The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age
J. Lesley Fitton
Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 1996) 212 pp., $29.95
Reviewed by James D. Muhly
When Heinrich Schliemann excavated Troy and Mycenae in the 1870s, he inaugurated a new era of archaeological study of the ancient Greek world.
Today, the number of Aegean archaeologists continues to grow at an astounding rate. J. Lesley Fitton’s informative and very readable Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age tells the story of this century of discovery—beginning with the “heroic” age of Greek archaeology, when pioneers like Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans were loosening the soils of the Greek past at Troy, Mycenae and Knossos. Fitton describes how Aegean archaeology has slowly illuminated the places, objects and peoples of a world previously shaped by hazy legends and myths.
Fitton, a curator at the British Museum, devotes most of her study to such British luminaries as Evans, John Pendlebury, Alan Wace and Michael Ventris—though she also gives due attention to the American archaeologists who helped develop the field, especially Carl Blegen, the excavator of Troy and Pylos.
Little in Fitton’s account ventures beyond the Anglo-American world of scholarship with the exception, of course, of Heinrich Schliemann, and one does sometimes forget that Schliemann was German. For generations, his books, which chronicle his discoveries at Troy, Mycenae, Tiryns and Orchomenos, have been read in English translation. German editions of Schliemann’s books are extremely hard to come by; even most German libraries stock only English translations of these works.
Fitton explains how this came about. Schliemann simply fared better in England than he did in Germany. The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed a golden age of German scholarship in classical archaeology and philology. The German Archaeological Institute in Berlin (and its branches in Athens and Rome) became the center for the study of all aspects of ancient civilization, a study subsumed under the general title of Altertumswissenschaft (the study of antiquity). Schliemann was an outsider, an intruder, a self-made businessman turned amateur scholar. The German academic establishment wanted nothing to do with him.
Late-19th-century England, on the other hand, still cherished the ideal of the independent scholar. In the mid-19th century, politician George Grote published his 12-volume History of Greece, a work that many still regard as the finest history of ancient Greece ever written. Another British politician, William Gladstone (1809–1898), one of the foremost Homeric scholars of his day, published works on Homer even while serving as prime minister. Schliemann could not have asked for a more receptive audience. Gladstone became one of Schliemann’s most ardent supporters and even wrote the preface for the English edition of Schliemann’s Mycenae, published in 1878.
In his own Homeric Synchronism (1876), Gladstone stated his firm belief that “the poems of Homer are in the highest sense historical” and that “there was a solid nucleus of fact in his account of the Trojan War.” The changing attitudes towards those two beliefs, from the time of Herodotus and Thucydides (in the fifth century B.C.E.) right down to the 064present day, is the real theme of Fitton’s book. In what sense, and to what degree, can archaeology provide a historical background for events that supposedly took place prior to the development of historical records?
Schliemann went off to Troy looking for evidence that would give historical credibility to a war known only from Homeric poetry and mythology. He then went to Mycenae to find the burials of King Agamemnon, who led the Greek forces against Troy, and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s murderous wife. After he had excavated the fifth burial in what became known as Grave Circle A, he stopped digging, misguided by the second-century C.E. geographer Pausanias, who reported only five graves at Mycenae (a sixth was later discovered). An almost sacred trust of ancient documents—the same kind of trust that caused 18th- and 19th-century historians to confidently date such mythical events as the Trojan War and the expeditions of Jason’s Argonauts—convinced Schliemann that there was no point in looking for more. Carl Blegen went to Troy in the 1930s to see if a more scientific brand of archaeology could establish a convincing historical context for Homer’s Trojan War. He found but a single Achaean arrowhead, but that was sufficient to declare his Troy VIIa the Homeric city destroyed by Achaean Greeks in the 13th century B.C.E. Blegen then went off to Messenia, in the southwestern Peloponnesus, to locate and excavate the palace of Nestor, an elderly hero in the Iliad, who colorfully recalls his youthful exploits but proves to be an ineffective soldier.
All of Aegean Bronze Age archaeology has been carried out within the framework of a mentalité derived from Homer. Without Homer, Schliemann would never have taken any interest in the prehistoric mounds of northwestern Turkey. Nor would Evans have ever spent his personal fortune excavating and restoring the large Cretan building complex we still know as the Palace of Minos. “From the outset,” Fitton writes, “the Greek Bronze Age, although offering no readable texts, carried the weight of expectation that the door to the mythological world peopled by characters such as Minos and Agamemnon would be opened.”
Has that door been opened? Fitton has to conclude, however reluctantly, that the answer is no. At first, mythology must have seemed a seductive tool to adventurers like Schliemann and Evans. In this respect, they deserve comparison to the early biblical archaeologists who used the stories of Abraham, Joseph and Moses to determine where best to strike with their spades. When Mycenae’s citadel proved to be rich in gold, as Homer promised, and when the ruins at Hisarlik included towering walls and imposing towers, Schliemann’s approach seemed superficially valid. But as Fitton shows, the problem arises not from considering myth, but rather from using it as the basis of scientific inquiry. “We cannot,” she concludes, “when dealing with a pre-literate society, hope to ‘prove’ by excavation that a specific event took place.”
Certainly, the dismissal of myth as a primary source in investigation can induce a “nihilistic despair about how much we can ever know,” as Fitton puts it. But the problem was apparent even in Schliemann’s day, at least to Charles Newton, the keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum and Fitton’s favorite player in British Aegean archaeology. In evaluating Schliemann’s work at Mycenae for an 1878 issue of the Edinburgh Review, Newton concluded: “How much of the story of Agamemnon is really to be accepted as fact, and by what test we may discriminate between that which is merely plausible fiction and that residuum of true history which can be detected under a mythic disguise in this and other Greek legends, are problems as yet unsolved.”
Homeric scholars and archaeologists studying the Bronze Age have spent more than a century looking for solutions to those problems. They might have been better advised to listen to George Grote, for whom mythology represented “a past that never was present.”
The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998) 342 pp., $24
Reviewed by Sudip Bose
In the pages of ancient Arabic literature, the city of Ubar was a flourishing oasis in what is today a desolate stretch of southern Arabian desert. Its people—the so-called People of ’Ad—cultivated a fertile land rich in water, trees and fruit. But their happy life, according to the Koran, came to a devastating end. The People of ’Ad, arrogant and proud, constructed “lofty buildings” that rose higher than any mosque—Towers of Babel in the Arabian desert. To punish them, Allah commanded a “barren wind” to destroy Ubar, sinking the city into the sands.
Over the centuries, explorers and adventurers have trekked across Oman’s desert in search of the legendary city. Clues to its existence, however, remained elusively embedded in folklore and Arabic literature, and Ubar acquired the nickname “Atlantis of the Sands.” In 1992, 065however, the site of this ancient city may well have been discovered—not by an archaeologist, but by a documentary filmmaker from California.
In The Road to Ubar, Nicholas Clapp tells of his remarkable discovery. His engaging narrative is a rare treat: an important piece of archaeological reportage that is also a vivid, old-fashioned adventure story. Clapp and his team had to contend with deadly vipers and spiders as well as blinding windstorms. And they produced results: The excavation of Ubar, aided by space-satellite imaging, shows how meticulous digging coupled with modern technology can lead to archaeological bonanzas.
Clapp first set his sights on the Arabian desert in 1980, when he filmed the transport of a herd of rare African antelopes from the San Diego Zoo to their homeland in Oman. When he returned to California, he couldn’t shake the desert sands from his imagination, so he plunged into books about the region, including Bertram Thomas’s 1932 account, Arabia Felix. In 1930, Thomas became the first Westerner to cross the Rub’ al-Khali (Empty Quarter), a vast expanse of inhospitable desert between the incense groves of southeastern Arabia and the Persian Gulf to the north. Near the town of Shishur, which sits on the southern edge of the Rub’ al-Khali, Thomas encountered an ancient road—which his Bedouin companions told him was the road to fabled Ubar. Thomas recorded the location of the road and resumed his journey across the desert.
Wondering if the road, or Ubar itself, had been recorded elsewhere, Clapp turned to one of the oldest maps in existence, an atlas of the world compiled by the second-century A.D. Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy (see Harold Brodsky, “Ptolemy Charts the World,” AO 01:02). Unfortunately, none of Ptolemy’s actual maps survives; but in the 15th century, European geographers began to draw maps using coordinates listed in Ptolemy’s great work, the Guide to Geography. On several of these maps, Clapp found the name Iobaritae, the Latin word for Ubarites, in the vicinity of Bertram Thomas’s Ubar road. The words Thurifero Regio (Incense Land) were marked nearby. Given that southern Arabia was known for its incense groves, a market town on the edge of the desert might well have existed. But the maps failed to note any major settlements in the area.
In addition, a prominent site labeled “Omanum Emporium” (Marketplace of Oman) curiously appeared in western Arabia. Like the modern nation, ancient Oman was most certainly located in eastern Arabia. Only when Clapp plotted his own map, using Ptolemy’s coordinates, did he come to a startling realization. Though Ptolemy had recorded Omanum Emporium’s coordinates as 87° x 19°, European mapmakers had placed the city at 78° x 19°—9 degrees further west. Clearly the digits had been mistakenly transposed on some early map, and later mapmakers had simply reproduced the error. If Ptolemy was correct, a major market city had existed, near 066the incense groves of southern Arabia, not far from where Bertram Thomas had journeyed. One slip of a medieval monk’s pen had relegated this major city to obscurity.
Clapp’s next move showed a good deal of chutzpah. An amateur who might have been dismissed as a crackpot, he approached scientific heavyweights at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and asked them to use satellite radar to search for the buried city. At that time, in the 1980s, the use of radar imaging in archaeological searches was relatively novel. Only now have archaeologists begun to realize how groundbreaking this technology can be. Radar has the ability to peer beneath the surface of the earth, revealing manmade and naturally occurring features long since buried. Chinese archaeologists, for example, recently used satellites to discover a 2,000-year-old city buried beneath desert terrain in northwestern China.
Radar imaging works essentially like a gigantic flash camera. Moving along a flight path above the earth’s surface, a satellite emits a series of high-powered pulses of light in the direction of the targeted area. When this light strikes the earth, its energy scatters in all directions; some of it, however, gets reflected back to the radar system’s antenna. A series of reflected echoes representing the entire target area is then digitally processed and converted into an image. By varying the bandwidth—the range of frequencies of the emitted pulses—it is possible to sharpen the image’s resolution and produce a picture of the targeted area invisible to both normal photography and the naked eye.
When Clapp first saw images of the Rub’ al-Khali, taken during a Shuttle Imaging Radar mission, he was astounded by the satellite portrait of the now barren desert: “The radar had seen through superficial drifting sand, even small sand dunes,” he writes, “and revealed a landscape thousands of years old. It was a landscape where rivers once flowed, where lakes once formed. A landscape of Arabia as a vast savanna, an Eden even. Certainly not a desert.” Scientist Ron Blom, Clapp’s contact at the JPL, arranged to have other images taken by the Landsat Thematic Mapper, which by emitting light in the visible and near-infrared portions of the spectrum can pick up more detailed features of the terrain. Landsat images of the region Bertram Thomas explored revealed a network of crisscrossing roads, presumably both modern and ancient. Blom and his colleagues then filtered out the modern routes. Only one road remained: the road to Ubar.
Clapp’s methods were hardly orthodox: “What I proposed doing—searching for a site by relying on historical clues—was anything but archaeologically p.c. This had a lot to do with a number of past scholars who, guided by the Bible, had for over a century wandered the Middle East seeking the actual sites of biblical revelations, battles, and the like.” Nevertheless, Blom became an eager proponent of Clapp’s search for the lost city. All that was left was to assemble the rest of the team and secure funding. Clapp brought on Juris Zarins, an archaeologist at Southwest Missouri State University, and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a noted British explorer with contacts in the Omani government. Equipped with satellite photos and complex navigation technology, the group landed in Oman to begin its search.
After a number of false starts and dead ends, the team arrived at Shishur, the site of an old fort perched precariously on the edge of a massive sinkhole. Though locals maintained that the fort had been constructed in the 16th century, Zarins suggested that it had been built upon an older structure. He was right. Space images of the region showed six old caravan tracks originating at the incense groves and converging upon Shishur. Radar scans of the sinkhole further revealed fractured rock, fragments of buildings and, most important, an ancient well buried some 50 feet below its floor. With the arrival of more JPL scientists, Zarins’s students, volunteers and local laborers, the excavation team multiplied, and digging began in earnest.
Slowly the team uncovered grand city walls and the remains of skyscraping towers (the lofty buildings reported in the Koran?) dating to 900 B.C. or earlier, along with Greek and Roman sherds of luxurious utensils and pottery. Here, very possibly, was Ubar, a stopping point along the frankincense road—the marketplace of Oman.
The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age