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Archaeology and European Modernity: Producing and Consuming the ‘Minoans’

17 November 2006

In recent years, scholars have started exploring the relationship between archaeology, ‘Modernity’ and Europeanism. A new book examines the intriguing case study of ‘Minoan’ Crete, often claimed to be the ‘cradle of European civilisation’.

On 23 March 1900, partly spurred by the spectacular discoveries that Heinrich Schliemann had made a generation earlier at Troy and Mycenae, Sir Arthur Evans started his famous excavations at Knossos – excavations that epitomise the rediscovery of the Bronze Age material culture or ‘civilisation’ of Crete.

This ‘civilisation’ was dubbed ‘Minoan’ by Evans himself, after the legendary King Minos, whose fortunes (and misfortunes) have been known over the centuries through later Greek sources, starting from the Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and especially through the works of ancient Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Thucydides.

This ‘civilisation’ was dubbed ‘Minoan’ by Sir Arthur Evans, after the legendary King Minos

Evans and many other scholars immediately described this newly discovered civilisation as ‘European’ and ‘modern’.  These characterisations find their origins largely in the specific historical contingencies (such as the contemporary conflicts between various European states and the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the European Modern Style as a reaction to Classicism) and the nationalist, colonialist, and orientalist ideologies prevalent in the19th and early 20th centuries, to mention only a few of the most obvious.

But even nowadays, after more than a century from its rediscovery, and in much-transformed political and ideological circumstances, the notions of  ‘Minoan’ Crete as the ‘first European civilisation’, its ‘modernity’, its sophistication and many other stereotypical notions (such as the matriarchal character and peaceful nature of Minoan society, and its monotheistic worship of a ‘great mother goddess’) continue to find new currencies in the political agenda of the European Union as well as in many other political and intellectual projects at local, national, and international level..

More than a century after its rediscovery, notions of  ‘Minoan’ Crete as the ‘first European civilisation’ continue to find new currencies in the political agenda of the European Union

The volume Archaeology and European Modernity: Producing and Consuming the Minoans (Padua, 2006), edited by Yannis Hamilakis (Southampton University) and Nicoletta Momigliano (Bristol University), represents the first multidisciplinary effort to understand critically the disciplinary history and reception of the ‘Minoan’ past, by bringing together contributions by archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, art historians, literary scholars, and educationalists. 

The volume comprises sixteen chapters, which cover an exceptionally wide array of topics, ranging from the historical and intellectual environment in which the rediscovery of ‘Minoan’ Crete took place to the role of the ‘Minoan’ past in Freudian psychoanalysis, and from the reception of Minoan motifs by modern European artists (such as F. Kupka  and L.N. Bakst,) and writers (such as. N. Kazantzakis, Henry Miller, and Don DeLillo) to the reception and impact of the ‘Minoans’ in the tourist industry, in the daily lives of local communities, and in primary school education in Crete.  

Dr Nicoletta Momigliano/Department of Archaeology and Anthropology


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