Evans, Arthur

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EVANS, ARTHUR (18511941) was an English archaeologist who excavated the ruins of Knossos in Crete, center of an early civilization he called Minoan. Son of Sir John Evans, a wealthy Victorian polymath and active amateur archaeologist, Arthur Evans began his work in 1899 at Knossos, which established his fame and for which he was knighted in 1911. Seeking evidence for an early system of writing, Evans uncovered an inscribed clay tablet in his first week of excavation and soon amassed a large archive written in two syllabic scripts now known as Linear A and Linear B. (The latter was deciphered as an early form of Greek by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick in 1952.) The treasures of the palace at Knossos, which Evans named for the legendary King Minos, included many objects that he interpreted as possessing religious significance. In the palace, a building of great size and complex plan, images of bulls' horns, the motif of the double ax, and depictions of young men and women performing acrobatic feats with bulls furnished attractive parallels with Greek legend: labrus means "ax," so that labyrinthos suggests "the place of the ax," to which, according to legend, seven young men and seven young women were sent from Athens each year to encounter the Minotaur. Evans interpreted the double ax as symbolizing, or marking the presence of, the Cretan Zeus, a deity of quite different type from the Indo-European sky god of the same name with whom he became identified. The Cretan Zeus died and was reborn in an annual cycle. Also important in Minoan religion was the association of trees and pillars as cult objects, a theme Evans discussed in works published in 1900, in the earliest days of the excavation, and in 1931.

Evans faced the usual difficulties of interpreting religious objects in the absence of verbal evidence. (The Linear B tablets, which proved to be records of tribute paid and other stocktaking records, have added very little.) In the manner of his day, Evans was an evolutionist and comparatist, and he drew heavily on the folklore and practice of other cultures. Evaluations of his interpretations vary, but in the field of Greek religion, as in other branches of classical studies, his importance rests on the abundance of material he excavated and assiduously published.


Evans's views on Minoan-Mycenaean religion are to be found in The Mycenaean Tree and Pillar Cult and Its Mediterranean Relations (London, 1901) and The Earlier Religion of Greece in the Light of Cretan Discoveries (London, 1931); the latter was Evans's Frazer Lecture for 1931 at the University of Cambridge. The full account of the Knossos excavation is contained in The Palace of Minos, 4 vols. in 6 (London, 19211935).

New Sources

Harrington, Spencer P M. "Saving Knossos: The Struggle to Preserve a Landmark of Europe's First Great Civilization." Archaeology 52, no. 1 (January-February 1999): 3040.

MacGillivray, J. A. Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth. New York, 2000.

A. W. H. Adkins (1987)

Revised Bibliography