On this day in 1900, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans purchased the land around the ruins of Knossos, setting in motion the excavation of the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and the discovery of the Minoan civilisation.
A pioneer in the study of Aegean civilisations in the Bronze Age, Evans had long been interested in the prehistory of Crete. In 1984 he was already deciphering the script on Cretan seal stones and had his eye on Knossos. Though the ruins at Knossos were discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos, a Cretan merchant and antiquarian who conducted the first excavations at Kephala Hills, it wasn’t until 16 March 1900 that the wealthy Evans was able to purchase the entire site of Knossos.
The purchase opened the way for massive excavations of the site. Assisted by Dr. Duncan Mackenzie, a Scottish archaeologist who had helped excavate sites on the island of Milos, and Mr. Fyfe, a British School at Athens architect, Evans oversaw a large staff of local laborers to excavate Knossos. Within mere months, the team had uncovered the Palace of Minos, an intricate network of more than 1,000 interlocking rooms. By 1903, much of the palace had been excavated, revealing an advanced city with evidence of art and writing. Some 130 metres long, the palace’s elaborate labyrinthine network is the basis of the myth of the Labyrinth, a mazelike structure built for King Minos of Crete to hold the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature eventually killed, in the legend, by Athenian hero Theseus.
The palace at Knossos, Evans and his team surmised, was a central headquarters, a religious and administrative center of sorts for an entirely new civilization—distinct from the Mycenaean civilisation proposed by German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Evans dubbed the civilisation once inhabiting the labyrinthine palace the Minoan civilisation, bringing to light a rich Bronze-Age culture once unknown to history and the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete. The site was probably first inhabited around 7,000 BC, with the founding of the first Neolithic settlement. Different groups inhabited the area and Knossos grew until its likely zenith in between the 19th to 16th centuries BC, when it boasted a population of up to 100,000 and an administrative and religious center in the palace.
Evans went on to become the first to define the Cretan scripts Linear A and Linear B, as well as earlier pictographic writing. In 1911 Evans was knighted for his services to archaeology.
Credit: © Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd / Alamy
Caption: A view of the Knossos Ruins.