Tag Archives: western civilization

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

Some thoughts about Reed’s humanities course

Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal Part IX (1939)

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills…
But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Some may have seen the article on the Society for Classical Studies blog about the the controversy over HUM110 at Reed College, in which I was quoted. I gave the author of that post, Sarah Bond, a lot more than she could reasonably print, so I thought that I would include some of those (scattered, half-digested) thoughts here on my own blog. I should say that a lot of my thinking has been shaped by the response of the students in my “Modern Issues, Ancient Times” class on race and antiquity.

On the one hand, there are the Reedies Against Racism who accuse the course of being “too white, too male and too Eurocentric”; on the other, we have the riposte of Prof. Jay Dickson, who is quoted as saying, “The idea that Hum 110 is a ‘white’ course is very strange to me. It presupposes that our contemporary racial categories are timeless.”

Of course Prof. Dickson is right. Greeks and Romans didn’t think of themselves as white or even as particularly European. On the other hand, it seems to me disingenuous (or at the very least, uncharitable) to interpret the students’ objections in this way. I think it’s clear that the students are referring to the reception of Classical texts: not only the way that Classics has been taught, as the starting point of European history (that is how I learned it in my AP class), but also the way that Classics was used by early modern and modern European and American race theorists and race scientists.

I don’t think that Classicists can have our cake and eat it too. That is, we can’t require students to read Greek and Roman texts on the premise that they are foundational to Western/European civilization/thought and then conveniently forget what this has actually meant in historical terms. The establishment of these texts as foundational has, in the past couple of centuries, been premised on a Eurocentric project. (And it would also be irresponsible to forget that some of these texts have horrific content, like Aristotle’s defense of slavery.)

It also seems weird to me that an Introduction to the Humanities course would contain no material written in the past 2000 years. That’s not an introduction to the humanities; it’s a Great Books of Ancient Literature class with an “introduction to the humanities” label affixed. Personally, I would expect an introduction to the humanities to start with a text like the Odyssey and follow the thread through Euripides, Pound, Joyce, Walcott, and maybe Wallace and Atwood. It’s unsurprising to me that the students saw through this mismatch.

We could get out of this bind by claiming, with Bernard Knox, that “The primacy of the Greeks in the canon of Western literature is neither an accident nor the result of a decision imposed by higher authority; it is simply a reflection of the intrinsic worth of the material, its sheer originality and brilliance” (The Oldest Dead White European Males, p. 21). Although I think that Greek literature is really, really great, where I would part company with Knox is the idea that this justifies its primacy, since the very idea of having a meaningful comparison between world literatures seems like a joke. I’d rather debate LeBron vs. MJ.

My main observation, then, is that Classics has a problem. We lean on the Western Civilization narrative in lots of ways, but we can’t benefit from it then refuse the parts of that narrative that we don’t like. Or rather, we can, but we should expect our students to call bullshit. The solution, I think, isn’t to ignore the problem, but to make an argument to students that the ancient Mediterranean is inherently interesting (not superior). That means listening to students and responding to them in a serious way.

In fact, students are already very interested in the material. We don’t have to water down the syllabus, just refashion it. My students learned an enormous amount about antiquity in my class, through a different lens than any I had previously used. They were extremely curious about the ancient world. A common question was, “Why were we never taught this?” They are not, on the other hand, very interested in taking Dead White Guys 101. Nor am I in teaching it.