Sir Arthur J. Evans [1851-1941] -- By: Milton C. Fisher
BSP 3:2 (Spring 1990) p. 34
Sir Arthur J. Evans [1851-1941]
For all his accomplishments, Heinrich Schliemann died without fulfilling his third great ambition, to excavate at Knossos, Crete. There he saw possible roots of the early Greek civilization he had unearthed at Mycenae and Tiryns on the mainland. An Oxford educated English gentleman of leisure, Arthur John Evans, followed up on Schliemann’s hunch.
Evans engineered a thirty-year excavation at Knossos, near the Cretan port of Iraklion. The excavation was a relatively relaxed one, since Arthur Evans had been able to make a personal purchase of the entire site in the year 1896 and to acquire an able Scottish assistant, Duncan Mackenzie. Driven by his observation of the similarity of symbols on gems and pottery he had procured in Greece and then on Crete (visited after hearing the famous Schliemann lecture in London in 1883), he recovered the palace complex of fabled King Minos. Here stood the earliest known high civilization of Europe- an amazingly sophisticated “Minoan” (Evan’s label) Bronze Age culture, including a pair of ancient scripts.
There are usually several links in the chain of discovery and decipherment of ancient records. In this case, earlier decipherment (in 1872) by Assyriologist George Smith of similar writing found on Cyprus had been in turn made possible by discovery in 1869 of a Phoenician-Cypriote bilingual inscription. Work could then proceed on Evans’ “Linear A” and “Linear B” documents. These surfaced early in the dig, the first year of the 20th Century.
Not till half a century later, in 1952, was Linear B convincingly identified as the earliest Greek writing yet discovered. This was accomplished by a gifted young English architect, Michael Ventris, who had studied both classical and modern European languages at an early age. Just thirty when he deciphered Linear B as “Mycenaean Greek,” his life was tragically shortened by an automobile accident in 1956, but a collaborator, John Chadwick, has written Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956), and a shorter popular work, The Decipherment of Linear B (1958), telling the story.
Arthur Evans’ earlier studies, his travels and reporting (on political convolutions in the Balkans, for the Manchester Guardian), and his collecting of coins and other artifacts all prepared him for efficient archaeological research. Recognition of Egyptian scarabs and pottery there at Knossos and ability to identify Middle Minoan pottery discovered in Egypt, along with Late Minoan type figures in Egy...
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