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Evans, Sir Arthur Johnlocked

  • J. L. Myres
  • , revised by A. M. Snodgrass

Sir Arthur John Evans (1851–1941)

by Sir William Blake Richmond, exh. RA 1907

Evans, Sir Arthur John (1851–1941), archaeologist, was born at Nash Mills, Hemel Hempstead, on 8 July 1851, the eldest of the three sons of the distinguished archaeologist and numismatist Sir John Evans (1823–1908), and his first wife, Harriet Ann (1823–1858), younger daughter of his maternal uncle John Dickinson, paper maker. Joan Evans was his much younger half-sister. Arthur resembled his father in features and tastes, and as early as 1866 accompanied him on his first visit to the Somme gravels, and himself found a ‘palaeolith’ in situ. He became a collector, a draughtsman, and a linguist; unusual short sight did not debar him from enjoyment of country life, and enabled him to detect minute details such as artists' signatures on Greek coins and gems.

From the preparatory school of C. A. Johns, a naturalist, at Chipperfield, Hertfordshire, Evans entered Harrow School, reaching the sixth form in 1867. He was placed fourth in the examination for leaving scholarships in April 1870, distinguishing himself in English literature, Greek and Latin verse, modern languages, and natural science, and by editing The Harrovian and a satirical Pen-Viper which was suppressed. He was already an ardent liberal, and a keen Slav partisan in Balkan politics. In October 1870 he entered Brasenose College, Oxford, and was placed in the first class in modern history in 1874.

A year's study at Göttingen was preceded and followed by adventures in Bosnia (1871), Herzegovina, Finland, and northern Scandinavia (1873–4), and in 1875 Evans sent to the Manchester Guardian letters republished in 1876 as Through Bosnia and the Herzegovina on Foot, during the Insurrection, August and September 1875; this was followed by Illyrian Letters (1878). In 1878 he married Margaret, eldest daughter of the historian Edward Augustus Freeman, an accomplished and devoted comrade until her death in 1893. At Ragusa he found in the Casa San Lazzaro a convenient centre for the study of language, antiquities, and customs, and spent six years there in all. During the Crivoscian insurrection of 1882 he was arrested and condemned to death by the Austrians, but was reprieved and expelled. His political ideal was a 'South Slavonic monarchy built out of Austria and the Balkans'; to this he recurred vigorously in 1914–16 and later he saw it temporarily realized. His archaeological studies in these years were published in Archaeologia, volumes 48 and 49 (1884, 1885), and summarized in his unpublished Ilchester lectures delivered at Oxford in 1884, and in his Rhind lectures given at Edinburgh in 1895. In Italy and Sicily he collected vases and coins, and wrote articles entitled 'The “Horsemen” of Tarentum' (Numismatic Chronicle, 9, 1889) and 'Syracusan “medallions” and their engravers' (ibid., 11, 1891).

With this wide experience and equipment Evans was in 1884 appointed keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford which had fallen into neglect and whose collection was overlapped by the classical sculpture and vases of the Randolph Gallery in Beaumont Street, where Sir W. M. Ramsay, the first occupant of the Lincoln and Merton chair of classical archaeology and art, was provided with a small space for a library and a cast collection. With the munificent help of C. D. E. Fortnum and Greville Chester the collections were removed in 1894 to a new building behind the Randolph, repeatedly enlarged and always overflowing, and in 1908, after many years of controversy and negotiation, the combined institutions were supplied with a single board of visitors.

The conditions of Ashmole's keepership prescribed travel and lectures, and Evans took full advantage of both. In 1890 he gave a summer course on British prehistoric antiquities, but he was not a popular lecturer, and most of his later discoveries were announced at meetings of the British Association. Meanwhile he excavated a Roman villa at Frilford, near Oxford, and in 1891 the late Celtic urnfield at Aylesford in Kent. In 1893 he acquired an estate called Youlbury, near Oxford, and created there an earthly paradise and a second home to three generations of friends.

In his Rhind lectures, Evans studied the highly controversial question of the influence of ancient oriental cultures on those of early Europe. As a young man he had been influenced by the work of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns, by Wolfgang Helbig's Das homerische Epos (1884) with its Italian archaeology, and by Arthur Milchhoefer's Die Anfänge der Kunst in Griechenland (1883) inferring from the geographical distribution of certain engraved seal-stones that Crete had been a principal centre of ‘Mycenaean’ culture. In 1889 the Ashmolean acquired such a seal-stone from Greville Chester; Evans found others in Athens (1893) and in the Berlin Antiquarium. Such surface finds could be explored even in a malcontent province of Turkey. In 1893 came news of painted pottery in the Candia Museum from the Kamárais cave on Mount Ida, identical with ‘Aegean imports’ announced by Sir Flinders Petrie from Kahun, a twelfth dynasty site in the Fayyum. The same year Evans announced his clue to the existence of picture-writing in Greek lands, and in March 1894 he travelled in Crete, collecting from the peasant women many prehistoric seal-stones inscribed with pictorial signs. He copied a clay tablet (afterwards destroyed) with a linear inscription, and noted masons' marks on pre-Hellenic walls. These finds were announced to the British Association in August (Journal of Hellenic Studies, 14, 1894) and extended in subsequent years (ibid., 17, 1897). The general bearing of these discoveries was communicated to the British Association in 1896 (The Eastern Question in Anthropology) and their significance for Greek religion in 'Mycenaean tree and pillar cult' (Proceedings of the British Association, 1896; Journal of Hellenic Studies, 21, 1901). In 1897, when war was imminent between Greece and Turkey, he explored the ‘megalithic’ structures of Tripolitania, finding them to be Roman oil-presses.

In 1894 Evans had acquired a share, under Ottoman law, of the estate at Kephála, near Candia, classical Knossos, where ‘Mycenaean’ remains had been found in 1878; so when the Turks evacuated Crete in 1899 he was able at once to gain full possession, and excavate in association with the British School of Archaeology at Athens and its director, D. G. Hogarth. There was no overload of later remains, and some of the best finds were close to the surface. The first season (1899–1900) revealed an elaborate palace, of the late Bronze Age (c.1700–1200 bc), with many clay tablets inscribed in the ‘linear’ script already detected, superimposed upon earlier buildings with ‘Kamárais’ pottery (c.2000 bc), brilliant frescoes, and imported Egyptian and Babylonian objects. Work continued for eight seasons, followed by intermittent enterprises in the ‘palace’, its suburbs, and cemeteries. The principal works of art were exhibited in London in 1903, and more fully in 1936. The first volume of Scripta Minoa was published in 1909, the second in 1952, and The Palace of Minos at Knossos in four volumes between 1921 and 1935 (index, 1936). Concurrent excavations by Italians at Phaestos and Hagia Triada, by the French at Mállia, by Americans at Gourniá, Mochlos, and other sites, and by the British School at Praesos, Palaikastro, and Zakro, supplemented the record of Knossos, and made it necessary to present the new prehistoric culture as a whole. Evans christened it ‘Minoan’, after the legendary Cretan ruler Minos, and proposed in advance a ninefold classification into ‘early’, ‘middle’, and ‘late’, each subdivided into periods I, II, and III, to correspond with major phases of civilization both in Crete and in Egypt, and with extensive demolitions and reconstructions at Knossos. Below the early Minoan lay a deep Neolithic deposit, and above the latest Minoan a rapid replacement of Bronze Age by early Iron Age occupancy. Less symmetrical crises were the great earthquakes which ended Middle Minoan II (c.1700 bc) and Late Minoan II (the specifically ‘palace’ style, c.1400 bc). In Late Minoan III a growing divergence between the culture of Crete and that of the ‘Mycenaean’ or ‘Helladic’ mainland marked the growing predominance of the latter over a wide colonial region, from Cyprus to Sicily. This preliminary scheme for classification was published in Athens in 1905, London in 1906, and Rome in 1912. The distinction of a separate mainland culture was never accepted by Evans.

The deep substructures of the palace of Knossos having become choked with hillwash before they collapsed, staircases and even floors could be reconstructed to an unusual extent, to the third storey and even above it. Wall frescoes, shattered or insecure, were removed to the museum and replaced by copies; courtyards were paved, and much skilful restoration—preferred to mere consolidation—made the complex structure vividly intelligible as the abode of a vigorous and original mode of life. Evans's villa overlooking the site served as an abode for a curator and for visiting archaeologists, and a considerable estate contributed to the endowment. In 1926, being no longer able to supervise it personally, Evans agreed with the Greek government to convey the whole property in trust to the British School of Archaeology at Athens, but he returned to excavate the ‘royal tomb’ hard by in 1931. A Handbook to the Palace of Minos at Knossos, by John Devitt Stringfellow Pendlebury, the then curator, was published in 1933. Both palace and museum were undamaged in the German invasion of 1941.

Resigning the keepership of the Ashmolean in 1908, and completing Scripta Minoa I, Evans gained time for other interests. Always a strong liberal, in 1909 he was induced to offer himself as tariff reform candidate for the University of Oxford; but there were cross-currents, and he was persuaded by Lord Lansdowne to withdraw. Balkan affairs were becoming urgent, and Lord Curzon was pressing university reforms upon Oxford. Evans was of an age and eminence to preside over many learned societies. He was a founder of the British School at Athens (1886) and of the British Academy (1901). In 1909 he received the royal gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an honour rarely conferred upon a layman; in 1911 he was knighted. He was the fourth generation of his family to be elected (1901) a fellow of the Royal Society and in 1936 he received its Copley medal, to add to the gold medals of the Swedish Academy and the Society of Antiquaries, and many other academic and scientific distinctions. Honorary degrees were conferred on him by the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, and Berlin, and he was an honorary fellow of his own college, Brasenose.

During the war years Evans was president of the Society of Antiquaries (1914–19) and of the British Association (1916–19), and as a trustee of the British Museum helped, in 1918, to rescue that institution from the Air Board, and hasten its rehabilitation. He took an active part in South Slav politics, Italy now replacing Austria as the oppressor of nationalities.

Although his health was normally excellent, and his physical energy inexhaustible—'he never worked when he was tired, and was seldom too tired to work'—a severe operation in 1938 restricted Evans's movements to local explorations near his home, but in 1939 he went by air to Geneva, returning along the Rhine. Until the summer of 1941 he went frequently to the Ashmolean Museum, and another operation did not prevent him from receiving on his ninetieth birthday the congratulations of the Hellenic Society and the British School at Athens, and showing with pride his account of a newly traced Roman road from Oxford to the south coast. Three days later, on 11 July 1941, he died at Youlbury.

In a very long career Evans made generous use of great gifts, wide experience, and ample means, for he inherited two fortunes in middle life, when Cretan work was most costly. His knowledge was wide and profound, his judgement and flair unerring, and his encouragement of others unfailing. He had a genius for friendship, and was most at home among simple people. He loved children and guests, outdoor life, and his woods and gardens at Youlbury, which he intended as a 'private open space' in concert with the Oxford Preservation Trust, together with the ‘Jarn’ mound raised on the crest of Boars Hill, and its wild garden. He was a generous patron of the Boy Scouts, giving them a training station at Youlbury and an interest in his long study of beacons, and of craftsmanship of all kinds. In his greater enterprises he enlisted the loyal help of many different allies, learned and simple, and in Crete he was a popular hero after the liberation. In archaeology, although his historical knowledge was wide, and his political views emphatic, his strength, like his father's, was as a critic of craftsmanship and style. Here his judgements were seldom challenged, and always supported by strictly archaeological evidence, often of his own discovery: as he put it 'omne ignotum pro falso is a dangerous motto in the Minoan field' and more widely.

In person Evans was of small build, thickset, of great strength and endurance, with a dark complexion and aquiline features. A fine portrait of him in his prime, by Sir William Richmond (1907), is in the Ashmolean Museum.

Evans was a man of such formidable authority that his interpretations, though challenged in his lifetime, aroused much greater controversy after his death. The discovery in 1952 by Michael Ventris that the majority of the tablets in ‘linear’ script excavated by Evans at Knossos were written in an early form of Greek necessitated a radical reappraisal of Evans's views: for Greek had not been the inherited language of Minoan Crete. Either, therefore, palatial Knossos in its heyday had been under the domination of Greek-speaking Mycenaeans, or the inscribed tablets, over 4000 in number, must all date to the period after the fall of the palace, which Evans had dismissed as one of an occupation by ‘squatters’. This latter alternative was supported by the late dating of other tablets in this ‘Linear B’ script from mainland Greek sites. A new line of attack then developed: that the fall of palatial Knossos must itself be brought down to c.1200 bc. This proposal, originally advanced by L. R. Palmer in 1960 in a tendentious form which involved falsification of the stratigraphy on Evans's part, was soon moderated; but, even a hundred years after Evans's first discovery of the script, it has still not led to a consensus. The one point on which scholars are now united is that Evans seriously overrated the dominance of Crete in the civilization of the prehistoric Aegean, and correspondingly undervalued the strength and independence of the culture of the Greek mainland and, to a lesser extent, of the Cyclades.


  • J. Evans, Time and chance: the story of Arthur Evans and his forebears (1943)
  • J. L. Myres, ‘Sir Arthur Evans, 1851–1941’, PBA, 27 (1941), 323–57
  • J. L. Myres, Obits. FRS, 3 (1939–41), 941–68
  • Slavonic Review (1946)
  • personal knowledge (1959)
  • W. D. Niemeyer, ‘Mycenaean Knossos and the age of Linear B’, Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici, 23 (1982)


  • AM Oxf., Knossos notebooks and papers; photographs, plans, and maps of Knossos excavations, press cuttings, offprints, etc.
  • JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian
  • S. Antiquaries, Lond., corresp. about his planned publications on Knossos
  • UCL, school of Slavonic and east European studies, papers relating to the Balkans
  • BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 55219
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with J. L. Myres


  • W. B. Richmond, oils, exh. RA 1907, AM Oxf. [see illus.]
  • F. Dodd, pencil drawing, 1935, NPG
  • D. Evans, marble bust, 1936, AM Oxf.
  • R. Guthrie, crayon drawing, 1937, AM Oxf.
  • bronze bust, Knossos, Crete, Greece

Wealth at Death

£182,460 14s. 0d.: probate, 12 Dec 1941, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Proceedings of the British Academy
Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society