Friday, April 3, 2015

The Minoans: Classical Mythology and Modern Archeology

While Greek history is often considered to have begun with the first Olympiad in 776 BCE, it is obvious that this is not the case. Tiny obscure bits and pieces of Minoan and Mycenaean culture continued on into classical Greece. Scenes from the mythical Trojan war became common scenes on pottery in the late 8th century BCE, a trend which continued throughout the Roman era and continues today. While Knossos was comparatively weaker at the time of the writing of the Iliad, Homer says King Ideomeneus of Crete sent 80 ships to aid King Nestor of Pylos and King Agamemnon of Mycenae. While this number may certainly be an exaggeration, the message it conveys is that Knossos was powerful at some point in far gone past. Classical Greek historians tended to trust their sources entirely too much, and thought of the Trojan War as entirely historical. They disputed amongst themselves as to its exact time, with many placing it throughout the 13th century BCE and some such as Eratosthenes put it at 1,183 BCE.

“...lying at the end of an oral poetic tradition and at the beginning of the Greek tradition as we have it, do not explicitly tie themselves to a chronological period but rather represent 'the good old days', when heroes were bigger and better than contemporary men.” - Guy D. Middleton

A reconstruction of the Troy VI (1,700-1,200 BCE) north-east bastion, by Christoph Haussner

Trojan nobles from the Age of Bronze mod for Rome II

It would be sensible for a Greek to believe those myths that one receives in childhood as truth, treating them as historical events. They are not to blame, they attempted to take as much truth out of what evidence they had. As writing slowly increased across the world, each culture has its own extravagant lives of notable people. Each hero is equipped with moralizing story lines and intervention by gods, heroes and their stories inform their culture how they should live. They unfold dramas, and the background historical period is modified to fit the confines of the story.

The Israelites similarly wrote down their historio-mythical epics during the EIA. They explained their current territory as the result of their liberation from the clutches of Egyptian slavery. This feeling of liberation was the sentiment many EIA Canaanites felt, as the newly independent Hebrew kingdoms jostled with each other in their new found freedom. After the BAC, Egypt could no longer control their long held vassal. Never before had local southern Canaanite rulers held so much command over their own territory, they were guided by prophets and the beloved people of god. Yet never before had Yahweh traditionalist kings needed to supplicate a sizable polytheistic population. Legendary events occurred during this period, such as the reign of King David, and by the CP the Hebrews had a list of foundational texts. They too believed in their purported historical texts without devoted skepticism, and the historicity of many events are similarly questionable. The archeological existence of King David has not been verified.

The Israeli general Jehu killed King Jehoram of Israel by shooting him in the back through the heart, his action is both a possible historical event and a stereotypically immoral act. This is used to explain Israel's later destruction as due to his sacrilege (he exterminated King Jehoram's line after taking control)

When Jewish historians wrote down these events, they left out or glossed over uncomfortable facts. Archeology has stepped in to fill the void. Here, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, King Jehu of Israel kisses the Assyrian King's foot in submission. This happened in 841 BCE when he sent tribute to Shalmaneser and declared Israel their vassal. This embarrassment was curiously left out of the later written record

These actions were not confined in time to the LBA and EIA, but even ancient near easterners had mythical legends as well. Gilgamesh, known for his epic journey, was first written down during the Sumerian renaissance (around the 22nd-21st centuries BCE) yet that was hundreds of years after his supposed life occurred (in the 27th century BCE). He was certainly mythical by that point, yet is found as a valid entry on lists of kings of Uruk. Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, is the 5th king of the city and each one lived 100-1,200 years. Gilgamesh was going steady at 126 when he died and had primarily been known for building the walls of the city. The post-Gilgamesh rulers (who lived between 2,600-2,400 BCE as written records become more common) all have much more human lifespans. The king of Uruk directly after Gilgamesh was Ur-Nungal “the son of Gilgamesh” who only ruled 30 years.

Gilgamesh strangling a lion, Assyrian relief, Louvre, Paris

These actions were not confined in space to the near east, EIA Zoroastrians dutifully believed in the Avesta as it had been written down in the LBA. EIA Hindus truly believed in the events described in the Rig Veda, which supposedly occurred in the mid-late 2nd millennium BCE. Han dynasty Chinese did not doubt their records of the legendary Emperor Yu the Great (who lived in the 21st century BCE), or the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties that ruled China from 2,000-1,000 BCE. While certainly archeology has confirmed that those dynasties existed, as with other mythical documents they can only be guidelines to further concrete study. The written works from every culture ooze with the ideas and formulations of their writers, preserving aspects of ancient history only incidentally. The classical Greek historians often give private speeches, as if every moment of history were being viewed in a complete narrative. Only with modern archeology and historiography can we truly compare the historical record with the earliest written records.

King Yu, by Song dynasty painter Ma Lin, around 1,225-1,264 CE

Yet there are actual glimpses of lost worlds, of forgotten symbolism, within ancient texts. Homer did not understand that he was accurately describing bronze age culture by mentioning boar tusk helmets. It is interesting to note that he had to have gotten that information from somewhere. While he did not realize chariots were also used for charging (although this is a controversial subject), he did understand that bronze was their iron, that the Kings of Mycenae (Agamemnon) and Pylos (Nestor) were powerful, and that Troy was a strong city with large walls. Other mythical accounts of people from the CP may contain pieces of information as well, Plutarch mentions in his Life of Theseus that it was a custom for Cretan women to appear in public to watch the games. Had this been a carry-over from the Minoan period (as seen in frescoes), or is this custom accidentally similar? We do not know, and we may never know. But one should take heart, as historians by no means have reached the end of their endeavors. With 21st century technology and historiography, in fact historical science has just begun.

The Myth of King Minos

While King Idomeneus was the ruler of Crete during the Homeric epics, there is another legendary Cretan character whose life was placed further in the past than Idomeneus. It was Idomeneus' grandfather, King Minos. Eratosthenes dated his life to around 1,250 BCE, a few generations before the Trojan War (which he dated to 1,183 BCE). In the myth, this character is both powerful and insatiable as he rules from Knossos. His warped version of authority demands blood sacrifices for a bull monster, kept in a special dungeon at his palace. Castleden suggests that bulls and blood sacrifices can be seen as references to Minoan cultic activities, which would show at least indirect influence from the Minoan period on this later story. The combination of bulls, blood sacrifices, and double axes are found across Minoan religious spaces. The use of a half-man half-animal creature also references common themes in LBA religion: the daemons, sphinxes, and griffons of both Crete and Mycenae, as well as related lamassu of the near east. Classical Zeus could also transform into a bull and a man at will, these symbols are rife throughout Greek religion. The myth retrofits these monstrous aesthetics into a figure which embodies stereotypically unquestionable evil. The symbolism inherent in the minotaur is representative of the evil perversion of justice by its ruler.

Minos depicted by Romantic British artist William Blake as part of his illustrations of Dante's The Divine Comedy, 1824-27

The perverse rule of King Minos is characterized by his demand of human sacrificial victims from his subject states. This facet within the story is used to set the moral dimensions of the Athenian hero Theseus, it gives him a rightous justification for his rebellion (and the assertion of Athenian power). While it is possible this story recalls a time when Knossos held sway over the Aegean, it is entirely unknown if this story existed prior to the archaic period. The story was told and used to explain classical Athenian might, the underdog Theseus asserting his power to correct the unjust rule of the stronger. The story was framed within the notion of barbarism, no Greek would expect to impose a yearly human sacrifice on their conquered enemies, it was out of the question.

Poteidan as bull-god demanded sacrifices, just as the Poseidon of the later myth required a bull sacrifice of King Minos...” - Rodney Castleden

While Minoan Knossos did not require Greek children as yearly sacrifices (political rhetoric has never changed), it is likely that during the later Mycenaean era neighboring cities required yearly tribute of some kind from the Wanax of Athens, who was a weaker palace city in a weaker region. The tablets of Pylos and Knossos show large groups of slaves working within the palaces, having come (or been captured) from around the Aegean. It is most likely that these slaves came from large slaver raids, and as Athens and Attica were weaker than the neighboring regions of Boeotia and the Argolid, they very well may have been subject to these raids.

Yet it is fundamentally impossible to determine which parts of this, or any Greek myth, are historical or legendary. Linguistically, Minos is similar to other mythical founders such as Menes of Egypt, Mannus of Germany, and Manu of India. As all mythical founders, he received laws from Zeus which helped him govern Crete and with that divine impetus established a constitution and Knossian naval supremacy. The intent of the myth is to create a moral problem and solve it within the mind of the listener. The plucky underdog and protagonist Theseus, put in an impossible task uses his wit to defeat an unjust tyrant. The story is of a hero's quest, involving overcoming obstacles from a clear beginning and leading to a clear end, it even adds in a love story involving the daughter of King Minos himself! The moral arc of the story is similar to the story of David and Goliath, an underdog using skills and intelligence to defeat the powerful enemy. While the story is a thrilling tale, it is entirely Athenian propaganda intended to glorify the victory of the city over a foreign enemy.

The Myth of the Dorian Invasion

Besides the Trojan War and King Minos, another classical Greek myth referenced the late Mycenaean era: the Dorian Invasion. To the CP scholar historian this event happened in the “mythical past”, when Dorians invaded from the north along with the descendents of Herakles who intended to reclaim their land in the Peloponnese. They displaced the previous occupants, the Pelasgians, who supposedly spoke a Pre-Greek language. It was part myth, part origin story, as it both explained the ethnic layout of classical Greece and gave the Dorians a legendary foundation. By the CP, Greece was dominated by four linguistic groups: the Doric, Attic, Ionic, and Aeolic. Each linguistic tribe assumed they had originated from a singular historic grouping, which had a legendary founder.

Greek dialects during the CP

There are a few problems with this story, mainly that there is no archeological evidence for any such invasion of Greece during this time. While the BAC did occur, it did not happen simultaneously with a large cultural shift throughout Greece, as would be expected from a large settlement of foreigners. There are no archeological traits associated with such peoples. A myth which linked your tribe with a heroic demi-god was a popular origin story shared by many groups throughout Greece and the ancient world. The primary motivation of these stories is to stoke Doric nationalism and promote their city's alliances with “historic siblings”. The myth was certainly invented for this purpose, to give a glorious foundation to the Dorians and to explain their current warfare with Attic groups (Doric Sparta vs. Attic Athens) as an ancient and historic enmity reaching back into the mythical past.

The real story is much more complicated, historic invasions and cultural transplantation certainly created the iron age linguistic makeup of Greece. The major disagreement with Greek mythology is that these splits evolved out of the Mycenaean political and linguistic landscape, not out of foreign invasion. The Dorics, along with all other Greek speakers, had been there the whole time. What classical Greeks had no taken into account is that linguistic diversity occurs at an astonishingly quick rate: the Jamaican language diverged from British English in the late 1600s. After only around 300 years it has become almost unintelligible to the average British and American English speaker. Linguistic diversity, to ancient Greeks, was the result of mythical invasions, not rapid evolution. It is entirely possible that the division into four linguistic tribes occurred only in the archaic and classical periods.

“The ancient Greek dialects of the Archaic and Classical era were not descended from Mycenaean, but brothers to it. The Mycenaean branch was a particular one coming from Proto-Greek, and it either had no descendents or led to Arcado-Cypriot dialects depending on your point of view. Either way, Aeolic, Dorian, and Ionian dialects have their own archaisms harkening back to Proto-Greek and are not descended from Mycenaean Greek. So when we look back to the status of the Mycenaean dialect in this period, we must imagine it as only being one of several in play and it may only have been widely disseminated because it was the dialects represented by Linear B.” - Daeres, in r/askhistorians

Sir Arthur Evans, his Terrible Interpretations

The excavation between 1900-1904 uncovered the palace of Knossos, and allowed Evans to name this new culture the Minoans. Evans was at the time only an amateur archeologist, following in the footsteps of his father who was also an amateur archeologist. In the late 19th century only the wealthy, usually wealthy men, could afford to conduct the expensive digs and research projects which archeology requires. Government grants to do such work were either meager or nonexistent. Many other amateur archeologists during this period were even more destructive than Evans, such as Heinrich Schliemann at Troy. Evans was one of many in his team, which included Theodore Fyfe who kept a detailed record of all the developments at the site, and many Greek and Cretan archeologists. It is pure luck that someone on this team took good notes, many of the great discoveries of the 19th century come without much of any solid contextual information.

Left to right: Arthur Evans, Theodore Fyfe, Duncan Mackenzie. At Knossos, 1900

The most problematic feature of Evans' work was that he superimposed his Victorian English ideology onto the Minoans. When he uncovered separated suites, he named them the “King's Quarters” and the “Queen's Quarters”. When he found the griffon flanked throne it was immediately evident to him that he had found a kingly throne. More disastrously, some areas and frescoes which Evans reconstructed were recreated inaccurately. The current version of the Grand Staircase was done out of necessity by Evans, and is certainly not accurate. After he had found the glorious Taureador fresco, he would occasionally find bits of an animal leg and a figure, and from this prompting extrapolate an entire bull leaping scene. He would then have his workers and artists reconstruct this scene, and in doing so they often destroyed the visible differences between Minoan plaster and British plaster. Some bull leaping fresco scenes are, for this reason, imaginary constructions. His work, while it was foundational, now requires time and money to re-reconstruct. People today are forced to sort reality from Evans' fantasy. It is an inalienable addendum to his legacy 100 years hence.

Arthur Evans examining a vessel at Knossos

He also assumed that the practice of bull leaping was purely religious, and that the light skinned cod-piece wearing leapers in the Taureador fresco were women. He had this idea as it was the common Egyptian practice, which often portrayed women in white lighter tones and men in dark red tones. Evans had some value in assuming this practice had spread to the Minoans, as it was commonly followed in the frescoes he had found at Knossos too. Yet, if these leapers were female this depiction would be an extreme outlier within Minoan art. All other bull leaping frescoes show men, and there are other simpler explanations for the tonal discrepancy (that the artist simply did not follow color conventions). Evans was also convinced that these figures were female by analyzing their painted bodies. While they had been drawn exactly the same as all other male figures, in them he saw only the female form in these masculine artistic norms. From these pieces of evidence, Evans had extrapolated a world of mystical female gymnasts who could perform this feat but only when dressed in male clothing. Evans overlaid Egyptian art and his Victorian morals onto a simple discrepancy in color, and in that space imagined a world which more adhered to his own fantasy and pet theories than to the evidence. Evans imbued his ideology into the Minoans he discovered.

A portrait of Sir Arthur Evans by Sir William Richmond, ca. 1900

Evans had not only developed a stereotypical “Minoan personality”, but had idealized this figure into a supreme romantic. They were talented, graceful, luxurious, art loving, and peaceful. Since he had found no busts of rulers or generals, or inscriptions from artists, he had assumed that they had lacked personal ambition. This is still an unresolved question, why exactly did the Minoans not built large statues of rulers, as their neighbors did. It is curious that hey never created lists of achievements, or of their various rulers, considering they certainly had the bureaucratic know-how to do so. While it may be only bad luck and a matter of time until we find these lists, Evans presumed they were an anonymous culture. They were focused on the collective, and not the individual. Many have argued against this view, such as Hans Wunderlich.

It is a curious fact, their frescoes and seals depict nature, myth, and culture, but (almost) never conquest and war. The closest piece of evidence Evans had was a band of warriors, presumably saluting their leader and holding spears. He was right to assume that such pieces may not even represent militarism, but he did not have the depictions of spearmen and sea battles which we do now. He did not know their cities had walls. While it is notable that the Mycenaeans produced many more depictions of violence, this is not to say the Minoans were pacifists. It is an interesting question to pose: why did the Minoans exclude artistic representations of leaders and conquests when this was the focus of their neighbor's art? Evans' extremely unsatisfactory answer was that they simply loved nature and peace, that they were somehow able to escape the fundamental human flaws which grip every other society throughout time. The real answer to this question is likely less obvious, and much more interesting. It could even be surprisingly mundane, maybe those texts are just sitting in the ground still unexcavated. Even more likely is that we already have those texts, but they remain in the as-of-yet untranslated language of Linear A. There is an interesting reason as to why the Minoans did not built giant statue portraits of their kings, as the Egyptians did, but Evans swept that reason aside and replaced it with his fantastical view of an uncorrupted past. His elevation of the virtuous Minoans continues to color our popular understanding even today.

Arthur Evans, by Piet de Jong, 1924 cartoon

Duncan Mackenzie, by Piet de Jong, 1922-26 cartoon

Heinrich Schliemann, and his Terrible Interpretation

Heinrich Schliemann as a young man, probably in the 1840s-50s

Heinrich “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” Schliemann excavated Mycenae and Troy in 1870s. He actually spoke those words after discovering the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. He too did his part to instill many problematic interpretations of his site for future archeologists. His vision of the LBA world was entirely guided by the Homeric epics, similar to the Assyriologists who had earlier in the 19th century spent careers searching for nations only mentioned in passing in the bible. Even many historians of the era regarded the epics as not being entirely historical, George Grote said the stories were set in a “past that was never present.” Heinrich Schliemann did not believe this line of thought, he assumed the events in the epics were real and described real events. Specifically, he believed the city of Troy was a real place, and he personally took it upon himself to find it and show the world that he was right, and they were wrong.

Miraculously, this specific inclination turned out to be correct. He went to the coast of Turkey, eventually finding Hisarlik (with the help of previous explorer-archeologists and locals). In his 1871-73 excavations of Troy he found a cache of gold and other rare objects, which he immediately named “Priam's Treasure”. This hoard is now dated to Troy II (2,700-2,400 BCE), contemporaneous with Old Kingdom Egypt and Sumer, and not the mythical Priam of the 13th century BCE. After convincing himself that the epics were entirely historical, he planned to prove to the world that mainland Greek culture was as ancient as the epics too. He went to Mycenae and Tiryns, at which he found this still visible remains of Mycenaean architecture which had up until then been left as is after the BAC. In 1876 he excavated Mycenae, stumbling upon the GCA and the Mask of Agamemnon. Today this mask too is dated to earlier than the Homeric epics, to the 16th century BCE.

Sophia Schliemann (Heinrich's wife) wearing Priam's Treasure, 1874

His excavation at Mycenae, as well as at Troy, was fast and sloppy. Most notably at Troy he had used dynamite to blow a trench straight through the mound. At the center he had reached Troy II, but in the process had destroyed bits of many layers (including the 13th century BCE layers). Both excavations he conducted without leaving good records of context, and these features of his digs have made life difficult for all future historians and archeologists of this era. His actions will continue to do so for the rest of human existence.

Heinrich Schliemann (on the walls to the right) and others at Mycenae, 1884-5

Although Schliemann's trench was one of the greatest failures of 19th century archeology, he also had coined the term Mycenaean and applied it to other contemporary Greek sites. The popularity of the term spread, and after his initial impetus in its liberal usage, other historians and archeologists applied it to everything: pottery, metalwork, and funerary architecture. Much of this black-and-white labeling of Mycenaean (Greek) vs. Non-Mycenaean was not strictly the fault of Schliemann, but was done in the generation after his excavations primarily by the archeologists Tsountas and Manatt. While other possible (and less misleading) terms were offered (such as Achaean or Aegean), they were generally dismissed. The primary evidence for making Mycenae the first-among-equals of LBA Greek city states was entirely based in Homeric mythology. The mythical Mycenae of the mind of 8th century BCE Greeks led their world in a military coalition, yet this image clashes with archeological record.

Tsountas and Manatt both used the epics to justify the existence of the term Mycenaean, but this kind of evidence is flimsy and is no longer accepted outright. There is no single object defined as purely-Mycenaean: a thing which existed across their cultural world and no one else's. There is not even a single style of painted pottery which is purely Mycenaean. Any common thing considered Mycenaean, like tholos tombs or stirrup jars, is only Mycenaean when considered in Greece. In itself it is a neutral object, a shared object. It travels with merchants into the hands of the surrounding wealthy, regardless of their culture, language, or identity. People could argue eternally over whether the Minoans became Mycenaean after adopting Linear B, but the answer is not one or the other. The arbitrary division of tholos tombs, palaces, and pottery styles into a “Mycenaean” culture is essentially a hopeful creation – one arbitrarily pinned to the geography of Greece yet without borders and surrounded by similar cultural gradations and variations. At least the Minoans are on an island.

Heinrich Schliemann's elaborate grave at the First Cemetery of Athens

The son of Heinrich and Sophia, Agamemnon Schliemann, taken between 1910-15. He was the Greek ambassador to the USA in 1914

Another unexpected problem arising from the late 19th to early 20th century excavations is the creation of fakes. The 19th century artifact market was essentially a collectors market, and this incentivized professionals to scam the wealthy and naive. The most notorious fake is the Boston Goddess. This figurine was acquired by the Boston museum in July, 1914, with no provenance. It shows a typical Minoan priestess with outstretched arms and an elaborate dress. It also shows highly unusual features, like gold snakes coiled around her arms, and an uncannily expressive face. These features immediately strike the observer with an awe of reverence in the ability of Minoan craftsmen. Or at least, it did when it first appeared. Now it has been proven quite convincingly that it is a fake, it is obvious to us 100 years later that the face is very Victorian and completely unlike any and all other Minoan designs. The Boston Goddess is one of the many fakes created directly in response to Evans' excavations becoming wildly popular. This period was seen as a prolific opportunity for forgers to make easy money cashing in on the fads of the day. This is an ugly truth for the museum to bear, and on its website the object still to this day (2015) is listed as being made, “about 1600-1500 B. C. or early 20th century.”

The Boston Goddess, with a very realistic Victorian face. It incorporates details from other Minoan pieces, but the forger obviously put extreme effort and ingenuity into its creation. Maybe the forgers intended this object to slip into the record, a remarkable symbol of their personal artisanry and a cruel inside joke on the rest of the world. While it achieved this goal for some time, the forgers did not put enough effort to hide its obvious flaws. It certainly achieved its initial goal, to change hands once for a large sum of money on the spot

A human skull lyre, made in the late 19th century to be sold as a genuine historical object. Ironically, it is now over 100 years old, and is certainly a unique and strange historical object. For those reasons it now deserves to be in a museum

Problems with Using Mythology in a Historical Context

The correlation of mythic cycles with LBA centers is not a thorough enough proof to determine absolutely that the mythic cycle originated in that period, even when the prominence in myth or archeology is adduced as further proof. The matter of prominence is itself problematic. How do we ascribe a level of importance within a culture to individual sites? No one would dispute that Mycenae was an important site in the LBA, but other sites such as Pylos, Thebes, and Knossos could equally be called 'proud and wealthy towns'; but how can we avoid a subjective conclusion?” - Guy D. Middleton

The closest any modern notion comes to assigning a prominence among sites is the idea of a center and periphery. The center, like a city in the Argolid, lives off of its peripheral farm land. Objects and ideas flow in both directions, high status objects crafted in a central city (such as amber seals) filter throughout the local nobility, simultaneously as regional farmers bring their crops and animals to be tithed or sold in larger towns. If peripheral towns have a trading relationship with a center, then the peripheral nobles become obliged to provide military assistance. This image of the Mycenaean and Minoan worlds suggests their power relations were an immense gray scale. Constantly fluctuating local power centers attain regional prominence through their military or by forcing monopolistic treaties. Hittite texts mention the brother of the Miletian Wanax as being the Wanax of a mainland town, revealing an added layer of historical, emotional, and matrimonial connections between certain towns. As it was in Mycenae in the 2nd millennium BCE, it is still today across European monarchies.

The earliest depiction of the Trojan Horse, on the Mykonos vase, 670 BCE

This picture, a series of interconnected city states bound by trading links, grudges, intermarriages, and temporary alliances, does not suggest the prominence of Mycenae or any other town. When cities did attain some cultural prominence (such as inventing a new popular pottery style), the style spread across the region without the military assistance of the city. Cities may have exerted some monopolistic control regionally, but without copyright laws no cultural commodity was held within one group for long. Linear B tablets do detail the bureaucratic attention to the distribution of goods and materials within a polity and its surrounding countryside, but these never show regional prominence.

“Thucydides, in discussing the relative power of Sparta and Athens towards the end of the fifth century, counsels his readers not to mix up the appearance of a city with how powerful it actually is, and we do well to bear his advice in mind.” - Guy D. Middleton

While the Catalogue of Ships is a wonderful reference for historians seeking to recreate the mythological world of the Iliad, sadly it is a single source, a unique unverifiable data point. Many cities in the Catalogue existed in the 8th century when it was first written down: their current existence was often conflated with their legendary existence. Some cities did not exist at the time of its writing, and were accurate bits of information filtered down to the 8th century BCE, but the vast majority did. In this way, it is more accurately a political map of the time of its writing, and not its earliest version. Cities such as Kalydon and Ithaka were important in the story, yet were not nearly that powerful in the LBA. A lacuna would be the lack of Mycenaean regions around Pylos, which were themselves nearly as powerful during the LBA.

“Scholarly opinion remains...divided on whether we may...locate the world of the Homeric poems in the 10th and 9th centuries or later in the 8th century...” - Guy D. Middleton

As the reconstructed political map of LBA Greece is scattered with interpolations, the political system is similarly confusing. Many leaders are called “Sceptered Kings” yet Agamemnon its simply styled “King” and outranks them. He led only because he fielded the largest contingent of troops, seemingly declared High King out of a meritocratic necessity. Extrapolating the political world of this myth, the Petty Kings were allied only under a temporary war leader to form a confederacy to avert crises. If this were an extrapolation from their true political system, it is not a functional kingship as seen in the east. Such a flimsily coalesced group would have allowed the Hittite King ample space to name his chosen addressee “King of Ahhiya”, and to play politics with intermarriages.

Some of the intent of the story is to highlight the choice of Agamemnon as a problem. His actions and disagreements within the upper leadership creates conflict, creating the boundaries for characters' theatrical drama. It is possible the reader/listener was expected to side with Achilles during their disagreements early in the story, as well as condemn Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter (a story arc concluded with Clytemnestra's revenge). It may have been left up to the audience individually to determine who they thought was acting rightfully. Within the story itself, the political world of the Greeks is a background set piece onto which famous characters can unfold their fated paths. The interpersonal politics shown in the Iliad are purely mythological story arcs. To reconstruct any political histories from these stories would be a foregone conclusion.

A bust of Herodotus. This is a Roman copy done in the 2nd century CE of a Greek original, done in the early 4th century BCE

The primary concern of using archaic and classical Greek sources is that their culture held a different view of their past than we do now. The earliest historian, Herodotus, mainly focused on events in the 7th century BCE, expressing his opinion of Greek history in 1.5, “I shall carry on with my story, describing both small and great cities of men in the same way. For those that were great in antiquity have mostly been small; those that were still great in my lifetime had previously been small. On the understanding that human prosperity never stays in the same place, I shall mention both in the same way.” Herodotus' intent is to take a fair view of his political world, to describe history regardless of wealth and power but to focus on everyone as a whole. This is a novel way to treat the world, attempting to divorce your biases from your description. Yet this view is one facet within the larger Greek mindset of cyclical time. Herodotus' opinion is not that there was some great devastation, where society and cultures changed drastically. As you go further back into time wealth and power simply fluctuate. This opinion is firmly based in the city state fabric which made up his world. He did not understand that there even was a BAC, but only that Mycenaean and Pylian power had decreased.

A bust of Thucydides. This is a Russian plaster copy done in the early 1900s of a Roman copy done around 100 CE. The Roman copy is of a Greek original done in the early 4th century BCE
Thucydides is not much better, who when giving Greek history presents all legendary and Homeric characters as real. He too clarifies his narrative as one of continuity and development, ignoring the possibility of a break. He tries to break with Herodotus in his introduction, suggesting,

“To hear this history rehearsed, for that there be inserted in it no fables, shall be perhaps not delightful. But he that desires to look into the truth of things done, and which (according to the condition of humanity) may be done again, or at least their like, shall find enough herein to make him think it profitable. And it is compiled rather for an everlasting possession than to be rehearsed for a prize.”

Thucydides certainly is on the right track, his intent is not to collect stories to be recited (which was done for Herodotus' writing at festivals), but to establish a record for our everlasting possession. What Thucydides does add to historiography in 1.10 is a healthy dose of skepticism,

“It is reasonable to think that the Trojan expedition was greater than in all previous history, but still short of the modern scale...[T]he numbers embarked [in the Trojan War] do not seem very great for a combined expedition from the whole of Greece.”

Strangely enough he does not doubt its authenticity, but only the numbers. When Thucydides criticizes previous historians for accepting fables and simultaneously does not fully purge his own sources of these fables...he begins a long tradition in western historiography. Now, only with modern archeology, has a more precise picture of these events been separated from their foundational myths. He does allude to ancient migrations in 1.12, but again re-frames that story not within a critical framework bounded by evidence, but within the myth of the Dorians and the return of the Heracleidae. He concludes in 1.13 a materialistic diagnosis for the unfolding of history, similar to what his forebear Herodotus had.

“As Greece became more powerful, and the accumulation of wealth exceeded previous levels, the growth of revenues led in most cities to the establishment of tyrannies in place of the earliest hereditary kingships...”

While fundamentally his story is like the other Greek stories, one of continuity and an ignorance of the BAC, yet Thucydides does attempt to explain politics as a result of intelligible events. He even refines this idea, suggesting that increased wealth created more local power which destabilizes large monarchies. His ideas are interesting, but still not historically based. As Herodotus and Thucydides believed, as did all later ancient Mediterraneans: that their myths, gods, fables, and heroes were all factual.

Later historians would only continue these ideological frameworks. The famous Diodorus Siculus writing in the mid 1st century BCE still references the narrative of continuity. He still considers legendary heroes as existent, going so far as to stipulate that bronze age cultures were the direct ancestors of the current Greek peoples. While this theory is interesting, and is correct in some ways, he begins his history with the earliest recorded event he knows of The Trojan War. This view of history had, in some ways, remained unchanged since the days of Herodotus. The foundation of ancient histories, even after hundreds of years of scholarship, rests firmly on the back of mythology and uncritical belief. We often tend to think of classical Greeks and Romans as skeptics, yet if you asked someone who built Mycenae and they responded plainly cyclopses, any modern individual would be dumbfounded by these unverified beliefs.

“Use of legendary statements for historical interpretation of material records is a reversal of proper procedure.” - John Forsdyke

Modern Genetic Research into the Minoans

Ever since the invention of the Minoan civilization in 1900, people have been arguing about where they came from (as in whether they were African, Asian, or European). This racial cataloging as fallen away, and focus has now been redirected to understanding their genetic history. Obviously Homo Sapiens on Crete came from somewhere, starting with the earliest neolithic invasions around 7,000 BCE. Arthur Evans suggested they came from North Africa, although many others have suggested Anatolia, the Balkans, or the Middle East. Now with genetic tests, this question can finally be solved. Dr. John A Stamatoyannopoulos and Professor George Stamatoyannopoulos analyzed the mtDNA of Minoan skeletons, specifically 37 Minoans in a cave on the Lassithi plateau. These results were then compared with 135 modern and ancient human populations. The study revealed 21 distinct mtDNA variations within the Minoan genetic pool, of which 6 were unique to Crete. This study finally puts Arthur Evans' notion to rest, none of the Minoans had African mtDNA. They were only distantly related to the Egyptians and Libyans.

A map showing the relation between Minoan mtDNA and 11 other bronze age, iron age, and neolithic populations around the Mediterranean. Red indicates a higher connection ,whereas white indicates a lower connection. The green dots point to the originating regions of the 11 ancient populations. By Dr. John A. Stamatoyannopoulos and Professor George Stamatoyannopoulos

The Minoans shared the most genetic heritage with strange bedfellows: Northern and Western Europe. As well as links to south west Anatolia in the east and to coastal western Europe in the west.

“About 9,000 years ago, there was an extensive migration of Neolithic humans from the regions of Anatolia...At the same time, the first Neolithic inhabitants reached Crete. Our mtDNA analysis shows that the Minoan's strongest genetic relationships are with these Neolithic humans, as well as with ancient and modern Europeans.” - George Stamatoyannopoulos

The existence of the nearby city of Catalhoyuk (in south west Turkey and flourishing 7,400-6,000 BCE) may have had a heavy influence on neolithic Crete. If this genetic test were true, it points the island's neolithic founding from the east. If this were true, it would be an example of the Lux Orientis theory. While originally orientalist and now much more confused, this theory states that most cultural development in Eurasia started in the near east and expanded outwards. While the adaption of wheels and metal working does not follow this trend (as 19th century historians thought), this genetic link may be evidence for a modern incantation of the theory.

Pottery in the near east was invented around 8,000 BCE in northern Iran, and spread across neolithic Eurasia from there. It reached Catalhoyuk in the mid 7th millennium BCE, and afterward reached neolithic Crete. A likely scenario to explain this situation would be to consider novel Cretan pottery art as a unique invention, while the creation of pottery itself was an eastern import. This again paints a local picture of a the Lux Orientis theory.

Our data suggests that the Neolithic population that gave rise to the Minoans also migrated into Europe and gave rise to modern European peoples.” - Professor George Stamatoyannopoulos

After settling on Crete they then spread out west reaching Sardinia, and north reaching the Danube plain. The Danubian river valley has been a conduit between the Balkans and central Europe since the furthest reaches of prehistory when the Aurignacian Homo Sapiens invaded Neanderthal Europe traveling up the valley around 45-40 kya. While the researchers are convinced that any connection to Western Europe was a one way affair, the history of the LBA collapse adds complications and possible explanatory theories to the mix.

Sardinians, if they are etymologically linked to the Sherden tribe of Sea Peoples, traveled with their bands throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Sea Peoples settled in many areas which they encountered, and Egyptian reports suggest some Sea Peoples stayed on Crete for some time before launching an attack against Egypt. These stories may suggest that the genetic link between Sardinians and Minoans may come from the west to the east, and not the other way around. Yet this story could suggest that Sea Peoples came from as far as Britain to raid the eastern Mediterranean, that series of events is unlikely. The process of uncovering Minoan links to

One of the more interesting finds from this study is the fact that many current inhabitants of the Lassithi plateau shared many genes with their Minoan forebears. This genetic factor adds another layer of complexity to our understanding of the Minoan civilization. In addition to their language, their art forms, and their political structures, another aspect of their culture are their genes. This aspect of this culture is by far the furthest reaching consequence of their existence, laying hidden within the microscopic world of this island population and with the curtain only pulled away through our modern high technology. While their linguistic culture, their material culture, their stated identity may have collapsed in the LBA, their genetic culture was passed on. It was handed down from parent to child until the present day, far outlasting the memories of their existence. The Minoans' genetic heritage, like their architectural heritage, remained hidden from view for three thousand years until the 20th century. It is truly one aspect of their civilization which never disappeared, and which continues unabated today.

A map showing the relation between Minoan mtDNA and 71 other existing populations. Blue indicates a higher connection, whereas white indicates a lower connection. The red dots point to the originating regions of the 71 modern populations.. By Dr. John A. Stamatoyannopoulos and Professor George Stamatoyannopoulos


The Boston Goddess, BMFA information
Genetic Tests from the Minoans, News Article
Deinekes' Anthropology Blog, Minoan Genetics
Collapse of Palatial Society, Guy D. Middleton
Mycenaeans...and Myth, by Guy D. Middleton
Knossos Labyrinth, by Rodney Castleden
The Palaeolexicon (go to Languages, Linear B)
Bronze Age Collapse in Greece, by Daeres

Ancient Greek thought about the BAC by oudysseos

1 comment:

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