One enormous virtue of Cathy Gere’s Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism is that she leaves to one side the barren debate over whether Evans himself was a good or a bad character, either archaeologically or politically. Her subject is not so much the excavation of Knossos but the role that Minoan archaeology played within twentieth-century culture (and, conversely, how twentieth-century culture, from Evans on, projected its own concerns onto Minoan archaeology). It was at Knossos, she argues, that prehistory gave shape to a prophetic modernist vision, which repeatedly reinvented the Minoans as Dionysiac, peaceable protofeminists in touch with their inner souls.
Admittedly, they were presented in subtly different shades as time and politics moved on (more or less free love, for example), but they almost always appeared in stark contrast to the militaristic Aryan culture of their roughly contemporary prehistoric rivals, the Mycenaeans. From de Chirico to the Summer of Love, from Jane Ellen Harrison to Freud and H.D., theorists, artists, and dreamers found their future in the remote Minoan past.
Gere writes with clarity and wit, but she never sacrifices the fascinating complexity of her tale to a simple story line. She is excellent, for example, on the “blurry boundary between restorations, reconstructions, replicas, and fakes,” insisting that there is no clear and undisputed line that separates the processes of archaeology from those of invention or forgery. One of her most telling examples is the so-called “Ring of Nestor.” According to Evans’s own account (which is suspiciously vague on some of the details), this gold signet ring had been dug up by peasants on the Greek mainland near the site of Pylos, the legendary home of King Nestor, one of Homer’s heroes—hence the ring’s nickname. On the death of the finder, it passed to a neighbor, at which point Evans got to hear about it and “thanks to the kindness of a friend” (as he put it) he was shown an impression of its design. He immediately went to Pylos to acquire it. For, although it was not strictly Cretan, he believed that the intricate image on its bezel represented the Minoan Mother Goddess among scenes from the afterlife; and he was particularly excited by the vague traces of what he interpreted as butterflies and chrysalises (of the common white), “symbols of the life beyond.”