Sir Arthur Evans

The delusions of Sir Arthur Evans

Sir Arthur Evans  was an archaeologist who in 1900 began to dig up and reconstruct the “great city” of Knossos in Crete. He believed that he had discovered the palace of King Minos and its notorious labyrinth where, according to legend, the Minotaur had been imprisoned.  He became obsessed with this discovery and he spend close to 30 years of his life and a good portion of his family’s fortune on reconstructing the palace. He even attempted to recreate the palace’s columns and its frescoes.

Knossos fresco and column

Evans had read Homer and the ancient Greek historians; he was fascinated by the Minoan civilisation and believed that it was greater than the Greek civilisation. Indeed he wrote that “Greece was a Mainland branch of the Minoan culture, a mere, Minoan plantation” (Andrew Robinson 75).  Evans was wrong on many accounts and his findings and hasty assumptions have been discredited by archaeologists since the 1940s.

He is interesting to me not because of his findings–for when he died he had yet to decode the tablet inscribed with primitive characters which he dubbed “Linear Script of Class B” and which dated two to three centuries before the Trojan war–because they are in some respects minimal. He is interesting because he represents, in his professional and personal dealings in the academic community, the worst breed of researchers.

Evans was full of dreams of grandeur and refused to reveal what he found in the digs in Crete to fellow archaeologists out of greed and selfishness. In fact, Andrew Robinson recounts an incident when “the director of the British School at Athens ventured to differ” and disagree with Evans; the consequence was that “he had to retire from his position  was excluded from digging in Greece for a considerable period” (Lost Languages 76). Evans ruled the field with terror and his “hegemony over practically every scholar in the field became the orthodoxy”. He would not share the tablets that his team had dug up with other colleagues for fear that they might decode them before he did. In the meantime, he was making slow progress and was misreading the symbols. On one occasion when his team had unearthed a number of these page-shaped tablets which were in a fragile state, “even friable condition” he managed to destroy them through carelessness by leaving them in “a storeroom with a leaky roof”.

Evans with a tablet

Evans’ monopoly of the field was so powerful that “Both the idea of Greek ascendancy over the Minoans and the idea of hieroglyphic phoneticism were considered to be beyond the pale of intellectual respectability”. It was not until his death, age 90, in 1941 that his colleagues and friend could finally obtain the tablets and embark of the painstaking task of decoding their content and correcting his mistakes. Evans left behind a legacy of jumbled and incoherent notes which impeded the progress of decipherment “as the man himself had hampered them while he lived”.

The content of the tablets was eventually decoded by one of Evans’ students Michael Ventris who found himself contradicting his mentor’s assumptions when it became clear that the tablets were written in Greek, not Minoan and ; Crete had been invaded by the Greeks who invented a special system of codes to record administrative and banal facts about the economy and the running of the palace.

Evans’ example is not unique. Academia and the wider research community is rife with egotistical, power-hungry megalomaniacs who sacrifice their ethics and their colleagues’ careers for a chance to claim glory. The academic community suffers from oppositional forces of collaboration and competition. Often, competition takes precedence because egos must be satisfied. Evans invested his own fortune in his research but he was unable to reach the level of fame he aspired to because his refusal to collaborate limited his chances of developing his transcription. He lives on in history as the researcher who hindered research, the decoder who failed to decipher.

Andrew Robinson’s book is Lost languages: the enigma of the world’s undeciphered scripts. Thames & Hudson, 2009.

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