Review: The Aegean Bronze Age

The Aegean Bronze AgeTitle: The Aegean Bronze Age
Author: Oliver Dickinson
Paperback: 364 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (1994)
Language: English

This is a much-needed summary of current evidence and scholarship on an amazing period of eastern Mediterranean history from around 3000 – 1000 BC. Although it is now fifteen years old, it outlines the recent revolution in ideas about the period and show how the (still depressingly scant) archaeological evidence has put nail after nail in the coffin of Arthur Evans and the historians of his age. Dickinson brings to life a vibrant civilisation which traded widely in the region, with customs and an organisation all its own and which was decidedly not the origins of the Ancient Greece we know.

But it is not a book for the fainted-hearted. It is largely a survey of archaeological finds with chapters on arts and crafts – divided into pottery, “non-ceramic vessels and furniture”, frescoes, figures and the like – burial customs, patterns of settlement and economy, trade and overseas contact. Throughout the discussion of what can be a very dry catalogue of finds, Dickinson weaves the theories of the older generations of scholars, explain that these no longer fit the evidence, and introduces many of the new generation’s theories.

In short, the older ideas of invasion and colonisation have been done away with because they do not match the evidence. For instance, everyone who studied Crete and Mycenae in school learned that the invasion of the chariot-driving Dorians from the plains to the north, coming hard on the heels of a series of earthquakes which destroyed the palace culture, marked the end of Bronze Age civilisation in the Greek world, forcing the Minoan and Mycenaean people into Anatolia (for example) to escape some form of persecution. (Quite why charioteers would be interested in the rocky hills of Greece has never been explained.) The main evidence for this theory is the legends of the ancient Greeks themselves. Thanks for this should go to the German nutbag and (quite literally) gold-digger Heinrich Schliemann for convincing the world that legend was fact. It has taken a full century to throw off these out-dated notions.

Evidence from pottery, shows that the style frequently labelled as Doric did not suddenly appear from outside but can be easily fitted into the continuous evolution of a local style. Its sudden appearance is nothing more than an accident of archaeology in which several large caches of pottery from around the same time were found at once. Recent digs show that the palace culture both on the mainland and on Crete persisted for at least a hundred and fifty years after the earthquakes which supposedly destroyed it. The earliest evidence of migrations to Anatolia cannot be placed further back than several generations after the supposed invasion. Some other principle and, as Dickinson and others suggest, probably economic in nature was at work.

That the Bronze Age civilisation collapsed is certain. Its cause remains poorly understood but is probably related to a range of severe problems suffered by the ancient Near East as a whole. The collapse gave rise to a long period of cultural transformation and the development of the elements of subsequent Greek culture which became so ingrained that it was impossible to imagine a past which did not include them. It was also during this period, condescendingly called the Greek Dark Ages, that the legends we know from the likes of Homer and Hesiod were developed. However, this cultural transformation has almost completely cut us off from an incredibly rich, dynamic and successful civilisation that, even after more than a century of study, we know depressingly little.

(I’m reading Dickinson’s follow-up book, The Aegean: from Bronze Age to Iron Age, at the moment. Expect a review shortly.)