Tag Archives: Greek prehistory

How Aegean is Aegean prehistory?

To those of us in the field, the argument of this blog post won’t be a surprise: Aegean prehistory isn’t very Aegean. In fact, this came up at a conference at the University of Michigan published as Prehistorians Round the Pond in 2005. The editors (Despina Margomenou, John Cherry and Lauren Talalay) wrote in their introduction that “what Aegean prehistory comprises is perhaps largely unproblematic: the prehistoric archaeology of the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete.” (2) They continue to discuss the common definition, and flag this usage of Aegean as peculiar. In his contribution to the publication, Colin Renfrew pointed out how absurd the situation was. As he put it: “No Ancient Greek would for a moment have ignored the great cities of the Ionian Coast, no Byzantinist [sic] would omit Ephesos, let alone Constantinople, and since we are prehistorians together, what about Troy, or Iasos, or Miletos, or even Kum Tepe?” (154)

In writing a book chapter about the Aegean for an edited volume, I’ve come to realize more clearly how un-Aegean my sub-discipline is. It’s really not about the Aegean, but about (modern) Greece: the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete are all part of what is now (and has been, for some time) the modern Greek state. The editors of Prehistorians Round the Pond aren’t wrong: those areas are the traditional focus of the discipline.

For example, in the Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (2010), western Anatolia gets 13 pages in a book of 930 pages; that’s not much, especially compared to 36 pages for the Greek mainland, 41 pages for Crete, and 35 pages for the Cyclades. Specific sites in the eastern Aegean account for 67 pages of discussion, compared to 101 pages dedicated to specific Cretan sites, 136 pages to mainland sites, and 10 pages to a single Cycladic site (Akrotiri). In Aegean Prehistory: A Review (2001), not a single chapter deals primarily or exclusively with the Anatolian mainland, and Anatolia is indexed on only 49 pages of 473 total in the book (10.3%). In the Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (2008), Anatolia is indexed on 36 of 431 pages (8.3%); of the 15 chapters, two chapters include sections on the Dodecanese (2 pages), northern Aegean, Troy and the Black Sea (3 pages), Anatolia (2.5 pages), Trianda on Rhodes (1 page), and coastal Asia Minor (1 pages).

To those of us who have taken and taught classes called “Aegean prehistory,” this isn’t surprising — “Minoans and Mycenaeans” takes up a huge percentage of the real estate of the discipline — but it’s shocking when you think how little the discipline actually conforms to the Aegean, understood as a geographic descriptor. It’s bizarre that a discipline that effectively began with Schliemann’s excavations at Troy (but see Fotiadis 2016) pays so little attention to the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea.

It’s hard not to see this as a reflection of modern politics, even if we concede that there are other factors at play, like the archaeological obsession with wealthy tombs and palaces, which in the Aegean appear at particular places (like the southern Greek mainland and Crete). As I mentioned above, “Aegean prehistory” took off with Schliemann’s excavations first at Troy, then at Mycenae, sites that Schliemann associated with the myth of the Trojan War. The connection between the Trojan mythic cycle – and especially the Homeric epics – with this prehistoric archaeology is what captured the imagination of the public and scholars. As Moses Finley put it in the New York Review of Books: “without Homer and the Greek Tragedians, without the Greeks and what they have meant to western civilization, the Bronze Age palaces would rank in intensity of interest with, say, the Aztec or Maya ruins.” Greek prehistorians, many of them, were convinced of the essential connection between Classical Greece and the prehistoric past. As Alan Wace wrote in the forward to Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956): “In culture, in history and in language we must regard prehistoric and historic Greece as one indivisible whole.”

Prehistoric and historic Greeks, and what they mean to western civilization. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why the field chooses to focus so obsessively on the Greek mainland – and especially the southern Greek mainland, the geographical home of the Greek city-state (the polis) – the Cyclades, and Crete, and why it has so little time for the eastern edge of the Aegean.

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Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Carl Blegen: Personal and archaeological narratives

A series of flights across North America (Denver to LaGuardia to Toronto) gave me the opportunity to finally read a volume I picked up in New Orleans edited by Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, Jack Davis, and Vasiliki Florou about the life and work of Carl Blegen, the excavator of the site for which this blog is named.

My friend Bill Caraher already wrote some thoughts about the volume, and, like Bill, rather than write a review of the book, I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts that the various papers elicited.

Archaeological teamwork

Davis and Vogeikoff-Brogan emphasize that Blegen thought of archaeology as a “team enterprise” (11), and Blegen also came up with my new favorite quote about a successful excavation (192):

On a dig, you have to live as a family lives… and if you have to live as a family, it’s better to be a happy family.

But if the excavation team was a family, it seems that Blegen was very much the paterfamiliasJohn Camp is quoted in the volume as commenting that

Among those who didn’t know him, Mr. Blegen was thought to be gentle; and he was. But among those who worked with him, he had a fuller reputation as a man who was somewhat hard to work for. Once he had stated an opinion, it was to be regarded as fact; one did not argue with Mr. Blegen, his word was law. … In short, his gentle manner was real, but it hid a forceful stubborn personality.

That’s interesting, especially because that the model of excavation when Blegen began his research emphasized not the archaeological team, but the singular excavator, a model that Bill Caraher has described as “heroic archaeology.” Blegen’s way of thinking seems to have departed somewhat from the “heroic archaeology” model: it is the model of a family-like or patrimonial structure, with the director playing the role of the traditional strict father, whose opinion is fact and whose word is law. Nevertheless Blegen was, if I understand things correctly, progressive for his day. By contrast, the projects that I were trained on didn’t resemble this patrimonial model. Instead they rather resembled a modern graduate seminar, with “skeptical graduate students” (SGSs) — people like me — engaging in a lively debate with the project directors, the “real Mesoamerican Mediterranean archaeologists” (RMAs) and the “great synthesizers” (GSs). In fact, I felt so comfortable working in this environment that as an SGS I felt comfortable working with and publishing project data, without feeling the need to worry too much about whether the RMAs and GSs would disagree with my interpretations and get angry. Thinking about it a little bit, that’s actually quite remarkable. In any case, this model seems to have emerged in the post-war period, after Blegen’s training was already complete. But it was embraced by those students he trained. In this sense, Blegen’s model of a successful excavation straddles the true “heroic archaeology” of the early 20th century and the more team-oriented model that characterizes late 20th century and early 21st century American archaeology.

I should emphasize that this is not a hidden criticism of Blegen, who by all account was extremely generous and kind, but a comment on the changing nature of archaeological knowledge production. If anything, Blegen was far ahead of his time, both with respect to the way he treated his archaeological family and in the way that he worked together with his colleagues in the Greek archaeological service (the latter point is emphasized especially by Davis’s chapter in the Blegen volume).

16 Jul 1961, Pylos, Greece --- American archaeologist Carl Blegen discovered the palace of Nestor, King of Pylos, in Greece. --- Image by © Manuel Litran/Corbis

16 Jul 1961, Pylos, Greece — American archaeologist Carl Blegen discovered the palace of Nestor, King of Pylos, in Greece. — Image by © Manuel Litran/Corbis

Insiders and outsiders

Blegen was sometimes an insider, sometimes an outsider. He was director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, but only after he had first been (somewhat voluntarily) banished from it by Edward Capps, then the chair of the American School’s managing committee. In “the most dramatic episode” in the School’s history (5), Bert Hodge Hill was forced out of the directorship of the School by Capps, and with Blegen he retreated from the School to found a salon at 9 Ploutarchou.

I’m not particularly interested in assigning blame for this episode (I don’t know nearly enough about it, although I am inclined to favor Hill and Blegen over Capps), but it is astonishing to think that Blegen — probably the most important American archaeologist in Greece over the last 100 years — was ever on the outs at the American School, an institution at which he is now revered. It’s a vivid illustration not only of the vicissitudes of archaeological fortune (i.e., today’s outsider is tomorrow’s superstar and eventual legend) but also of the wastefulness (that’s not quite the right word) of the political wrangling of archaeological heavyweights. Capps seems to have blocked Blegen from working at Pylos using “political pressure, bribery, and blackmail” (214). One of the things that I like least about archaeology is the way in which established scholars can use their influence to block access to others, and the way that research material becomes territory to be defended at all costs. I was drawn to archaeology because I had the real sense that we archaeologists are all in this together, that our data and interpretations, when combined and recontextualized and reinterpreted, are moving us closer to a better understanding of the past. That’s naive, admittedly, but I still believe it. We all benefit the more transparent and open we are with our evidence and our interpretations, and we all suffer when those doors are closed. Here too, Blegen was ahead of his time, a scholar who seems to have encouraged and enabled others. He was, after all, a man who held an open hour at his home in his retirement for anyone who wanted to talk to him (133-134). Perhaps it was the experience of having the door shut to him by Capps that encouraged him to be so open and welcoming to others.

Alice Kober, Aegean prehistory, and the media

The strength of the publicity being showered on Alice Kober’s work at the moment is quite striking. The recent interest has been sparked by a new book by Margalit Fox, entitled The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Harper Collins). The book and Alice Kober’s pioneering work have been the subject of articles in the BBC, the New York Times (by Margalit Fox), and PRI’s the World. (One article that is not in the popular media but ought to be read by all prehistorians interested in Kober is this blog post).

Alice Kober

The evident interest in Alice Kober generated by this popular book, has made me reflect on the fact that Aegean prehistorians have not done a good a job as they might have in communicating the excitement and interest of Greek prehistory to a popular audience. This is not to say that we haven’t been good at outreach — prehistorians give many public lectures through the AIA’s lecture tours, for example, and Greek prehistory has a fairly strong presence on the web. It nevertheless remains the case that few books for a popular audience have been written about Aegean prehistory, and when they have, they haven’t received much attention. I think that this is because such books have been written as handbooks or textbooks, not as narratives. That narrative is important seems clear from the first sentence describing Margalit Fox’s book on the Harper Collins website:

In the tradition of Simon Winchester and Dava Sobel, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code tells one of the most intriguing stories in the history of language, masterfully blending history, linguistics, and cryptology with an elegantly wrought narrative. (emphasis mine)

It is, it seems to me, a mistake for archaeologists of Greek prehistory to ignore the fact that we could be doing a much better job communicating the excitement of our work to a broader audience. We might begin by thinking about narrative. In some ways this is difficult. The nature of archaeological work is such that it’s not so much based on lone detectives,  but on teams of scholars. These teams work in different places at different times, engaging in a multiplicity of scholarly narratives that intersect and dovetail. But if we want to make our work accessible and interesting, and if we want to control the narratives about our discipline, some of us will need to think in these terms.