About the Fingerprints podcast
Every object in the Ashmolean has passed from hand to hand to reach the Museum. In a new podcast, we uncover the invisible fingerprints left behind by makers, looters, archaeologists, soldiers, rulers, curators, and many more. These stories of touch reveal the ways in which the forces of conflict and colonialism have shaped Britain’s oldest Museum. Join the Ashmolean’s curators alongside artists, experts, and community members, for our new podcast: Fingerprints.
Fingerprints will be released on the Ashmolean’s website, on Spotify, Apple, and wherever you get your podcasts, weekly from 21 January 2022 until 25 February 2022.
Fingerprints is produced and hosted by Lucie Dawkins. Guests include Bénédicte Savoy, co-author of the Report on African Cultural Heritage, commissioned by Emmanuel Macron; Professor Dan Hicks, of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum; and Simukai Chigudu, one of the founding members of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
You might be forgiven for overlooking this small fragments of carved black stone in the Aegean World gallery. It's an object which contains the history of conflicting beliefs, international political tensions, and the discovery of the Minoans.
This is Fingerprints, a podcast from the Ashmolean Museum. Invisible fingerprints cover every object in the museum belonging to artists, looters, rulers, archaeologists, soldiers, curators, collectors and many more.
These fingerprints tell the story of the complex and often uneasy history behind the making of a museum. I'm your host, Lucie Dawkins, and today I'm talking to Dr. Andrew Shapland. This are Arthur Evans, curator of the Bronze Age and classical Greece.
So Andrew, in front of us is a little lump of black rock, about 10 centimetres high. What is this?
Well, what we're looking at is a fragment of shiny black stone called serpentinite, found in Crete. And it's really quite frustratingly incomplete: you can make out some human figures in the foreground, a tree in the background. In between them, you have an altar with a sort of stylized crescent on the top, and we don't entirely know what's happening in this scene. We don't quite know what the human figures are doing but it does seem to be a religious ritual of some kind.
And there’s something a bit creepy about it when we look closer, because someone has violently gouged out the face of this dancing figure. Why might someone have done that?
So someone must have discovered this and decided that they must scratch the face out. We can't be sure who did this. Image worship has been a problem of various times for both Christians and Muslims and there were populations of both on Crete. But the way the object has been treated suggests that someone objected to it on religious grounds.
So this object is clearly a piece of something much bigger. What was it?
The fragment seems to be a piece from an object called a rhyton, which looks rather like an elongated funnel. It was made, we now know, between about 1600 and 1450 BC. You also see them in frescoes being carried in procession and its this which makes archaeologists think that they were used in religious rituals. But they could also have been used functionally to pour liquids, either as offerings or perhaps even to fill drinking cups.
And what does this object tell us about the people who lived in that society on Crete, three and a half thousand years ago?
Well, I think islands like Crete are always fascinating to archaeologists, because they're almost like a social experiment. You set certain conditions in place - like on Crete, you have fertile agricultural plains, you have mountains - and then you kind of leave it a few thousand years and you see what happens. And for about 5000 years, people live in fairly small scale sustainable communities. And then in around 2000 BC, something happens. You have these buildings called palaces that emerge, you have this centralisation around them, people seem to be giving their agricultural produce to the palaces, going to them for gatherings, for eating and drinking. They were probably also trading centres. This was a culture on Bronze Age Crete, which clearly had connections across the eastern Mediterranean. You have Minoan pottery turning up in Egypt. It seems to be a very influential culture, which exists for a very short period of time, only for a few hundred years, and then it collapses again. So it's almost, for a modern archaeologist, an experiment in living. And what I am particularly interested in is the way in which depictions, as you see on this stone vase fragment, were used in order to create both a vision of what the society was doing, but also to create links between people. So this fragment came from a stone vase called a rhyton, and if you imagine the sort of person who used it - well, actually, the figures are fairly small scale, it would have been used in quite a restricted group, and maybe very few people would have known really what was going on on that stone vase. And so it shows that objects like this can be used to create the ties which allow people to differentiate themselves, to create power over other people.
Now, we know that this short-lived ancient society on Crete made such a mark on the Mediterranean that several centuries after it vanished, it was still featuring in the myths of the Greeks and Romans. But in these myths, they’re not often called Cretans - they tend to be called the Minoans. Can you tell us more about that?
The name Minoan comes from the mythical King Minos of Crete who's best known as a tyrant who demanded a tribute from Athens of seven young men and seven young women to be fed to the Minotaur, a mythical monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man, who was actually his stepson who was imprisoned in the labyrinth beneath the palace at Knossos. And when archaeologists were looking for a name for the prehistoric culture of Crete, which we now think existed between about 3000 and 1000 BC, they turned to the Greek myths, and that's why they gave this culture the name Minoan after King Minos.
This Bronze Age society on Crete was already ancient history by the time Greeks and Romans were telling their versions of stories about the savage King Minos and the Minotaur.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote that 'Minos walled up the twin form of bull and man and fed it with Athenian blood, hiding him away in a labyrinth with blind passageways'. And the Odyssey, Homer describes these mysterious, powerful Minoans as a people who spoke many languages and had 90 cities, with the mightiest of them being Knossos. He mentioned the Minos as a king who spoke with Zeus himself. For a long time, these myths were the only record of this long lost society on Crete: a tangle of fact and fiction, of half-remembered histories passed down by storytellers. We have to remember that behind these tales of gods and monsters, there were real Minoan people, like the ones carved onto this fragment. To find out more about how they saw the world, I spoke to archaeologist Dr. Athanasia Kanta, an expert on Minoan religion.
Then the Minoan people believed in a female goddess of nature, and they invoked her presence by dancing and singing, and she came down from the sky to them. This is called an epiphany. They worshiped her at mountain peaks and hill tops. They went up there, and they offered little clay figures of themselves and of their animals. But apart from that, there were shrines within the palaces. They sacrificed animals, but it is important to remember that they had bloodless offerings: fruit, bread, that sort of thing. They also made libations with wine on to the earth.
So the tiny scene on this shard of rock seems to show real Minoans dancing and singing for their goddess. It gives a little window into this ancient society whose reality was lost in legends. However, it also has another story hidden in it, one about a cultural war between empires in the Mediterranean. And to find out more about that, we need to look at one man who left his fingerprints all over this object. He was the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, Keeper of the Ashmolean nearly 140 years ago. Back to Andrew to tell us more about him.
He studied at Oxford. He then became a journalist, the Manchester Guardian decided to employ him as their Balkan correspondent, so he went to Croatia until he rather annoyed the authorities. He was eventually arrested on charges of spying and thrown out of the country. After that to something of a loose end, and in 1884, the job of the Keeper of the Ashmolean was announced, and he decided to apply and he got the job.
Arthur Evans set out across Europe to buy antiquities to expand the museum's collection. At that point in time, Minos' labyrinth was still a myth. So Evans set out to Crete to find the truth behind the legend. But that wasn't his only ambition on the island. He had set out with an agenda. He was trying to confirm his bias that Europe was the cradle of world civilisation. And he hoped that what he might find on Crete could help him do that.
What he was looking for was ancient scripts.
This is Dr. Lisa Bendall from Oxford University to tell us more.
In the early part of the 19th century, the Rosetta Stone had led to the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic, and this discovery was key to unlocking a huge treasure trove of other ancient scripts - Akkadian Sumerian, eventually Hittite - all of which had until then remained mute, their languages unknown for well over 2000 years more like 3000 years. These exciting discoveries in the 19th century brought to light a long forgotten world of the societies of the Ancient Near East. But Europe had been left out of this picture. Part of the reason that Evans and other scholars were looking for an early European writing system was because they viewed themselves as the height of civilisation. Of course, it was the time of the British Empire and other empires around the world. So they were European - it seemed inconceivable to them that Europe should not have partaken in the development of these ancient writing systems. Evans was very interested in discovering what might have been the earliest, first European scripts.
Arthur Evans had a few clues that he might find a lost Bronze Age writing system on Crete. One of his leads came from another archaeologist called William Stillman, who had reported strange marks on some maze-like walls at a partially excavated site called Knossos, the place which the Greek and Roman myths named as Minos' palace. Arthur Evans hoped that it was a labyrinth inscribed with hieroglyphs from a lost European language. He headed straight to Knossos. The first thing he did was to ask local villagers if they had any antiquities they would be willing to sell him. He was trying to find anything that looked like it came from the Bronze Age, an era that he at that time referred to as 'Mycenaean', the name of Bronze Age Greeks from the mainland. And this is when our object enters the picture. He kept a diary of those first few days, and as a result, we know exactly when this little carving with its face scratched out, passed from the hands of a Cretan villager, and into those of Arthur Evans.
Arthur Evans 11:48
March the 19th. The site of Knossos is most extensive and occupies several hills. Here, at a place called ta Pitaria are the remains of Mycenaean walls and passages noted by Stillman and others. They are very complex, as far as one can judge from what is visible to the eye, but were hardly, as Stillman supposes, the labyrinth itself. The Pitaria lie in the village of Makrotichos, and here, inquiring for 'antikas', I was brought a remarkable fragment of black basalt vessel. At first I thought it was some kind of Roman relief ware, but to my astonishment, I found it was Mycenaean with part of a relief representing men, perhaps ploughing and sewing - an altar? - and a walled enclosure with a fig tree.
He excitedly drew the fragment next to his notes. Two days later, he asked to be taken to the exact spot where the fragment had been found.
Arthur Evans 12:47
March the 21st. Found place where my relief was picked up on the hill beyond the Pitaria. The hill was strewn with fragments of plain red early pottery, evidently the scene of a primitive settlement.
This second trip to Knossos thrilled Evans so much that he changed his mind about whether these walls were indeed the Minotaur's labyrinth. He crossed out his entry from two days before and wrote in the margin,
Arthur Evans 13:14
No. On further examination, I think it must be so.
Arthur Evans 13:20
I see no reason for not thinking that the mysterious complication of passages is the labyrinth.
That very evening, he made his first inquiry about buying the land to excavate it. He would spend the rest of his life working on this site, where he would eventually uncover one of the greatest archaeological finds in the Mediterranean: the vast palace complexes of the lost Minoans. But it wasn't going to be that simple. Arthur Evans had stepped onto Crete at a volatile moment. At that time, collecting for museums was a deeply political activity, a matter of diplomatic conflict between the global empires neighbouring the Mediterranean: on the one side, with the British and French empires, and on the other, the Ottoman Empire under the control of the Turkish. At that time, museums were all about an international power play. I talked to Dr. Lucia Patrizio Gunning from University College London to find out more.
Museums in the 19th century became very much a part of national competition because there was very much a justification that these antiquities anyway were not appreciated by the countries that had them, they didn't understand the value, whilst they were the perfect tool to educate and define and drive the narrative of the new empires that were developing and strengthening in the 19th century. The original idea came from Napoleon who during his conquering campaigns, had put together a group of experts who would study, list and select the antiquities and the works of art of the countries he was intending to conquer. So he intended to use the spoils of his campaign to put together a library of civilisation that he would use to re-educate the French population. So whilst is the British Museum had been founded in 1759, so a whole almost 40 years earlier than the Louvre, it really only found a sense of purpose with the competition with the French, because the first antiquities of a certain importance that arrived to the British Museum were the ones that were taken after the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt. This is how the Rosetta Stone arrived to the British Museum. The fact that these antiquities arrived to the museum gave the government a sense that there had been a justice in opposition to Napoleon conquering Europe. So it was this constant competition: who arrives first, who gets the most important piece, that very much drove the building of these collections for the museums.
And what did this have to do with the area around Crete, the Aegean islands of the Mediterranean?
When Greece became independent in 1832, the first law that they signed was a law that forbade the export of antiquities. But it is important to understand that when Greece became independent, the Aegean islands did not gain independence. They remained as part of the Ottoman Empire, which was controlled by Turkey. And that meant that the European powers who wanted to get antiquities, Greek antiquities, could no longer get them from Greece, but could instead look at the Aegean islands as fruitful source of antiquities. And this is exactly what happened. The Ottoman Empire was, at this stage, a dying empire that needed military and diplomatic support from the European powers. And so in this, the British had an advantage over the French, the French were not well seen, because they had had Egypt. So therefore, between the two powers at this stage, the Ottoman authorities favoured giving that political support and their firmans to the British. So what is a firman? A firman, was a document that allowed people to excavate, and these firmans, as we call them, were only ever given for political reasons and to diplomatic representatives. And therefore archaeology was deeply and intrinsically linked to politics. The ability to excavate and to get permission was only ever given for political reasons. This interest that the Europeans had for antiquities in a way clashed with the desperate social and religious and economic situation of the islands, because these islands were not looked after by the Ottoman authorities. But also they cared deeply about their own antiquities. So there are plenty of examples of the Europeans going to get the antiquities, and then finding that people were not happy about it, because effectively they were taking their gods. They were taking the things they believed in. And there is an example of one British consul called Charles Thomas Newton who had purchased a field. And they were excavating, and they found this statue and they were eating their lunch, and this woman was crossing her face and saying, 'You are desecrating our gods, and you are eating your lunch and putting your chicken bones next to our gods.' The Greeks were in no position at that stage to stop the British from taking the antiquities, because they were ruled by a foreign power. And if the foreign power was given permission, there was nothing they could do.
And how was this all playing out in the late 19th century, when Arthur Evans turned up on Crete?
The situation went very well for the British up until 1870, when the Ottoman Empire started to change its attitude toward the collection of antiquities. They had started the period of reforms to modernise the Empire. The Ottoman minister who was looking after these reforms had travelled a lot in Europe and had seen the museums that were developing in the European capitals, and also was starting to resent the fact that the European powers were building the narrative for their empires with the archaeological pieces taking from the territory of the Ottoman Empire. So they thought, we can modernise in this way, we can assume and use the same language, we can build our own museum. At the same time, the Grand Vizier, Ali Pasha, who was an important reformer, invented this decree that every antiquity that was excavated in the territory of the Ottoman Empire had to be presented to the Ottoman authorities. The original had to go to the Constantinople Museum, whilst duplicates that had been assessed and given permission could be sent to the European museums. And this created a problem for the Europeans. So by the time Evans arrived in Knossos, we have a very complicated political situation, where on one side, the Europeans, the British are desperate to get those antiquities, and on the other, the Ottomans want them for themselves and are getting ever more annoyed that the British are not getting the message that these antiquities are not there for them anymore. And also, we must understand that when taking these antiquities, the narrative that was put next to them was a narrative of power. Look how grand we are, how powerful to take this incredible pieces out of these countries. And we show you how we can conquer the world artistically and diplomatically in a way.
So when Arthur Evans went to the Cretan authorities in 1894, hoping to gain permission to excavate at Knossos he was stepping onto thin political ice. The Ottomans controlled Crete, and the rediscovery of the Minoans would have added a jewel to the crown of their new imperial Museum at Constantinople. But in the decades leading up to Evans' arrival, Christian Cretans had been leading insurrections against the Muslim Ottomans, and agitating for their independence. In this tense political atmosphere, Evans needed to play his hand very carefully in order to get control of Knossos. Here's Andrew to tell us more.
Well, Arthur Evans quickly became friends with one of the most important archaeologists and priests of that time, someone called Joseph Hadzidakis, who understood Ottoman property law, and really guided Evans through the process. So he encouraged Evans to buy a quarter share of the land, which meant that he would have the say of any excavations which took place and also would enable him, in the fullness of time, to force through the sale of all of the land. So really, the question is why Joseph Hadzidakis should want to help this person had only just met negotiate the purchase of this land of Knossos. And I think really the answer to that is that Hadzidakis saw Evans as someone who was probably quite useful to the cause of creating independence, which he was in favour of. Evans was an influential character. His journalism in the Balkans had reached the attention of Parliament. William Gladstone had quoted Evans in Parliament, because in the Balkans, Evans had shown that he was no great fan of the Ottoman Empire. And so in Arthur Evans, I think, Hadzidakis saw someone who was both influential and wealthy, and so would be someone who could be trusted to stand up for the Cretans in the cause of independence from the Ottoman Empire. The person who previously had the right to excavate it, and saucer Frenchmen called Jouban, had, unfortunately for him, started to work for the museum in Constantinople. And for that reason, the Cretan authorities were horrified because if Jouban had excavated Knossos while Crete was past the Ottoman Empire, any major fines would have gone to Constantinople.
And what were the possible political gains for the Cretans at Knossos?
What the Cretans really wanted from archaeology at that time was to demonstrate links not with the Ottoman Empire (they were politically part of the Ottoman Empire) but with Greece, the country which they really wanted Crete to be part of. So even this fragment shows that Arthur Evans had the potential at Knossos to show that the real connection between prehistoric Crete was with prehistoric Greece, and that I think, fitted in very well with this narrative that the Cretans wanted from foreign archaeologists, because Arthur Evans really promoted the idea that in Crete, you had the foundation of European civilisation.
So it sounds like the Ottomans wanted to claim Knossos as part of their modern Imperial programme, and the Cretans wanted to claim it as their link to Europe?
Yes, the place of Crete was up for grabs, it was seen as the crossing point, as Evans saw it of Europe and Asia. And the question really was which side did it belong to? Did it belong to Europe? Or did it belong to Asia? And Evans, through the fines that he made at Knossos, was happy to argue that it belonged more to Europe. But then excavations in the 1960s at Knossos, showed that it was actually the earliest agricultural site in Europe, and agriculture came from the Near East. And so really Crete has always been a crossing point, with lots of different influences intersecting, and then becomes a political decision as to which influences you want to stress in order to make declarations about the identity of Crete at any period.
And what interpretation do you think that Evans was interested in making from his perspective as a British archaeologist?
Well very early on when Arthur Evans excavated at Knossos, he decided that what he was finding was a European civilisation. This is the term that he uses in his book 'The Palace of Minos'. And that has interesting implications because it means that what you had was a chain of civilisation, which started out the palace of Knossos really. In mainland Greece, it's evolved into the classical period of Athens. And from Athens, of course, you have the idea that Western democracy was born, which was at the core of the way Evans saw British parliamentary democracy, which itself traced its lineage back to Athens.
So Andrew, in the years after Arthur Evans picked up this object and bought part of the land at Knossos, Crete went through a serious and violent period of upheaval. The Christians rebelled against the Ottomans, and after years of bloody conflict, finally declared their independence in 1898. How did this all work in Arthur Evans' favour?
He returned in 1898, and really was in the middle of some of the worst religious violence that ultimately resulted in the great powers, Italy, Russia, France, and Great Britain sending troops to the island in order, as they saw, to pacify it. And then when he returned in 1900, by that time, the Cretan state had been formed. Prince George (a member of the Greek royal family) was named the High Commissioner. At that time, he actually visited Prince George in order to lobby for a law which allowed foreigners to excavate, which it seems that he had a hand in writing. And then he returned in order to force through the sale of the land. He still only owned a quarter of the share of the land in 1900. But the Turkish family who owned it had by then had to flee the island because of the religious unrest, which made it easier for him to buy the land on which Knossos. And so there was nothing more to stop him. And so, in 1900, he began excavating at the site that had first visited six years before, where he had found this small fragment of a rhyton which gave him the clue that many more things of that type might lie beneath the surface.
So we get to 1900, Arthur Evans finally started work on the spot where he had found this fragment. At this point, he'd spent six years waiting to dig, playing a long political game and influencing the export laws in the newly independent Crete, hoping to be able to take some of his finds a way with him for the Ashmolean's collections. After all this time did the site live up to his hopes?
Well, in a way, Evans found what he was looking for. He found a prehistoric civilisation. And he also found a literate society - he had come to Crete in 1894, looking for traces of writing. And within a few days, he had found clay tablets inscribed with an unknown writing system, now known as Linear B, which showed that this was a literate society. So he found exactly what he was looking for.
And Andrew, as we talked about earlier, he was hoping to find a monster and the labyrinth. Did you find the Minotaur at Knossos?
It's always difficult to connect archaeological sites with myths. But there are a couple of reasons why most archaeologists would now associate the palace at Knossos with the mythical labyrinth. The first is that when Evans excavated, he kept finding images of bulls, including people jumping over bulls, a sport known as ball leaping. And it's not hard to imagine that that sport (which I believe did indeed happen, much like the rodeo happens in America today) could have been transformed over time into the myth of the Minotaur. It is clearly a dangerous sport in which people might have got injured. The Minotaur was a dangerous monster. But also, if you look at the plan of the palace of Knossos, it has an incredibly complicated series of rooms. It is a bit like a maze. And so again, it's not hard to see how in later Greek myth, a memory of that incredibly complicated building would have become the labyrinth. So yes, in many ways, he did find the labyrinth and the Minotaur - although perhaps not quite in the way that they were later remembered.
Now, over the next few decades, Arthur Evans' excavations at Knossos turned him into one of the most famous archaeologists in the world. He went to and fro between Crete and Oxford, bringing back portable artefacts like this little pot shard, sometimes wrapped up in clothes in his suitcases. As we discovered, Evans had influenced Crete's new export laws in his favour to allow him to do this. And an extract from an interview revealed his attitudes to taking what he wanted from the island - in this case, a vase.
Arthur Evans 30:42
When I was leaving, I wrapped the upper part of the vase in newspaper and put it into the pocket of my knapsack. The body of the jar I put into my portmanteau. As a rule, customs officials were most courteous and kind. But this time, I was greeted by a newly appointed man, who, finding the bottom of the jar in my knapsack, strongly demurred. I made up my mind he shouldn't have it. So I threw it into the sea. They did not find the bit in my portmanteau. When I got home, I discovered that as soon as I had left, there was an uproar in the government. The Ephor (Superintendent of Antiquities), went down to the port, and instructed divers to fish for my wretched piece of crock at the bottom of the sea.
Clearly this episode shows Evans' arrogance and sense of entitlement. I think what's really interesting about this story, though, is what happened afterwards. Evans was insulted by this incident and lobbied for the official to be sacked, and then he went back to Crete after the shard in question had been fished out of the harbour and asked to take it - and the person who allowed him to take it, Stefanos Xanthoudides, the director of Heraklion Museum, was also the person who was on this committee which decided which antiquities Evans was allowed to export from Crete, Now clearly a shard like this was neither here nor there at the time, and Xanthoudides allowed him to export it, but I'm sure it meant more than that to Evans, because it showed that some petty official, as he saw it, would not be able to stand up to him, and he got his way after all.
And Arthur Evans also explained what he thought of as his right to claim portable artefacts as the inheritance of not just Cretan but British culture. Here he is, again, in his own words,
Arthur Evans 32:30
Opinions may well differ as to the propriety of removing from the soil on which they are found and to which they naturally belong, the greater monuments of classical antiquity. But in the case of small objects made themselves for commerce, and free from the same local ties, the considerations which weigh under other circumstances, lose their validity. While on the other hand, the benefits to be derived by students are not to be gainsaid. This, it is true, is not the standpoint of the Greek, or for that matter of the Turkish, government. But the theory that the present occupants of Greece or the Ottoman possessors of the eastern empire, are the sole legitimate heirs of even such minor monuments of ancient culture is not likely to commend itself to the outside world. It were hard indeed, that not so much as a play thing should come down to us from the cradle of our civilisation.
So Andrew, I think it is fair to say taht Evans’ sense of archaeological ethics would be considered unacceptable today. Andrew, how did these problematic attitudes appear in the way that he ran the excavations at Manassas?
Well, Evans had seen the aftermath of religious massacres in 1898. And so when it came to hiring workers for his excavations, he wanted to employ people of both faiths Christian and Muslim, and he also employed women. Now today we might describe this as an example of peacebuilding. But I think there was a paternalistic aspect to it. Remarks he made about different races when he was travelling around Europe as a young man show that he felt a sense of superiority as a British person. And so perhaps he felt that he could solve the religious conflict on Crete where others had failed. He hired Duncan McKenzie, an experienced archaeologist, as a supervisor. They even built a tower so that they could watch the excavations from above. So make of that what you will. It's certainly not how archaeologists work today.
And am I right in saying that Evans' approach to preserving the site has also proven controversial?
Absolutely. Over time, the solution that Arthur Evans adopted for conservation and restoration was reinforced concrete. This was a new material and indeed Knossos is one of its very earliest uses. So it gave Knossos a modernist aesthetic, which many people have have criticised over the years. But I should say that most of these restorations were essential, particularly on the east wing of the palace, where you have several storeys and it would have collapsed without concrete reinforcement, but now unfortunately, the restorations themselves need restoration.
When it comes to interpreting what he found, Evans is once again controversial. In some ways he displayed robust scholarship and intuition. And many of his conclusions about how Minoan society worked still hold true, as excavations continue to throw up new evidence. However, as we've also heard, he had significant biases. As a result, some of his interpretations are now being called into question. And this is particularly the case when it comes to the fragments of extraordinary 3000 year old wall paintings, which were appearing out of the ground. He hired a French father and son restoration team, the Gilliérons, who patched together these fragments and filled in the gaps so that they looked complete. Andrew, why did this cause problems?
I think where Gilliérons have been criticised is that they took a few fragments, and then they recreated the whole picture. It's been compared to trying to do a jigsaw but not having most of the pieces. So there was a famous example of a blue figure picking a crocus out of a pot, and this was reconstructed as a blue boy. And it was only in the 1920s when other blue figures were excavated at Knossos which turned out to be monkeys that they realised that the arm that was picking the crocus was the arm of a monkey.
This approach meant that Arthur Evans inevitably reconstructed fragments of paintings according to what he hoped to see. This is clearer when we look at what is now one of the most famous images from Knossos - a painting known as 'The Priest King', or 'The Prince of the Lilies'. It shows a crowned male figure surrounded by flowers. And there's a reconstruction of this in the Ashmolean. Here's Lisa Bendall again,
The pieces are actually all taken from three different figures. The torso can't possibly fit onto the legs, and it was only Evans putting them together that made them look as they are today. Which is ironic, because 'The Priest King', or 'The Prince of the Lilies' is actually one of the most well known pieces of so-called Minoan art, but in actuality, it's a 20th century piece of art. And partly why Evans put it together was because he was looking for a ruler. He was a man of the British Empire, he had lived through the second part of the reign of Queen Victoria. And he expected to find things like kings and priests, and it wasn't an unreasonable assumption, but it's one that the Minoan civilisation seems to have challenged. The Minoans, as we now know, are remarkable amongst state societies for not having any iconography of rulership, at least not in any obvious way. When you do get people singled out, they're usually groups of women, who are generally thought to be priestesses conducting rights.
Authur Evans' work at Knossos has put him into the history books as a father of modern archaeology. However, it's important to remember that he wasn't the first to discover it. When he visited the site with this rhyton fragment in his hand, he was following a trail of clues from earlier excavations, and most importantly, those of a Cretan - Minos Kalokairinos. Here's Dr. Antonis Kotsonas, of New York University, to introduce him.
Minos Kalokairinos is known for being the first to excavate the palace of Knossos, but following the impressive work of Arthur Evans at the site in the early 20th century, the contribution of Kalokairinos was largely forgotten. So the relationship of Evans and Kalokairinos was complicated. Whenever Evans the site, for the first time, Kalokairinos was one of the people that showed him around. He realised that in the complex political situation of the day, the international profile of the archaeology of the island would attract the interest of Western Europeans, and would make them more sympathetic to the cause of the Christian Cretans for independence from the Ottoman empire and for union with Greece. But I think increasingly, Kalokairinos felt threatened by Evans' success in the excavation of Knossos. The relationship of the two men was clearly bad from 1903 onwards. At that point, Kalokairinos wrote an article in a Cretan newspaper, attacking an earlier newspaper article by Evans who had argued on the basis of this odd method called cranioscopy that modern Cretans had no relation to ancient Cretans. Cranioscopy tries to elicit information about race in individual ability on the basis of measurement of the skull. This method was popular at the time in the 19th and early 20th century, which is the heyday of racial theories in archaeology. Kalokairinos was very sceptical about the method. But I bet he was also deeply concerned about the potential political impact of this theory. I remind you at the time, Crete was autonomous, but still under Ottoman suzerainty. So disassociating the antiquity from the modernity of the island was potentially problematic in political terms. So it's clear that the impact of nationalist and colonialist perspectives clearly coloured this specific discourse between the two men. Their relationship got even worse - we know that in 1907 Kalokairinos filed a lawsuit against Evans. In this lawsuit Kalokairinos attacked Evans for taking over a field owned by Kalokairinos for his own excavations. Also, he accused him of possessing Cretan antiquities illegally, and for plotting to bring Crete under British rule. Now, these were very serious accusations, especially in the political climate of the day, but it seems that the legal case was dropped or forgotten, because Kalokairinos passed away only a few months later. After many decades of oblivion, the contribution of Kalokairinos is finally receiving the attention and acknowledgement it deserves. Just two years ago, in 20i8 a bust of Kalokairinos was erected at the side of the palace of Knossos, almost across from the bust of Arthur Evans which was erected on this location back in 1935.
So Andrew, this piece of black stone has been on quite a journey. It tells a story about the Cretans who handled it: one who carved it in the Bronze Age, another who found it and scratched the face off its surface, and third who sold it to Sir Arthur Evans. It led him to the spot where he would uncover a lost Bronze Age society around which empires clashed and a new Cretan state was forged. This little object throws up questions about what it means to be European, and uncovers the political history of archaeology. So what do you think is the enduring lesson today in Arthur Evans's quest to uncover what he described as a European civilisation at Knossos?
Well, civilisation has become a loaded term, because it implies a sense of a superior way of doing things. And actually one thing that archaeologists have stressed as they've excavated Crete is how unstable these palaces were really, which takes up an awful lot of resources to create these fantastic frescoes and stone vases and so on. They were often burned down, and the 14th century BC Knossos burned down and never rebuilt. And actually, the thing that carries on is the thing which we wouldn't see in a civilisation - it's the small farming communities living off the land. And of course, this has contemporary echoes, because we are reaching the point where our civilisation has used up too many of the Earth's resources, and we need to think about a different relationship with the environment. Just as happened in Crete in the Bronze Age, civilisation, as Evans would have seen it collapsed, and a more sustainable way of living developed.
Thank you for listening to today's podcast. If you want to see this little fragment with a big history, you'll find it in the Aegean world gallery, Number 20, on the ground floor. You can also see a picture of it in the link in the podcast notes. Thank you to all of today’s speakers, Andrew Shapland, Athanasia Kanta, Lucia Patrizio Gunning, Lisa Bendall, and Antonis Kotsonas. You can find out more about all of them in the podcast notes. Join me in the next episode for another adventure around the Mediterranean, this time involving a suspicious shipwreck.