Sir Arthur John Evans

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Sir Arthur John Evans


British Archaeologist

Sir Arthur John Evans uncovered the ruins of the ancient city of Knossos in Crete, and with it a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization he named "Minoan." Evans also found thousands of tablets bearing Minoan scripts called Linear A and Linear B. When the Linear B script was deciphered, the language it recorded was shown to be an early form of Greek. The discoveries in Crete cast light upon a period of Aegean civilization previously known mainly by its dim reflections in the mythology of classical Greece.

Arthur Evans was born on July 3, 1851, in Nash Mills, Hertfordshire, England. He was educated at Harrow School, Brasenose College at Oxford University, and the University of Göttingen. After graduating, Evans traveled to Bosnia with his brother Lewis, and was witness to a peasant uprising against Ottoman rule. Later he worked as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in the Balkans, and became secretary of the British Fund for Balkan Refugees. He identified many ancient Roman sites in Bosnia and Macedonia, including cities and roads. However, his reports for the Guardian on events and conditions in the contentious Balkans led authorities to accuse him of spying. He was arrested, imprisoned, and expelled in 1882.

Four years earlier, Evans had married Margaret Freeman, who was a partner in his work until her death in 1893. Between 1884 and 1908, he was curator of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. He was a founding member of the British Academy in 1902, and became extraordinary professor of prehistoric archaeology at Oxford in 1909.

Evans became interested in Crete after seeing ancient coins and carved sealing stamps from the island. After making his first trip in 1894, he published Cretan Pictographs and Prae-Phoenician Script, and proposed that the pre-classical Mycenaean civilization of the Greek mainland originated in Crete. In 1899 he purchased land on the island, including the site of Knossos, for purposes of excavation.

The island of Crete is strategically located off the tip of mainland Greece. It was the major naval and trading power in the Aegean Sea beginning around 4,000 years ago. Greek legend tells of the Cretan King Minos, whose palace grounds included a labyrinth said to house a beast called a Minotaur. The Minotaur was described as a fearsome creature that was a bull from the waist up and a man from the waist down, and was finally slain by the Greek hero Theseus. This legend may have been an allegorical description of the fall of the Minoan civilization around 1450 b.c., after a volcanic eruption on a nearby island.

Within a year of beginning his excavations at Knossos, Evans uncovered the ruins of a palace. Its grounds, covering more than five acres, were laid out in a complex arrangement that suggested the labyrinth of the legendary Minotaur. This prompted Evans to coin the name "Minoan" for the ancient civilization. Beneath the Minoan layer, he found an even earlier settlement from the Neolithic period. Evans was knighted in 1911. With the exception of a hiatus for the duration of World War I, Evans continued his excavations at Knossos until 1935, when he was 84 years old. He described his work there in The Palace of Minos (4 volumes, 1921-1936).

Although Evans had hoped to decipher the three scripts found at Knossos—a pictographic script, and two forms of writing called Linear A and Linear B—he was unsuccessful in this. However, a lecture he gave back in England in 1936 caught the interest of Michael Ventris (1922-1956), who eventually deciphered Linear B. Evans died on July 11, 1941, in Youlbury, a town near Oxford. His research at Knossos was taken over by the British School of Archaeology, and continues to this day.


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Sir Arthur John Evans

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