An exploration of the impact of archaeology on modernism: Knossos in myth and interpretation

The Concrete Labyrinth


The treatment of the past is central to modernism, whether one consciously decides to reject, adapt and transform it or attempts to revive it according to contemporary understanding. There has been a lot of interest lately in the influence exercised by modernism on archaeological thought and practice. Yet, the impact of archaeology on modernism has never been the subject of a monograph, despite the fact that archaeology is in itself a modern practice.

Cathy Gere, following her successful and readable first book (The Tomb of Agamemnon, 2006), ventures on another mythical journey to explore and interpret the relationship between archaeology and modernism. Gere turns her attention to Arthur Evans and his controversial reconstructions and interpretations following the Knossos excavations.

The book grew out of Gere’s doctoral thesis (Cambridge, 2002). It belongs to a substantial and ever growing corpus of historical revisionism of archaeological research, with special reference to the archaeology of the Bronze Age Aegean (around 3200-1100 BC). Gere is predominantly interested in trying to understand how “Minoan Crete” and Knossos in particular were reconstructed in modernist materials; namely, how the various interpretations and reconstructions of Evans were taken up and developed (even to a propagandist level) by contemporary culture.

After a short introduction that sets the agenda and presents the aims of the book, Gere provides the reader with the necessary epistemological background: on one hand, the impact of Nietzsche on scholarship with reference to the reanimation of the cult of pre-classical Dionysos (in The Birth of Tragedy) and the overall reconsideration of our relationship with the past; on the other, Schliemann’s introduction of a new attitude to the study of antiquity by associating his archaeological discoveries with the Homeric epics.

The “mythical method” that is the manipulation of “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity” (to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase for Joyce’s Ulysses) is essential for understanding Aegean archaeology and its reception in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The book’s chapters are centred on wars and their aftermath, starting with the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and ending with the Cold and post-Cold War era. Through these turbulent periods in history, Gere explores how the conception of Minoan Crete was transformed from a Utopia that “compensated the profound loss of confidence in the enlightenment legacy of rationality”, following the Nietzschean approach of late 19th-century scholarship, to a much contested and debated archaeological paradigm.

For those writers, artists and thinkers that started challenging the values of the Enlightenment and of European civilisation as a whole, especially after World War I, Evans’s “concrete labyrinth” (in reference to his reconstructions at Knossos) became the lost paradise: pacifist and matriarchal, pagan and cosmic. Within this context, Gere convincingly argues that knowledge of the past licensed prophetic remarks about the future. This approach became a rhetorical strategy under which diverse fields were united. “Using reconstructions, forgeries, invented traditions and false memories that litter the record of Greek Bronze Age archaeology”, Gere came to see “this prophetic mode as necessarily counterfeit”.

Following Evans from his childhood years and his travels and adventures in Europe to his Cretan research and Knossos excavations, Gere explores how Minoan Crete was reconstructed as the antithesis to Mycenaean militarism, a notion developed soon after Schliemann’s excavations. Some of the stereotypical themes that have captivated popular imagination in the past are discussed along with the shifting attitudes that accompanied them throughout the last hundred years. For example, in the 1920s and 1930s, Minoan Crete represented at its cultural peak the decadence of Western civilisation (Spengler, Toynbee); this “universal state” was the “classic example of vulgarity” according to Toynbee (who is, surprisingly, not discussed by Gere). Yet, for others Minoan Crete became the ultimate feminist paradise with the Minoans constituting the “exemplary hippies of the ancient world” (Graves, Kerenýi, Hawkes, Gimbutas). In the 1980s and 1990s some attempted the “contentious Afrocentric reinvention of the Minoans” (Diop, Bernal), while, most recently, we have witnessed the revision of Minoan pacifism within the Cold and post-Cold War environments, reaching the complete anti-heroic climax of modern archaeology.

Gere’s discussion of the impact of Minoan archaeology on literary and artistic circles is relatively brief. An exception to the rule is de Chirico’s “Ariadne” series (stemming from Evans’s fascination with Ariadne and, to a lesser extent, Picasso’s “Minotaur” series). Most recently, Ziolkowski’s book (Minos and the Moderns, 2008) offers a more nuanced picture with regard to the reception of Cretan Myths in 20th-century literature and art.

Gere also discusses the scholarly (mostly anthropological) and literary approaches to the subject, what Andrew Sherratt has described as “the Crete of the intellectuals”: figures such as J.G. Frazer, J.E. Harrison, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Waugh, D. Merezhkovsky, N. Kazantzakis, H. Miller and R. Graves.

Perhaps the strength of this book is the emphasis on the archaeology of the psyche, of the feminine (and a quasi-cult of the feminine) and of desire. Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), the American poet, novelist and memoirist known as H.D., is for Gere the encapsulation of all the above themes and the best subject for her study, not least from the Freudian psycho-analytical point of view. H.D. linked her own destiny and that of the world to the rise and fall of ancient Crete. Both her letters written in 1933 during her analysis with Freud and her later (1940s) enhanced, expanded and spiced up version of the “Minoan psyche” story help to shed light on one of the oddest episodes in the reception of Minoan archaeology. This follows Evans’s origin story of the psyche (soul) symbol, largely based on a rather controversial object: the “Ring of Nestor”, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

One may be left with the impression that Knossos and Evans were central to modernism—they were certainly part of it. However, it would have been better for the general reader to see how this particular relationship fits within the broader framework of modernism (something that could well be the subject of another book).

Gere’s passion for, and knowledge of, the subject make up for any shortfalls, minor errors and inconsistencies. Overall, this is an important contribution to our understanding of the role of archaeology and related fields in shaping the modern image of the past.

The writer is Fellow, Worcester College, Oxford, and curator, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The Concrete Labyrinth'