8th January 2013

The Odd Couple

Nicoletta Momigliano of Bristol University visited us again in January and she chose to focus on the people behind the archaeology rather than archaeology itself.

The Odd Couple of Nicoletta's title are the two early excavators of Knossos in Crete who made the site so well known that it is still Greece's main archaeological attraction after the Parthenon in Athens. Both were British. Arthur Evans was a wealthy Englishman and Duncan Mackenzie a Scot of more humble origins.

Evans name has become associated with Knossos because of his publications and his personal financial commitment to its development. His major contribution to the development of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford during his twenty five years of tenure as Keeper also added to his reputation. Mackenzie, often referred to as Evans's second in command, is not such a well-known name but was arguably as important to the Knossos project as Evans. Far from being a gentleman digger, Mackenzie was "a bright lad from a very poor family who made good". Being the son of a Highland gamekeeper, he had a prodigious intellect and gained entry to the University of Edinburgh where he achieved a first class degree in Philosophy. After a number of academic posts abroad he was awarded a Doctorate at the University of Vienna.

Mackenzie was already an accomplished field archaeologist when he was engaged by Evans to work at Knossos in 1900. They continued to work together for the best part of thirty years. Mackenzie's recording was meticulous and his 28 day books are the only continuous record of the excavation. They contain lots of plans and photos and are much more detailed than Evans occasional plans. Despite their sometimes patchy coverage the level of detail as quite remarkable for the time. They are still consulted (at the Ashmolean Museum)today and enable the re-interpretation of the findings in in the light of modern knowledge.

Another important role that Mackenzie performed was liaising with the local workmen, as he had an easy manner and established a good rapport with them. He was often invited to family events and even on one occasion found himself acting as best man. Evans, who never mastered the local dialect, left him to it.

But an archaeological dig then as now, is a co-operative venture, calling for concerted teamwork by all involved. Nicoletta's research has produced some intriguing detail about some of the others involved at Knossos.

Crete at that time was still emerging from Ottoman rule, had a mixed population of Christians and Muslims. It was only in 1923 that a major exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey took place which resulted in the predominantly Greek culture of the island that we see today. Evans and Mackenzie exercised a conscious policy of employing both Christian and Muslim workers with the express intention of trying to promote peace and understanding between the two groups. There are even photos of them dancing and feasting together.

Nicoletta described a succession of colourful local foremen. Alevisos was "singularly stupid in all that relates to excavations" and was swiftly sacked by Mackenzie. Gregori Antoniou, on the other hand, known as the" bull-necked Cypriot" became highly skilled at many tasks and worked at the site until the Great War forced an interruption to the excavations.

After the War a Muslim foreman was employed. His name was Ali Varitakis and his nickname "The Philosopher" was earned on account of his tendency to voice his opinions on every aspect of the dig. Manolaki was factotum and foreman after 1927 and he played an important part in helping Mackenzie to organise the exhibits in the Museum that was set up to display the finds from the excavations.

Nicoletta recounted how she had met Manolaki's son in the early 1990s. Apparently the father had come from western Crete to sell cherries but having seen the excavations had become so fascinated that he stayed on to work at the site. And finally there was Kosti who made excellent porridge but was, it seemed, inclined to moodiness!

Other individuals who contributed to the creation of the spectacle that we see at Knossos today were the architects Theodore Fyfe and Christian Doll and the artist Piet de Jong (surprisingly a Yorkshireman) who restored the noted dolphin fresco and also produced a series of caricatures of famous archaeologists, including Arthur Evans. The Guillerons (father and son), who helped restore the colourful frescoes, also ran a bit of a sideline in producing fakes.

And the visitors! Knossos is one of the essential sites on the cultural tourist route and this wag established very early on in its development. The Baedeker guide of 1900 has nothing at all about Knossos but by 1913 the entry runs to 18 pages. Royalty and celebrities alike were attracted in large numbers. The story is told of a visit by the celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan who was shown around by Mackenzie and broke into an impromptu dance that greatly shocked the unfortunate Scot.

Nicoletta's cavalcade of individuals involved in the excavations at Knossos made an enjoyable change from our usual fare of archaeological analysis, but it was also a fine testament to her detailed research, much of it based on Mackenzie's 28 daybooks.

But an archaeological revelation came during question time with the insight that Knossos, like Caltilar in her previous talk and so many other sites that one tends to associate with Turkey, was a Hoyuk or Tell; a mound of accrued debris representing some 8000 years of continuous occupation.

Nicoletta is currently negotiating a new dig in Crete. We hope she is successful and dare to look forward to a future talk on its progress. Please see link below for more information

Peter Johnson