Book Review: The Find of a Lifetime: Sir Arthur Evans and the Discovery of Knossos, by Sylvia L. Horwitz

(Originally posted on Amazon 11/3/2010)

find of a lifetime

The Find of a Lifetime is a biography of the great archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who in 1900 unearthed the great palace of Knossos and thereby brought to light an ancient and powerful civilization. The Minoans, as they came to be called (a name which they themselves probably did not use), were an important and powerful sea-faring people on the island of Crete who erected huge palaces and created works of art completely unique, but yet whose existence became only dimly remembered even in antiquity. By the time Evans began his work, the Minoans had faded to little more than legends of the Minotaur, the Labyrinth, and the stories of Daedalus and Icarus, and their very existence was doubted by most scholars as little more than a legendary fantasy. Evans discovery of Knossos changed all of that.

While title The Find of a Lifetime implies that Evans work at Knossos is the centerpiece of the work, that part of Evans life is really only handled in an abbreviated, cursory manner. Only the rough, highpoint aspects of it are covered, and far more detailed attention is paid to Evans early life as the son of an equally prominent antiquarian and scholar (Sir John Evans), as well as his years in the Balkans and various crusades for Balkan independence and freedom from the Ottoman Empire. His years as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford are also covered, including his work to transform that institution into the world class museum it is today. But really, his work at Knossos remains his most important contribution, and I was rather disappointed to find that this book covers it in such a rudimentary way. Perhaps the author felt that much of that story was already well known and hence more attention should be paid to the less known aspects of Evans life. To be sure, the entire subject is not ignored, and some effort is made to track Evans various thoughts and scholarly debates. But compared to the non-archeological aspects of the work, I found the coverage of the archeological aspects of Evans life to be decidedly lacking, a definite defect for the biography of someone who is regarded as one of the great Archeologists of all time.

Horwitz’s prose is not remarkable but is readable. Her writing rarely attempts to make sense or read into Evans’ character, but instead simply reports his life matter-of-factly with little analysis. While she does do a very good job of outlining Evans life and why he is important to our understanding of ancient Aegean culture, I don’t think she does much to make us understand Evans as a person. It is an okay book, but I do not feel it is a particularly insightful one. Those who are interested in learning about the life of Evans will probably find it of interest, but those who are more interested in the actual work he did at Knossos and the Minoans in general will probably want to look elsewhere.

3 Stars out of 5 Stars