BMCR 1997.03.17

1997.3.17, Higgins/Higgins, Geological Companion to Greece/Aegean

Michael Denis Higgins, Reynold Alleyne Higgins, A geological companion to Greece and the Aegean. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. xvi, 240 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780801433375 $55.00.

For those of us accustomed to trouble ourselves over how many years Plutarch might have lived on into the reign of Hadrian, or even over the time of the arrival of Indo-European speakers in the southern Balkans, the notion of a book about the past 190 million years of the history of the Greek landscape offers an imaginatively liberating shift of scale. Even this limit—the Mid-Jurassic—is somewhat arbitrarily chosen, but, as our authors explain, the earlier and vastly longer geological history of the earth’s crust is obscured because “we are uncertain of the position of the continents in earlier times and cannot reconstruct the earlier history of plate tectonics” (16).

Now, as far as plates and their faults (normal, thrust, or otherwise) are concerned, I can bring no expertise to this review. My marginal capacity to remember which is the graben and which is the horst owes more to the study of German than that of geology. As a result, I owe both the reader and the authors under review some explanation for my pretense in snatching the opportunity to review this book—a pretense that does, in fact, rest on something more than a dilletante’s delight in the geological sublime. Quite simply, I have been wishing for such a volume for years. I think of myself as highly representative of at least one of its targeted audiences, and if I must defer to others in the assessment of its geological accuracy, I can at least identify myself as one of those for whom this book aspires to serve as a “companion”. It will certainly be a welcome one—and not just for me, but for the sorts of groups I have led and hope to lead again in Greece and Turkey, those fascinated by the natural and the human history of the region, and who share a passion for “reading” the Greek landscape and discovering the past expressed in its surface.

The book is the product of the collaboration of the late Reynold Higgins of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities of the British Museum—whose voluminous and widely known and respected scholarship ranged from minor arts ( Greek and Roman Jewellery [1961,1980]) and terracotta figurines (most recently Tanagra and the Figurines [1986]) to the Bronze Age ( Minoan and Mycenean Art [1967, 1981])—and his son, geologist Michael Denis Higgins, who completed the book after his father’s death in 1993. Most readers of BMCR will have had less occasion to consult Michael Denis Higgins’ impressive list of contributions, though a few minutes spent with “GeoRef” will give an idea of their range. He seems to have included none of his many papers in the 293-item bibliography that is one of the most valuable assets of the Companion, and indeed most would not be relevant, ranging as they do from the chemical analysis of meteorites to the igneous petrology of Quebec (the subject of his 1980 doctoral work—he now teaches at the Université du Québec, Chicoutimi). Still, some of his recent papers, in particular, have dealt with volcanism in Greece, including comparative studies of crystals found in lavas from Thera and from the North Island of New Zealand.

Father and son planned the book, and though its final realization was left to the geologist, both were able to work together to shape it and to establish its balance of styles and priorities (xi). It was a fruitful collaboration, and one for which we may all be very grateful. The Companion does not fit comfortably into any familiar genre, and had the collaboration been based on any less intimate a relationship of mutual respect and understanding, this juxtaposition of descriptive and historical geology with (largely historical) archaeology might well have failed to achieve any synthesis at all. The result participates in two distinct popularizing genres at once: first, the local geology book. Those of us who like to travel with Unklesbay and Vineyard’s Missouri Geology in the car as a map of the “Missouri column” as exposed in bluffs and roadcuts, or to explore the outcroppings and even the building stone of Manhattan armed with Schuberth’s classic Geology of New York and Environs will want this book with us in Greece and Turkey, independent of our archaeological interests. But the Companion is simultaneously an archaeological guidebook—not a competitor with the Blue Guide, of course, but it includes enough historical and archaeological information on a wide range of relevant sites to satisfy the traveler whose concerns are not primarily archaeological. Rockhounds and ecotourists may well find all they want to know about the sites right here. Finally, though, it is along the interface between these two genres that the Companion makes its unique contribution—still a task of popularization, but pointing beyond and providing access to a wealth of geological bibliography relevant to Greek archaeology that has remained inaccessible to most of us. What father and son give us amounts to a simultaneously intimate and public dialogue: here, says the geologist, is what is geologically interesting about this landscape and this site, and here, echoes the archaeologist, is what is archaeologically interesting about this exceptionally crumpled and geologically active patch of the earth’s crust.

The Companion begins with a lucid, succinct, nicely illustrated textbook presentation of plate and local tectonics, the types of rocks and their origins, and the interactions of land with fresh and salt water, with special attention to features of particular relevance to the southern Balkans (e.g., the karst landscape, beach-rock). This provides the basis for a similarly succinct “Geological History of the Mediterranean” (16-25), at the end of which the area under discussion—roughly, the modern state of Greece and the coasts of western Anatolia from the Sea of Marmara to Caria—is divided into fourteen regions, clearly represented in what amounts to an index-map (Fig. 2.7, p. 25). Each region is the subject of a chapter of roughly ten pages, beginning with a summary of the geology of the region, and completed by a series of sub-chapters on local features. Most of those selected have both archaeological and geological interest, though these concerns are always maintained in a sort of equilibrium, and outstanding geological features of no particular archaeological or historical interest are included (e.g. the White Mountains and Samaria Gorge in Crete [200-202], the wonderful petrified forest of western Lesbos [135], and the Springs of Kaiapha near Olympia [69]). The fit between the archaeologically interesting and the geologically interesting is, of course, not perfect. In the discussion of some sites, we get little more than a juxtaposition of the two sorts of information. But it will be no surprise that in the presentation of the many sites where archaeology and historical reconstruction are inseparable from geology, those of us more actively concerned with the former are treated to the sort of succinct and geologically informed discussion we have long wished for, along with invaluable bibliographical references. The two columns and map devoted to lake Copais (76-78) and the discussion of Thermopylae (81-83) are striking examples, and the book throws a clearer light on observable evidence of natural cataclysms of historical importance than we have had available in the past (e.g. the eruptions of Thera [187-95] and the massive earthquake that leveled Sparta in 464 BCE and left a still visible fault-scarp “10-12 m high that runs for 20 km along the base of the Taygetos mountains” [53-54]). Other features that receive exceptionally good treatment here, reflecting the interests of both authors, are the quarries from which came the marbles and other stone used in building and sculpture in antiquity, as well as the clay beds associated with the ancient centers of pottery production (though the actual deposits exploited can rarely be located with precision). The abundant and excellent maps and plans in many cases make it possible to walk or drive to such features. All the plans show us aspects of the sites that no other guidebook reveals.

One could raise quibbles, both on small scale and large. Proofreading, particularly of maps and charts, was clearly neglected. I noted more than a handful of typos; most conspicuously, the chart of Geological periods (Fig. 1.1) was not properly proofread and the chart of “Archaeological time in the Aegean region” (xv) was surely intended to draw the line between Classical and Hellenistic at the death of Alexander in 323, not “232”. Diacriticals on Turkish toponyms are occasionally included but more often omitted. The map of Thrace (Fig. 12.1) includes the innovative toponyms Kavella and Alexandropoulos (the latter particularly remarkable, with three mistakes in one word). These and other confusions—e.g. “Skyros must have been rich in the early Bronze Age, as much gold jewellery has been found in tombs of 1000-700 BC” (93)—could, and should, have been caught by an archaeologically informed and alert editor or proofreader. A larger matter relates to the high level of generalization of the historical and archaeological summaries, resulting in an inevitable risk of oversimplification and distortion, compounded by the tendency of such high-level generalizations to be superseded and become outdated and misleading. (I suspect that the necessary compression and simplification of the geological descriptions may incur some of the same risks, but I am less able to assess them.) But these difficulties are inherent in the plan of the book, and we should be very grateful to have what we have—it is doubtful that anyone else could have done it better.

Who should buy it? It should certainly be in every academic library, and in particular in every collection intended primarily to serve undergraduates. It will be a valuable resource for students of Greek archaeology, both beginners and those more advanced. Beyond that, all of us who aspire to read the Greek landscape and to become more sensitive to its past and its present will want to carry it in the field—reading it in wintry St. Louis has brought me a rich wave of anticipation of the pleasures of doing so myself.