The English archeologist Sir Arthur John Evans (1851-1941) discovered and excavated the most important sites of Minoan civilization in Crete and thus made the greatest single contribution to the knowledge of European and Mediterranean prehistory.
Arthur Evans, the eldest son of archeologist Sir John Evans, was born on July 8, 1851, at Nash Mills, Hertfordshire. He received his education at Harrow and at the universities of Oxford and Göttingen and was appointed a fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford. In 1884 he became curator of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, a post he held until 1908, when he was appointed extraordinary professor of prehistoric archeology at the university.
Evans was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1901, was knighted in 1911, and served as president of the Society of Antiquities (1914-1919) and president of the British Association (1916-1919). His important publications date from his early years of excavations in Crete. He died near Oxford on July 11, 1941.
Evans was originally led to take an interest in prehistoric Crete following a visit to Athens, where he examined some engraved gems and ascertained that they were of Cretan origin. He visited Crete in 1894, and 5 years later he purchased the Kephala site near Knossos. He worked at Knossos until 1935. His excavations in Crete were carried out simultaneously with Italian, American, and other British excavations, but his were by far the most productive.
Evans uncovered a hitherto unknown civilization of the Bronze Age which he named Minoan after the legendary Cretan king Minos. He divided the materials that he excavated into three main epochs, Early, Middle, and Late, stretching in time from 3000 B.C. to 1200 B.C. Within each epoch he distinguished successive phases of pottery art which he established as indexes of technical and artistic development. His dating, as well as some of his important historical conclusions, was challenged by some scholars as late as 1960.
Evans's findings, supplemented by the work of other archeologists, showed that Minoan culture was to a certain degree a formative cause in the Mycenaean culture of mainland Greece. He also found indications of contacts between the Minoan civilization and that of Europe and Egypt. He unearthed many samples of two pictographic scripts named Linear A and Linear B, which he was unable to decipher. (In 1953 Michael Ventris and John Chadwick proposed a decipherment of Linear B, and they concluded that it was written in archaic Greek. Linear A is still undeciphered.) Evans's work on Crete supplied vital chronological indexes for the Mediterranean culture of the 3d and 2d millennia B.C.
Biographical studies are John Linton Myres, Sir Arthur Evans, 1851-1941, in British Academy Proceedings, vol. 27 (1941), and Joan Evans, Time and Change (1943).