Text Box: James Allan Evans

Fugitive Fragments

A Century of Archaeological Discovery.


Commentator, 14/1 1970.


              A century ago, Troy was discovered 1. Not that Troy had ever been lost in the imagination of the western world. The earliest literature of the Greeks dwelt on the Trojan War, fought between Greeks and Trojans over Helen, the loveliest woman in the world. Troy lost the final battle after ten years of fighting, and Trojan exiles wandered off to people the mythical world. One of them got the Roman Empire underway. Another founded the royal house of England, though it took no little imagination to make the royal pedigree go back that far. But Troy, and the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, was all in the realm of folk-tale. It happened before the writing of history was invented, if it happened at all.

              Then Troy was found. In 1870, Heinrich Schliemann, a nineteenth-century German romantic who made his fortune as a merchant in Russia and hence had enough wealth to support his romantic impulses, started to dig with a gang of some 150 workmen at Hissarlik, near the Dardanelles in Turkey, and uncovered a city. Since then, for the last century, the soil of Greece and Turkey has been yielding up secrets of a lost civilization belonging to the Bronze Age, and in the last twenty years, a coherent picture of this Bronze Age world is beginning to emerge.

              The best narrative of this century of discovery which I have found thus far is a book which came across my desk some months ago, William A. McDonald’s Progress into the Past: the Rediscovery of Mycenaean Civilization (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, $6.25). McDonald is a native Canadian who has spent most of his career on the faculty of the University of Minnesota. In 1939, he was with his professor, Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati, when Blegen started digging at the site of “Ano Englianos” in south-west Greece, above the Bay of Navarino. They dug in an olive orchard, and the first trenches were laid out so as not to interfere unduly with the olive trees. Their first trench uncovered a little ruined room of a Bronze Age palace, which still held a large number of clay tablets with writing on them of the type already classified as “Linear B”. Until then, except for odd fragments, ‘Linear B” had been found only on the island of Crete, and at only one site there.

              World War II and the Greek civil war which followed it, interrupted further work. But in 1952, a young English architect suggested on the BBC Third Programme that he had found the key to “Linear B”. It was Greek. Admittedly, the relation of “Linear B” Greek to classical Greek, much less modern Greek, is rather like that of Anglo-Saxon to modern English. But at least it is now possible top flesh out the picture of Bronze Age Greece with written records.

              McDonald’s Progress into the Past takes the story a step at a time, and tells it as it unfolded. It starts with Schliemann, whose archeological methods would horrify a modern scholar. But someone had to start, and the man who did would make mistakes. In 1900, Sir Arthur Evans started excavating at Cnossos, close to the north shore of Crete and found a vast, ruined palace there 2. He was more scientific than Schliemann, but he was not yet the meticulous expert of today. He used great gangs of loosely-supervised workmen, in the nineteenth-century tradition. The archaeologist was still a bit of a treasure hunter. Even now, in the seventies, archaeologists love to find gold, the indestructible metal, which comes out of the earth untarnished, as bright as when it was buried long ago. But their real aim now is to wrest historical evidence from the soil.

              In the last thirty years, a legion of new discoveries has been made. First, “Linear B” was deciphered; the earlier “Linear B” script still holds its secrets but it seems to be a language holds its secrets but it seems to be a language from Asia Minor. New palaces have been discovered: one at Thebes, the home of Oedipus, and another at Volos, where Jason set sail, according to myth, to fetch the Golden Fleece from the Kingdom of Colchis at the eastern tip of the Black Sea. Off the coast of southern Turkey, underwater archaeologists have explored the wreck of a ship sunk more than 3,200 years ago. She was a kind of floating bronze foundry, carrying copper ingots and tin oxide with which to manufacture bronze tools. She also carried samples of new hoes, axes, adzes, chisels, spades and meat grills, for customers to inspect.

              Archaeology has turned to other disciplines for help. Pottery can be subjected to spectrographic analysis to determine the chemical content of the clay, which serves to identify the region where the pot was made. The soil can be examined for pollen, which is decay-resistant, and can reveal what vegetation was most common at different periods in the history of the area. The Carbon-14 content of organic material found on an ancient site can be measured, and made to yield an approximate date for when the material was new. Classical archaeology has become a hybrid of fine arts, classical studies, and science.

              McDonald’s book ends with new questions. The first 100 years of Bronze Age archaeology in Greece has given some answers, but it has opened new problems. What is more, it is becoming clear that we cannot see Greece in isolation from Europe and the Near East. Communications a millennium before Christ were rather better than we used to think. A few years ago, a symbol was discovered carved on one of the pylons at Stonehenge, which resembled a double-axe of the type found in Bronze Age Crete 3. Could Bronze Age traders have sailed that far? It is not impossible.




1 In 1870, in fact. Thanks to excavations at Troy since 1988 by a team led by Professor Manfred Korfmann of the University of Tübingen, we know that Troy was ten times larger than Schliemann suspected.


2  Evans was the first classical archaeologist to attempt to preserve his site by partially rebuilding the palace, whereas earlier archaeologists dug, removed the artifacts that they found and left the site open to the elements. The Minoan palace at Cnossos is now the second most popular tourist destination in Greece.


3 The Stonehenge double-axe seems to have been a nine-days wonder. Stonehenge is to be dated earlier than we once thought.


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