• Email
  • Print

Alsop’s Archeology

In response to:

Alsop's Archaeology from the April 16, 1964 issue

To the Editors:

There are two or three things that need saying about M. I. Finley’s recent review in your columns of my book, From the Silent Earth.

To begin with, it is more than a little odd that Finley should charge me, with a great show of indignation, with “choosing sides absolutely” in the absorbing current argument about the correct reconstruction of Greek bronze history. He not only asserts that I favor what he calls “the Blegen-Palmer position” without qualification; he further says that I have “misrepresented…as a dying minority” the “rest of us” who “reject the Blegen-Palmer position.”

This is odd, first of all, because Finley himself so recently had an ideal majority to reject the Blegen-Palmer position; but on this earlier occasion, he instead adopted a position very close to my own. In the New Statesman, he lately published a damp little review of L. R. Palmer’s and John Boardman’s On the Knossos Tablets. In this crucial book, Palmer presents all his arguments for his position (which is only in part the position of C. W. Blegen) and he is then most ably answered by John Boardman. Yet when called upon to judge between Palmer’s arguments and Boardman’s counter-arguments, Finley confessed that he wished to “sit quietly and wait” for more evidence on one side or the other. I too think that this is the only sensible course. I too believe, with Finley, that the “debate…will have to go on for quite some time,” and I too consider, as I pointed out in my book, and as Finley said in the New Statesman, that the “next move is with the archaeologists.”

There is a difference, however, between judging between Palmer’s and Boardman’s archaeological analyses, which Finley admitted that he was unable to do, and I am also unable to do, and judging the inherent probability of the two chronologies that Boardman and Palmer are arguing about. The central point at issue is simply the date of the destruction of the Palace of Minos at Knossos. Sir Arthur Evans gave 1400 B.C. as the date, and Boardman defends Evans’s view. C. W. Blegen a few years ago suggested that 1200 B.C. or a bit later was a more likely date, and Palmer is a crusading advocate of Blegen’s view. Enormous weight must of course be given to Evans’s opinion, above all since he was the great excavator of the Palace of Minos. But the opinion of Blegen is also persuasive, particularly since the brilliant proof, quite unforeseen by Evans, that much the largest archive from the Palace of Minos was written in an archaic form of Greek. If the “Linear B” decipherment is accepted—and even now acceptance is not quite universal—then it is not easy to assume that the Knossos “Linear B” tablets date from 1400 B.C. while the closely similar “Linear B” tablets found by Blegen at Pylos have a date a full two centuries later. There are several other arguments of the same character that favor a later date for the destruction of the Knossos palace; and there is little to weigh in the balance against these arguments, except Evans’s interpretation of the strictly archaeological evidence from the Palace of Minos itself, which has now been strongly and effectively supported by Boardman.

The strictly archaeological evidence is of course more important than what I have called inherent probability. If Finley had felt certain enough about the right interpretation of this evidence to give a final judgment in favor of Boardman—if he had not been driven to confess that he would “sit quietly and wait”—he would be justified in rejecting any argument not based on the archaeological evidence. But while we “sit and wait,” in this period when Finley himself has told us that the “next move is with the archaeologists,” whose spades alone will settle the controversy, we are surely justified in considering inherent probabilities—providing we always remember that probabilities are not certainties.

In addition to a gross misstatement of my position, and a fairly astonishing dissonance with Finley’s own position as stated in the New Statesman, the Finley review also contains a quite serious error of fact. He attacks my suggestion that the Dorian conquest may well have been followed by “a fairly long period of see-saw fighting,” and inquires why this conquest of Greece should not have been as “rapid” as the Norman conquest of Sicily. Evidently Finley is unaware that the Norman conquest of Sicily also involved a considerable period of seesaw fighting—rather more than thirty years, in fact, from the first raid until the fall of the last Saracen fortress, Noto, in 1090 A.D. It was a remarkably rapid conquest in relation to the tininess of the invading force, numbering only a few hundred Norman knights; but the conquerors did not “sweep through” Sicily as Finley implies they did. One must add that if Finley thinks so poorly of the political arguments in favor of allowing some time for the final collapse of Mycenaean Greek civilization, he might at least consider the archaeological arguments. As usual, these must be weighed against counter-arguments, but they are still interesting. As is well known, the Dorian invasion—if the invaders were indeed Dorians—caused a Greek refugee movement to the coast of Asia minor. The earliest refugee settlement as yet discovered in Asia Minor is dated no earlier than 1100 B.C. by its excavators. This is also the date given by the present chief excavator of Mycenae, Professor George Mylonas, for the final fall of the citadel. Professor Mylonas further gives the date of 1200 B.C. for the burning of A. J. B. Wace’s “house of the oil merchant” and other destruction that seems to indicate an earlier attack on Mycenae. This date of the first destruction at Mycenae in turn fits rather neatly with the date given by C. W. Blegen for the burning of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos, which is also 1200 B.C. But perhaps Finley was unaware of all this, since as he so proudly says, he has not found it possible to read “all that has been published on the subject.”

Joseph Alsop

Washington, D.C.

M.I Finley replies:

In my review I objected to Mr. Alsop’s failure to give any consideration to arguments against the “Blegen-Palmer view of Bronze-Age society.” The current dispute over the date of the fall of Knossos relates to a very tiny part of that larger subject. On the dating the arguments are purely archaeological in the narrowest, most technical sense. Mr. Alsop now resorts to the oldest of debating tricks, singles out what I said in a short notice about the dating alone, and implies that this is all that I have written on the question, and that therefore I, too, leave the whole subject to the archaeologists. He must know that, on the contrary, I have been an open and persistent opponent of the “Blegen-Palmer view of Bronze-Age societyand history for the past ten years, at times in direct debate in print with Professor Palmer. I can only repeat what I wrote in my review: it is odd for a man who disclaims taking sides not only to ignore all the counter-arguments but to dismiss them contemptuously as nothing more than a desperate attempt to save the reputation of Sir Arthur Evans. I con only repeat further that Mr. Alsop’s own “inherent probabilities” are usually irrelevant or worse. It reveals plain ignorance, for example, to assert that “it is not easy to assume” a 200-year gap between the Knossos and Pylos tablets when they are so “closely similar”: far larger time-gaps exist between just as similar cuneiform documents in the same period.

As for my “quite serious error of fact” about Sicily, Mr. Alsop should read more carefully. He wants a gap of at least a century between the fall of Pylos and the fall of Mycenae for reasons of “political sense.” I asked why the supposed Dorian sweep (in which I do not believe and which he now concedes may not be an absolute certainty) could not have been “as rapid” as the Norman conquest of Sicily. I wrote “as rapid”, not “instantaneous”, and thirty-plus years is rapid enough for me, too rapid for Mr. Alsop’s “political sense” argument about the Dorians.

For a really “serious error of fact” one must turn to the final paragraph of Mr. Alsop’s letter. He makes much of the supposed coincidence between Mylonas’s date of 1100 for the final destruction of Mycenae and a similar date for the “earliest refugee settlement yet discovered in Asia Minor.” But the experts on the archaeology of Asia Minor at present prefer a date for what he calls “refugee settlements” nearer 1000 than 1100. Where does Mr. Alsop keep his Mycenaean “refugees” waiting for at least two generations after 1100 for a chance to migrate to Asia Minor, not to mention the “refugees” from Pylos and other centers which were surely destroyed as early as 1200? The latter were as much, or as little, the victims of Dorian invaders as the inhabitants of Mycenae. The history of the Greek Bronze Age cannot be reduced to this kind of arbitrary numbers game.

  • Email
  • Print