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Knossos
August 30, 2009 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery. "The masterpieces of Minoan art are not what they seem... The truth is that these famous icons are largely modern. As any sharp-eyed visitor to the Heraklion museum can spot, what survives of the original paintings amounts in most cases to no more than a few square inches. The rest is more or less imaginative reconstruction, commissioned in the first half of the twentieth century by Sir Arthur Evans, the British excavator of the palace of Knossos (and the man who coined the term 'Minoan' for this prehistoric Cretan civilization, after the mythical King Minos who is said to have held the throne there). As a general rule of thumb, the more famous the image now is, the less of it is actually ancient."
posted by homunculus (16 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by homunculus at 2:17 PM on August 30, 2009


Oh this is fascinating - I grew up with those images (ah, Classical education), and because they were so familiar I never questioned them, even though what I now know about archaeological survival elsewhere should have at least made me question how they survived.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:20 PM on August 30, 2009


Are you trying to say that these aren't real?!
posted by b1tr0t at 2:32 PM on August 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


[previous link is NSFW: plastic Minoan nipples]
posted by b1tr0t at 2:32 PM on August 30, 2009


Wait, what does this have to do With Maryanne?
posted by The Whelk at 2:37 PM on August 30, 2009


Maryanne said she's from Cape Cod, so probably nothing.
posted by homunculus at 2:45 PM on August 30, 2009


Arthur Evans is a classic example of the way that science can go wrong. He was absolutely certain that the Minoan civilization was pre-Greek, something completely independent. And he damned well wouldn't listen to any evidence to the contrary.

He had sufficient prestige and power in that small realm of science so that he could smite all doubters and heretics, and as a result research into the Minoan civilization was stifled for decades, until he died.

It turns out they were Greeks. Eventually Michael Ventris deciphered the Minoan Linear B script, and it turned out to be a syllabary for writing Greek, not an independent language. The Greek script we now know and love was developed later, but the underlying language was definitely the same (with some clear differences due to time).

That could plausibly have been determined much earlier, except that Evans sat on a huge library of Linear B scripts and wouldn't let anyone else see them. Ventris did most of his work using scripts found by others, which were not very plentiful.

A good sign that science is going off the rails is when a big name announces that an issue is settled and that further investigation into it is a waste of time, and his acolytes begin to attack and professionally ruin anyone who continues to argue against the Big Man's received wisdom.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:05 PM on August 30, 2009 [7 favorites]


As any sharp-eyed visitor to the Heraklion museum can spot, what survives of the original paintings amounts in most cases to no more than a few square inches. The rest is more or less imaginative reconstruction,...

The palace is definitely over-restored, in the sense that I doubt the same thing would be considered good practice today. Many of the frescoes are also over-imaginative, with very little evidence being used to recreate the whole. But there are still a good number of frescoes with substantial remains from both Knossos and other Minoan sites, and their reconstruction must be basically sound. The Minoan "look" we're familiar with really did exist in some way. I think we have to be careful to limit criticisms of Evans' artistic reconstructions to some frescoes at Knossos, and not every Minoan fresco we know, even if the most famous ones are really those with the least basis in truth. I don't know if the same goes for the architectural reconstruction, but I've read (fairly recent) works which treated the basic layout of Knossos as known and undisputed, but left discussion of the decoration and supposed uses to one side. For comparison, look at the remains of Akrotiri on Santoirini (slideshow), which was dug long after Evans died.

However, I think you can safely throw away all of Evans' assumptions on how Minoan society worked, where it came from, its goals and achievements, and so on. That would include the role and position of women in that society, and any "mother goddess". Pax Minoaca and thassalocracy are likewise things more fancy than real. I'm not an expert, but I think of lot of this was dropped a long time ago. Though I would still like to read the book to see how the discoveries on Crete and art/fashion/political trends in Europe at that time interacted. Undoubtedly modern ideas were projected on the Minoans, and Evans found exactly the kind of civilization he wanted to.

Arthur Evans is a classic example of the way that science can go wrong. He was absolutely certain that the Minoan civilization was pre-Greek, something completely independent. ...

It turns out they were Greeks. Eventually Michael Ventris deciphered the Minoan Linear B script, and it turned out to be a syllabary for writing Greek, not an independent language. The Greek script we now know and love was developed later, but the underlying language was definitely the same (with some clear differences due to time).


Yeh, and no. The Linear B documents are definitely written in a form of Greek, and the decipherment is sound. But those documents only represent the later part of Minoan history, and an earlier corpus of documents written in the (almost) same script is undecipherable. These are Linear B documents, and probably represent writing in an entirely different language. It's clear from the script itself, and the way scripts in general develop, that it was originally used to write not only a non-Greek language, but also non-Indo-European. The accepted view of Minoan history is that the civilization emerged indigenously to a great extent, but was later taken over by Mycenaean Greeks.
posted by Sova at 3:55 PM on August 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


Sorry, the earlier corpus is Linear A, not B.
posted by Sova at 3:57 PM on August 30, 2009


Yeah, Sova is right. While Linear B is certainly Mycenean Greek written in an older syllabary, Linear A has yet to be deciphered, and may very well not represent an Indo-European language. The Minoans existed alongside the Myceneans for a while, but were considerably older (artifacts inscribed with Linear A have been dated to the 19th and 18th centuries BCE, while the Myceneans and Linear B only show up around 1600 BCE).
posted by oinopaponton at 4:04 PM on August 30, 2009


What Sova said. Also, as deplorable as the overrestoration of Knossos may be, it does provide a thrilling experience to the imaginative tourist; I enjoyed it much more than I would have if it had been the usual desolate scene with a few trenches where modern archeologists have been carefully extracting tiny fragments with brushes and tweezers for twenty or thirty years (and will get around to publishing their results any century now). Note: Previous sentence contains elements of exaggeration. Take with salt.
posted by languagehat at 5:51 PM on August 30, 2009


I also don't know how much to blame Evans and how much to blame "the style at the time". I just finished reading about Pompeii and it sounded like a lot of reconstructions and recordings (i.e. drawings of frescoes and so forth) from the 19th and early 20th were pretty "imaginative" as well.
posted by DU at 6:01 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Unlike languagehat, when I arrived at Knossos in the early Spring of 1975, Evans' work intuitively felt to me like a sham. I disliked everything he slathered crudely in concrete and the glammed up versions of what the Minoan art supposedly looked like. It felt really cheesy to me. It so shocked me how badly I felt, after having grown up with all the images of the Minoan site in my high school school textbook, From Ur To Rome, that I doubted my own judgment.

So, as I was leaving Knossos I stopped in a tourist trap shop across the road and when the proprietor asked me if I wanted a job there, I took it. I hoped by living there I might get a different, less negative, perspective on the place. It was interesting living in Heraklion and working in Knossos for two months, which had nothing to do with Evans' grandiose scam version of archeology. It had more to do with the proprietor of the tourist shop, a Olympic boxer wannabe, Lakis, whose family had been around Knossos for probably the last couple of millennia; his priest father, and old fashioned peasant mother, Athanassius, who slaughtered Daphne, the little goat I'd befriended, for Orthodox Easter dinner; getting to know traditional life in Crete.

It's a relief to read this article, validating long unspoken doubts about what Evans' did with Knossos. Thanks for the post.
posted by nickyskye at 6:40 PM on August 30, 2009 [8 favorites]


his priest father, and old fashioned peasant mother, Athanassius, who slaughtered Daphne, the little goat I'd befriended, for Orthodox Easter dinner; getting to know traditional life in Crete.

Funnily enough, the same thing happened to my Brother when he went to visit his Greek relatives years back. He made friends with a goat who was then slaughtered for him, to celebrate the visit.

He was pretty shook up at the time, cause he was like 10 and from the places in New Jersey where you don't name the things you eat. But, being 10, he got over it pretty quickly.
posted by The Whelk at 7:25 PM on August 30, 2009


There's a pretty good book on this subject called Mysteries Of The Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, And The Forging Of History. I read it just before I took Art History 110 at my local art college and it changed my perspective completely on how the past is perceived.
posted by Calzephyr at 7:25 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


*sorry about the typos: an Olympic, high school textbook. And Lakis' mother's name was Athanasi, not Athanasius, the male version of the name, which means undying. Should not comment when tired.

Thanks for the validation The Whelk. Yeah, no fun to eat an animal one has been friendly with.

Calzephyr, when I was commissioned to write a book on the history of demons in 1974 I was horrified to learn after publication and republication that the books I relied on for information were packed with misinformation, outright lies, ridiculously biased perception and glaring idiocies. I comfort myself that I was only 19 at the time in making such an error in judgment but up until then I thought the printed word, in books generally, to be truthful.

Having grown up around a number of unethical, deceitful journalists as a kid I'd already lost a sense of trust in 'news' being something to rely on. But I trusted non-fiction books, especially those by scholars, professionals or academics to be ethically researched, reviewed by editors and the publishers. It was a rough awakening that is not at all necessarily true.

Even recently, on the death of my mother, The New York Times obituary writer made literally dozens of errors. Quite a few substantial ones, like the spelling of my father's name. It took a week of email exchanges for the mulish and unhelpful obit writer to reluctantly make just two of the dozens of corrections and now his misinformation is a matter or record, spreading around on the web.

So when deceit is routed, truth or correct information is found out, talked about, noted, examined, whatever the topic, I feel both relief and a real gladness.
posted by nickyskye at 11:20 AM on August 31, 2009


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