THE FIND OF A LIFE-TIME: Sir Arthur Evans and the Discovery of Knossos by Sylvia L. Horwitz

THE FIND OF A LIFE-TIME: Sir Arthur Evans and the Discovery of Knossos

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Horwitz is the author of two solid juvenile biographies, and this study of dapper, driven archaeologist Evans (1851-1941) has a for-young-adults aroma about it--a tendency toward trite phrasings and chipper smoothings-over of complexities. Still, there's a stab at psychological insight at the outset: the death of young Arthur's mother left him with the need ""to avoid deep relationships that might incur future losses""; competition with father John, a notable amateur pre-historian, supplied a push to short, myopic, stubborn Arthur. And thereafter Horwitz covers everything in Evans' 90 years with conscientious evenness: youthful travels in the Balkans and lifelong support for nationalistic insurgents there (which once led to six weeks in Austrian prison); a happy, foreshortened marriage to ill, selfless Margaret (""would she ever take precedence over his self-imposed goals?""); aggressive curatorship of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. But the raison d'être here, of course, is Knossos--the dig on Crete inspired by Evans' visit with Heinrich Schliemann, when he noticed the Aegean octopus design on excavated Greek-mainland objects and intuited a pre-Mycenaean civilization in the Aegean. Unlike the Carter/Tutankhamen ordeal, however, there's minimal drama leading up to Evans' 1900 discovery; made possible by family money, his first Cretan site produced major results in less than a week: the throne-room of legendary King Minos, to be followed (over two decades) by a Royal Villa, Temple Repositories, flush toilets, and further evidence of an advanced culture that (according to Evans) was merely imitated by the Greeks. Horwitz conveys just a hint of the fascination in these labyrinthine unearthings and in the exacting process of simultaneous excavation-and-reconstruction. So the only real flickers of drama here come from the controversies over Evans' methods and interpretations: his apparent hoarding of tablets of script so that he could be the first to decipher them; his perhaps over-imaginative restoration, of frescoes especially; opposing theories about chronology, about the nature of the Knossos temple (most recently Hans Wunderlich's The Secret of Crete argues that it was all a mortuary). Other than a brief summary of the 1961 Cretological Congress, however, Horwitz generally skirts over the debates, refraining from judgments; instead she follows Sir Arthur through his vigorous last years and ends up with some sentimental tourist-brochure prose (his ""buoyant step still seems to accompany the visitor idling his way along the sinuous paths. . .""). Despite the careful, balanced approach, then--an only half-compelling life story, with a presentation of the dig itself that's too superficial for savvy Knossos followers, too unfocused to grab newcomers.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Viking