Guiding mortals on a Trojan odyssey

The Aegean Bronze Age
May 26, 1995

Schliemann set out for Troy, Homer in hand, determined to bring to light the city of Priam. His apparent success in revealing some of the Bronze Age cultures of the Aegean area was hailed as proof of the historicity of the Homeric epics, and gave birth to a discipline known as Homeric Archaeology. But as more and more became known about this prehistoric period, covering roughly the 2nd millennium bc, it became clear that Homer was not a satisfactory guide to the complex world so revealed.

The heroic age of Aegean archaeology has now been replaced by a race of lesser mortals, who are content to found their accounts on scientifically provable fact rather than airy speculations supported by a few texts from Homer or Thucydides.

Oliver Dickinson has done a very convincing job in synthesising what is now known about this area in this period. It is advertised as welcome to students and teachers, but also as a "companion for serious amateurs and visitors to the Aegean".

The word serious needs to be heavily underscored, for this is not a book for a beginner. Readers are expected to know the curious jargon of the trade, for they will encounter sauceboats and frying pans, gabbro, andesite, lustral basins and larnakes, to mention but a few samples.

There are excellent distribution maps, but no gazetteer to enable us to locate minor sites like Ayia Photia, Chalandriani, Molyvopyrgo, Mouriatadha, Msgebi, Pefkakia, Voidhokoilia, not to mention the problem of how to pronounce them.

I once spent a considerable time trying to discover to which of two sites bearing the same name an author meant to refer, and was eventually obliged to look up the large excavation report. It had excellent topographic maps, but none that showed whereabouts in Greece the site lay. I used to think it rather ridiculous that Americans always say Chicago, Illinois or San Francisco, California, but I am now convinced that we ought always to assume geographical ignorance among our readers.

Dickinson covers a wide range of topics: the geography, both physical and human, settlement patterns, the arts and crafts which leave material traces for the excavator, burial customs, trade and religion. Under each of these headings he gives us a valuable survey of the published material, distinguishing the various periods.

Overall he prefers a classification into first, second and third palaces and a post-palatial period, the decline of Mycenaean civilisation. And all this without making any use of the framework provided by Homer, which has in fact been frequently proved to be worthless. He does make good use of the only contemporary documentary evidence, the Linear B tablets from the end of the Mycenaean period.

Their interpretation is difficult and there are many questions we cannot yet answer; but he is reluctant to accept facts which cannot be supported by the material remains. The result is valuable conspectus, which will take its place as an important text for students.

And yet an uneasy feeling persists that this is not the whole story. Dickinson is rightly sceptical about questions such as "the coming of the Greeks". It is easy to ask meaningless questions, such as where were the English when Caesar invaded Britain. Yet the linguistic evidence is clear: the Greeks were not the indigenous people of this area, for the place names betray an earlier occupation by speakers of a quite different language.

True, we can hardly talk of Greek before the speakers of an Indo-European dialect colonised the Greek mainland and absorbed the earlier population and much of its culture. But the linguistic change from non-Greek to Greek took place within the period under discussion, and there is good reason to place it near the horizon which separates Early and Middle Helladic. In Crete it can be securely dated to the end of Late Minoan I. Of all this there is not a word.

By all means let us discard romantic names like "the Palace of Nestor", much as the tourists love them; let us not, as I have heard guides do, point out the spot at Mycenae where Agamemnon was murdered in his bath. But now that we know that there were relatively humble men at Pylos who answered to the names of Achilles and Hector, can we afford to ignore Homer so completely?

Can it be entirely an accident that contemporary documents from the Hittite kingdom (modern Turkey) refer to a country in the west with a name which strongly resembles the name Homer uses for the Greeks?

John Chadwick is the author of The Mycenaean World and The Decipherment of Linear B.

The Aegean Bronze Age

Author - Oliver Dickinson
ISBN - 0 521 242800 and 456649
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £17.95
Pages - 342pp

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