See my update post for latest research on the snake goddesses.
After a day in the newly refurbished Heraklion museum in Crete, I was sharing my admiration for Minoan ceramics with a bookseller in the local market. ‘Yes’ he said, ‘and then the people from the North came down, and then blam, there’s nothing.’
We can’t with certainty point the finger at the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece for the sudden extinction of Minoan society around 1450 BC, it might have been due to the eruption of a volcano, Mt. Thera on Santorini. But if the bookseller is right, it would be another early example of an invading social group finding destruction of a more developed culture a necessary part of political domination.
There are more covert acts of destruction. Though the archaeologist Arthur Evans is identified with the discovery of the Minoan palaces on Crete, in fact the site was first discovered in 1878 by a Heraklion merchant, whose name, ‘Minos Kalokairinos’ has disappeared from most general accounts of the excavations. He showed some seals with signs inscribed on them to Evans, who became fascinated by the thought of a society capable of writing and by the potential of a large scale excavation. It would be nice to think Evans called the civilisation he unearthed ‘ Minoan’ as a tribute to his source, but he had another clear agenda. He wanted us to believe he had uncovered the palace of a peace loving, pleasure loving society of the legendary King Minos, their prosperity built, in a rosy reflection of Victorian England, on an empire based on control of sea trading routes.Romantically, he also saw proof of the stories of Theseus and the Minotaur in the images of bull leaping, gold bull necklace attachments, seals and figurines.
He can hardly be blamed for living in a time when saying ‘But I’m British!’ in a loud voice was enough to get you out of even politically sensitive scrapes and most Victorians, like him, viewed the classical world selectively as a source of models of heroism and wisdom. One would think though, that as a lifelong collector of antiquities and as Director of the Ashmolean museum, he would have been more scrupulous about preserving authenticity. Yet he allowed some unforgivable practices to go on during and after the excavation: first, he promised prizes to the team which could proceed at the fastest rate in digging down to the right depth, thereby trashing all evidence of later Mycenaean and Roman occupation of the site, second he allowed all kinds of reproduction or botched reconstructed artefacts onto the collectors and museums market.
He also jumped to some very dubious conclusions such as that the absence of fortifications meant the inhabitants were peace loving, ignoring the many stunning spears and axe heads now on display in the Heraklion museum. The presence of some buxom figurines holding snakes and the absence of images of male gods led him to claim that it was a matriarchal society with female goddesses, a claim which can’t be substantiated because there is no literature to support it and what’s more, we have only a very small proportion of the objects which would have been in use. Imagine the conclusions one might reach about this town based on the sole survival of Ocean house. Speculation is a legitimate part of reconstruction, but Evan’s romantic and visionary presentation of another culture was a long way from intellectual integrity.
The authenticity of those ‘snake goddesses’, bought by museums at great expense, has been crumbling under examination from more scrupulous historians with access to better technology. Now they appear in collections as evidence of historical subjectivity and are part of a well established practice in archaeology, and history, of scrutinising past interpretations, re-examining assumptions and evidence.
Our fascination with the past has a lot in common with our love of detective dramas and the same techniques used in criminal (and military) investigations have hugely enlarged our ability to find out about past civilisations. For example the use of remote sensing technology such as infrared and satellite and most recently MRI scanning and the use of X rays to read charred scrolls. This has overturned many assumed facts and made us more wary of drawing conclusions from limited information. Historical villains, such as Evans, have given us a desire for greater scrupulousness, (and it’s fun to overturn accepted facts!). Literary theory too has made us more sensitive to cultural interpretations, through the concepts of reception theory, in which the meaning lies in the relationship between the text and its readers, as opposed to the meaning being intrinsic to the text and needing to be uncovered by the reader. These are not mutually exclusive, of course.
Is this historical ‘cleansing’ important? After all we can’t rid ourselves of all cultural concepts and arrive at another culture a dewy eyed new-born. Well, being able to detect an agenda, to know when things aren’t as they seem, is a useful skill. So is having a perspective on your own culture which may lead to new ideas and empathy for others. It should, and usually does, increase our humanity.
In addition, if you rid historical narratives of generalisations like ‘the Greek artist’, ‘Roman wives’, and of hierarchical ideas of progress such as the assumption that representative, figurative art is superior to abstract decoration, then the culture you are looking at can appear in all its startling fragmented particularity.
It’s impossible to overstate how important it is for creativity, in the sciences and the arts, for us to develop a rich imaginative life and Classical art and texts are important because they are so rich and extraordinary. In Ancient Greek culture you can find religious thinking from superstition to satire; plays about murder, incest and puffed up philosophers and politicians; instructions for catching crocodiles; fantasies about flying to the moon and setting up home in a whale; what to do when the gods are behaving badly; how to be different kinds of hero. It’s a rich source, but a fragile one which needs our protection. If you’re in any doubt, just look at the people who want to stamp on it.
Hastings Independent Press. No.60