2009 04 29
Recently read: The Mycenaean World
John Chadwick. The Mycenaean World
The Mycenaean Greeks flourished on parts of mainland Greece and on Crete and a few surrounding islands from about the sixteenth to the thirteen centuries B.C. We don’t know why their civilization collapsed, one city after another, at the end of this period, but when it did Greece entered a period of decentralized, impoverished chaos. The Iliad and the Odyssey were put together around 800 B.C., as Greece began to emerge from this dark age. Both hearken back over the centuries (often anachronistically, as I’ll point out below) to the dimly remembered golden age of the Mycenaean world.
The Mycenaeans wrote, but mainly on perishable substances, like parchment. Parchment falls apart eventually; as far as I know, not a scrap of parchment with the Mycenaean script on it survives.
Fortunately, the Mycenaeans also wrote on clay tablets, a cheap and easy way of keeping temporary records. These were discovered at several sites, the most important of which were at Knossos, on Crete, and at Pylos, on the Western prong of the Peloponnese. They would certainly have crumbled away long ago, but fortunately (for us) both sites were ravaged by fire for some reason and never rebuilt. The clay tablets baked in the fires, turning the temporary writing surfaces into items sturdy enough to survive to the present.
For many years, the Mycenaeans were known to us only through the efforts of archaeologists, who had only the mute relics of this era to assemble theories about it. We had the tablets, but the Mycenaeans did not use the Greek alphabet that we’ve all come to know and love. Indeed, for some time a firm majority of scholars insisted that whatever the tablets meant exactly, the language employed on them was not Greek. We call the script “Linear B,” and for years it was a tantalizing mystery.
The problem was not cracked by mainstream scholars, most of whom were hooked on the “not Greek” theory. Instead, a brilliant and eccentric British architect named Michael Ventris made the most important breakthrough in 1952, shortly before his untimely death at the age of 34 in a car crash. He was soon joined by the Classicist John Chadwick, who contributed a number of breakthroughs of his own, and then wrote a series of foundational works on the subject. Linear B was Greek after all, though a very archaic form of it.
If you were hoping for great literature, the surviving texts in Linear B are a grave disappointment. But they are not without their uses:
At first sight their contents are deplorably dull: long lists of names, records of livestock, grain and other produce, the account books of anonymous clerks. Here and there a vivid description of an ornate table or a richly decorated chariot breaks the monotony. But for the most part the tablets are drab and lifeless documents. Their one virtue is their utter authenticity, for they contain the actual words and figures noted down by the men and women who created the same civilization that has yielded such splendid treasures to the archaeologist’s spade.
With the decipherment of Linear B, we could finally supplement, modify, and correct many of the aspects of the picture given to us by archaeologists working on the period. Although The Mycenaean World is alive to the archaeological evidence at every step, it’s central mission is integrating this rich trove of written evidence into our view of the Mycenaeans.
The Mycenaean World is a work of consummate scholarship about a fascinating, remote era. I would guess, though, that a nonspecialist would require a fairly strong degree of antecedent interest in the subject to get through it. The book is well-written, but it offers a level of detail that could easily wilt the curiosity of most readers. How much do you want to know about the Mycenaean system of weights and measures? If the answer is, “several pages, at least!” then by all means, this is your book. Otherwise, you might want to stick to Homer for a glimpse of this distant world. On the other hand, you should know that by doing so you’ll be sacrificing authenticity for action. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in The Mycenaean World, “Homer the pseudo-historian,” points out how dimly the period was remembered by the time Greece finally started to climb out of the dark ages that separated the Mycenaeans era from the vibrant renaissance that began several centuries later.
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