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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, and Late Helladic on the one hand, or Mycenaean (= Late Helladic) and sub-Mycenaean on the other, to cite the best examples. What distinguishes these periods above all, though not solely, are ceramic techniques and styles, because pottery is the most indestructible, much the most numerous, and, in the absence of writing, the most classifiable of the surviving material remains. It does not follow that the way a society shapes and decorates its jugs and vases is the best key to its civilization. That is understood, even when archaeologists unconsciously slide from one kind of classification to another and illegitimate one, and then to evaluation and judgment. One of the few serious criticisms which can be directed against Lord William Taylour’s splendid introduction to the “Mycenaean” period is his title (imposed on him by the series in which his books appears). Saying “the Mycenaeans” implies that there existed a Mycenaean people in the sense of “the French” or, at least, “the French Canadians.” But all that the label can legitimately say is that from about 1600 B. C., a considerable area in Greece (plus some settlements in and across the Aegean Sea) shows a remarkable archaeological uniformity which was first properly appreciated in our time by a study of the ruins at Mycenae. If the people had a common name for themselves then, it was surely not “Mycenaean.”

Classifications, it is well known, are often the handiwork of Pygmalions; their creators have a habit of infusing them with life, forgetting that they are not, and cannot be, anything but abstractions. When a certain kind of pottery with a soapy texture, which Schliemann rather fancifully named Minyan ware after a mythological hero, diffuses very widely and rather suddenly after 1900 B. C., the temptation is not sufficiently resisted to announce a migration into Greece of the makers of Minyan ware, who then become “the Minyans.” Apart from the absurdity of the name—and there really must be a limit to these conventions—the argument itself is suspect. It is not altogether frivolous to propose “the Wedgwoodians” or “the Beatlemaniacs” as parallels. We have no right to assume that prehistoric and archaic societies were immune from sudden waves of fashion. A new style in pottery, or any other new idea, could have been initiated internally even in prehistoric times—why must all originality always be attributed to outsiders?—or it could have come from abroad by example, been adopted in one place at first and then spread rapidly because it caught on, all without a mass migration.

If I seem to be making much out of a single, rather restricted culture-trait, I do so in order to illustrate how thin and brittle are the foundations of our history of the Greek Bronze Age. For Mrs. Vermeule, as for many workers in this field, Minyan ware is central because they hold that “the Minyans” were the first Greek speakers in the area. What trouble the Greeks brew the moment they are mentioned. Say what you like about their predecessors in the Aegean; no one minds except an archaeologist here and there. But mention the Greeks and the endocrine glands begin to flow. “The contacts and window dressing of the age were Cretan,…but the spirit was pure Greek.” That is said not of the age of Pericles but of the objects in the so-called tholos- or beehive-tombs a thousand years earlier.

Yet one must have sympathy. There is a limit to austerity: it would be inhuman to go on and on merely describing objects, ruins, and layers of deposits, without trying to penetrate to the society and the thinking which produced the objects and which employed them in some ways rather than in others, in burials, for example. Every time a specialist in the Greek Bronze Age looks across the sea to the east and southeast, he cannot avoid a melancholy reflection on the unfairness of it all. His colleagues are also studying a Bronze Age, whether among the Babylonians or the inhabitants of Syria or the Egyptians, but the term “Bronze Age” is not often employed in these contexts for the simple reason that there are hundreds of thousands of written texts of all kinds. Hammurabi is known not as a Bronze Age Anonymous but as the imperial promulgator of a great law code. Who issued a Mycenaean law code, or, for that matter, was there one? In all the two thousand years we are concerned with, there is not a single personality known to us, not even merely as a portrait in stone or paint or just as a name on a tombstone or palace. Perhaps there really was an Agamemnon, but, if so, his reticence was total. Homer is the first to mention his name and to tell us about him, hundreds of years after the Bronze Age and its culture had disappeared, and Mrs. Vermeule makes the correct, though reluctant, decision to put the poet and the myths out of her mind. “It seems more honest,” she writes, “even refreshing, not to invoke Homer either as decoration or instruction.” Only the few so-called Linear B tablets relieve the silent stones occasionally—very occasionally as it turns out, now that they can finally be read thanks to the Ventris decipherment.

Given these limitations, the first step does demand discipline and self-restraint: we must start with as accurate a synthesis of the archaeological finds as possible. No mean task that, for it requires much more than the stamina to plow through the vast outpouring of archaeological reports. One must have first-hand experience with the objects themselves, above all with pottery, and one must have judgment. These qualities Mrs. Vermeule possesses to a high degree, together with a clarity of exposition and a just sense of proportion which permits her to pause longer over the great treasures than their “historical” value as evidence might seem to warrant. On the archaeological side, in short, she has provided a synthesis for which the expert will be grateful and which for the English-reading layman is unique in bringing the whole of the Greek Bronze Age, as we now know it, between two covers.*

The bibliographies at the end of the volume, hundreds of books and articles, reveal Professor Vermeule’s enviable erudition—and also her limitations. In all this long list, which even makes room for a few novels, I can find but one title which is not by a specialist in early Greek archaeology and history. And that one is a most peculiar choice—Trade and Markets in the Early Empires by the late Karl Polanyi and his associates—peculiar because Mrs. Vermeule’s account is permeated with precisely that conception of early commercial activity which Polanyi devoted the last years of his life to trying to disprove in a very fundamental way. He may or may not have been right—and I have no doubt that he was—but the larger question is the unwillingness to recognize (an unwillingness which is an occupational act of faith in this field) that there are other disciplines besides archaeology which are relevant to the Greek (or any other) Bronze Age; that these disciplines have produced a literature which is as “scientific” as the archaeological; and that it is no longer permissible to discuss Bronze Age economics, society, or religion without full consideration of their findings. Common sense is a fatal substitute for disciplined knowledge.

Lord William Taylour openly describes his brief account of a burial in a tholos-tomb as “largely suppositious.” Mrs. Vermeule claims too much knowledge too much of the time. For example:

One cannot doubt that the Mycenaeans strongly recognized the power of the [great] goddess, and of the gods of local towns, and that to them, as to the Minoans or later Greeks, such divine figures could appear in many aspects: regal, benevolent, threatening, remote, protective. Their artistic expression of such feelings is weak, however, and clouded behind borrowed conventions.

The last sentence is a give-away. Mycenaean art is largely unrevealing of religious attitudes and one may therefore legitimately doubt just about every common-sensical statement by modern writers about them. When Mrs. Vermeule goes on to say that “the Linear B texts are rich in religion,” she is resorting to an ambiguity, for as her own summary of the texts shows, they provide names of divinities (often puzzling), lists of offerings, and some vague indications of property and personnel relations among priests and priestesses. Not much religion in that, just as her section headed “A Normal Empire Funeral” turns out to be nothing but an enumeration of objects and of the position of the corpse, plus a bit about how old bones were swept aside to make way for the new. Lord William Taylour properly notes how hopeless it would be to attempt to understand the Christian religion from comparable evidence.

Yet more could be done, at least on some topics. Thus, there is a considerable literature that could have been drawn upon for a study of graves and their contents, and for possible inferences. There is, for example, the fundamental distinction between grave-goods intended for the sole use of the deceased and monuments above ground directed to the survivors and to subsequent generations. Professor Erwin Panofsky has just published a brilliant long essay, Tomb Sculpture, in which he offers a most subtle analysis of how this distinction is reflected in the monuments from ancient Egypt to Bernini. Professor Vermeule is aware of the distinction, of course, but it does not actively concern her nor inform her discussion of burial practices, religion, or art. And similarly with the so-called fertility idols or land tenure or trade or chieftainship.

In one of her too rare incursions into Crete, Mrs. Vermeule makes an important contribution to the current controversy about the dating of the great final phase at Cnossus and its destruction. This she does by what may be called a strictly archaeological argument, reexamining the Marine and Palace styles of pottery and drawing a modified sequential scheme. But there are large areas of human thought and activity which are impervious to archaeological argument, and then fantasy is allowed to roam. I find it pretty difficult, for example, to imagine any group behaving as Mrs. Vermeule suggests the people of Cnossus behaved under a take-over from the mainland.

There may have been little sense of “nationality” or race distinction in men’s awareness then; a man came from Mycenae or Sidon or Knossos or Kition as a potential contributor to mixed communities, with recognition of his special background but no particular prejudice. If a Mycenaean captain of soldiers became “Minos” at Knossos, the event may have been experienced by Cretans as interesting rather than threatening, so long as traditions and religion were not violated, and the town continued prosperous.

That one word “became” early in the final sentence evades most of the questions. And everything we know about archaic attitudes to outsiders, individually or en masse, suggests that, if one must speculate, this is probably the wrong direction altogether. Lord William Taylour seems to have a better instinct in these matters, and certainly a sounder skepticism.

  1. *

    One qualification must be recorded. Someone (presumably the publisher) made the unfortunate decision to perform a Siamese-twin operation and reserve Bronze Age Crete for another volume.

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