Little Arthur Evans was definitely born (in 1851) with a silver spoon in his mouth – probably a finely wrought antique spoon at that. His father, Sir John Evans, from modest but well-educated beginnings as a clergyman’s son, had become rich as a paper-maker. (Who now remembers John Dickinson’s Basildon Bond stationery? Heavens, I’ve just googled it, and it still exists…)
John Evans was destined by his father for Oxford, but accepted instead a job in the paper business of his uncle (and later father-in-law) John Dickinson, inventor of the cylinder-mould machine that would form a continuous sheet of paper, who had almost single-handedly developed a modern industry in Hertfordshire, buying and modernizing mills at Croxley Green, Hemel Hempstead and Rickmansworth.
Evans was the ideal partner to drive forward this innovatory business, and he became a leading light in the paper-making industry, as well as a very rich man. However, what was passed on to his eldest son (as well as a fortune which made possible Arthur’s subsequent career) was not his father’s business interests but his all-consuming passion for the past.
An enthusiastic numismatist since boyhood, John Evans became interested in geology as a result of the detailed work he did on the firm’s rights to extract the water so vital to the paper-making process. He became a friend of the wine-merchant-cum-geologist Joseph Prestwich, and in 1859 visited with him the gravel-beds of the Somme, where the excavations of Jacques Boucher de Perthes had discovered flint tools in the same strata as the bones of Pleistocene fauna. Boucher’s revolutionary claims for this earliest evidence of human settlement in western Europe had been made in the late 1840s, but were not generally accepted until Evans reported back favourably to the Society of Antiquaries.
After this experience, Evans added archaeology to geology and numismatics, collecting stone and bronze artefacts from all over the world, and making a special study of river and cave deposits in Europe. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1864 – one of the first men from the sphere of ‘trade’ to be elected. He held high office in the Society, as well as in a dozen or so other learned societies, including the Egypt Exploration Fund.
Young Arthur visited the Somme gravels with his father when he was fifteen, while on holiday from Harrow, and graduated from Oxford with a first-class degree in modern history in 1874. He then spent a year in Göttingen, but had also travelled widely, to Scandinavia and the Balkans, during his university vacations. He was a devoted liberal and a keen Slavophile: articles sent to the Manchester Guardian from Bosnia during 1875 were republished in 1876 as Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot during the Insurrection, August and September 1875, and a rather more snappy sequel, Illyrian Letters, came out in 1878.
Evans and his first wife Margaret spent six years altogether in Ragusa (now Dubrovnik), where he studied Balkan history and antiquities, and continued his journalism. This seemingly idyllic existence end abruptly in 1882, when the Austro-Hungarian authorities arrested him as a spy and he was threatened with the death penalty. Expelled from the Empire, he continued his archaeological researches in Italy and Sicily, and in 1884 was appointed Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, where he was largely responsible for reorganizing and enlarging the collections, in the teeth of alleged opposition from Dr Benjamin Jowett.
The story of Evans’s growing conviction – from studying especially the ancient engraved sealstones which Cretan peasant women treasured as charms to ensure a supply of breast milk – that Crete was likely to be a centre of the ‘Mycenaean’ civilisation discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, is well known. An 1896 article on the ‘tree and pillar’ cult of Crete, based on the iconography of these seals, was expanded into a book in 1901. He was also intrigued by ‘pictographs’ on some of the seals, and on pottery and metalwork, which suggested a form of writing: his first analysis of these symbols was published in 1895.
In 1894 he had already begun to buy land in Crete which he began to excavate, with the help of D.G. Hogarth of the British School of Archaeology in Athens, after the Turkish withdrawal from the island in 1899. They found a bronze-age site, almost untouched by later building, very close to the surface, with substantial remains of walls, many of them richly painted, and extraordinary finds, including baked clay tablets preserving two similar but different writing systems (today known as Linear A and Linear B).
Evans devoted the rest of his long life – he died in 1941 – and a substantial amount of money to excavating, publishing (in the multi-volume Palace of Minos), displaying and interpreting the civilisation of Bronze-Age Crete, to which he gave the name ‘Minoan’, after the legendary Cretan King Minos, who kept a bull-headed monster in a labyrinth and fed the most beautiful children of Greece to it until it was killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. (Sir James Frazer, Evans’s almost exact contemporary, does not mention Minos in the first edition of The Golden Bough (1890), but by the time of the third edition (1911–15) both Minos and the Minoan era appear.)
Evans’s romantic restoration of the ‘palace of Minos’ (especially the conjectural in-filling of the fragmentary wall-paintings by the French artists Gilliéron père et fils and the reinstating of collapsed original pillars and walls in concrete) has received criticism similar to that triggered by Belzoni and Schliemann. His conviction that the Minoans were a non-Greek race who had ruled over the more primitive ‘Mycenaean’ tribes of the mainland was undermined both by the discovery (eleven years after his death) that the language of the Linear B tablets from Knossos was a form of Greek, and by the appearance of similar tablets from sites on the mainland, especially Pylos on the west coast of the Peloponnese (later the site of the decisive sea battle of Navarino in the Greek war of independence).
However, his scholarship, energy and enthusiasm (to say nothing of his generosity) uncovered a completely obliterated epoch in Europe’s past, revealed a lost civilisation of remarkable sophistication, and ignited scholarly arguments – on relative chronology, on history, on language and even on vulcanology and sheep farming – which continue unabated today.