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 …

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Letters

Alsop’s Archeology May 28, 1964