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  • Writer's pictureKatie Manby

Myths, ancient and modern: Labyrinth at the Ashmolean

10.2.23 – 30.7.23

Ashmolean Museum; £15.30; concessions available.

Curator: Andrew Shapland

In the weeks following my visit to the Ashmolean, despite the title, I often found myself referring to the exhibit as Knossos rather than Labyrinth – a subtle but noticeable difference. The exhibit is certainly more about the city of Knossos and the explorations there of archaeologist Arthur Evans than any fabled labyrinth. The curators avoid the cliché of setting up the space as a labyrinth, although a type of minotaur (half one thing, half another) perhaps more terrifying than any mythical beast, is to be found at the end of the galleries in the form of a multi-media art installation. But beyond the specific notion of the Labyrinth, the broader importance of story-telling, fabrication, and invention still has relevance. The exhibition confronts the visitor with a difficult problem: to what extent are such archaeological realities just myths by a different name?

The labyrinth is a thing of fable, lost in the mires of time. Perhaps choosing to name the exhibition after something so intangible was always going to be something of an anti-climax. A better title might have been ‘Knossos: Labyrinth, Myth and Reality’, but I have a feeling this would attract fewer visitors. The labyrinth was the maze-like structure, confounding the unwary visitor, created by the architect Daedalus for King Minos to hold his monstrous step-child the Minotaur. Its association with Crete, and specifically the settlement at Knossos, has long been part of the myth, an association evidently enjoyed by members of the community, who from 425BC began minting coins depicting the labyrinth.

Early photograph of Sir Arthur Evans in the ‘Palace’ of Knossos, 1901. Part of the Ashmolean's collection (GB 1648). © Ashmolean Museum

Fast forwards to modernity, it's no surprise that many generations have sought the maze with varying degrees of success. Multiple locations on the island have been identified with the labyrinth. One suggestion, the most famous, is that it stands beneath the archaeological remains of the Bronze Age ‘palace complex’ at Knossos, or should be associated with some of the nearby Cretan cave systems (I say ‘palace’ because the purpose of the structure is also highly contested). The search for the labyrinth culminated in the late 19th century with renowned archaeologist Arthur Evans who was responsible for early excavation of the ‘palace’ complex. He first visited the site in 1894, with excavations taking place between 1900-1904. For him, the ‘palace’ with its multiple small, cross-cutting rooms, acted as the inspiration for the myth. It should be emphasised that this link between the ‘palace’ and labyrinth existed before Evans, but his work has ensured they have now become synonymous. Following his excavations, he carried out extensive reconstructions of the archaeological ‘palace’ remains, using them to further support his vision. The Ashmolean’s exhibition concentrates largely on Evans’ discovery and re-interpretation of this structure at Knossos.

Photograph of entry view into the exhibition Marble sculpture of the Minotaur surrounded by one of Mark Wallinger’s ‘Labyrinth’ pieces © Ashmolean. Photo Ellie Atkins

Entering the exhibition, you’re confronted by a Roman marble sculpture of the Minotaur. He sits in a stylised maze, one of the depictions of the Labyrinth by artist Mark Wallinger. These images, black and white schematic line drawings of a maze with a red cross at the entrance, were part of a larger project in 2013 celebrating 150 years of the London underground. I found myself stalled, staring at one on a recent visit to London Bridge tube station, wondering how many of these images I’ve walked past in the last few years without noticing. 270 such pieces of enamel artwork were erected, one at every tube station, each a unique representation of entering into the London tube system, itself a labyrinthine (at least to a non-local) experience.

Setting the minotaur within one of these labyrinths means that he is indeed found rather quickly. The rest of the room he sits in focuses on depictions of the Minotaur and Theseus within the Classical world. This moves on to Medieval and later perceptions of Knossos, including spectacular pieces such as the 19th century Admiralty map of Crete (a personal favourite), giving insight into how the island was represented over time.

Admiralty charts of Crete, 1872, originally owned by Arthur Evans. Photo: Author.

We then move onto Evans’ work. He was based at the Ashmolean for much of his career (as Keeper between 1884 and 1908). A good attempt is made (in this room at least) to remind the visitor that although Evans carried out much of the early excavation at the ‘palace’ of Knossos, Minos Kalokairinos, Cretan scholar and businessman, was responsible for early discovery and investigation of the site. This brief interlude notwithstanding, the rest of the exhibit largely prioritises the results and implications of Evans’ work at Knossos.

Left: Top register of the main exhibition space showing colonnades wallpaper inspired by Evans’ reconstruction of the ‘Palace’ at Knossos (Photo: Author); Right: Photograph showing a Cretan worker in 1900 next to a pillar inscribed with the double axe symbol, West Pillar Crypt, Knossos ‘Palace’. © Ashmolean Museum

The main space looks at early excavation results, including the plans that led to the association of the ‘palace’ with the Labyrinth. Evans particularly linked the ‘palace’ with the myth following the discovery of the double headed axe symbol inscribed around the structure (likely a builder’s mark), which he took to represent horns of the minotaur. There is a particular focus on how Evans’ interpretation of the ‘palace’ at Knossos impacted restoration work of the archaeological remains, and thus later interpretation of the site. The decoration of this room supports the theme, with the upper registers showing the reconstructed red colonnades of Evans’ great court. This restoration work was highly speculative, creating a circular economy whereby Evans’ restorations supported his vision of the ‘palace’ and the labyrinth, which then fed back into future restorations. For example, part of the North entrance was reconstructed with a bull fresco, which Evans claimed continued to exist even after the destruction of the palace, acting to inspire the myth. At the end of the section we find a replica wooden throne commissioned for Evans’ house at Youlbury. It is illustrative of just how intertwined Evans’ own life became with the myth he created, the throne replicating a stone seat (if indeed it was more than a chair!) recovered from Knossos.

Left: the 'throne' in situ in Knossos (Photo: Roger Gomes); Right: the 'throne' replica in the exhibition (Photo: Dominic Dalglish).

As someone at the early stages of a career in archaeology, I couldn’t help but compare my own potential future position to Evans. This was not a delusion of grandeur expecting future major exhibitions to be hosted in my honour! Rather, the exhibit highlighted the increasing professionalisation of the archaeological discipline (within Britain at least). Long gone - most would say rightly - are the days of a lone influential male figure, usually self-appointed, leading excavations for singular sites, particularly international ones.

This change is positive in many ways, but also reflects how altered working practices within the discipline have disrupted the ability to create compelling narratives for certain sites. These more linear narratives normally appeal to a non-specialist audience and thus lend themself to curation of an exhibition. The situation today is certainly different, with smaller-scale excavations usually running for a shorter period, and by consortiums or companies rather than one leading figure. The resulting picture can be somewhat fractured and certainly more difficult to curate. The result of Evans’ excavation campaigns was the cementation of the association between the ‘palace’ of Knossos (particularly the version Evans’ reconstructed) and the labyrinth. The Knossos exhibit was a reminder of what a compelling story the archaeology of one individual at one site can create. But also how far archaeological reality is very rarely, if ever, this straightforward.

The last section of the exhibit, feeling more like a last-minute addition, focuses on modern excavations around Knossos’ hinterland, with objects displayed in a more traditional museum setting within cases along the walls. That is not to say this area does not represent a great deal of work, and indeed it’s a shame that this is slightly relegated. Several excavation campaigns on different sites in the ‘palace’ hinterland are compressed into one small space. Indeed, with potential evidence of human sacrifice, this area contains one of the most intriguing considerations for the reality behind the labyrinth myth. Does the separation of this material represent the difficulty of displaying multiple smaller projects, lacking one individual or overall site with which to thread them together?

Photograph of a player looking over the landscape of Knossos ‘Palace’. Still from Assassin’s Creed, Odyssey. © Assassin's Creed & Ubisoft Entertainment.

As well as the archaeological focus, the exhibition contains two additional spaces that comment in their own way on the exhibition as a whole. One features a performance of the Ubisoft (2018) video game, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (the noise from which resonates around the exhibition). Continuing the theme of reconstruction, this is something of a digital vision of the Knossos/Labyrinth myth. The clip chosen shows the moment a player enters the ruins of Knossos in 431 BC, all vaulted ceilings, panning shots and conveniently placed vines to swing on. It is clear how much Evans’ reconstruction of the ‘palace’ has pervaded - the distinctive red of his colonnades from the Great Court is picked up throughout the video. Like the Greek Black-figure vases from the first exhibition space showing the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Evans’ work has become just one more reiteration of the myth. Despite these deeper themes, I was still left wondering, as with Alex Grindley’s recent piece on video games within exhibitions, how much this clip was meant truly as an interpretive statement, and how much it was included as an apparently novel section of the exhibit. Certainly the explanatory panels for the video clip did not draw out the impact of Evans’ reconstructions on the game as much as they could have done.

The second side room, immediately before the exit for the exhibition, is where we find the minotaur-come-video-art-installation on continuous loop: A RESTORATION by Turner Prize winning Elizabeth Price. Originally released in 2016 as a stand-alone exhibit, this 18-minute video features a series of archival photos, graphics and bold text set against a cacophony of sounds and electronic voice-overs. The piece takes you on its very own labyrinthine journey through the photographic archive of excavations at Knossos from the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers museums, contained within a computer hard-drive. There’s a particularly jarring aspect of moving between a more traditionally situated display of archaeological material, into the separate medium of an ultra-modern video conflation. The video - despite at first viewing seeming almost impenetrable - works through the material types from the ground up, first flowers and fauna, then building foundations, major areas of the ‘palace’, artistic depictions of humans, and finally the objects contained within the ‘palace’. The final sequence follows a goblet depicting a crowned king (Charles II), exploring the destruction of this piece and the sounds this destruction would cause. The challenge to Evans’ entire project is clear, bringing to mind the wider implications the destruction of this reconstruction will have.

Still from A RESTORATION (2016), showing part of the final sequence which focuses on the collecting and mingling together of objects from multiple time periods and locations. © Elizabeth Price and MOT International London and Brussels.

The question of how to display digital material is coming under increasing scrutiny. Digital archives can consist of both older material that have been digitised - in many cases photographs, as well as work which is inherently digital in nature with no analogue equivalent. In the age of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and an overabundance of data storage, curators are faced with the problem of how to represent increasingly large volumes of data which cannot be displayed by traditional means. In many ways this is also a positive, giving opportunity to display material that may not otherwise have been seen, but it challenges more traditional curatorial approaches. The A RESTORATION installation is Elizabeth Price and the curators’ attempt at tackling this material, an attempt that is now seven years old -quite a while for a relatively fast moving area. Although empathising with this problem, I wonder how successfully this installation conveys both the challenge of the digital problem, and the potential of the archival material within their collection.

As someone interested in the subject, I saw it twice, and had to read the explanatory board outside the room three times to understand what the piece intended to achieve. At 18 minutes long, the casual visitor certainly won’t be sitting through the whole performance, and this is what’s really needed in order to excavate the subtext buried (deep) within it. The first time I visited, I watched six minutes before leaving, mostly none-the-wiser. Most visitors will instead be left with that slightly unsatisfied feeling (I personally) often get with some types of modern art, that the piece is intended to be different purely for the sake of being different. Like the minotaur, torn between two halves, the piece doesn’t fulfil its potential as a commentary on the state of digital archives, nor is it an especially enjoyable end to the exhibition. As I left, a primary school aged child was towing his mother and younger sister into the room (despite her protests that they needed to leave) to see what was in there. No doubt drawn in by the noise and flashing lights, I can’t help but wish I had stayed around longer to see how much of the video they watched.

Leaving the exhibition felt somewhat like leaving a mirage. I looked back into the distance and wondered what I had seen. The curators had made a clear attempt at breaking through Evans’ vision of Knossos, but the power of his reconstruction resisted. I’m not sure the exhibition manages to pull apart the different layers of the myth that Evans used to construct his own reality from the (always partial) archaeological remains, and in turn how his reconstruction of the site has served to perpetuate the illusion of the myth. The relegation of the more modern excavation results to the final room, all clustered together, particularly highlighted this. Like the original myth, Evans' vision has become all pervasive; it is difficult to tell where it begins, and I suspect his influence will never quite have its end. It feels like attempts to find any notion of ‘reality’ in a case like this is doomed to fail. Is there even any concept of an unbiased, neutral reality, or are we all just living in our own version of the human myth?


Katie Manby is a Contributor at Curation Space

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