If anyone needs any proof that archaeological interpretation is a largely derivative exercise, drawing its narrative tropes from modern fears and conceits– rather than any realistic divination of the very different character of the past– we have only to look at the following three archaeological stories, published in breathless journalistic prose during the Great Greek Financial Chaos of 2010:
1. MINOANS FIGHT TO DEFEND THEIR PROPERTY.
After more than a century of the kind of hazy, nostalgic, Aubrey Beardsley-art-noveau idealization that the Minoan civilization has undergone since the days of Arthur Evans, it is interesting that suddenly (once again) the Minoans have their detractors– at least implicitly. The image of the peaceful island empire that ruled the waves (ala Britain) took a hit in the 1980s with the dark suspicions of human sacrifice at Knossos and Archanes, but that quickly passed away.
Now come the new finds, or should I say new interpretations at Gournia. They show the Minoans to be familiarly banal ancient fighters, raining death and destruction down upon alien invaders who are, interestingly described, in absurdly essentialist ethnic terms. The struggle for survival and the attack of the mobs as the economy tightens are all modern tropes and ideological simplifications, recycled here to caricature the past rather than to enlighten us about complex processes of change:
From the Independent:
By Owen Jarus Wednesday, 5 May 2010
A team of archaeologists have discovered a fortification system at the Minoan town of Gournia, a discovery which rebukes the popular myth that the Minoans were a peaceful society with no need for defensive structures.
The team’s efforts were led by Professor Vance Watrous and Matt Buell of the University at Buffalo. Located on the north coast, Gournia was in use during the neo-palatial period (ca. 1700-1450 BC), when Minoan civilization was at its height. The town sits atop a low ridge with four promontories on its coastline. Two of these promontories end in high vertical cliffs that give the town a defensive advantage, and it is here that the fortification system was discovered.
It’s an open question as to whether the people guarding the fortifications were part of a militia or something more organized. There was “definitely a body of men who would have had that duty but we don’t know exactly what they were like,” said Professor Watrous.
Tombs uncovered by Hawes and other excavators have shown people buried with swords. Watrous said that there was one particular tomb that produced an entire collection of daggers, swords and other items.
However, Gournia’s fortifications did not prevent the town’s demise. The town fell around 1450 BC, along with other Minoan settlements. A new group called the Mycenaean appeared on Crete at this time, taking over the island.
Watrous said that Mycenaeans probably avoided attacking the town by sea. “Many other settlements were destroyed at the same time. My guess is that they just came along the land; they didn’t have to come up from the sea”.
For complete story, click here.
2. MYCENAEAN WORKERS’ PARADISE
Why in the world would anyone assert that there was anywhere in or near Mycenae that was an “egalitarian” society. Mycenae has been long been seen as the Yang to Knossos’s Yin. The lavish burial goods in Grave Circle A have been seen as funerary honors to fierce warlords who ruled through violence and plunder. But now we see a new interpretation, perhaps reminiscent of those who want to see economic equality where there is actually none. This recent interpretation is just another simple-minded modern trope based on the absence of evidence. Do such cartoons actually deserve serious research funds?
From the Independent:
Monday, 29 March 2010
A team of archaeologists have unearthed five chamber tombs at Ayia Sotira, a cemetery in the Nemea Valley in Greece, just a few hours walk from the ancient city of Mycenae. The tombs date from 1350 – 1200 BC, the era in which Mycenae thrived as a major centre of Greek civilization.
They contain the remains of 21 individuals who probably came from Tsoungiza, an agricultural settlement close to the ancient city. Despite the significant human remains, however, the team have found no evidence of elite burials, prompting speculation that Tsoungiza may have been an egalitarian society without leaders.
The team were surprised to find a lack of burial goods in the tombs. The Mycenaean civilization is known for its rich elite burials, but the goods found at Ayia Sotira were modest. They included alabaster pots, bowls, jugs, faïence and glass beads, and a female Psi figurine (one of three styles typical of Mycenae). After water-sieving the remains, they also found stone micro beads that were no bigger than a millimetre in size. One tomb contained 462 of these beads stowed in a side-chamber, and are thought to be the remains of a necklace.
There were no findings of the gold or silver artefacts expected in an elite burial, although they did find fragments of a conical rhyton – a two-hole vessel that can be used for libation rituals and is often associated with elite burials.
Professor Smith described the tomb complex as having a “distinctly different character to those around Mycenae. The wealthy and very wealthy tombs are missing”.
For full article, click here.
3. UNDOCUMENTED MINOAN IMMIGRANTS?
There is no question that Aegean-style frescoes have been identified at Tell el-Dab’a in the eastern Nile Delta and at Tel Kabri in northern Israel in recent years. But of all the possible explanations for that phenomenon, that of “fleeing workers” expresses at least two destructive and NOT INEVITABLE presumptions: a.) that only actual, native-born Aegean (Minoan?) craftsmen had the genetic predisposition, intelligence, and creativity to create these decorative/symbolic works, and b.) that their labor was largely individual and could be diffused only through market action, in this case economic collapse. I mean, we need at least to try to be a bit more sophisticated about cultural influences and movements than merely to assume that the possibilities of the present are the ONLY possibilities.
From Heritage Key:
Submitted by owenjarus on Tue, 01/05/2010 – 16:04
[…] At a lecture a few weeks ago in Toronto Professor Maria Shaw ,of the University of Toronto, proposed her own theory. Shaw has done extensive archaeological work in Crete so her background is more from the Aegean side of the coin.She believes that the frescoes were drawn by out of work Minoan artists – who travelled to Egypt as the Minoan civilization was declining.
Professor Shaw’s argument works like this-
Cretan rulers controlled their art extremely carefully. Shaw said that the bull-leaping scenes are a symbol of the Palace of Knossos and are found nowhere else on the island. “I stress in no other palaces,” she said.
Also half-rosettes, the flowery decoration seen on the scenes at Tell el-Dab’a, are “a sign of royalty… it’s amazing that it was appropriated and used at Tell el-Dab’a.”
Given that the bull-leaping and half-rosette symbols were tightly controlled on Crete, it makes no sense that the rulers would let their artists paint them in a foreign country.
So, again, what are they doing in Egypt?
Shaw believes that the paintings date to a time when the Palace of Knossos was in decline (ca. 1400 BC). The artists that worked there would have found themselves out of work and needing a new benefactor. “Artists must have left from there and went find jobs in Egypt,” said Shaw.
Also, as the Palace of Knossos declined so did the willingness to honour its symbols of rule.
“The respect or fear that people had not to imitate Knossos – went with Knossos,” said Shaw.
It’s also no surprise that Egyptian rulers would sanction the use of Minoan art.
Egypt at that time was open to foreign influences. The Amarna letters show that Egypt was wheeling and dealing diplomatically in the Near East. Paintings have been found showing people from the Aegean bringing gifts to Egypt. Minoan motifs have also been found in Egyptian tombs.
“There was an interest in Egypt of things Minoan,” said Shaw.
Further backing up her point is evidence from the site of Mycenae in Greece. Fragments of a bull leaping scene, similar to those found at Knossos, have been found there as well – further proof that when Knossos fell, its art and artists travelled far and wide.
For entire article, click here.
* * *
Greece and the Aegean are nothing special when it comes to the chronocentrism of their archaeological interpreters. The issues described above just happen to be in the news today as engines of financial fear– and they illustrate how archaeology so effectively disseminates modern ideology in ancient guise. In this case, the ideology is that economic actions and reactions are more or less natural events, with no real blame to be cast on those responsible, just the familiar phenomena of market actions and reactions, and the flows of labor and capital between regional investment spheres.
Interesting and disturbing how these economic phenomena of the present are neatly presented as timeless by an intellectual sleight of hand that shifts our gaze from the present to the distant past, portraying our current economic crises as historical inevitabilities.
How do you write “international debt crisis” or “taxpayer-funded bailout” in Linear B?