The new Aegean World gallery in the redeveloped Ashmolean Museum
Arthur Evans and Minoan CreteA number of personal stories are told in the new Aegean World gallery, some in more detail than others. The personalities discussed include Duncan Mackenzie, Piet de Jong, the Gilliérons, David Hogarth and Heinrich Schliemann. Tribute is also paid to the workers who played their own significant role in making archaeology happen, such as the ‘superman among foremen’, the Cypriot Gregoris Antoniou, while in the A.G. Leventis gallery of Ancient Cyprus the visitor can discover more on John Myres and his correspondence with Michael Ventris.
The personality that dominates the Aegean gallery is that of Arthur Evans. His official 1907 ‘Richmond portrait’, the way he wanted to be remembered, a romantic doyen of archaeology — is juxtaposed with the cartoon drawn in 1924 by Piet de Jong — the way people actually saw him: as an energetic 'monkey' even at the age of 73 when the cartoon was drawn. A quotation from his half-sister, Joan Evans, provides a glimpse of his character with all the pros and cons, while a timeline informs the visitor about the most important events in Evans’s life. Next to the portrait of Evans is a case in which a clay rhyton from Palaikastro is displayed in front of an archival drawing showing the Cup-Bearer: the first Minoan on a fresco fragment to be discovered by Evans at Knossos? This case offers the opportunity to discuss various themes: from skeuomorphism and fresco restorations to textiles and the way seals (gems) were worn.
A table case accompanies the information panel: the story of Evans is broken down into three major periods, echoing his favourite tripartite system of Minoan chronology. The first period focuses on his work at the Ashmolean (1884-1908) and the Chester seal: a gem on which Evans first identified signs of a pre-alphabetic writing system. This seal is said to have sparked his interest in 1889 in ascertaining the existence of pre-alphabetic writing in the Aegean. Although Evans was looking for one script to prove his theory, he managed to identify three different systems of writing which he dubbed Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B respectively. While in Athens in 1893, art dealers informed Evans that most of these gems came from the island of Crete and it was there that Evans made his most extraordinary discoveries. The second section of this display is appropriately dedicated to his travels and explorations on Crete (1894-1899).
The third part of this table case focuses on his Knossos excavations (1900-1935). Although neither the first modern excavator of Knossos (this title belongs to Minos Kalokairinos) nor the only one who had a special interest in the site (many were the suitors, amongst them Heinrich Schliemann) he was the only one to succeed in purchasing the entire land where the palace once stood and the first to thoroughly bring the ruins back to life. Despite several criticisms raised by modern archaeologists about the excavations at Knossos, including the fact that only one archaeologist, Evans’s chief collaborator Duncan Mackenzie, was responsible for supervising more than a hundred workmen and several different trenches simultaneously (!), the overall quality of archaeological documentation from Knossos is generally good, especially by the standards of the time. Evans involved in his work professional workers, artists, restorers, architects, conservators and photographers. His workforce comprised Christian and Muslim Cretans as well as women and children; a complicated task made possible through his determination, often stubbornness, and financial resources, most of which he inherited from his father, the famous prehistorian, Sir John Evans.
Next to the story of Evans are some romantic watercolour drawings of various rooms of the palace of Knossos along with the replica of the Priest-King, in one of its many versions. The drawings were used in the Palace of Minos, Evans’s monumental publication of his excavations at Knossos though not an excavation account strictly speaking; rather a compendium on how Evans viewed the archaeology, history and art of Minoan Crete. The drawings were also used as blueprints for his restorations of various rooms at Knossos. The Priest-King, cherished by Evans as the ruler of Knossos, is now thought to represent another youthful figure, probably part of a procession perhaps in association with rites of passage taking place at the palace.
A case with seals (the Ashmolean has more than 550 of these little Bronze Age Aegean gems) complements Evans’s story and quest for pre-alphabetic writing. The Ashmolean holds some of the finest examples, purchased by Evans from local owners and art dealers. These little gems were known locally as galopetres: charms/amulets that ensured the flow of milk to lactating mothers. The seals, given their small size and often intricate representations and colours, are accompanied by the Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel drawings so as to make them more accessible to the non-specialists. A family-friendly text provides, amongst others, information on the manufacturing of these gems.
The wall opposite the story of Arthur Evans is dominated by five large cases in a row. Four of them offer an overview of Minoan Crete from about 7000 to 1000 BC. Themes include the Knossos stratigraphy, warrior burials, arts and crafts and cult and ritual. Pottery, figurines, weapons, fresco fragments, metal and stone vessels all help to illustrate the archaeology and art of Bronze Age Crete. Although the bulk of the material on display comes from Knossos, other sites represented include, among others, Kato Zakros, Palaikastro, Pseira, Phaistos and Ayia Pelagia. The fifth case is dedicated to the Cave of Psychro in the Lasithi Plateau. Objects from this cave include stone and metal human and animal figurines, offering tables (one inscribed in Linear A), bronze tools, weapons and utensils, seals, jewellery, votive plaques and pottery fragments. This display also addresses attitudes to workers as well as excavation methods.
In the middle of the gallery, between these five cases and the Evans story, are two plinths dedicated to Power in Minoan Crete. The east plinth focuses on Power in Death: different larnakes (coffins) are on display along with pottery found by Evans in the Knossos tombs. Labels help visitors familiarise themselves with the burial practices of the people at Knossos, especially during the later stages of the Late Bronze Age (1450-1200 BC). A table case displays jewellery worn in life and death and presents objects associated with craftsmanship, such as bronze tools used in building and agriculture and stone moulds for the production of ornaments.
The west plinth focuses on Power in Life: a table case looks at Aegean scripts and administration; this is also conveniently placed close to the Evans story and the seals display. Visitors are encouraged to read two Linear B tablets with the aid of graphics: a page-shaped tablet recording women worker and their children at the palace of Knossos first interpreted by Evans as a list of ‘Royal concubines’, and a leaf-shaped tablet that records sheep herded at kutato, probably a coastal site in northern Crete. Clay sealings (seal impressions) are also on display in an attempt to illustrate the basic steps of administration on the island, especially around the period of the Linear B tablets, about 1375 BC. On the west plinth there is also the drain pipe from Knossos; the large pithos from one of the storerooms with a capacity of about 550 litres; the octopus jar with the six tentacles and the partial reconstruction of E. Gilliéron the younger of the north wall of the Throne Room at Knossos with two alabastra and a replica of the throne on display. The process of excavating, reconstructing and interpreting this particular room is narrated along the lecterns. The lectern at the front of the plinth tells the story of Evans’s reconstructions at Knossos by using archival photographs documenting the different stages of ‘reconstitution’.