The Villa Ariadne

Dilys Powell


The Villa Ariadne

Dilys Powell


The Villa Ariadne stands above the Minoan ruins of Knossos in Crete, a memorial to the British archaeologists who built, lived and worked there. Dilys Powell brings to life the autocratic founder Arthur Evans and his successor John Pendlebury, whose heroic leadership of the local defence against German invasion in 1941 made him a legend. The villa was also the site of the daring kidnap of German General Kreipe by special operations officers, including Patrick Leigh Fermor, in 1944.  But The Villa Ariadne is far more than just their story. Uniting ancient myths and history with first-hand observation and tales she is told, Dilys Powell leaves us a complex portrait of the island as a whole – a place she knew and loved for forty years.

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The Villa Ariadne
ISBN: 978-1-78060-035-2
Format: 224pp demi pb
Place: Crete, Greece


Author Biography

Elizabeth Dilys Powell, CBE (20 July 1901 – 3 June 1995) was an English journalist who wrote for the The Sunday Times for over fifty years. Powell was best known as a film critic, noted for her receptiveness to cultural change in the cinema, and she coined many classic phrases about films and actors. She was also one of the founder members of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which launched commercial TV in the UK.


Extract from Chapter One

Arthur Evans saw Knossos for the first time in the spring of 1894. That is to say he saw a rounded flowery hill known as Kephala, overlooking a stream and bearing on its surface, among the blossoms of anemone and iris, stone blocks with curious markings. Legend, endowed in Greece with a special tenacity, had preserved for scholars the identity of the site. Here Daedalus had designed for Minos, King of Crete, the labyrinth in which lived the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull. But to the Cretans Knossos was known by a humbler name. Sixteen years before Evans’s visit an antiquarian from Herakleion, or Candia, as it was still generally called, had dug up some large ancient storage-jars on the spot, and the local people had come to refer to it as sta pithária—the place, as you might say, of the jars.

The remains visible on the surface—fragments of walls, gypsum blocks—had already attracted foreign archaeologists, and American, German, Italian and French enthusiasts had reconnoitred the hill. Some of them had thought of exploring. Schliemann himself, excavator of Troy and of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, had proposed to dig, but the plan had fallen through. Possession of the land presented the greatest difficulty. As Evans soon discovered, the first requisite for carrying out an archaeological exploration was to be owner of the soil. But Crete up to the end of the nineteenth century was still under Turkish rule, and the Knossos site, he wrote, ‘was unfortunately held by several co-proprietors, native Mahometans, to whose almost inexhaustible powers of obstruction I can pay the highest tribute’.

In Evans, however, the Mahometans had met their match.

He was a confident, slightly lordly figure; small but indomitably tough and capable of exceptional exertions; short-sighted but endowed with close vision of inestimable value to an archaeologist dealing with the minutiae of coins and seals. He came of a family of parsons and antiquarians who in the generation before him had joined forces with the world of industry. His father belonged to the company of Victorian polymaths. Denied an academic education, sent instead to work in the paper-mills of his uncle John Dickinson, John Evans learned mastery of the job; making a love match, he married the daughter of the firm; and finally came to run the business. But his ruling passion was elsewhere—in the fields of numismatics, geology and anthropology.

He amassed a vast collection of flint implements and prehistoric bronzes; his discoveries in palaeontology made him internationally famous. To his physical vitality the family circle itself was witness. He was three times married, the last time at the age of sixty-nine, and Arthur, his eldest son, was forty-two when of the third marriage a half-sister, Joan, was born. And in the grand Victorian manner the physical resources were matched by ceaseless intellectual and social activity. Treasurer of the Royal Society, High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, President of the Anthropological Institute, Chairman of Quarter Sessions—John Evans unmasked archaeological forgeries, fought against the excise duty on paper, resisted a vandal restoration of St Alban’s Abbey, taught himself to make flint implements. He attended innumerable committees and congresses, he travelled incessantly, he carried on an enormous personal and business correspondence.

It was not surprising that at the age of twenty-four Arthur should have been condescendingly described (by the historian J. R. Green) as ‘little Evans—son of John Evans the Great’.

Arthur Evans, then, grew up in an atmosphere of enthusiasm for learning. As a schoolboy he was already accompanying his father on archaeological expeditions. He inherited the habit of prodigious industry. For the first half of his life, however, his energies were dissipated. He became archaeologist, collector, administrator, journalist, above all traveller: in France, Germany, Sicily, Sweden, Finland, Lapland, the Crimea and the Balkans—in particular Bosnia and Herzegovina, later to be part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but at the time of his visits first in Turkish hands and later under Austrian protection. His journeys and a certain romantic liberalism in his nature ranged him on the side of the Slavonic peoples. He was special correspondent in the Balkans for the Manchester Guardian and campaigned on behalf of the Bosnian insurgents. When in 1878 Turkish rule was succeeded by what he regarded as an oppressive Austrian administration—and by more insurrections—he continued to send fiery despatches to England, with the result that the Austrian authorities took him for a political conspirator, ordered his expulsion—and arrested him before he could leave. He spent seven weeks in a prison cell in Ragusa (now Dubrovnik), a city in which he had enthusiastically settled and which he had come to think of as his home. Fifty years were to go by before he revisited Dalmatia. To the official who in 1932 showed him round the prison he had once occupied ‘I come back every fifty years’, he said (adding, it is reported, in a soft obstinate voice, ‘and I will’).


In 1887 Evans had married the daughter of the historian Freeman, and with her after his expulsion from Ragusa he settled in Oxford. In 1884 he was appointed Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, then a muddle of antiquities and curiosities housed in what is now known as the Old Ashmolean.

Ten years later—ten embattled years during which he had secured grants from the University; through loans, bequests, purchases and his own inextinguishable activity—had transformed the display as well as the collection itself; in short had created for Oxford an archaeological museum worthy of the name—the new Ashmolean he had fought for was being built. He was doing some building of his own too. While the Ashmolean battle raged he had conceived the idea of a house on Boar’s Hill. With the financial help of his father he bought sixty acres of woodland, with a fine view, and began to plan. The house was to be a refuge from the frustrations of Oxford and a place of recuperation for his wife, who was ill, and as a start he built for her a kind of log cabin in the woods. In 1894 he was moving into the new Ashmolean, and Youlbury, as his Boar’s Hill house was called, was finished. But it was too late. His wife was dead, and the big Victorian house in the setting of garden, lake and woodland had lost its initial purpose.

He was now forty-three; for most men those forty-three years might have seemed full enough. It was at this point that he set off on his first Cretan journey.

Of course he had been in Greece before, had visited Mycenae and Tiryns, met Schliemann, seen the great Mycenaean discoveries—and found them, understandably when you think of the direction his life was to take, much more stirring than the monuments of the much later classical period. Recently he had been thinking of the possibilities of Crete. He had come to believe that ‘a prehistoric system of writing’ was to be found somewhere in the island, but he had never gone to look. Now, with the Ashmolean fight half won and his domestic ties tragically broken, he came at last to Knossos.

He was not looking for the Palace of King Minos or the legendary maze through which Theseus sought the Minotaur. He came bent not on revealing and re-creating a lost civilisation but on following ‘a clue to the existence of a system of picture-writing in the Greek lands’. He saw a ring, a piece of an ancient vase, some engraved gems, traces of mysterious signs on stones, and these were the relics and the clues which changed the course of his life. Or, rather, gave his life its true direction.

Ranged on his side at this crucial moment was his powerful inheritance of obstinacy, energy, enthusiasm. And there was something else: money. He had never, all his life, truly known the lack of money. He had always possessed means of his own. There was an allowance from his father. There was a legacy from his grandfather. Always behind him there was the faithful backing of a well-to-do family. He needed to own the Kephala site. The obstructive Mahometans never stood a chance. Before he left Crete that spring he had arranged to buy a quarter share of the necessary land—a share which would later give him the right to buy the whole.

A year later he was back at Knossos. John Myres, a famous, romantic and adventurous figure from the ranks of ancient historians, was with him; they were eating their lunch in the open air on a slope overlooking the site when suddenly Evans announced: ‘This is where I shall live when I come to dig Knossos.’ The absolute certainty was characteristic, and here in fact it was that the Villa Ariadne was built.

But not yet. Five more years went by before Evans could begin excavation. Bosnia and Herzegovina were not the only places where Turkey was losing hold. Crete at the end of the nineteenth century was in revolt. There were massacres and counter-massacres.

Greece landed an expeditionary force. Everybody expostulated, the Great Powers sent in naval detachments and the British took over Candia. In 1898 Evans was once again writing despatches for the Manchester Guardian—and taking part in relief work in the distressed areas of Crete. Meanwhile he went doggedly on trying to buy the rest of the Kephala site. Finally in 1899 the last of the Turkish forces left the island. Crete became autonomous (union with Greece came much later—in 1913). Prince George of Greece, appointed High Commissioner for the Powers, showed himself friendly to foreign archaeologists; and Evans wrote that ‘after encountering obstacles and delays of every kind’ he was able at the beginning of 1900 to purchase the whole of the Knossos area, ‘this favourable result being due in large measure to the new political circumstances of the island’.

He was now a Cretan landowner and could apply for a permit to dig. But he had not yet come into his own fortune. He could not finance the whole operation, and together with David Hogarth, then Director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, he organised a Cretan Exploration Fund.

The results were disappointing. ‘Owing to the war in South Africa the contributions from this source fell far short of what was needed.’ Nevertheless on March 23 he began digging. His assistant was Duncan Mackenzie, an archaeologist with experience of field work for the British School on the island of Melos. The workmen were both Moslem and Christian ‘so that the work at Knossos might be an earnest of the future co-operation of the two creeds under the new régime in the island. Considering,’ Evans comments drily ‘that a few months earlier both parties had been shooting each other at sight, the experiment proved very successful.’

If allowances are made for the passage of time and the change in the value of money since 1900 the life briefly described in Evans’s first report (published in the British School Annual) is recognisable to anyone who has watched archaeological excavation in Greece and particularly in Crete. The keenness of the workmen (‘great intelligence in the more delicate parts of the work’); the dancing on a feast day; the hated south wind bringing clouds of dust—true that nowadays the archaeologists themselves and not the local women would probably wash the potsherd, that eight piastres (less than sevenpence in today’s English money) would scarcely be a day’s wages. But the general picture is familiar. What is not familiar is the immediate success.

When after the Cretan revolt of 1897 against Turkey, after the massacres and the intervention of the Great Powers, Evans had gone back to look at Knossos and the land, part of which he already owned, he had been thankful to find corn growing. The fighting had done no damage, nobody in that troubled year had disturbed the site. But then with the exception of the antiquarian from Candia and a former American Vice-Consul who also had reconnoitred nobody, as Evans presently discovered, had disturbed it, or at any rate much of it, for about three thousand years. He spent a week in preliminary excavation on the slopes of the hill of Kephala; when you dig you need somewhere to dump the earth, and you must be sure that you are not dumping it on ground which you will want to dig later. The trial explorations were more than enough to show that he was on the right track. After a few days he could have no doubt that the hill, the fields he had bought were the site, that the flowering soil was the thin covering of a huge complex of ancient buildings.

He had come to Crete—he said so repeatedly—to look for an early system of writing. Exactly a week after the first pickaxe had been driven into the soil there was his first piece of evidence, ‘part of an elongated clay tablet ... engraved with what appeared to be signs and numbers’. A few days later ‘an entire hoard of these clay documents’ was discovered. By the end of the season he had found over a thousand inscribed tablets, fragmentary or complete.

Not all used the same system of writing. A few had inscriptions in the hieroglyphic or ‘pictographic’ manner which he had found on engraved seals and which had drawn him to Crete in the first place; they recorded by signs, by stylised drawings (‘the double axe, the bent leg, the eye ... the branch or spray’). Ten times as many used a linear script. These turned out to be in not one but two kinds of writing, presently known as Linear A and Linear B. The latter, the more advanced, became a subject for savage controversy, and its deciphering would exercise scholars for the next half-century.

But gratifying to Evans as this discovery was there were more spectacular finds.

Archaeology often brings to light relics—mysterious foundations, tumbled blocks, a charred sacrificial pit, the decaying stumps of dead houses—fascinating to the scholar but a stunning bore to the simple visitor. Knossos was different. It was not simply that the masonry of terraces and corridors persisted or that a passage was found to lead to a series of magazines with huge storage-jars standing over secret lead-lined storage-cists. It was that during their first season the explorers unearthed the remains of a civilisation fantastic in its aesthetic luxury. Still clinging to the walls or lying broken on the floor of portico or gallery there were frescoes brilliantly painted on plaster: groups, drawn in miniature, of court ladies with tiny waists, naked breasts, flounced skirts and hair in curls; the life-size figure of a young man—the Cup Bearer, as Evans called him—wearing an embroidered loin-cloth and silver ornaments, carrying ‘a fluted marble vase with a silver base’ and forming part of a long ritual procession. At one point the decorated walls were no more than a few inches beneath the surface of the soil. The excavators dug to find a room with paintings of griffins crested with peacock’s feathers and crouched against a background of water plants and palm trees. On adjoining walls there was a painted landscape of hills, a river and flowering sedges; gypsum benches ran along the sides; between two benches stood a gypsum chair with a base and a high leaf-shaped back. ‘The elaborate decoration, the stately aloofness, superior size and elevation of the gypsum seat’, Evans decided, ‘sufficiently declare it to be a throne-room.’ A throne-room, then, a Palace with a throne- room. ‘The seat itself’, he wrote in his first report, ‘is hollowed out to suit the form of the human body and, as it was probably also covered by a cushion, must have been a comfortable resting-place. In an adjoining room to the West a less carefully executed slab of a seat was found in which the hollowed space was larger, and’, he added in delicate surmise, ‘it seem probable that this was intended for a woman, while the seat of the throne seems better adapted for a man.’ Refinement could scarcely go farther.

That year digging went on until the beginning of June, when malaria from the stream which runs at the foot of the Kephala hill made work too difficult. A nine weeks’ season, nine weeks of success during which, as the annual report of the British School


‘To light upon’—the phrase suggests a trust in the workings of Providence to which the energetic and self-reliant Evans would not have subscribed. Nor would he have entirely endorsed certain other comments made that year at the School’s annual meeting. The chairman was Asquith, a few years later to be Prime Minister. Speaking not without irony of ‘the days when Sir Charles Newton, with a firman in his pocket, a Company of Royal Engineers and Sappers at his back, and a British man-of-war lying at a handy distance in a convenient bay, was able to rifle at his will the half- hidden treasures of Cnidus and Halicarnassus’, he remarked that since then ‘a humbler and more apologetic mien’ had been adopted by the British archaeologist. ‘There is no longer pride in his pick or defiance in his spade.’ Shortly after the meeting Evans was writing to his father about a second appeal for finance and the risks of placing everything in the hands of a Fund Committee.

The Palace of Knossos was my idea and my work, and it turns out to be such a find as one could not hope for in a lifetime or in many lifetimes ... we may as well keep some of Knossos in the family! I am quite resolved not to have the thing entirely ‘pooled’ for many reasons, but largely because I must have sole control of what I am personally undertaking. With other people it may be different, but I know it is so with me; my way may not be the best but it is the only way I can work.

recorded, he had been ‘fortunate enough to light upon the remains of a great prehistoric palace’.

There was defiance in his spade all right, and nobody now would have called him ‘little Evans’.

The fever which halted excavation in the summer of 1900 affected living arrangements too. In the first season Evans had shared with Hogarth, who was for a time engaged in excavating another part of Knossos, a Turkish house in the neighbourhood. ‘... We are busy giving it a drastic disinfecting and internal whitewashing, but it is a truly oriental abode with a kind of cascade fountain in the principal reception room and a small aqueduct running through the house.’ But the Knossos house was too near the stream to be healthy. For the 1901 season he took a house in Candia, and together with Duncan Mackenzie and the architect Theodore Fyfe, who had been called in from the British School to draw plans of the excavation, he rode out to the site every day on mule-back ‘through a tunnel-like gate’, as Joan Evans writes in her book Time and Chance, ‘over the town moat, past the lepers congregated to beg outside’.

The Candia house was his headquarters for the next five years: five more years of epoch-making discoveries. Among the finds in that period were many which are familiar now to thousands of tourists: the inlaid gaming-board of ivory, gold, silver, rock-crystal and a pattern of daisy and nautilus; the ‘Priest-King’ bas-relief with crown of lilies and peacock’s feathers; the acrobat carved in ivory; the bull-leaping fresco; the snake-goddess figure.

Sometimes the exploration, while it produced evidence of a rich lost civilisation, might have seemed to the layman to darken the mysteries. The ‘ivory object in the shape of a knot with a fringed border’—a ‘sacral knot’, Evans called it; and those minatory ‘horns of consecration’ depicted on gems or shaped in stone (as you walk round the Palace you can see a great pair of them); the snake- goddess herself with her long aproned skirt and naked breasts and the serpents coiling round arms and hips and head—what did it all mean? All very well to say that the double axe—incised on stone, painted on pottery, fashioned in bronze to be offered as a votive, buried in tombs, erected as a thing to be worshipped—was a cult object, the sacred emblem of the Cretan Zeus (‘labrys’ was an ancient word for a double axe, and ‘labyrinth’ probably meant nothing more than ‘the House of the Double Axe’). Scholars may explain and argue (Evans quotes W. H. D. Rouse as refusing to believe that the double axe could have been worshipped: ‘The Greeks would be as likely to worship a pair of top boots’). But over the centuries the feeling persists of threat, secrecy, darkness.

Often, though, excavation gave validity to something which had existed only in the shadowy form of fable. In the legend Minos had exacted from Athens a yearly tribute of seven youths and seven maidens who were left to wander in the labyrinth, there to fall victim to the Minotaur. Gems showing a bull-man had already come from Knossos. Now not only were there seal impressions with the figure of a Minotaur; among the frescoes were scenes in which both young men and girls grappled with a charging bull; a girl seizes the horns of the animal, a young man somersaults over its back. ‘It may well be’, Evans commented, ‘that, long before the days when enslaved barbarians were “butchered to make a Roman holiday”, captives, perhaps of gentle birth, shared the same fate within sight of the “House of Minos”, and that the legends of Athenian prisoners devoured by the Minotaur preserve a real tradition of these cruel sports.’

The terrible myth had broken through into history. Like Schliemann, who believed in the basic truth of the Iliad and found his evidence at Troy and Mycenae, Evans had a vision of a lost age and transformed the vision into reality. ‘The Palace traditionally built for Minos by his great craftsman Daedalus has proved to be no baseless fabric of the imagination.’

As time went on excavation presented massive problems. Knossos turned out to be vast not only in area but in depth. The labyrinth was composed of storey upon storey, colonnade upon colonnade. A stairway had not one but several flights, and digging out the fourth of them was really ‘miners’ work’. Luckily two of the workmen had at one time been employed in the mines at Laurion and were equal to the job.

Next year, however, an upper wall was found to be heeling over and ‘it became necessary to resort to heroic measures’. A section was cased in planks and no fewer than sixty men harnessed to ropes pulled it to an upright position in which it could be wedged and cemented. Monuments covered with soil for centuries and suddenly exposed to the weather may deteriorate; Evans had to roof in the Throne Room. What is more, he had to support the roof, and since a fresco had given him a model for the shape and colour of the original columns he decided to try to reproduce them.

It was the beginning of a long series of restorations. A Swiss artist, Gilliéron, was summoned to help in piecing together the fragments, often tenuous in the extreme, of the frescoes—and to supply missing arms, legs, faces and landscape backgrounds; critics began to suggest that restoration often became a work of the imagination. Architectural students from the British School at Athens were employed in solving structural problems. Walls were propped, pavements reconstructed, pillars replaced, upper storeys held in place; by the third season there was already ‘a serious expenditure’ on bricks, iron and timber. One winter there was alarming damage from rain. Part of the multiple stairway—the Grand Staircase, Evans called it—had collapsed. In the necessary rebuilding a hitherto undiscovered balustrade came to light. That led to the restoration, ‘but in stone with a plaster facing in place of wood’, of the original columns which had bordered the flight. Evans was entranced by his ‘legitimate process of reconstitution’. ‘To a height of over twenty feet’, he wrote in one of his regal passages,

there rise before us the grand staircase and columnar hall of approach, practically unchanged since they were traversed, some three and a half millennia back, by Kings and Queens of Minos’ stock, on their way from the scenes of their public and sacertotal functions in the West Wing of the Palace, to the more private quarters of the Royal household.

Naturally the size of the job—excavating, conserving, restoring—meant a growing army of labour. In the first season he employed a number of workmen fluctuating between fifty and one hundred and eighty. The following year he often needed two hundred. By 1902 that had gone up to two hundred and fifty, among them ‘over a score of carpenters and masons’. The record offers an amusing contrast with the balance-sheet of most English archaeologists, lucky if they can scrape together the wages of a dozen pairs of hands; and there were times when Hogarth, who had been digging first at the cave on Mount Dicte which was the legendary birthplace of Zeus and later at Zakros in East Crete and who also drew on the Cretan Exploration Fund for his expenses, was inclined to remonstrate. But after all Evans, not to mention his father, a generous subscriber, had from the start contributed a good deal of his own money. He had bought the site. When in later years he spoke of the extent of his operations a note of unconcealed gratification crept into his voice. It was in his nature to live large, make the grand gesture.

Among the monuments of Knossos was a large paved rectangle with tiers of low steps on two sides: ‘a primitive Theatre’ which he judged might have been used for ceremonial dances. The German archaeologist Dörpfeld, former assistant to Schliemann, was accustomed during an annual island cruise to bring his party to Knossos. To this day the Cretans are splendid dancers; and one year the visitors were entertained in the ‘Theatral Area’ by a dance of the Cretan workmen and their womenfolk—‘a dance, maybe, as ancient in its origins as the building in which it took place’.