Carl W. Blegen, seated, with a pipe in his mouth

Looking back with Blegen

I’m currently reading Carl Blegen’s “Preclassical Greece,” published in 1941 in Studies in the Arts and Architecturebased on a lecture given at the bicentennial conference of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a really interesting read.

Looking backward

Some of Blegen’s lecture is – and we shouldn’t be surprised here – dated. For instance, he writes that “the peculiar Hellenic alloy is a complex blend of metal fused together from many elements” (7), meaning peoples: “there is reason to believe that on each occasion when a fresh culture prevailed a considerable body of the earlier racial element survived…” (7). Blegen conflates language, technology and race in a way that nobody would now, and is fond of cultural-historical explanations (e.g., progress on the mainland in the Early Bronze Age is interrupted by an invasion of horse-riding Greek-speakers). In this Blegen was following the lead of archaeologists like V. Gordon Childe, whose cultural-historical syntheses of European prehistory were standard texts in the field. It is nevertheless striking to read that the “fresh advance in the realm of culture” in the Iron Age “worked itself out more expeditiously than in the Early and Middle stages of the Bronze Age, presumably because the Dorian stock, if our conclusions are correct, was racially akin to the Mycenaean strain it conquered” (10). Blegen further wonders if the “cruelty” of historical Greeks were “not perhaps heritages from those remote ancestors who occupied the land in the Late Stone Age” whereas the “delicacy of feeling, freedom of imagination, sobriety of judgment, and love of beauty” might derive from the “progenitors of the Early Bronze Age whose great achievement was the creation of Minoan Civilization” (11). And “To the third racial stock, of Aryan lineage, one might then attribute the antecedents of that physical and mental vigor, directness of view, and that epic spirit of adventure in games, in the chase, and in war, which so deeply permeate Hellenic life” (11). In 2017 this is an uncomfortable thing to read.

Looking forward

Much of Blegen’s paper looks forward, however. He advocates for a total survey of all of Greece. He points out that surface artifacts are useful evidence for subsurface deposits, and suggests that the whole country be “methodically and thoroughly explored” (12) and then 2-3 sites per understudied district be excavated (13). No doubt he would be somewhat surprised at the patchwork of high-intensity surveys that have been conducted in the past 30 years – I imagine that MME is much closer to what he had in mind – but certainly he put his finger on an important development in Greek archaeology, and one that has had an especially important influence on my career.

Blegen also emphasizes that prehistorians are more interested in evidence than treasure. He actually credits Schliemann for being the first to do this, and for making archaeologists more “stratification-conscious”: this is fairly shocking from our 21st century perspective, from which Schliemann is barely more than a treasure-hunter who blasted through the center of the Trojan mound. Blegen emphasizes again and again that most of the most interesting evidence is unpretentious but intellectually rewarding. For instance: “The potent spell exercised by investigation of the preclassical era in Greece on its disciples is not due merely to a desire to recover objects of intrinsic value or to find something novel. It is really a manifestation of that deep impulse by which the inquiring human mind is obsessed to probe into origins and causes” (6). This is exactly the spell that drew me into Greek prehistory (although for me the seminal text was Colin Renfrew’s Emergence of Civilisation [1972]).

Alongside this, Blegen highlights the importance of scientific approaches, declaring that “In the future I believe we shall come more and more to rely on pure science for help in solving many of the problems that face us” (13). He then describes ceramic petrology, a technique that was only then being applied to archaeological ceramics in the New and Old Worlds, as something that would be really useful. (Blegen’s colleague at Cincinnati, Wayne M. Felts, was about to publish an article in the American Journal of Archaeology entitled “A Petrographic Examination of Potsherds from Ancient Troy”).

Both backward and forward

This is how Blegen ends his essay:

By combined effort [i.e., among archaeologists and scientists] we shall ultimately ascertain far more than we yet know regarding the formative period in the history of the Greek people; which, if I may be permitted to repeat what has already been intimated, constitutes at the same time an early stage in the evolution of the culture from which our western civilization is directly descended.

It’s an appropriate ending from our vantage point here in 2017: Blegen is prescient in his intuition that scientific approaches will become more important in archaeological practice, but also looks somewhat awkwardly and optimistically towards a “western civilization” that, we now know, was about to be ripped to shreds by the horrors of WW II.

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to start a genealogy of Aegean prehistory. It’s an interesting project, I think. One side benefit would be that I could give hard deterministic papers that erase agency and emphasize the structural constraints of academic training. If dissertations and dissertation advisors count the most, then I fall squarely in the Blegen line: my supervisor was Tom Palaima, who was supervised by Emmett Bennett Jr., who was supervised by Blegen. And I wrote a dissertation on the Linear B tablets of Pylos (which were, of course excavated by Blegen), and I now co-direct an archaeological survey in a poorly-studied area. Pretty Blegen-esque. But about this “western civilization” thing…


2 thoughts on “Looking back with Blegen

  1. Pingback: The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  2. Chris Cloke

    Enjoyed this post, and am also very interested in the idea of the idea of an archaeological genealogy (as a fellow great-grandson of Blegen, though one who escaped the confines of prehistory…). I once attempted an impromptu version thereof on a car-trip in Greece with colleagues, but it quickly devolved into a discussion of who was sleeping with (rather than training) whom – a different kind of genealogy, I suppose…


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