, reminiscent of the Prince’s spinster daughters in the last chapter of The Leopard. Her book is a fascinating and quietly melancholy case study in social history.

The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who were originally from the eastern end of the Mediterranean but sprinkled colonies over the sea’s western areas. Their most famous settlement was Carthage. They have not always received a good press. Rome and Carthage were to fight their power struggle to the death, and Rome won. “History to the defeated/May say alas but cannot help or pardon”—and sometimes it does not even bother to say alas. The Romans represented the Carthaginians as treacherous and cruel. Undeniably, they practiced child sacrifice. They were also said to have invented crucifixion (which became, however, the Roman method of judicial execution).

From Homer on, the Greeks characterized the Phoenicians as seamen and traders, and historians have sometimes contrasted the two peoples: cultivated Hellenes on the one hand, writing tragedies and building the Parthenon, and money-making merchants on the other, without artistic ambition. In reality, the Greeks, too, built much of their success on trade, and one of their words for colony, emporion, means “trading post.” Anti-Semitism too may sometimes have played a part: according to Servadio, Punic studies were discouraged in Italy during the Fascist period. In the nineteenth century some French historians likened the Phoenicians not only to modern Jews but to the English, that perfidious nation of seafaring shopkeepers.

Prehistoric Crete, too, has at times been distorted by racial or cultural preconceptions, and this is one of MacGillivray’s themes. His book is much more ambitious than Servadio’s, and whereas Whitaker is almost unknown, Sir Arthur Evans is after Schliemann perhaps the most famous of all archaeologists. In him the second- and third-generation types are combined. He was born in 1851; his father, an amateur archaeologist of distinction, had made his pile in paper-making. Evans spent some time as a freelance journalist in the Balkans, campaigned for independence for the Slavs, and was appointed keeper (director) of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. But as with Schliemann, his fame rests on the work to which he turned in the second half of his life. He was forty-two when he first set eye on Crete; and he began excavating the Palace of Knossos in 1900.

What he found was somewhat different from what might have been expected. Schliemann had revealed the Mycenean civilization of mainland Greece, which came to its culmination around the middle of the second millennium BC. Evans found a culture which had developed over many centuries, reaching its apogee in the first half of the second millennium BC, and overlapping with the period when Mycenean culture was at its height. Mycenean civilization had struck many observers, when it first became known, as powerfully rude and barbarous: the Cyclopean walls of the great palaces of Mycenae and Tiryns appeared overbearing, the gold death-masks from the royal tombs harsh and even ugly. Cretan culture, by contrast, conveyed a much more graceful, elegant, even modern air. A visiting Frenchman, shown a fragment of fresco depicting a woman with scarlet lips and black-rimmed eyes, christened her “la Parisienne” and drooled over “that ruffled hair, that provocative lock on the forehead in a ‘hook your heart’ curl,…that flood of ribbons tossed back in the manner of ‘follow me, young man.'” A British archaeologist rhapsodized upon “the enchantment of a fairy world” and “the most complete acceptance of the grace of life the world has ever known.”


Evans called this culture “Minoan,” from Minos, king of Crete in Greek myth. His wife, so the story went, had fallen in love with a bull; their offspring the Minotaur, half-man half-bull, had been imprisoned in the labyrinth designed by the inventor Daedalus. The legend of the labyrinth, Evans suggested, might be a memory of the endlessly complex palace of Knossos, with its innumerable rooms. As MacGillivray shows, Evans had originally scorned Schliemann’s fantasy that he had shown the historical veracity of Homer’s Iliad—Priam’s city of Troy, Agamemnon’s Mycenae; but later he was to yield to a similar temptation himself.

MacGillivray’s book has more than one purpose. Partly he gives an account of Evans’s life and work; partly he wants to set out a polemical argument about the nature of archaeology; and partly he aims to “reconstruct the social, political and intellectual climate in which he developed.” This last ambition is the least successful: unfortunately, MacGillivray’s account is too crude and misinformed about the social and political background of Evans’s time, and he is also ill at ease with the language and history of Greece in the classical period. That famously upright statesman, Aristides the Just, a hero of the Battle of Marathon, is somehow garbled into “the notorious fifth-century-BC politician ‘Aristides the Unjust.'” The dates given for Plato are a century too early, and those for Hesiod are a century too late. British squires are strangely described as “hereditary landholders charged by a central authority with overseeing agricultural production”—a curious view of English social organization. And there are many more mistakes and misunderstandings of classical Greek, British history, and European culture in general. He appears to think the Boers won the Boer War. But MacGillivray is a professional archaeologist, and it is his account of Evans’s archaeology that we may expect to find most illuminating. He is indeed at his best here, and in the vivid picture he gives of Crete in the late nineteenth century, as Ottoman rule was drifting to its bloody and untidy end, with atrocities on both sides.

Some of his polemic is directed at Joan Evans, Arthur Evans’s half-sister, forty years his junior, whose Time and Chance (1943) was the first biography of him. “Time” and “chance” do indeed form a leitmotiv in her book, one that is applied, it must be allowed, rather mechanically, and MacGillivray takes issue with her idea that Evans had the luck to be around at the right time to discover the Minoans and that a fortunate chance led him to find a civilization that happened to be “exactly to his taste…aristocratic and humane in feeling.” MacGillivray is right that Evans knew the site of Knossos to be important before he began to dig, but he is surely wrong to deny so completely the significance of the unexpected. “Accidents appear to be chance,” he writes, “only until we explain them, at which point they cease to appear fortuitous. There is no such thing as a random encounter or a lucky find, then. If such a thing did exist, we’d have to abandon all hope of ever explaining anything.” The first two of these sentences seem to me simply not true, and I do not understand the third.

MacGillivray’s attack on Joan Evans is part of a broader assertion of what he calls “relative archaeology”; that is, the idea that archaeology is not an objective process, and that the relationship between the finder and the thing found is complex. In his own words:

I treat all archaeological discoveries as creative in their origin, rather like Michelangelo Buonarroti’s views of his own sculpture; he believed he was liberating figures trapped in the stones of the Carrara marble quarries (images that were submerged or repressed aspects of his own personality) when he tangibly created them. I suspect that the great archaeologists like Heinrich Schliemann at the site he believed was Troy, do something similar when they gaze beneath the earth’s mantle in search of clues to their desired history.

Much of this creative process is dismissed as archaeological intuition, but what does this mean?… To say that Evans was intuitive about Knossos is to assume that what he found was an absolute truth. I think that what he found was a relative truth, relative primarily to himself and then to those who wanted it most and who engaged him and his colleagues to uncover it, and it was truthful only for as long as the facts he delivered were necessary to support the desired history.

The challenge thrown down here has both a general and a particular aspect. The general issue is whether archaeology, of its nature, is essentially relative and subjective. But there is also the question whether Evans’s particular interpretations of Knossos were the products of his preexistent beliefs, social prejudices, psychological needs, or whatever.


To take the general issue first. In the twentieth century subjectivity and relativism have been much stressed in many fields of intellectual inquiry. This is most immediately obvious in discourse about literature. There are evident difficulties in supposing that literary interpretations are objective or complete. But there are also difficulties, less often canvassed, in supposing that they are merely subjective. Though some theorists are prepared to agree that “we are making it all up,” most allow that there are limits; or in more fashionable language, the text “resists” a mistaken reading. Good interpretation acknowledges a duty to the text; prejudiced or self-indulgent interpretation remains bad interpretation.

History is closer to archaeology, but it also has a frontier with literature. Great historians—Herodotus, Thucydides, Gibbon—are often, perhaps always, literary artists of a high order. Their works also bear the firm impress of individual personality. They may deal, besides, in questions, like “What caused the intellectual revolution of the seventeenth century?,” which may not admit of objective answers, even in principle. Yet they also have a duty to the facts. Somehow we need to keep in balance our sense that history-writing is a creative and imaginative process with our belief that the good historian is in search of truth and understanding. The historian’s personal character and beliefs are instruments that can be used well or ill. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is pervaded by his skepticism: it is one of the sources of his greatness, but there are occasions when it led him to distortion, and at those moments he was the lesser historian. We are not purely at the mercy of our prejudices: every scholar has known the times when the evidence has commanded him to abandon a position dearly held. At such a moment the bad historian cheats; the good one reconsiders, even at the cost of demolishing what he has built. But if there were nothing to the inquiry but the free flow of subjectivity, such a dilemma could not arise.

Archaeology is in one sense merely one form of historical inquiry. But in the sense that it is a separate discipline it can seem—prehistoric archaeology especially—more speculative than history: where so little can be known, much must be guesswork. (Evans’s hypotheses about the Minoans’ ultimate origins or their supposed cult of a mother goddess fit into this category.) But this does not seem a problem, provided that we recognize how provisional and uncertain such speculation must be—wishful thinking is the enemy of good inquiry, not a necessary condition for it. And archaeology is also fundamentally concerned with the increase of factual knowledge, and with questions to which there are in principle definite answers: “What was the function of this room?” or “When was this artifact made?” Of course, the boundary between the factual and the speculative is a fuzzy one. Almost all archaeologists would agree that there is a subjective and imaginative aspect to their discipline; where MacGillivray differs is in apparently wanting to deny the possibility of impartiality almost entirely.

His particular argument about Evans is not altogether clear but seems to be essentially that Evans interpreted Minoan Crete in accordance with Europocentric preconceptions. Evans’s father-in-law, the eminent historian E.A. Freeman, held some unattractive views about the inequality of races, and MacGillivray suggests that Evans may have been influenced by these as a young man. MacGillivray quotes a sentence from Evans’s first book, published in 1876 when he was only in his mid-twenties, which bore the cumbrous title Through Bosnia and the Herzegóvina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September 1875, with an Historical Review of Bosnia and a Glimpse at the Croats, Slavonians, and the Ancient Republic of Ragusa: “I believe in the existence of inferior races, and would like to see them exterminated.”

This is very repellent, but it needs to be set in context. It comes in the course of a ponderously facetious passage in which he praises the Bosnians for a democratic spirit which he sees as their best form of resistance to the Ottoman despotism under which they lived. These Bosnians are surly, ungrateful, and obtrusively familiar toward their social superiors, Evans says, adding that he does not appreciate their “égalitaire spirit,” but recognizes that it is the disagreeable facet of a robust self-respect. Some of his language is indefensible, but an ill-considered joke in bad taste does not amount to what MacGillivray calls “a belief in the need for genocide.” Evans certainly did not want the South Slavs wiped out: he wanted their freedom.

MacGillivray accuses Evans of an “anti-Islamic stance”; this seems unjustified. What Evans attacked was oppression: he was as critical of Austrian rule over the Serbs as of Turkish rule (in 1882 he was to be arrested in Vienna and thrown out of the country). In Through Bosnia and the Herzegóvina he stressed that there was fanaticism on both sides of the religious divide, and asserted that Christians and Muslims were united in wanting liberation from Ottoman rule. In the Muslims of Bosnia he found a politeness and dignity lacking in the Christians and attributable to the “grand Oriental traditions with which their conversion to Islàm has imbued them.”

There does not seem to be much evidence, therefore, for supposing that Evans arrived in Crete with an anti-Oriental bias, though naturally he thought that the Cretans, like the South Slavs, should be free and independent. Some archaeologists have certainly shown such a bias; for example, a book published as recently as 1978 puzzles over

the problem of how a people [the Greeks] later to display such genius, enterprise, and originality, could in the vigour of this youthful stage in their history [the Mycenean age] submit to a slavish dependence…on a non-Greek, half-Oriental civilization such as the Minoan…. On the assumption that the Mycenaeans were Greeks it has to be admitted that the native Greek genius was in some mysterious way stifled by the influence of that seductive fairyworld, the civilization of Minoan Crete; and that it was only rescued from this suffocating constraint with the collapse of the Mycenaean world and the harsh impetus of the entry of the semi-barbarous and as yet uncontaminated Dorian Greek tribes….*

But if Evans himself had prejudices, they were surely not these. Far from denigrating the Minoan civilization, he celebrated it. MacGillivray seems to argue that he Europeanized the Minoans, but it is hard to see how his own evidence supports this case. (The Minoans can be claimed as the first civilization in Europe in a purely geographical sense, but the critical issue is of course where they belong ethnically and culturally.) Evans labeled Minoan culture as “pre-Hellenic”; that is, not Greek. He pointed out Egyptian influences (MacGillivray has to represent this as an inconsistency). Evans found in Crete writings in the related scripts called Linear A and Linear B. He insisted they were not Greek. He suggested that the Cretans’ ethnic stock derived from Anatolia and northern Syria and that their religion was in essence West Asian. He committed himself to what became known as the “Pan-Minoan” view; this was in opposition to the theories that the Myceneans were indigenous to mainland Greece and had developed independently of Minoan Crete. In his own words, Mycenean civilization was “only a provincial variant” of Minoan.

The irony is that if he had achieved his greatest ambition, to decipher the scripts he had found, he would have undone part of his own theory of Minoan cultural and political dominance. The quantity of examples of Linear B script was greatly increased by discoveries at Mycenean sites on the Greek mainland; the script was to be deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1953, a dozen years after Evans’s death, and found to be an early form of Greek. Linear A remains undeciphered. Because it has resisted decoding, and because the forms of these scripts are ill suited to the Greek language, it is now presumed that Linear A is not Greek; it may not even be Indo-European. The obvious inference from the fact that the written record in Crete shifts from one language to another is that Minoan Crete was under Mycenean dominance in its later stages.

MacGillivray is sometimes strikingly inconsistent in the psychological or culturally influenced origins he postulates for Evans’s theories. He suggests that Evans’s hypothesis that the Minoans worshiped a mother goddess was fed by his loss of his own mother as a small child, and he notes that at one stage Evans thought that a woman might have sat upon the throne of Knossos. But elsewhere he writes that Evans was “incapable of letting go of the concept of divinely inspired male authority” and that the possibility of a woman in a position of authority was “a notion…beyond the imagination of Evans or his society” (an odd claim, by the way, since the British head of state had been a woman for most of the past century, and the cause of female suffrage, a burning issue of the day, would soon be won).

The moral to be drawn from such different views is not that scholars cannot be influenced by culture or temperament—plainly, they often have been—but that we should not attribute such conscious or unconscious motives too casually; it is all too easy to patronize the past. If Evans’s Pan-Minoan outlook, increasingly dogmatic in his later years, needs an explanation outside the archaeological evidence, it might best be found partly in an excavator’s natural temptation to magnify the importance of his own corner of the field and partly in the prehistorian’s understandable irritation with the excessive adulation, as he might see it, offered to classical Greece (MacGillivray does indeed refer to Evans’s “lifelong anti-classical bias”).

Like Joseph Whitaker, Evans owed his opportunity to his wealth. Though MacGillivray dislikes the idea that Chance played a part in Evans’s success, his own narrative suggests that Time at least was crucially important. Earlier, excavation had been discouraged because the Cretans did not want digging to begin until the Turks had left; otherwise, the finds were likely to be carried off to Constantinople. Evans was able to buy part of the site of Knossos, and the rights of possession gave him a vital advantage. The Englishman J.L. Myres had wanted to excavate Knossos but he lacked the resources; a French rival had ruled himself out by collaborating with the director of the Constantinople museum.

Evans had the power and the chance, and he took it. Like Whitaker, he also built. The Villa Ariadne rose beside the site; it “boasted the only Edwardian garden in the Balkans,” and a Union Jack flew from the roof. Evans equipped himself in the style of an imperial proconsul; avoiding the local spirits, he imported gin, whisky, champagne, and other French wines. The Junior Navy Stores in London sent out lavish quantities of ox tongue, turkey pâté, guava jelly, and plum pudding. Eno’s Fruit Salts, an indigestion remedy, were also plentifully supplied.

Evans’s personality can be recaptured only in part. His sister’s biography is not revealing of the private man. He was wiry, tough, and small. (MacGillivray, without citing any source, claims that he was only a little over four feet tall. This surely cannot be right. The three group photographs reproduced in Minotaur indicate that he was short, but not freakishly so. In one he appears to be very slightly taller than his wife.) He was known to have a volcanic temper, and was in the habit of being offensive to waiters in hotels. His wife was sickly and died young; there were no children.

In the year of her death he began building Youlbury, an enormous rambling mansion on Boar’s Hill, south of Oxford. “Keep clear of Boar’s Hill,” warns Cousin Jasper in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but that was after Gilbert Murray had associated the place with high thinking and plain living; Evans’s style was very different. A dozen servants attended to his comforts. There were marble and columns in the hall, and a mosaic of the Minotaur; the house was supplied with twenty-two bedrooms and five bathrooms, and one with a marble Roman bath with steps leading down into it. Youlbury has long since been demolished, but the lake that Evans made in the garden survives, now embowered in woods thick with rhododendrons, and decorous children out of A.A. Milne may still be glimpsed boating there in the summer months. Evans liked the company of the young, and his Christmas parties were famous. Though irritable and autocratic—autocracy was another of the luxuries he could afford to buy—he seems to have attracted a fair amount of affection.

His career was brilliant, but his private life may have been short of emotional fulfillment. Joan Evans left the chief emotional attachment of his later life out of her biography altogether: not a word is said about James Candy. This was perhaps, as MacGillivray suggests, for fear of misunderstanding: at the age of seventy-two Evans was fined by a London magistrate for indecent conduct with a youth; there is no knowing whether this was a solitary aberration or part of a pattern. The relationship with Candy, however, seems to have been entirely innocent. He was the eight-year-old son of a local farmer. Evans was much taken by the boy, and settled with his parents to become his guardian: Candy would come to live with Evans, who would pay for him to have a gentleman’s education. The arrangement strikes us today as rather chilling, but it was what happened to Frank Churchill in Jane Austen’s Emma and to Jane Austen’s brother Edward in actual life. We catch here another intriguing glimpse of social history, and see Evans once more as a late representative of an old order.

A fair amount is known about this episode, because of the artless and rather touching memoir that Candy wrote as an old man. He has nothing but praise and gratitude for his benefactor (“the kindest man that I ever met”), which is the more to the credit of both men in that the experiment was in conventional terms a failure. The boy was unhappy at both his schools, and then partly for reasons of health went out to Argentina to work on a ranch. Among the gauchos was a swashbuckling murderer who was with difficulty restrained from making the estate manager his next victim; but Candy, evidently a man of irrepressible amiability, explains that he was a pretty decent fellow at heart.

Candy eventually returned home, started a dairy business, and ended up as mayor of his local town (in England, an honorific position) and the proud recipient of an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. Evans enjoyed higher honors; and today there is an Evans Street in Heraklion. The Cretans seem to be a forgiving people: three of the city’s streets are named after Epimenides (best known for the logical puzzle associated with his name: “‘All Cretans are liars,’ said Epimenides the Cretan”), and Daedalus and Icarus, who were so desperate to get away from the island that they risked their lives, according to the Greek myth, by escaping on the wings that Daedalus had designed. But Evans deserves this accolade: he put Minoan Crete on the map, and the modern Cretans have repaid the compliment, literally.

This Issue

November 1, 2001