Discovering how to disguise your colleagues as groceries

Cretan Quests
August 24, 2001

This fine and informative volume published by the British School at Athens is a celebration of a century of British involvement in Cretan archaeology, beginning with Sir Arthur Evans's excavation of the palace of Minos at Knossos in 1900. It pays tribute to the early researchers and archaeologists, to the current younger generation of scholars and to the Cretan people without whose generosity, cooperation and friendliness the excavation work would have been impossible. It should appeal to the specialist classical scholar, to whom every name in the text will be familiar, and to non-specialists, for whom Crete means often no more than the legend of King Minos, the Minotaur and the labyrinth. Here, the history of the whole island unfolds, though much more remains to be learnt.

There are some 22 essays by archaeologists and historians, including some former directors and assistant directors of the BSA, with extensive bibliographies, many illustrations, contemporary photographs, plans, maps, drawings and letters and an excellent index.

The book is divided into two sections. The first covers the work of British travellers and archaeologists, the second the history of the island as learnt from excavations. In the penultimate chapter, there is a brief history of the British School at Knossos. The final chapter brings us to artists and craftsmen, including those who contributed to the redecoration of the Palace of Minos à la Evans, and to a reunion with Piet de Jong, the subject of another recent beautiful book, Faces of Archaeology in Greece by Rachel Hood. Both these books should stand together on the shelves of anyone fascinated by this subject.

Peter Warren introduces the early travellers, when Crete was under Venetian and Ottoman rule, with their tantalising accounts and descriptions of the island, culminating in Edward Lear's sketches in the second half of the 19th century.

The story of Evans in Crete - and such names as J. L. Myres, D. G. Hogarth and Duncan Mackenzie - is told initially by Ann Brown and Gerald Cadogan. Evans arrived in Heraklion in 1894. He intended to stay for a fortnight, but on seeing Knossos, he realised where his future lay. Yet it was six years before he completed his plans to purchase the site in the difficult political situation at the time. Thereafter, he excavated it and restored it for 30 years.

Keith Branigan continues the story with Evans's offer of the estate and the Villa Ariadne to the BSA in 1922. (Thirty years later, most of it was transferred to the Greek government.) He details the work of E. J. Forsdyke (later director of the British Museum and principal librarian), Humfry Payne and particularly John Pendlebury, who met a tragic death at the hands of the Germans in May 1941, as described by Robert Merrillees.

After the war, and with the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris creating new interest in Crete and Greece, as well as controversy, a new period opened up, as outlined by Hugh Sackett, under the directorships of Sinclair Hood, Peter Megaw, Peter Fraser, and Hector Catling. The pace of work intensified, new techniques were used and topography and conservation were considered of prime importance.

To do justice to the authors in the second section and to the dedicated teams of excavators would take a review almost as long as the book. This is merely a brief list of the subjects covered: from the Neolithic period through the early Bronze Age to the old, new and post-palatial periods, early Greek and Classical Crete, Hellenistic and Roman Crete, the Byzantine and Arab periods and the Cretan Renaissance up to the present, with accounts of Linear A and the decipherment of Linear B, epigraphy and Minoan religion.

Inevitably, there is some overlapping of information and a diversity of opinions on the same subject. One's appetite is stimulated by the controversies: the "battle royal" between Alan Wace and Evans; the debate set in motion by L. R. Palmer leading to questions being asked in the House of Commons. One regrets that we do not hear from all the directors still with us, including the current one, David Blackman, but there cannot be space for everything.

Questions of all kinds still remain. How did Jill Carington Smith disguise fellow scholars as "groceries" to obey taxi regulations? Who is the third man in the photograph on the dust-jacket - Hogarth or Bosanquet? (Myres is suspect). Was it at a public lecture by Evans in 1936 in London or on a private visit to Evans's Minoan exhibition that Ventris asked the (what became for him) fatal question about the Linear B tablets: "Did you say that they haven't been deciphered, Sir?" If anyone from Stowe School on that visit is still with us, please get in touch.

Alicia Totolos was formerly secretary, Institute of Classical Studies, University of London.

Cretan Quests: British Explorers, Excavators and Historians

Editor - Davina Huxley
ISBN - 0 904887 37 5
Publisher - BSA
Price - £.00
Pages - 2

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