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Alsop’s Archaeology

From the Silent Earth

by Joseph Alsop
Harper & Row, 296 pp., $7.50

Ever since Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans opened up the Bronze Age of Greece, a whole network of interesting and complex historical problems have been debated. Then came the announcement in 1952 of Michael Ventris’s unexpected discovery that Greek was the language of most of the clay tablets found in Cnossus, Mycenae, and Pylos, those inscribed near the end of the Bronze Age in the cumbersome script which Evans called Linear B. That was surprise number one. The content of the short texts provided the second surprise, for they revealed a highly centralized, highly bureaucratic would, in which the palace apparently controlled, managed and duly recorded all the operations of the society, from sheep-farming and land allocation to manufacture and war and religious sacrifice. There were parallels in the Near East at the time, but nothing like it ever recurred in ancient Greece after the Bronze-Age civilization was destroyed, nor did the later Greeks have even the dimmest memory of such a past.

When did Greek speakers first enter the Greek peninsula? What kind of society did they find and what effect did their immigration have? How did these people acquire the technical skills, the wealth, and the control over great labor forces which obviously lay behind the palace-fortresses? Who were the pre-Greek peoples of the region? What were the relations between the Minoan civilization (as the Cretan is known by convention) and that of the mainland of Greece? How on earth did the centralized bureaucratic system of the tablets come into being? Who destroyed this civilization, and why? How does the Trojan War fit into the picture?

These are some of the main questions. Not one of them could have been asked seriously a hundred years ago, and today they are still much easier to ask than to answer. Apart from the tablets, our witnesses to the history and society of the Bronze Age are material objects: architectural ruins, grave furniture, pottery, jewelry, weapons and other metal objects, small sculptures, and mere fragments of frescoes. Add less than two dozen tantalizing Hittite documents which seem to refer to the Greeks and such inferences as may be drawn from language and myth and the Homeric poems and you have all the evidence from which a thousand-year history must be reconstructed. One need not be an expert to appreciate that the inferences will be limited in their range, speculative and debatable, or to understand that ten years have hardly been enough for the massive re-thinking made necessary by Ventris’s decipherment. Mr. Joseph Alsop may jeer in his “Report on the Greek Bronze Age” (as his book is sub-titled) at the mistakes of an older generation of scholars and at those experts in the present generation who are unable to agree with the two authorities he follows most closely, Professors C. W. Blegen and L. R. Palmer. But the more he jeers, the more he reveals his own lack of comprehension of both the complexities of the problems and the ways knowledge is advanced. Besides, why should ancient historians and archaeologists not be allowed their fair share of human folly and acerbity, as large a share, for example, as political correspondents?

I have not ventured to judge the archaeological record itself,” he writes in his Introduction, “and with very minor exceptions, I have tried not to choose sides in the disputes about the record.” Whether a man ought to (or can) write a book on this subject without trying to “judge the archaeological record,” when no other kind of record is available, is a question to which I shall return, But first I must insist that, despite what he says, Mr. Alsop has not only chosen sides absolutely, he has even failed to extend the other side the courtesy of stating this position. The Blegen-Palmer view of Bronze-Age society is entitled to serious consideration, and Mr. Alsop is surely free to adopt it as the correct one if that is what he believes. What he has no right to do, however, is to misrepresent the rest of us as a dying minority, or to reduce our rejection of the Blegen-Palmer position to a combination of academic stick-in-the-mud business and a passionate desire to save the reputation of Sir Arthur Evans. Having read “just about everything concerning Crete and early Greece that has been published in my lifetime in…English and French,” has Mr. Alsop not come across a single argument worth considering on the other side? I have not found it possible to read anything like all that has been published on the subject in English and French, but even so I could direct him to some fairly interesting arguments, in a number of the books listed in his own bibliography, for example, arguments which not even he could degrade into a mere “vested interest” in Evans.

In the end, the only justification for this book is its final chapter. Until then there is nothing but a shrill, inexpert repetition of the views of other men who can be read in the original: Blegen on Troy, Wace on Mycenae, Palmer’s My-cenaeans and Minoans. At second hand they too often come out like this:

…Blegen and some other scholars incline to think that the Trojans of Troy VI and of Priam’s city were actually of Greek stock. This would explain why, in Homer, the two sides are nearly always able to communicate without language difficulties. But here again all is murk, shot through with dispute. Although a hunch of Professor Blegen’s is usually worth more than the wellreasoned arguments of several other men, no one can be absolutely certain where the truth lies.

Then comes the following footnote:

But free communication is an epic convention, as Sir Maurice Bowra has kindly pointed out to me. At Roncesvalles, the Saracens are described as understanding Roland with no difficulty whatsoever.

I suppose there are some who will find such an open admission of the lack of elementary technical competence engaging. I find it an odd way to write a book. But at least this passage is modest, which cannot be said of the many judgments Mr. Alsop delivers on the basis of “my own long, specialized experience as a political analyst.” Thus he prefers the latest of the proposed dates for the effective end of Mycenae, about 1100 B.C., a century after the fall of Pylos, and his reason is that the longer time gap “makes better political sense on the assumption that the first onslaught of the Dorians was followed by a fairly long period of seesaw fighting.” What has “political sense” to do with the tempo of an invasion? Besides, why does it not make “political sense” to allow the Dorians to sweep through the Peloponnese (if the destruction was their work, which is not nearly so certain as he thinks) as speedily as (say) the Normans conquered Muslim Sicily, a rapidity which he himself notes fifty pages later in another context?

Here again we get the standard disclaimer: “I cannot judge the archaeological facts.” Archaeological dating is a complicated, inexact business, but the arguments are intelligible to the layman and they are interesting. Mr. Alsop rarely explains what they are, and he apparently does not himself fully understand how they work, for if he did, he would not pick and choose among different schemes. Each scheme is an interlocking whole. Knock one element out and the whole has to be redrawn. It is really not helpful to inject “political sense” into the analysis of the evolution of pottery styles or of changes in architectural techniques, which make up the evidence on which archaelogical dating rests.

This is not to deny that there are areas of analysis in which political understanding does come very much into play. But when I am told that the “basic political processes in the Bronze Age are really highly unlikely to have differed greatly from basic political processes in other eras” (alternatively: “politics having been politics since the Stone Age”), my confidence in the analyst is shaken. We know enough about Egypt and Babylon in the second millennium B. C. to make nonsense of that banal generalization, not to mention the profound differences in “basic political processes” evident within a single era, our own for one. The fact is that “political sense” and “political processes” are often used so vaguely as either to mean no more than “I believe” or to justify arguing by analogy with other societies without having to defend the choice of analogy. It all reaches its climax in the last chapter. There Mr. Alsop puts forward the hypothesis that Greeks invaded Crete and seized power earlier than has hitherto been believed, that they learned and used the language and script (Linear A) they found on the island, that there followed “the rapid emergence of a Greco-Minoan synthesis” which then “fed back…into mainland Greece,” where eventually the Linear B script was developed.

In the present fluid state of our understanding, this hypothesis probably ought to be looked at, but not many of Mr. Alsop’s arguments and guesses in its favor have merit. For one thing he cannot cope (and admittedly doesn’t try to cope) with the archaeological evidence. For another he is bemused by “the Greeks” as some sort of entity with a fixed, definable, and seemingly eternal national character or spirit. That familiar fallacy makes its appearance early in the book when he writes that, thanks to recent discoveries, “the Greeks at last got back the credit for their own earliest history and art.” And it recucs repeatedly:

These Greeks of the late Bronze Age were artistic creators of a very high order…Their art furthermore strikes me…as being specifically Greek in character; for it is humanistic, life-loving, full of sensuous enjoyment of every kind of beauty.

When, one wonders, does Mr. Alsop think the Greeks began to be “specifically Greek in character” and when did they cease? Were the earliest immigrants, about whose primitive rudeness he writes eloquently, humanistic and so on? The Spartans? The Greeks of the later Byzantine Empire? Did these too “love novelty like all Greeks”? National character, like “political processes,” can be a meaningful and useful concept when properly understood and employed. They can both equally be reduced to empty verbiage.

The crucial argument in the chapter, a negative one, turns out to be beautifully unanchored. Mr. Alsop properly insists that the central fact requiring explanation is the evolution of Bronze-Age Greek society from its rude origins into the excessive centralization of the late palaces. He rules out “voluntary, radical self-transformation, by conscious imitation of a foreign model” because that is “the rarest sort of episode in human history” (unless there are “hot-gospelers to spull them on”). He also rules out the existence of any real need for the later kind of social organization (“not required by conditions in Greece”). Therefore, he concludes by a curious logic, “it is as certain as anything can be” that the late palace-system “was an import or acquisition” (even without hot-gospelers). Not from foreigners naturally, but from their fellow-Greeks who had found and taken over such a system in Crete. QED, except for one tiny point: Why did the pre-Greek society of Crete, where conditions also did not require such a system, either invent it or import it from abroad? I am unable to discover any hint that Mr. Alsop noticed that gap in his chain (or rather circle) of reasoning. What’s sauce for the goose….

It would be less than frank to close without recording that the book is presented with the warm blessings of two very distinguished authorities, Sir Maurice Bowra and Professor Sterling Dow. They both put the author in the class of noble “amateurs” that includes Schliemann, Evans, and Ventris. Mr. Alsop’s amateurism is amply demonstrated, but I know no sense of that word which can reasonably be applied to Schliemann, let alone Evans, other than the irrelevant one that they were rich enough not to need a salary. As for Ventris, he was so conscious of the limitations imposed by his amateurism that, the moment he hit upon his decipherment, he immediately sought and obtained the full-time collaboration of a professional philologist, Dr. John Chadwick.

Finally, it would be wrong not to record full appreciation of the wonderful photographs, the highly professional work of Miss Alison Frantz.


Alsop’s Archeology May 28, 1964

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