BMCR 1996.07.13

1996.7.13, Fitton, Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age

, The discovery of the Greek Bronze Age. Cambridge (Issued for the British Museum): Harvard University Press, 1996. 212 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780674211889. $29.95.

The image of the archaeologist has always captured the imagination—a heroic figure finding unknown cultures paradoxically both ancient and new. When the archaeologist’s voice speaks for these mute people, archaeologist and discovery thus become one. And yet the archaeologist him or herself has a distinct cultural background, shaped by time and place of birth, educational background, attitude toward the world, that must be taken into account. In no case does this seem more true than in the discovery of the pre-Classical Greek cultures from the 1870s to the 1950s, epitomized in the figures of Schliemann and Evans. Moreover, the development of Bronze Age Greek archaeology as a discipline (and Classical archaeology in general) is inextricably tied in with the Classical philological tradition, since at every step, the discoveries of the archaeologists were measured and judged by the literature and the latest trends in its analysis.

J. Lesley Fitton covers this ground in her account of the first eighty years of Greek Bronze Age archaeology, from Schliemann to Ventris, from 1870 to ca. 1955. She presents a traditional ‘heroizing’ biographical account of Schliemann, Evans, Wace and Blegen, filling in information about other contemporary excavators and their finds, and adding details about later discoveries at these sites where it seems appropriate. This is a well-crafted general introduction to the main characters, sites and issues in the history of Aegean archaeology. However, it is not historiographical, in that Fitton does not seek to analyze the interpretations of the excavators in terms of contemporary social or political patterns of thought (although she does discuss the intellectual background to the three-age system). In both subject matter and presentation, Fitton has followed earlier accounts of the development of Greek Bronze Age archaeology, most notably William McDonald, Progress into the Past (originally published in 1965, and updated in a second edition in 1990 by William McDonald and Carol Thomas), and Michael Wood, In Search of the Trojan War 1985. Fitton’s presentation differs in that it emphasizes the British influence behind these new discoveries. Fitton is curator for Cycladic art in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the British Museum. (This book under review was published first in England by the British Museum, and now is being distributed in North America by Harvard University Press.) She has done fieldwork in Greece and Crete, and has published on the early British Museum curator Charles Newton, and his influence on Schliemann.

The book is divided into four main sections, corresponding to I. ancient and early modern views of prehistory, II. the pioneering excavations of Schliemann, Evans and their contemporaries, III. the growing tension between Evans’ view of Mycenaean culture, and that of Wace and Blegen, and IV. recent developments. Each section has two or more chapters which are unnumbered; I have provided chapter numbers for the sake of clarity in this review.

Fitton’s short introduction emphasizes that knowledge of specific Bronze Age cultures is relatively recent (in the last 125 years), but the elements which make up our knowledge of these cultures, and the ways in which this information is presented, is very complex. The best way to understand the material and its terminology is “to trace the progression from a blank to a complex picture, and to show something of the process whereby the modern view of a remote period that left no written history has been formed” (pp. 10-11).

In Part I, “A Past that never was Present”, Fitton surveys first what the ancient Greeks themselves thought of their past, and then how the revival of interest in Classical antiquity shaped the ways in which Greek archaeological discoveries would be viewed. Chapter 1, “The Ancient View of Prehistory”, considers how the Greeks themselves analyzed their mythic tradition. The myths were considered to relate true events in the past, but Herodotus and Thucydides began to question or interpret mythic events in terms of political forces. The second chapter, “Before the Age of Excavation”, deals with the growing interest in the 18th and 19th centuries for the antiquities and culture of Greece. It contains the largest amount of material not covered in previous books on the Greek Bronze Age. Fitton uses as a central theme the activities of Charles Newton, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the British Museum, whose concepts of Classical art were influenced by Winckelmann’s scheme of growth and decay. When Newton did come across prehistoric Greek objects from Mycenaean chamber tombs on Rhodes, he categorized them as primitive and savage, and could not really see any connection between this material and later Classical art. The development of archaeology in the Near East, Egypt, and in northern Europe is also discussed. This chapter ends with a discussion on the historicity of Homer, and Parry’s theory of oral composition.

Part II, “The Heroic Age of Excavation”, comprises the bulk of the book, some hundred pages. Here Fitton arranges the material chronologically, first Schliemann’s excavations and publications, then the work of contemporary Greek and foreign archaeologists, and finally the career and discoveries of Evans. Most of this material has been covered in other accounts.

Chapter 3, “Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae”, presents a condensed account of Schliemann’s work at Troy and in Greece. It opens with a brief description of earlier Western travellers looking for Troy, then describes the career and interests of Frank Calvert, a British expatriate and amateur archaeologist who owned land in the Troad, and had interested Schliemann in excavating at Hisarlik. Fitton draws upon recent work by Calder and Traill, Easton and others concerning the problem of Schliemann’s self-advertising personality and aims in excavating Troy (however David Traill’s most recent biography of Schliemann appeared too late for Fitton to use). She reaches the conclusion that even if Schliemann did lie about the find-spot of the Great Treasure at Troy, it was probably not put together from local tomb-robbers’ wares, because it is homogenous in style, and fits the early Bronze Age context (p. 70). The yearly account of major finds per excavation season at Troy, Mycenae, Tiryns and other sites is sometimes tedious to get through, but necessary to understand how the accumulation of data led to constantly changing interpretations. Fitton’s description of Schliemann’s excavations of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae is particularly useful for understanding which grave goods were found on which bodies in each grave. In most books on the Aegean Bronze Age, the grave goods from Circle A are described by category, which makes it difficult to envision the range of goods per burial.

Chapter 4, “Christos Tsountas and Other Pioneers”, bridges the gap between the last years of Schliemann’s career, and Evans’ first season of excavation at Knossos. Christos Tsountas the Greek archaeologist found the palace at Mycenae, excavated many Mycenaean period sites on the mainland, and Early Bronze Age sites in the Cyclades. Fitton mentions other Greek antiquarians working on Crete, at this time under Turkish rule, but most of the figures in this chapter are British or foreign archaeologists working in Cyprus, or Greece. It is clear that by 1900, Tsountas and other archaeologists had defined the characteristic elements of Mycenaean culture, even if its chronological development had not yet been firmly established.

Chapter 5, “Arthur Evans and Minoan Crete”, chronicles the life and finds of the excavator. Evans occupies center place in this book as the most heroic of the pioneers, Schliemann’s opposite in many ways, and the archaeologist who most influenced the next generation of excavators. Evans had the academic credentials and social acceptance that Schliemann sought (he was Keeper of the Ashmolean Collection, and later Trustee of the British Museum); where Schliemann worked at numerous very different sites and was at a loss to interpret his finds, Evans’ interpretation of ‘his’ Minoans was formed within two years of excavation, and remained unshaken despite contradictory evidence. The material in this chapter is drawn from several sources, primarily Joan Evans’ biography of her brother, Time and Chance, Evans’ own publications. The chapter begins with the education and character of Arthur Evans—he came from a family of antiquarians and scholars, but rebelled against the traditional proponents of Classical antiquity, such as Charles Newton. When he became interested in Cretan antiquities, especially examples of writing, it was because they were pre-Classical. As in the chapter on Schliemann, Fitton gives a year by year account of the finds and publications connected with Knossos, from 1900 to 1914. In the first year of excavation, Evans used the term ‘Mycenaean’ to describe his palace, but soon adopted the term ‘Minoan’ as differences in architecture, two related scripts (Linear A and B), and the long pottery sequence showed internal development of palatial civilization on Crete. This soon developed into the claim that Mycenaean civilization was the product of Minoan settlers. By 1912, he was arguing that Homer was merely a translator of Minoan epic.

Chapter 6, “Discoveries elsewhere in Greece”, briefly surveys archaeologists and their excavations in other parts of Crete, then on the Greek mainland in the period between 1900 and 1920. Palace sites were uncovered at Phaistos and Ayia Triada by Italian archaeologists, and at Mallia by the Cretan archaeologist Hazzidakis. Americans excavated at Gournia, Mochlos, Pseira and Vasiliki. All these excavators adopted Evans’ tripartite pottery scheme (divided into Early, Middle and Late Minoan, then further subdivided), even when it did not fit their sites exactly. On the mainland, the British excavator Wace and the American Blegen collaborated in analyzing pottery sequences from different sites to establish a relative chronology for the mainland. They developed a tripartite scheme based on Evans’ scheme, and applied the term Helladic to their pottery chronology, to emphasize the mainland origin of these styles.

The title of Part III, “Minoans and Mycenaeans”, signifies the next stage in the story—the conflict of Evans vs. Wace and Blegen concerning the relationship between the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Chapter 7, “Alan Wace and Carl Blegen”, shows how this generation of archaeologists working on mainland sites focussed on establishing chronology and interrelations. Most of this material is covered by McDonald (who worked with Blegen) in Progress into the Past. Wace’s work at Mycenae from 1920 to 1923 led him to conclude that the Mycenaean culture was essentially a mainland development, although owing much to Crete, and that the main period of building at Mycenae coincided with the period of decay at Knossos, and so was probably independent of Knossos. This infuriated Evans so much that he stopped Wace’s career as an excavator in Greece. Meanwhile Blegen’s work on numerous mainland sites dating from the Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age showed a sequence of development independent of Crete. In 1928, Blegen argued that Greek speakers appeared in the mainland at the end of the Early Bronze Age and that the destruction at Knossos at the end of LM II was caused by Mycenaean Greeks, thus contradicting Evans’ view of the mainland as Minoan-speaking. His work at Troy from 1932 to 1938 sought to clarify its stratigraphy and chronological correlations to the rest of the Aegean, as well as identify which level corresponded to Homer’s Troy. The power of the literary tradition in Bronze Age archaeology remained strong, even though by this time there was a large amount of purely archaeological data. Blegen began excavating in 1939 at Ano Engliano, uncovering not only the palace of Pylos, but Linear B tablets dating a century or more later than Evans’ date for the destruction of Knossos. In the face of the evidence of mainland chronology, Evans’ view of a Minoan dominated mainland now carried little weight.

Chapter 8, “The Interruption of War”, is a very brief chapter that treats Evans’ picked successor at Knossos, Pendlebury, who was killed in the German invasion of Crete. Pendlebury agreed with Evans in most respects, but was more open in his view of the relations between Minoans and Mycenaeans. In his book An Introduction to the Archaeology of Crete, Pendlebury attributed to Wace the heretical theory that the LM II period at Knossos had many Mycenaean features, because the palace was in mainland hands. Fitton mentions but does not discuss in depth the effect of the war and the following civil war upon archaeology; essentially all fieldwork stopped for ten years.

Chapter 9, “The Decipherment of Linear B”, presents a condensed account of Ventris’ background, and the methods used to identify the script as an early form of Greek. This chapter brings Section III to an end as it answers the question of the relationship between the Mycenaeans and the Minoans—Mycenaeans learned from Minoans, and took control of the island in the last main phase of the palace at Knossos. Fitton mentions that the publication of the Pylos tablets by Bennett aided in the decipherment (p. 173); in fact without Bennett’s word lists, Ventris would not have had the number of examples needed to test phonetic values or spelling rules. The open collaboration among scholars working on Linear B in the early 1950s greatly contrasts with Evans’ reluctance to publish the Knossos Linear B tablets, because he wanted to decipher the script himself. The chapter ends with the seemingly unending question concerning the date of the Linear B tablets from Knossos: ca. 1380, or 1200? Fitton mentions the recent find of Linear B tablets from Chania dating to 1250 BCE, which have handwriting very similar to a scribal hand in the Knossos archive.

Section IV, “Certainties and Uncertainties”, seeks to bring the story up to the present. Chapter 10, “Later Excavations”, is just that, a survey of the new and continuing excavations arranged by area. Fitton gives an update on the sites first excavated by Schliemann—Troy and Mycenae, then lists the major archaeological discoveries in the last 40 years, in particular Kea, Thera, the palace of Zakro in Crete, the Ulu Burun shipwreck discovered in 1984, and the Minoan style frescoes from the Egyptian site of Avaris. The question of changing methodology, ‘New Archaeology’ vs. the ‘Great Tradition’ of Classical archaeology is treated in the last two pages (pp. 198-199); it is shown that the ‘New Archaeology’ may explain certain aspects which involve many interrelated factors, such as the collapse of the Bronze Age civilization, better than traditional theory involving outside influence.

Chapter 11, “Current Trends”, pulls together many of the main themes in the book, in particular the relationship between Bronze Age archaeology and the literary tradition. Although the Mycenaean world and the world of Homer are not the same, to what extent does Homer’s world contain elements from the Mycenaean cultures? Fitton ends the chapter (and the book) with an object lesson concerning modern myths—the ‘Coming of the Greeks’ at the end of the Early Bronze Age is a theory based upon interpretation of archaeological material which has achieved quasi-factual (factoid) status of its own; when the different elements that make up the theory are reinvestigated, the picture becomes so complex that the original theory no longer has coherence. But these archaeological myths live on because they are simple, and thus satisfying.

Fitton succeeds admirably in presenting within 200 pages the main personalities and events in the development of Aegean archaeology. She shows an encyclopedic grasp of details, but rarely lets this disrupt or obscure the flow of her narrative. The book itself is physically attractive, with thick paper, numerous black and white illustrations, and color plates; it also possesses a comprehensive index. Yet the book has a major flaw concerning references. Throughout the book, Fitton cites and/or quotes from a wide range of sources, but the system of references is inconsistent. Page references to sources are never given, even when direct quotations appear. There are no foot- or end-notes. If a work is cited in the text, either in full or obliquely by author or date, it does not necessarily appear in the bibliography. For instance, on p. 145, she refers obliquely to “Gustav Glotz, the French author of a general work on Aegean civilisation published in 1923,” and then gives a direct quote from Glotz’ book concerning Evans, without citing the book by title in either the text or bibliography. Similarly p. 147 contains an indented quotation by Seager; the date is given but not the source, which from the casual style of the writing, may be a letter or diary. The reasoning behind which books and articles are listed in the bibliography is similarly obscure. Two thirds of the works listed are cited directly in the text or referred to obliquely by author; for instance the bibliography contains Blegen’s site reports for Zygouries, Prosymna, Korakou and Troy (although surprisingly not Pylos). The remainder appear to be recent works that relate to some aspect or problem covered in the body of the book. For example, the article by G. Walberg, “A Gold Pendant from Tell el-Dab’a”, Aegypten und Levante 2 (1991) refers to the gold pendent from Avaris illustrated on p. 143 and discussed in connection with the Aegina Treasure on p. 142. But there is no way for the reader to learn of the existence of this article from the discussion in the text. The obvious solution would be to place relevant bibliography with a short commentary at the end of each chapter, as was done in Progress into the Past or Oliver Dickinson, The Aegean Bronze Age. The bibliography also shows sloppy proofreading; Bennett’s name is not put in capitals as are the rest of the authors, and the title of Wace and Blegen’s 1916 BSA article is cited wrongly. The text is mostly free from errors; I caught only two—on p. 158, Blegen was professor at the University of Cincinnati, not Cincinnati University, and on p. 174, the Linear B word for ‘girl’ is transcribed ko-wa, not ko-we.

The choice of illustrations seems somewhat eclectic. The sites discussed at length in the text all are illustrated with at least one photograph each, but in general, the book has relatively few of the standard pictures of sites, plans and objects, and a large proportion of these are from the British Museum or the Ashmolean archives. For Troy and Mycenae, there are many 19th century drawings and photographs, in keeping with the main theme of the book. The dust jacket handsomely presents a detail of an 1837 painting of the Lion Gate at Mycenae. There are very few site plans and maps, and these have little or no explanation showing what symbols represent what features or types of site. Why such an eclectic mix of illustrations? I received the impression that the author chose illustrations which do not usually appear in books on the Greek Bronze Age, and avoided those which have been frequently represented.

For what audience is the book intended? The basic premise, the ‘heroic’ age of excavation with its focus on exceptional individuals, will attract interested non-specialists. The story of discovery follows a familiar pattern, and Fitton has presented enough new information to add interest, but not too much to lose the reader in unfamiliar details or theories. The lack of chapter numbers, page references or note numbers within the text may also appeal to the non-specialist, since the eye is not interrupted by such clutter on the page. In its present form, I would not recommend it as a textbook for beginning archaeology students precisely because of the lack of references, although there is a need for a textbook which covers the history of Bronze Age archaeology. Dickinson’s 1994 survey of Bronze Age archaeology deliberately avoids this topic because it would have made a complex book even longer. Most of the material in this book is already present in the second edition of Progress into the Past, although Fitton does add the latest archaeological developments such as the new excavations at Troy, and the discoveries at Avaris in Egypt, and her presentation of the material is easier to read than McDonald’s. As an Aegean archaeologist from an American university, I found Fitton’s marginalization of all non-British archaeologists except Blegen annoying; she makes them seem like satellites revolving around the British sun. Although Fitton mentions Greek archaeologists such as Tsountas, Hazzidakis and Xanthoudides, she does not discuss their social or political backgrounds, which would shed light on their interpretations of the material and how it related to the Greek cultural heritage. One reason why the archaeological myth of the coming of the Greeks still survives is that it fulfills a political purpose. Fitton’s account of the development of New Archaeology is too short; I would have liked to see an expanded section on aims and methodology of New Archaeology vs. the Great Tradition. In the final chapter, Fitton could have gone into greater detail about the ideas and points of view formed during the early years of excavation (especially concerning the literary tradition), which present day archaeologists have to deal with. But all in all, Fitton succeeds admirably in what she sets out to do—to present an entertaining, condensed version of the men who discovered the Greek Bronze Age.