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Eighty Percent Right

MINOTAUR Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth; By Joseph Alexander MacGillivray; Hill & Wang: 352 pp., $30

THE GODDESS AND THE WARRIOR The Naked Goddess and Mistressof Animals in Early Greek Religion; By Nanno Marinatos; Routledge: 162 pp., $30

February 04, 2001|PETER GREEN | Peter Green is the author of numerous books, including "Alexander to Actium." He is the Dougherty centennial professor of classics emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and adjunct professor of classics, University of Iowa

A popular academic trend in dealing with larger-than-life classical scholars of the past, archeologists in particular, is what might be termed mythicide. As J. Lesley Fitton wrote in that excellent work, "The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age" (1996): "We perhaps live in an age when worms are too prone to creep round the feet of great men to see if they are made of clay."

The wealthy amateur scholar who couldn't be bribed or bullied, whose fantasies weren't answerable to professional control, has attracted particularly venomous charges, from inventing prehistory out of a perfervid imagination to slanting or even faking the evidence to fit his theories. The first and most famous of these victims was Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy, accused, among other things, of salting his digs with finds either acquired on the antiquities market or made up for him by local goldsmiths. Now it's the turn of Sir Arthur Evans, who first bought, then dug and finally restored the site of Minoan Knossos in Crete, now second only to the Parthenon as Greek tourist-bait.

In both men's cases, it didn't help that the only literary sources for their discoveries available at the time were late and highly colored mythic narratives, from Homer on the Trojan War to lurid Knossian stuff about Daedalus, Minos, the Labyrinth and Pasiphae's act of taurine miscegenation that produced that bullheaded monster, the Minotaur. Worse, both Schliemann and Evans started out in the firm belief that the myths were, in essence, true, something that ran flatly counter to every scholarly axiom then current. Worst of all, to the general public it seemed clear that in both cases the amateur had triumphantly vindicated his trust in tradition and by doing so had made the academic theorists look more than a little stupid. Thus resentment and envy--not only of the freedom and financial resources enjoyed by Schliemann and Evans, but also of the success achieved by their repugnantly romantic ideas--played a larger part than is often acknowledged in this story. No one, least of all a professor, likes being made a fool of. There was also a growing, and uncomfortable, realization that the wholesale skepticism so badly dented by these archeologists' spades was itself something of an arbitrary myth.

So despite the undeniable, and enormous, contribution both men made to prehistoric archeology, there has always remained a persistent core of distaste for them among some professionals, and Joseph Alexander MacGillivray's new biography of Evans stands squarely in this tradition. Its subject is presented as a racist, an obsessional fantasist and, for good measure, a closet homosexual for whom the unnatural beast crouching at the heart of the Labyrinth symbolized his own secret erotic drive.

After such a bill of particulars, the claim that Evans also fudged the evidence in his daybooks for the dating of the Linear B tablets, those clay-inscribed administrative records fired--and thus preserved--in the final burning of Knossos, may sound to the uninitiated like an anticlimax, but in fact is far more serious. That particular charge--the subject of a peculiarly acrid academic debate in the 1960s between the archeologist John Boardman and the late Leonard Palmer, a comparative linguist--still smolders, unresolved to this day, even though Sinclair Hood, then director of the ongoing Knossos dig, declared that when Palmer made his accusation, "all right-minded people rose hissing like snakes." Let's hear it for cool scholarly objectivity.

In Evans' favor it has to be said at once that he was a far more professional archeologist than Schliemann: He learned from others and from his own mistakes, he understood the science of stratigraphy (the technique of mapping a dig downward in reverse, layer by thin layer), he maintained tight discipline in the field and he kept detailed records. It should be emphasized, too, that MacGillivray's main contentions are nothing new but had circulated from the start. Fitton, in the book quoted above, asks the central question: "Did Arthur Evans simply discover the world of Minoan Crete, or did he to some extent invent it?" A century of follow-up work offers reassuring answers. Some invention indeed there was, but far less than critics such as MacGillivray allege. Evans' wholesale restoration of the Knossos palace complex, undertaken in the first instance as a protection against bad weather, came in for the most vigorous criticism but is now, in the light of subsequent excavations on Crete, generally conceded to be at least 80% correct. Evans' reported bad-pun mot about his final achievement, "A poor thing, but Minoan," may well have been fathered on him by bare-ruin purists, with the clear implication that the elaborate reconstruction was indeed his own and very far from Minoan. The Art Nouveau movement imitated Knossos rather than, as so often alleged, the other way around.

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