Sir Arthur Evans, the renowned English archaeologist, stands guilty of pouring concrete into what he claimed was the lost palace of Knossos on Crete, of spinning the story of the Labyrinth, and of cutting out the local man who first discovered the famous site.
Yet today he is widely admired in Greece, by contrast with Lord Elgin, the Scottish nobleman whose seizure of part of the Parthenon’s marble frieze has long branded him an enemy of Greek culture.
Now the full history of Knossos, reputed home of the minotaur – the half-man, half-bull monster of legend – is to be displayed for the first time in a major British exhibition. While it will acknowledge Evans’s positive legacy, it belatedly gives full recognition to Minos Kalokairinos, the Cretan businessman and scholar who originally found the famous ruins.
“We want to set the story straight,” said Andrew Shapland, the Sir Arthur Evans curator of bronze age and classical Greece at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. “Evans may have fallen out with Kalokairinos, but his story is the opposite to Elgin’s. Elgin is demonised in Greece for taking the marbles to the British Museum whereas Sir Arthur is still celebrated because of the way he popularised Minoan culture.
“So our exhibition is a happy collaboration with Crete, which has lent us key artefacts.”
Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth & Reality, which opens on 10 February, will feature more than 100 objects on loan from Athens and Crete, all seen for the first time in a century together with Oxford’s unique archive, documenting the uncovering of the palace between 1900–1905. This is a show that only the Ashmolean can mount because, at the time of the excavation, Evans ran the museum, as its “keeper” or director. Now the museum is capitalising on Evans’s enduring good name.
“It would have been hard to work together with Greece like this at the British Museum because of Elgin,” said Shapland, whose curatorial post bears Evans’s name. “I have seen this at first-hand because I worked there for almost a decade. It has been noticeable how much easier it is now for me.”
Travellers searched in vain for the Labyrinth – the underground maze of Greek myth – until 1878 when Kalokairinos found ancient remains. But he was unable to excavate at Knossos because the island was under the partial control of the Ottoman empire, and any important finds risked export to Turkey. So, in 1900, it was Evans who won the Cretan authorities’ permission to dig – as long as he waited for independence to be declared.
“There are moves in Greece now to give Kalokairinos credit for the discovery,” said Shapland. “In 2019, they put up a bust at the entrance, opposite the bust of Sir Arthur. It was an important moment.”
Knossos is now the second most popular Greek tourist attraction, after the Acropolis in Athens, and this is partly why Evans is so admired. His creative restoration of the site still lets visitors imagine the past. It is an influence acknowledged in the new exhibition, where a whole gallery is devoted to virtual reality re-creations of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a popular video game that uses imagery inspired by Evans’s vision of Knossos.
“It’s a totally genuine link,” said Shapland, “although showing the research behind the game is obviously also a way to draw in a younger audience.”
Evans was convinced he had unearthed the real Labyrinth, and found proof in colourful frescoes, clay writing tablets and an intact stone throne room. He dubbed the labyrinthine building the “Palace of Minos”, and proved it was about 4,000 years old. He also popularised the term “Minoan” to describe early Cretan civilisation.
But whether Knossos really is the site of the mythical Labyrinth, Shapland admits, remains “an open question”. “There definitely was some sort of maze at what he called the palace, but there was no sign that people had left offerings there in that period. There are, though, tantalising hints of the minotaur connection and frescoes of people leaping over bulls.”
Even the great archaeologist’s controversial concrete restorations in the mid-20th century can almost be excused, said Shapland. The site was cut seven metres into the hillside, and Evans had to underpin it when it started to collapse.