The Anonymity of Antiquity

The Mycenaeans

by Lord William Taylour
Praeger, 243 pp., $4.75

The number of sites on the mainland of Greece now known to have been inhabited at some time in the Bronze Age runs to many hundreds. This is in addition to the islands and the western coast of Turkey, and the total grows steadily. In any single year, perhaps thirty are under active examination by archaeologists. Given the present quite remarkable interest in the subject, only limited manpower and funds keep the figure that low. And there are some ancient sites which cannot be properly excavated because they lie underneath the center of a modern community, until a happy chance intervenes, such as the builder’s bulldozer at Thebes which recently uncovered rather spectacular finds. A few of the places, Mycenae most notably, have become so familiar, at least as names, that one tends to forget how recent the whole story is—no older than the discoveries of Schliemann at Troy beginning in 1870, at Mycenae in 1876 and at Orchomenus in central Greece in 1881, and of Sir Arthur Evans at Cnossus in Crete in 1899. Since than a veritable Malthusian progression has occurred; hence Professor Vermeule’s paradoxical introductory remarks:

This book is probably written at the wrong time…. In a way we know less than we did before World War II; the rich new material which studs each year’s excavation reports is not yet digested or coordinated.

Fortunately Mrs. Vermeule did not draw the wrong practical conclusion, but went on to write her book nonetheless. The confident generalizations of the earliest excavators may have been shattered among the new-found ruins; they still stand pretty firm in the consciousness of all but the professionals who are able to study the flood of archaeological reports, and they go on being repeated in the not much smaller flood of popular expositions by the inexpert and the amateur. Scholars are suckers for Cornford’s Principle of Unripe Time, which tends to sterilize them and to turn their subject into an arid, private game they play among themselves. It requires courage to commit oneself to a broad, intelligible survey of a field which is in such a state of flux, but nothing less can justify all the effort currently being expended on prehistoric Greek archaeology. Astonishing as it may seem, Mrs. Vermeule’s is the first such attempt in English in a generation. And there aren’t half a dozen in other languages either.

The term “Bronze Age” is jargon, conventional shorthand for that period in any civilization during which copper and bronze, but not yet iron, were employed along with the older durable materials—stone, bone, wood, clay. On the Greek mainland the chronological terminals are 3000 and 1000 B. C., in very round numbers. In Crete it began later, not before 2500 B. C., and in western Europe both the initial and the final dates come down still later. A 2000-year “age” has to be further subdivided and a number of criss-crossing labels have come into use: Early, Middle …

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