BMCR 2008.04.04

Mythos: La préhistoire égéenne du XIXe au XXIe siècle après J.-C. Actes de la table ronde internationale d’Athènes (21-2 novembre 2002). Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique Supplément 46

, , , Mythos : la préhistoire égéenne du XIXe au XXIe siècle après J.-C. : actes de la table ronde internationale d'Athènes (21-23 novembre 2002). Bulletin de correspondance hell�enique. Suppl�ement ; 46.. Athens: Ecole française d'Athènes, 2006. 400 pages : illustrations, maps, plans, portrait ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2869581955 €80.00 (pb).

There is much of value in the 28, primarily slim, essays published in Mythos: La préhistoire égéenne du XIXe au XXIe siècle après J.-C. As the title suggests, the book deals with Aegean prehistory in the course of the 19th through 21st centuries (after Christ). The volume had its origins in an international round table at the École française d’Athènes in November 2002 and the contributors — primarily French and Greek, with several Italians, Britons, Americans, together with a Belgian and a Dane — include many of the leading names in the field. The four years, however, between the symposium and publication have seen a number of volumes and articles dealing with precisely the same themes covered in Mythos and this only underlines the need for the expeditious publication of volumes such as these.1

A short (barely two-page) avant-propos sets the intellectual stage succinctly and elegantly. The very idea of Mythos revolves around the notion of the invention of Aegean prehistory and the intellectual “godfather” of the undertaking, René Treuil, articulated the three primary types of questions that the table ronde was to address: (1) la découverte : namely the analysis and evaluation of archaeological discoveries (not least of which were the spectacular discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann and Christos Tsountas to mention only a few); the obsession with such discoveries and with “treasures”; the mechanics of invention (best analyzed in Evans and his Minoans); the creation of theories, and so on. (2) la reception : which includes both active (as in Cycladic art/art nouveau) and passive (as in the automatic transmission of stereotypes) reception. (3) le dépassement des stereotypes : including the critique of stereotypes, public responses; the formulation of new hypotheses; future directions; and the “adoption d’une méthode scientifique universelle”, which itself carries all sorts of intellectual baggage.

In addition to the contributors, the original table ronde included a number of the doyens of Aegean prehistory who served as moderators, respondents, and discussants, keeping the program coherent (in alphabetical order): Christos Boulotis, Stephen Dyson, Roland Etienne, Jean Guilaine, Sally Humphreys, Georgios Korres, Anthony Snodgrass, René Treuil, and Lucia Vagnetti. As one might expect from such a kaleidoscope of names, this is a book of ideas. Illustrative material is accordingly circumscribed: I count 56 “figures” (which include line drawings, photographs, graphs, and tables) scattered throughout the text, over half of which (some 30) are found in the article by Isabelle Bradfer-Burdet. Oddly for a volume such as this, there is no table of illustrations.

Deviating, ever so slightly, from Treuil’s tripartite scheme, the essays are conveniently grouped in five sections, each with an overarching theme. Twenty of the essays are penned in French, the remaining eight in English. There are useful abstracts of all the papers in French, English, and Greek (pp. 369-398), but no index.

The first of the overarching themes De la collection au trésor, includes a trio of essays by Michael Fotiadis, Anastasia Serghidou, and Robert Laffineur. In the first of these (“Collecting prehistoric antiquities in the 19th century Aegean”), Fotiadis focuses on collections of prehistoric antiquities, primarily Cycladic marble figurines and obsidian artifacts, prior to the era of Schliemann and the knowledge that emerged from such collecting practices. In so doing, Fotiadis points to an irony, namely that collecting before the 1870s and Schliemann’s interpretation of his discoveries both depended on mythology. Whereas the conjectural knowledge produced about the prehistoric Aegean on the basis of pre-1870s collecting was soon forgotten, Schliemann’s equally mythological interpretations formed the very basis of the new discipline of Aegean prehistory. In a similar vein, Serghidou, in her paper (“H. Schliemann et L. Palma di Cesnola. Du ‘trésor de Priam’ au ‘trésor de Kourion’: Jeus de miroir, itineraries intellectuels et quêtes archéologiques”) deals with the mythologies to which Schliemann and Palma di Cesnola respectively subscribed, and to what extent their discoveries were intellectual constructs. Adopting a similar critique, Laffineur (in “Les trésors en archéologie égéenne: réalité ou manie?”) looks at Priam’s treasure, the treasure of Aigina, the trésor de Thyréatide, and the treasure of Zakro, and examines the reasons that led the inventors of these groups of objects to identify them as treasures. He concludes that very few of these groups deserve the label “treasure”.

The second group of essays deals with the invention of Minoan Crete. The opening essay (“From Mycenaean to Minoan: an exercise in myth making”) by Gerald Cadogan is refreshing in that scholars of such standing in the field of Minoan studies have jumped onto the band wagon of the invention/construction, by Evans, of the Minoans. The paper also critically examines the afterlife of the term “Mycenaean” as it often applies to Late Minoan III. Giorgos Alexopoulos in his paper (“Le taureau ‘apprivoisé’: raffinement et harmonie au palais de Minos”) compares and contrasts the constructions of the Minoans, on the one hand, as refined and peaceful, and the Mycenaeans, on the other, as warlike. He argues, like several scholars before him, that the Palace at Knossos was constructed by Evans in harmony with Evans’ vision of Victorian England.

Nicoletta Momigliano (in “Sir Arthur Evans, Greek Myths and the Minoans”) focuses on Evans’ use of Greek mythology in his various articles and letters to the London Times, The Annual of the British School at Athens, and in The Palace of Minos, and argues that Evans’ use of Greek myths varied according to the audience he was addressing. Momigliano also effectively explores Evans’ dislike of the exalted position of the Classics in English academe — not least in the Oxford establishment — and she draws attention to Evans’ argument that Homer was little more than a mere translator of things that had been achieved by the Minoans, thus elevating the Minoans to a primary position above the Greeks.

In a most interesting paper, Hervé Duchêne turns to Salomon Reinach and the invention of Aegean prehistory (“Salomon Reinach et l’invention de la préhistoire égéenne. Un ‘Athenien’ à l’ombre du Minotaure”), more particularly Reinach’s interest in the indigenous and European character of the Aegean that he was always ready to affirm in the face of the “mirage oriental”. Through Reinach’s contributions in his Chroniques d’Orient, and the Revue archéologique, Duchêne uncovers Reinach’s role in the reception and dissemination of discoveries and hypotheses dealing with Aegean prehistory.

From the curator of the Museum in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, we turn to the attitude of Italian archaeologists in Crete in Vincenzo La Rosa’s “Le mythe des fouilles stratigraphiques dans l’archéologie minoenne”. Here, La Rosa cogently explores Halbherr’s classic misunderstanding of the difference between stratigraphic excavation, on the one hand, and in-depth excavation, on the other. By looking at the virtual stratigraphies of Phaistos and Agia Triada, together with Banti’s view that the differences between Knossos and Phaistos were analogous to the differences between Rome and Florence, La Rosa brings to the fore the shaky foundations on which the very stratigraphic sequence of Minoan culture rests upon.

The penultimate paper in this second section is Isabelle Bradfer-Burdet heavily illustrated “La notion d’hygiène minoenne”. The centerpiece of this paper is the Minoan bathroom and toilet and the attitude of early 20th-century archaeologists who looked to these installations as testimony of comfort and luxury, as well as a sign of progress.

In so many ways, the hardest-hitting is the final paper in this section: René Treuil’s lively “La Crète minoenne: encore un paradis perdu!” Here Treuil cuts to the chase: he shows how Evans’ personality drove him to imagine a Minoan past even before he discovered it, and how Evans’ idealized vision of a Minoan paradise was all-too-easily adopted by a public eager to accept no other vision. Treuil’s paper is a timely wake-up call, and his list of recommendations of how we should best proceed out of the morass of Evans’ stereotypes should be required reading for all students of Aegean prehistory.

The overarching theme of the third section is La construction de l’archéologie mycénienne. The first two papers deal with two of the great pioneers in the archaeology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jacke Phillips (in “Petrie, the ‘outsider looking on'”) addresses the considerable, but largely neglected influence of Sir Flinders Petrie on Aegean Bronze Age archaeology in the last decades of the 19th century. And Kim Shelton addresses the role played by Christos Tsountas in propelling the archaeology of Mycenae into the 20th century, as well as his shortcomings, in her paper: “The long lasting effect of Tsountas on the study of Mycenae”.

In the next paper (“Le cas de Thèbes [Béotie]: mythe, idéologie et recherché au début du XXe siècle”), Vassilis Aravantinos turns to the changing ideologies and methodologies characteristic of archaeological research in the case of Boiotian Thebes, particularly Keramopoullos’ excavations at the Kadmeia. The final paper, by Pascal Darcque (“Les Mycéniens, ces inconnus”) is in many ways paradoxical. Darcque insists that despite the interval of 130 years since the discovery of Grave Circle A, and even in the face of the numerous syntheses on everything from Mycenaean decorated pottery and the contents of the Linear B tablets, to burial customs and palace administration, the Mycenaean period remains ill-known. Darcque enumerates the deficiencies in the collection of data, the failures of documentation, and the limited scope of the research questions that have guided excavations. He particularly laments the rarity of anthropological studies of skeletal remains from funerary contexts, the under-representation of Mycenaean tools — including chipped stone tools — in publications, and his belief that architecture remains a neglected domain. One recommendation, if not plea, that Darcque proposes is a program of what he fittingly describes as “rescue publications”.2

Section IV deals with Politique et archéologie: politiques de l’archéologie. In the opening paper, Iris Tzachili deals with “Ferdinand Fouqué à Santorin”.3 Tzachili’s paper deftly tells the remarkable tale of Fouqué’s three visits to Santorini in 1866 and 1867 and his interest in the ruins of prehistoric houses on Therasia. Predating Schliemann’s discoveries at Troy and Mycenae, Fouqué’s work attempted to demonstrate human presence on the island before the great prehistoric eruption, which he dated, by geological argumentation, to ca. 2000 B.C. (not bad!). In a story every bit as vivid as Susan Sontag’s Volcano lover, Tzachili’s account of Fouqué highlights the fact that he worked without any archaeological points of references (Schliemann’s version of Aegean prehistory was still several years in the future) and that he studied archaeological remains as a geologist, sensitive to stratigraphy. Methodologically, Fouqué’s precept was not followed and what clearly was a major scientific leap forward was all but forgotten as an intellectual dead end.

The following paper, by Marina Sophronidou (“Les premières fouilles préhistoriques dans le monde égéen d’après la presse grecque de l’époque”) looks at the earliest prehistoric excavations in the Aegean as reported in the Greek press of the time, particularly pieces in newspapers and periodicals on specific archaeological events. Sophronidou’s focuses on the case studies of the excavations on Santorini in the late 1860s (a nice complement to Tzachili’s paper) and the excavation of the first tholos tomb at Dimini in 1887.

Jack Davis’s paper, “‘Generous in the matter of exports’: American field archaeologists in occupied Asia Minor, 1922” deals with American excavations at Colophon conducted under the Greek administration of Asia Minor and the significant role that excavations more generally were to play in the Greek project of nationalism in Asia Minor between 1919 and 1922. Davis argues that the fall of Smyrna marked an important watershed when principles defining the nature and practice of Greek archaeology at the American School of Classical Studies were first established, principles that were to determine the trajectory of the school for the rest of the 20th century.

From Asia Minor we move to the Balkan Neolithic in Zoï Tsirtsoni’s “Mon Récent est plus ancient que ton Moyen: motifs d’une guerre balkanique en cours” (the wordplay in the title is deliberate). The combination of political claims and methodological weaknesses Tsirtsoni brings to the fore highlights both the scientific and social underpinnings of prehistoric research in the Neolithic of the Balkans. The final paper in this section “Chasseurs-cueilleurs paléolithiques dans le monde égéen. Veut-on de ces ancêtres?” asks, almost whimsically, do we really want Aegean Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers as ancestors? In reality, the paper deals with the past and present state-of-affairs — and shortcomings — in the study of the Aegean Palaeolithic.

In many ways the final section Le cheminement des idées is something of a catchall for papers dealing with various, often disparate, traditions and intellectual undercurrents. Elisabeth French opens the lineup with a very personal account of the changing aims and methods in archaeology from 1902 to 2002, beginning the year when her father, Alan Wace, arrived in Greece as a student of the British School. The underlying theme here is “father knows best”, as French ends her account with a biting critique of a modern archaeology she views as over inflated by trendy-ness and political correctness.

From this family viewpoint, we move to Jean Guilane’s historiography, Neolithization, and insularity in the case of Cyprus, in reality an account of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of Cyprus with special reference to the excavations of Shillourokambos (“Historiographie, néolithisation et insularité: le cas de Chypre”. From the island of Cyprus we move to the islands of Lemnos, Imbros, Tenedos, Samothrake, and Lesbos, in Massimo Cultaro’s paper (“Islands out of time: richness and diversity of prehistoric studies on the northern Aegean”), which begins with the historical liminality of these islands, and goes on to pit Winifred Lamb’s Anatolianizing perspective against Luigi Bernabò Brea’s “Aegean-Cycladic” view.

From islands we move to the mainland and to two papers dealing with the reception of the Linear B tablets. In the first of these (“Les historiens et le monde mycénien, avant et après le déchiffrement du linéaire B: quelches observations”), Pierre Carlier argues that despite the fact that the majority of historians — except those in Germany — greeted the decipherment of Linear B favorably there was, nevertheless, a certain reluctance to use these new texts in analyzing Mycenaean society, in part as a reaction to the bold interpretations of Mycenaean scholars such as Leonard Palmer. Fittingly, the reasons why the decipherment of Linear B received such a cold reception in Germany (both in the Federal Republic of Germany and in the German Democratic Republic) form the theme of Marie-Louise Nosch’s paper (La réception du déchiffrement du linéaire B dans les deux Allemagnes”).

While still in the Germanic sphere, Patrice Brun’s focus is on questioning the concepts of “princely” tombs and residences in the western Hallstatt region (“Entre la métaphore et le concept: heurs et malheurs du qualificatif ‘princier’ en archéologie”), though I remain skeptical that this volume is the best venue for this paper.

Returning to the Aegean, the next two papers deal with art: Vassiliki Chryssovitsanou (in “Les statuettes cycladiques et l’art moderne”) discusses the reception of Cycladic figurines in the West, the aesthetic commentaries they provoked, and the role played by these figurines in the history of modern art. Olga Polychronopoulou asks a simple question: is there a prehistoric Aegean art? In so doing she explores a whole slew of questions in her paper “Existe-t-il un art préhistorique égéen?”.

The final paper in this section and in the volume (“Histoire de l’archéologie et épistémologie”) by Alexandre Farnoux, begins with the premise that the history of archaeology is without interest unless it constructs an epistemology. He goes on to insist that this history is either erudite and cumulative or else implicitly judgmental, and it is this second category that worries Farnoux; he recommends that the judgmental approach must be made explicit. Farnoux is right in claiming an eruditécumulative and judgmental element in the epistemology of Aegean prehistory, though I would argue that the origins, nature, methods, and limits in the branch of knowledge that is subsumed under the title of “Aegean prehistory” is more complex than Farnoux makes out.

Anyone interested in any aspect of Aegean prehistory — Neolithic, Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean — will find something of interest in this volume. And several of the essays will quickly become standard reading. The strength of this volume lies in the fact that almost all of the 28 papers deal with some aspect of the invention, construction, manipulation, or reception of Aegean prehistory in the course of the 19th through 21st centuries (A.D.). Indeed, what the various papers in this volume highlight so clearly is the enormous weight of scholarly baggage that Aegean prehistory has managed to accumulate in its relatively short history. That much of this baggage is still with us is undeniable. But what this volume succeeds in doing is to lighten the load, at least a little.


1. See, among others, A.A. Zois, Knossos: To Ekstatiko Orama, Herakleion 1996; J.K. Papadopoulos, “Inventing the Minoans: Archaeology, Modernity and the Quest for European Identity.” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 18(1), 2005, 87-149; Y. Hamilakis and N. Momigliano (eds.), Archaeology and European Modernity: Producing and Consuming the ‘Minoans’ (Creta Antica 7), Padova 2006. Also the volume that came out the same year as the conference: Y. Hamilakis (ed.), Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking ‘Minoan’ Archaeology, Oxford 2002.

2. Darcque’s purview is somewhat narrow in that it neglects much interesting recent work on the Mycenaeans, such as M.L. Galaty and W.A. Parkinson, Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces: New Interpretations of an Old Idea, Los Angeles 1999; and the much revamped version: M.L. Galaty and W.A. Parkinson, Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces, II: Revised and Expanded Second Edition, Los Angeles 2007.

3. For a longer, more recent, and gripping account of Santorini at the beginnings of Aegean prehistory, see I. Tzachili, Oi arches tis aigaiakis proïstorias: oi anaskaphes sti Thera kai ti Therasia ton 19o aiona, Athens 2006.