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Sir Arthur Evans


Cartoon of Sir Arthur Evans by Piet de Jong, 1924.


Sir Arthur Evans, 1936.

Sir Arthur Evans was the son of the famous prehistorian Sir John Evans. Educated in Harrow and Oxford (Brasenose college, 1870–1874; first class in Modern History), he travelled across Europe for many years. He visited the Balkans in 1871 and 1872 and Scandinavia in 1873. In 1875 he spent some months of study at the University of Göttingen before visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was a committed supporter of Slav freedom and the creation of an independent Yugoslavia. In 1877 he returned to Dalmatia as a correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. He married Margaret Freeman (1848–1893) in 1878 and settled in Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik). In 1882, Evans's open support of the nationalist Slav cause led to his imprisonment and subsequent deportation by the Austrian authorities. Evans and Margaret returned to Oxford in 1882/1883.

In 1884, Arthur was appointed Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. During his 25-year keepership he transformed the Ashmolean into an archaeological museum of international importance and a first-rate research institution. He increased the archaeological collections of the museum enormously, buying some 2,000 objects a year. In 1894 he moved the collections from Broad Street (today the Museum of History of Science) to Beaumont Street behind the University Galleries (supported financially by Charles Drury Fortnum). In 1908, the two institutions were officially amalgamated in order to create the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. Evans retired after the amalgamation in order to give way to the newly merged institution (he was succeeded by David Hogarth).

Aside from his work in the Museum, Evans travelled further in eastern Balkans, Greece and Italy. He also visited North Africa with John Myres. He was a pioneer in identifying sites of Roman cities and roads in Bosnia and the region of Macedonia. He mapped the Roman road system and carried out modest excavations in the Balkans (e.g. Risan in Montenegro). He travelled in the Caucasus and Crimea but from 1893 onwards his interests shifted to Greece and especially Crete.

Between 1894 and 1899 he travelled extensively in Crete in search of evidence for pre-alphabetic writing in the Aegean – a search that led to the identification of three systems of writing that Evans called Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B. From 1900 and until 1931 he conducted excavations at Knossos, bringing to light the largest palace site known to date in the Aegean and adding a new chapter in the history of archaeology and art of the Mediterranean.

A prolific writer, with a great command of several foreign languages, his legacy remains alive in the extensive and controversial restorations at the palace at Knossos and in the voluminous Palace of Minos, a compendium of Minoan archaeology encapsulating Evans's vision of Bronze Age Crete (not a proper archaeological publication by modern standards; yet, a true publisher's feat with six volumes and an index, 3108 pages and 2433 text images in total).

During his long life, Evans organised exhibitions, gave several public lectures (including the Ilchester lectures in 1884 at Oxford and the Rhind lectures in 1895 at Edinburgh), and was among the pioneers and patrons of the boy-scouting movement in the UK. Evans was also a founding member of the British School at Athens (1886) and of the British Academy in 1902 (established in 1909 and received its royal charter in 1902).

An ardent liberal, Evans was politically active throughout his life. He firmly supported the creation of a 'South Slavonic monarchy built out of Austria and the Balkans' and the independence of Czechoslovakia. In his excavations he employed both Christian and Muslim Cretans, at a time when Crete was an autonomous state. He wrote extensively about the southern Balkans, and especially Illyria.

Arthur Evans was also interested in coins and European prehistory, clearly influenced by his father. He managed to convince the Bodleian Library to move the coin collection to the Ashmolean (1922: Heberden coin room). He excavated sites around Oxford and beyond (e.g. the Roman villa at Frilford, near Oxford, and the late Celtic urnfield cemetery at Aylesford in Kent) and was one of Oxford's first field archaeologists.

In 1901 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society and in 1936 he received the prestigious Copley medal, among the many other academic and scientific distinctions. During WW I, he was president of the Society of Antiquaries (1914–19) and of the British Association (1916–19), and as a trustee of the British Museum helped, in 1918, to rescue that institution from the Air Board, and hasten its rehabilitation.

Well-off by birth, he always lived comfortably and within an intellectually vibrant environment. He grew up in Nash Mills, Hemel Hempstead. During his keepership in Oxford he originally stayed with his wife Margaret at 33 Holywell Street and from 1894 until his death at Youlbury in Boar's Hill near Abingdon. Following his father's and uncle's deaths in 1908 he became the recipient of two legacies which he largely invested in his archaeological work in Crete.

In 1908 he presented part of his father's collection to the Ashmolean. The rest was given in 1927. In 1938 he gave a large part of his private collection to the Museum, although objects, which he had personally acquired, were, almost annually, being presented to the Ashmolean over a period of 60 years.

Arthur Evans died in 1941 at the age of 90. Evans was of small build, thickset, of great strength and endurance. Wealth at death according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography £182,460 14s. He had no children.

Following Evans's death, the remainder of his archaeological collections were bequeathed to the Ashmolean. So was the archival material, especially that relating to his work at the Ashmolean and his archaeological work in Greece and beyond. The papers were originally sorted out by Dame Joan Evans. The initial deposit of papers was part of the 'Sir Arthur Evans bequest'' presented to the Ashmolean by Dame Joan Evans in 1941.

The remainder of the papers were largely bequeathed to his nephew John Dickinson Evans, son of Lewis Evans, who in turn passed them to his own son. This son was married to Barbara Evans and on her husband's death she passed the papers to his brother Arthur L. Evans Esq. of South Africa. Aside from these papers, a small selection was also in the possession of John Evans' daughter Joan. She bequeathed her papers to the Ashmolean Museum but instead they were collected by Arthur L. Evans and taken back to South Africa. In 1985 Arthur L. Evans made a formal gift of all of the remaining papers to the Ashmolean Museum.

The Ashmolean, representing the University of Oxford, holds the copyright on all the Evans/Knossos unpublished material that came to it through Evans' 1941 will. Copyright in the unpublished material that came to the Museum from Arthur L. Evans (Evans' great-nephew in South Africa) in the early 1980s was explicitly assigned to the Ashmolean Museum at the time. The Mackenzie, Fyfe and Doll's notebooks were produced while their authors were employed by Evans at Knossos and the copyright in these also belonged to Evans (they came to the Museum via the same source). All the other archival material has been donated by deed of gift and is Ashmolean property.

Major biographies and articles on Evans's life and work:


Cartoon of Sir Arthur Evans by Piet de Jong, 1924.


Sir Arthur Evans, 1936.