Skip to main content

Matthew Sears is an associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick.

Crete, Greece’s southernmost region and largest island, should be on everyone’s bucket list. Sunny weather, sandy beaches, welcoming people and hors d’oeuvres accompanied by raki, the strong local liquor, are reasons enough to visit.

And once you get beyond the tourist centres of Heraklion, Rethymno and Chania, Crete rewards the exploration of its nooks and crannies with stunning mountain views and secluded coves of cerulean blue waters that really are the colour they appear on postcards.

But then, there’s the other, arguably main draw: the island’s rich history and archeology, which spans millennia.

While Crete has been home to and ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans, all of whom left their own distinct traces in the landscape, it is the Minoans who have fascinated scholars and visitors alike. Thriving more than 3,000 years ago in large palatial complexes, and producing sophisticated works of art while trading with great powers such as Egypt, the Minoans were declared by their first excavator, British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans, to represent the “first civilization in Europe.”

Today, a thriving tourism economy takes full advantage of this heritage. Large ferries, reverently sporting the names of famous Minoan sites, take visitors from the Port of Piraeus on the mainland overnight to Crete. Their smokestacks are adorned with images of the “Prince of the Lilies,” a figure on a wall fresco discovered by Sir Arthur, and every souvenir shop in Greece sells miniatures of the famous Minoan drinking vessel in the shape of a bull’s head with golden horns.

Tourists ogle and ooh over the columns and bright colours of Knossos, Greece’s third-most visited site after the Acropolis of Athens and the sanctuary of Olympia. Just as the Minoans put Crete on the map of the great trade networks of the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean, they continue to put Crete on visitors’ itineraries today.

There’s at least one problem with our Minoan-mania, though: It’s largely founded on one person’s fanciful reading of the evidence.

Open this photo in gallery:

Knossos is Greece’s third-most visited site after the Acropolis of Athens and the sanctuary of Olympia.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Sir Arthur was an amateur archeologist who, in the 1890s, managed to purchase the site of Knossos as essentially his personal property. When he discovered an entirely new civilization that appeared to complement the Mycenaeans made famous by Heinrich Schliemann in the preceding decades, he advanced a novel interpretation and imaginative reconstructions of what he called the “Palace of Minos” at Knossos. But while he used much more careful and sophisticated methods of excavation than his predecessor, Schliemann, his treatment of the Minoans, named after the mythical King Minos of Crete, and their principal site has long been controversial.

Most of Knossos actually emerged from the imagination of Sir Arthur and his team, and you can see that at the palace: It now looks like an art-deco fantasyland, reflecting the 1920s as much or more than the 1400s BC; Sir Arthur’s reconstructions, now a century old, are themselves crumbling and in need of restoration. Virtually every serious archeologist today questions his aesthetic choices, along with his confident labelling of certain artifacts as “ritual objects,” and even his designation of the complex at Knossos as a “palace” at all.

Nevertheless, Sir Arthur was viewed as the absolute authority on all matters Minoan; as Royal Ontario Museum founding director Charles Trick Currelly wrote to Ontario’s education minister in a 1935 letter, “It would be a bold man, or a very silly one, who would challenge Sir Arthur’s opinion.”

But the second problem with Cretan archeology might prove even more vexing – and cuts to the core of controversies around the world, including here in Canada, over who or what is deserving of monuments both physical and in a society’s collective memory.

The word many archeologists who work on Crete use to describe the remnants of its past is “palimpsest" – usually referring to an ancient manuscript partially erased in order to make room for a later text written on the same page. Many works of classical writers, such as the famous scientist Archimedes, are known only because careful scholars detected the remnants of text lying beneath later material, usually passages from the Bible.

Like these reused manuscripts, Crete has many archeological layers, often obscuring one another. And so just as scholars often damage or destroy the newer text on a palimpsest in order to read what is underneath, by designating Crete as the centre of Minoan civilization, earlier archeologists such as Sir Arthur often obliterated the layers deposited by other periods, quickly digging through early-modern, medieval and classical layers to get to the Minoan palaces. In other cases, post-Minoan sites were simply ignored while resources were devoted to this one particular era.

That’s a particularly sticky wicket given that Crete has a long, convoluted and fascinating history. Homer, likely composing his epics in the 700s BC, called Crete a land of a hundred cities, and these cities built temples, carved statues, inscribed laws and fought wars; these cities were filled with human life when the Athenians built the Parthenon, Alexander marched into Persia and the Romans forged a Mediterranean-wide empire.

The Cretans were often very much involved in the famous events of classical history, just as they had their own rich local histories. The site of Gortyn, for instance, boasts one of the most important and complete legal documents from the ancient world, thousands of words inscribed on stone walls in the 400s BC that were deliberately reused to ornament a public building hundreds of years later during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Yet it’s still the Minoans who attract the most interest and adorn the posters at travel agencies.

Archeological excavations and the public presentation of archeological material in Greece and beyond involve contemporary and active decisions about what is and is not to be included. The careful reconstructions currently taking place on the Athenian Acropolis are, to the extent possible, making use of ancient masonry techniques, and, unlike Sir Arthur’s work, stick to that for which we have solid evidence.

But even this is a halfway measure because no matter the methods, it will always be the Acropolis of a certain period – specifically the Acropolis of Pericles, in this case – that is being restored, rather than the many centuries of building, tearing down and renovation that happened before and after Pericles. All over Greece, thousands of years of archeologically and historically rich material are sidelined by active decision-making in the pursuit of a certain vision of what the past should look like; in Athens, white temples are restored to gleaming, instead of medieval Frankish fortifications, while Minoan “palaces” stand sentinel instead of Roman provincial capitals.

There are no easy solutions to these knotty issues. Sir Arthur’s reconstructions bring thousands of tourists and millions of euros to Crete every year, and generate interest in history and archeology – fields worth pursuing, if I do say so myself. And any archeological program demands difficult choices: We simply can’t preserve and display everything.

We can, though, be more upfront and honest about what is displayed, what is not and why. We can also be more careful in thinking through the implications of our choices. For example, does focusing on “palaces” and the elites that lived in them take away from our understanding of the lives of non-elites? And could that spill over into a focus on elites even today, resulting in a poorer understanding of humanity?

The question becomes poignantly felt if you eschew Crete’s busiest landmarks and find your way to Lato – a fairly typical but remarkably complete city of the Hellenistic period, many centuries after the Minoans, that sits perched on a mountaintop. It contains all the day-to-day spaces – shops, shrines and houses – enjoyed by ordinary people in the ancient world, telling a fuller historical story than the more famous sites that it overlooks.

Open this photo in gallery:

The ruins at the archeological site of the Ancient City of Lato.ErimacGroup/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Although archeologists and historians now focus much more than they used to on the lives of ordinary people, those often invisible in the artistic or literary record, most people are still more aware of figures of the stature of mythical Agamemnon, Priam, Achilles and Hector, namely those most likely to live in structures we tend to call palaces. This means that the lives of the vast majority of those who lived in antiquity – lives full of the same cares, concerns and passions that many of us experience today – remain invisible to the public.

Of course, this is a problem that is far from unique to Greece. Closer to home, I’m reminded that Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa reserves the most prestigious permanent displays for paintings such as those of the Group of Seven, showing a Canadian landscape that has been deliberately stripped of the Indigenous people who lived in it. Almost everyone who went to school in Canada has an image of the country based on such paintings.

Historica Canada presents the country as a promised land at the end of the Underground Railroad, without, at least until recently, exploring Canada’s own complicity and participation in racism and slavery.

Art galleries, historical sites and educational programs must necessarily be selective, but it is incumbent upon us to be more careful and critical about these selections.

None of this need mean we get rid of some of our most treasured monuments and works of art – it only means we need to be aware of their context, and possibly expand our understanding of what counts as art, and what counts as history.

That brings us back to Sir Arthur Evans. His reputation has certainly taken a hit since the days in which he was seen as the unquestioned authority. But as those who now work on Crete remind me, he was working in a different time and with different ideas of how to study the past – and yet, his work had a level of modern-day conscientiousness (as opposed to, say, that of a treasure-hunter).

He advanced the science of excavation a great deal by keeping detailed records and demonstrating an understanding of stratigraphy, the method of dating archeological contexts based on what level at which they’re found. Today’s scholars are justified in critiquing his palimpsest recreation of Minoan history, but we should not be so quick to make objectivity the be-all-end-all; it plays down the reality that all of us work in a specific time, and from a specific standpoint, too. All history and archeology is conducted through lenses. Some lenses might be clearer than others, but the image is always distorted.

Sir Arthur might have dug through and obscured the many later phases of settlement at Knossos, but today, we fight all the same issues, whether it’s about removing Canadian statues of Sir John A. Macdonald or U.S. monuments to Confederate icons.

Many of our own current sacred cows will surely one day be sneered at by historians unaware of their own biases, and it’s only by acknowledging the mechanics of history itself that our society will be productive in the work of articulating that history.

Recently, a spectacular burial tomb was found at Pylos, on Greece’s mainland. The Tomb of the Griffin Warrior contains a vast array of ornate weapons, jewellery and other status objects – many appear to be from or inspired by Minoan Crete. We don’t yet know whether the Griffin Warrior was a Cretan, or whether he chose to represent himself with a lot of Cretan objects. But we can say, right now, that this discovery makes more plausible one of Sir Arthur’s most controversial ideas – that the Minoans he made famous had once dominated the entire southern Aegean.

That makes sense. Like the people he studied, Sir Arthur is now, himself, a part of history, his reputation ebbs and flows on the changing tides of scholarly research on the past. History happens to us all – it would help if we acknowledged that.

Keep your opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Interact with The Globe