Raiders of the Lost Past review – Janina Ramirez proves history isn’t a man’s world | Television

As we crawl, weighed-down but determined, towards more enlightened times, history and historiography are having a moment. The best-known of those who seek to unpick the idea that history is written by the winners – and that those winners tend to be fairly homogeneous – are David Olusoga and Mary Beard. But Janina Ramirez is coming up on the inside.

Her new series of Raiders of the Lost Past (BBC Two) opens with an account of the discovery of the Palace of Knossos on Crete by Sir Arthur Evans that emphasises how very much easier it was to do these sorts of things when you were a very, very rich white man born into every advantage halfway through the 19th century in the land where the sun never set. If you do not think this is true, or if that this point undermines the achievements of Arthur and his ilk, then we will have to talk later and at greater length than a 500-word television review will allow. In the meantime, just take comfort in the fact that there is still a 2021 primetime show all about him on one of the major broadcast channels, and relax.

Evans beat various competitors in the race to procure a licence to excavate and spent the next 30 years unearthing evidence that showed ancient Greek civilisation had begun a thousand years earlier than previously thought. And he discovered an entirely unknown, forgotten culture – he called the Minoan – which preceded even ancient Greece. He wrote it all up in a series of six volumes, and that was that. History made!

Except, that was then, this is now, and a lot has happened in between. And a lot of that has been deconstructing what the Victorians thought they knew and wrote down to teach others. It has been noticed, for example, that Evans’s records entirely omit the fact that he had been shown the findings of excavations at Knossos that had taken place 20 years before he got there by a man called Minos Kalokairinos, who had hoped to use them to improve the vexed relations between Crete and mainland Greece.

It has also been noticed that once you don’t see everything through a Christian monarchist lens, the 1,000-room network looks a lot less like a palace or temple and much more like an administration centre for the thriving commercial empire the Minoans had going. And that the art unearthed suggests their society was – and if this remains hard to believe now, it was inconceivable to Arthur – one that considered women to be perhaps wholly equal to men. I know. Excavate THAT.

Only now are archaeologists beginning to literally piece together all the evidence from Evans’ excavations that he ignored. The small stuff – not the thrones and the frescoes but the things that show us how the ordinary people lived and worked and spent their time.

Ramirez’s unforced enthusiasm and readiness to tamp down her own knowledge and let the experts speak came to the fore in this section, as she was shown one of the tiny clay drinking vessels used and discarded in their hundreds and marvelled – as anyone must – at the 4,000-year-old thumbprint left by the potter. Evans considered them as disposable and insignificant as their original owners did. What wonders he must have missed and, as a result, denied us all. Victors make losers of so many.

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