October 01, 2008

Homer and Archaeology

Related: Support for "large" Troy at the time of the Trojan War, Historicity of the Trojan War.

Hidden histories: 'The Odyssey' and 'The Iliad' are giving up new secrets about the ancient world By Jonathan Gottschall:
In the last 50 years, most scholars have sided with the great classicist Moses Finley, who argued that the epics were "a collection of fictions from beginning to end" and that - for all their majesty and drama - they were "no guide at all" to the civilization that may have fought the Trojan War.


But thanks to evidence from a range of disciplines, we are in the middle of a massive reappraisal of these foundational works of Western literature. Recent advances in archeology and linguistics offer the strongest support yet that the Trojan War did take place, with evidence coming from the large excavation at the likely site of Troy, as well as new analysis of cuneiform tablets from the dominant empire of the region.


In a project that has now been underway for 20 years, the German archeologist Manfred Korfmann and hundreds of collaborators have discovered a large lower city that surrounded the citadel. Using new tools, such as computer modeling and imaging technology that allows them to "see" into the earth before digging, Korfmann and his colleagues determined that this city's borders were 10 to 15 times larger than previously thought, and that it supported a population of 5,000 to 10,000 - a big city for its time and place, with impressive defenses and an underground water system for surviving sieges. And, critically, the city bore signs of being pillaged and burned around 1200 BC, precisely the time when the Trojan War would have been

In his influential book, "Troy and Homer," German classicist Joachim Latacz argues that the identification of Hisarlik as the site of Homer's Troy is all but proven. Latacz's case is based not only on archeology, but also on fascinating reassessments of cuneiform tablets from the Hittite imperial archives. The tablets, which are dated to the period when the Late Bronze Age city at Hisarlik was destroyed, tell a story of a western people harassing a Hittite client state on the coast of Asia Minor. The Hittite name for the invading foreigners
is very close to Homer's name for his Greeks - Achaians - and the Hittite names for their harassed ally are very close to "Troy" and "Ilios," Homer's names for the city.

"At the very core of the tale," Latacz argues, "Homer's 'Iliad' has
shed the mantle of fiction commonly attributed to it."


McG said...

The question crossing my mind as I read this synopsis is: Where does this put Plato and his writings about the Egyptians and their ancientness, about "Atlantis", about the "early wars" against the invaders by the Greeks. Herodotus also comes to mind and his views of the ancient world. Lastly, the greek who left present day Marseilles and went up the Irish Sea and then visited Iceland?? How are these prehistories viewed??? Note I very much distrust Roman accounts of events and fights by their army.

Dienekes Pontikos said...

Where does this put Plato and his writings about the Egyptians and their ancientness, about "Atlantis", about the "early wars" against the invaders by the Greeks.

Plato is the only source for the Atlantis legend, while the Trojan war was generally known.

Herodotus also comes to mind and his views of the ancient world.

Herodotus represents a mix of things he had first hand experience of and things which he heard from others.

Maju said...

Plato is the only source for the Atlantis legend...

Laregly true (even if there is some other mention of Atlantis in some other Greek legend re. the origins of Astronomy - may be a late or modified myth, not sure) but it is important, IMO, to compare some elements of Plato's account and the Heraklid legends affecting the far west (two "works": Herakles vs. Geriones and Herakles and the Hesperides) that may reflect real Mycenean expeditions (Herakles was after all a semi-divinized Mycenaean general). An important element of Plato's account is that "Athenians" (i.e. Mycenanean Greeks) fought against the Atlanteans (a far western power) and that is also the theme of those Heraklean works.

I think there are good reasons to think that Mycenaean Greeks were in Iberia before the "dark ages" (most probably looking for tin): SE Iberian civilization of El Argar shows clear adoption of Greek burial practices (and that means a good degree of cultural assimilation) in pythos in its phase B (c. 1500-1300 BCE). The possibly rival SW Iberian civilization of Zambujal (or Vila Nova) shows a silting of its "marine branch" precisely around this late date, when the site was abandoned. I speculate it could have been caused by a tsunami like the one that destroyed Lisbon in the 18th century, what would fit quite well with some aspects of the Platonian account too.

Dienekes said...

An important element of Plato's account is that "Athenians" (i.e. Mycenanean Greeks) fought against the Atlanteans (a far western power) and that is also the theme of those Heraklean works.

The Athenians of Plato's account lived long before the Mycenaean era. Athens itself was not a major Mycenaean center, certainly not one that would play a prominent role in Greek or international affairs. Also, Hercules is not an important Athenian or Ionian hero, and it would be difficult to see how he would fit in the Atlantis narrative.

Maju said...

If you take everything to the letter, yes: 9000 years before Plato (some 9500 BCE), if there was anything in Athens, it was a hunting/fishing encampment. And that was the case for all Europe (West Asians were just beginning with agriculture and all that).

But it is self-evident that, as is often said, one should not believe all what is written: one must be critical, right? And something to be very critical of in this narration is obviously the incredible claim regarding the date.

If we skip that detail, we can get the narration easily related to events maybe some 900 years before him, that could well be coincident with Herakles' adventures (also take with a pinch of salt) in the Mediterranean Far West.

Athenians, Myceneans... do you think that ancient Egyptians could make the difference? Do we even know if Plato or Solon or some other intermediate narrator may have changed that detail from "Greeks" into "Athenians"?

What is clear is that Athens was already a major city in Mycenaean times (not as important as later on maybe but one of the big ones anyhow) and they were allied with Mycenae, the homeland of Herakles and his boss.

Dienekes said...

But it is self-evident that, as is often said, one should not believe all what is written: one must be critical, right?

I agree, that's why I don't believe in the Atlantis myth.

Athenians, Myceneans... do you think that ancient Egyptians could make the difference? Do we even know if Plato or Solon or some other intermediate narrator may have changed that detail from "Greeks" into "Athenians"?

The fact that the Athenians fought the Atlanteans isn't some detail of the myth but its central point.

Maju said...

It may mean Greeks in general or even that being the original version, changed to "Athenians" by Athenian tongues or by the original narrators out of courtesy.

In any case, what do you know of the politics and alliances of the Mycenaen age Greek cities? My impression is that they seem to have worked together, as allies, maybe under Mycenaean primacy (as seen in the case of the Trojan war). Equally they could have got "joint ventures" in the Far West. Our sources are limited and it's nearly impossible to determine if a glass bead (only direct fossil of Eastern Mediterranean presence in Iberia I know of) is Athenian, Mycenean, Cretan... or even Egyptian.

Maybe even Herakles' campaign is one and that of the Athenians another... or maybe the Dorian imaginery wanted to attribute to their founding hero what actually was an Athenian feat...

Who knows? But there is a shocking coincidence between the two Heraklean works in the Far West, the story of Atlantis an the actual archaeological facts that indicate some clear Greek influence (and presence) in Middle Bronze Age Iberia (Late Bronze for Greece, I believe), most probably with the primary goal of obtaining the tin that was most aboundant in Galicia and Cornwall.

Wether these were Athenians or Mycenaeans or Cretan Greeks, or all them together... can't say for sure and is a secondary problem. What I think is that in connivence with the Hellenizing power of El Argar and their proto-Iberian allies, they attempted to secure the routes to the main sources of tin and may have fought against Zambujal and their Megalithic allies in the process. And I think all these legends talk of these obscure conflicts.

Dienekes said...

It is stretching it by a lot to associate the Atlantis myth with Heraklean or Greek presence in Iberia.

It is one thing to concede that the Egyptian priest got his dates wrong, but in the Atlantis narrative it is clear that he speaks about events preceding Greek memory and the recorded Greek deluges. This would put these events at the latest in the era before the Thera eruption, and certainly not in the era of Herakles or Mycenaean power.

Moreover, the Atlantis myth isn't about Greeks going to Iberia, but on the contrary about a great Western power invading the Mediterranean (including Greece and Egypt). So, it's exactly backwards, not to mention that no evidence of an Iberian power, let alone one strong enough to challenge Greece and Egypt in the Bronze Age exists.

Maju said...

I understand that the Greek memory of their national history from and previous to the dark ages was very poor and mostly mythological. Only the Trojan war epic seems to have escaped that diffumination of memory and shed light on real history with great detail. Maybe that's why the Greeks had it as their national "scripture" or sort of.

But there are other memories preserved in form of myths, though it is very difficult to discern what is fact, what allegory and what mere capricious alterations. Even if we remove all that sounds most unlikely or merely theological, and attempt to translate the reminder into something realistic, on lack of any other evidence we are left with a mere maybe. Even the Illiad was a mere maybe before Schliemann (and further archaeology).

The Platonian story of Atlantis is somewhat different but, per his own words, there's a number of verbal trasmisors between the alleged Egyptian account and himself. So it's not substantially different from other legends in this regard. Additionally we cannot know how accurate was the version kept by the Egyptians. It seems it was in written form but it also seems from the story that the Egyptians (not any sailor people) must have got all except the references re. their own western borders from someone else. A Greek, a Lybian a member of the obscure "Sea Peoples"... hard to say.

In any case we don't know the original source nor its accuracy and we don't know how much it changed in Greek verbal transmision before Plato wrote it.

What I see is that, if you compare the legends of Atlantis and Herakles in Erythia, you get some similitudes (specially the Greeks fighting in the far west but also the reference to the rival realm as an island). In Herakles and the Hesperides he even decieves Atlas himself, deified for the occasion. While in another (not Platonian) legend, that I found referenced in a Mythology dictionary, Uranos is made the first mortal king of the Atlantes (i.e. Atlas by another name) and inventor of astronomy.

Messy? Maybe but Atlas and Uranos appear interchangeable and the Greeks fight and defeat a far western kingdom thought to be an island.

The Platonian account is not precise on where this struggle happened, true... but the account of westerners threatening the East is just another question mark in all the puzzle. It may be a real threat or an altered version of events or even an Egyptian-specific perception (Lybian threat, maybe reinforced for the occasion) not shared by Greeks.

But all this is just a maybe. What does archaeology tells us?

1. That Greeks were in fact in Iberia (and as you mentioned in some other post even beyond into the Ocean) and that they were influential enough in El Argar (the main center of Iberian Bronze Age and probably a centralized state) as to "convert" those Iberians to Greek burial customs (additionally Greeks probably imported the tholos tomb type from Iberia then).

2. That tin was becoming scarce in the Eastern Mediterranean (and in fact that would actually end up triggering the beginning of the Iron Age) and that it was very common in two regions of Atlantic Europe: Galicia (NW Iberia) and Cornwall (SW Britain). Additionally Iberia had many other riches to offer, including gold and silver and they also had access to the amber from the North.

3. That there was a widespread cultural nexus, Megalithism (understood primarily as collective burial in dolmens), that in that period stretched very much through the areas attributed to the Atlanteans in the Platonian account, reaching as far east as Italy ("Tyrrhenia") and the very western borders of Egypt probably too (not too sure about Lybia and the Egyptian desert but certainly to at least southern Tunisia).

4. That a very unhospitable area of Spain, La Mancha, was then first colonized with fortifications. The material culture is the same as the neighbours and likey vassals of El Argar: Bronze of Levante culture. It appears as an organized attempt to secure the route to inner Iberia and probably there was something more than just wool at the stake (I suspect that they could recieve tin via inland routes that way). This happened in the same period when El Argar was "hellenized" and the fortifications, known as "motillas", were abandoned after c. 1300 BCE.

5. That the other civilization of Iberia, Zambujal (also known as Vila Nova de Sao Pedro culture, for a less important site) was placed on a peninsula that could well be percieved as an island for sailors from the Mediterranean, that it had a "marine branch" that was silted c. 1300 BCE (silting that is coincident with the end of this civilization). Zambujal/VNSP was fully Megalithic and had been there (with fortified towns) for more than a thousand years before the events dealt with here. It was fully imbricated in Megalithic culture and Bell Beaker (and had been the main center of this phenomenon c. 2000 BCE).

It's all I can say: for me, archaeology and legends converge. The exact apportion of veracity in the legends (including the one on Atlantis) remains unclear but there are facts that strongly suggest, at least to me, that something like what is said happened most probably. It was surely a struggle not limited to Iberia (North Africa and Italy may well have been involved one way or another and certainly the Greeks were involved in spite of the distance as attested by their archaeologically documented influence).

This is what I think. I cannot say much more (unless you ask for details). I can perfectly understand that it is a matter of opinion but I was very gladly surprised when the silted "marine branch" was discovered, some years after I first concieved this hypothesis. Only more archaeological work on this fascinating Portuguese site (specially) can shed more light, very much as only more arcaheological work in Troy perfected the theory of Schliemann.