The unknown Magna Graecia and a problem with archaeology

Last week I showed you a photo of a Minoan (Cretan) fresco at Tell el-Dab’a. Did you realise that was in Egypt? Let’s think about that for a second. Why is it there? Those of us who study Ancient History are aware of Greek cities all around the Mediterranean by the time Rome came along, but these cities were founded after Homer’s glorified Bronze Age, weren’t they? What if I told you the Greeks took to the seas much earlier than we traditionally thought?

Let’s start with Tell el-Dab’a. That’s its modern name but back in the day it was called Avaris. It was the capital of the Hyksos during a rather embarrassing time in Egypt’s history called the Second Intermediate Period. Basically, some foreigners invaded and took control of Lower (/Northern—yes, it’s confusing) Egypt for over a hundred years. There’s been a lot of speculation about who they could have been but, as far as I understand, the modern consensus is some kind of Semitic people closely related to those inhabiting Canaan at the time. Where does a Minoan fresco come in then? Well, while the graves goods and architecture indicate Semitic culture, adorning the walls of the palace of Avaris are Minoan frescoes. The real question is then, why are they there?

And there are a few main ideas here. You could speculate that while the local riffraff were Semitic people, the elite were actually Minoan. Tantalising, but I don’t know of many historians who would support this view. Most seem to consider the frescoes a sign of trade relations with the Minoans and even an interconnectedness between elites. But here’s the kicker. Most historians I’ve read consider the frescoes to be made after the restoration of Egyptian control and therefore a sign of close connections between Egypt and Crete. But when you read the actual site reports, they acknowledge the scientific dating doesn’t quite match the historical record and it’s actually out by a few hundred years. Whoops. Suddenly I’m not so sure a Minoan fresco adorning the palace of these foreigners doesn’t have a more obvious explanation. Maybe they supported the Hyksos after all. Whatever the matter, everyone agrees they had a fair degree of contact and probably influence in Egypt at this time.

Let’s go further west for a second. When you hear of Magna Graecia, most history students think of Sicily. We think of glorious Syracuse fighting against evil Carthage to preserve the freedom of Greek cities in the west. Ignoring that we think this largely because our sources happen to come from Greeks at the time, it’s interesting to think about the cities themselves. Most Greek cities in Sicily have a foundation myth going back to 800-600BC but some are even older. Some have remains of Minoan and Mycenaean pottery which have led archaeologists to conclude they may have been founded by proto-Greeks in the Bronze Age (we’re talking 1500BC). Given that a part of the Minotaur myth has Icarus and Daedalus flying away to Sicily (and Daedalus actually making it), many are happy to conclude the sites were Minoan colonies. When both myth and archaeology align, it seems simple, doesn’t it?

Queue the Philistines and suddenly everyone’s rushing to qualify their statements. What? Philistines? Like in the Bible? Surely they can’t be real? Like it or not, there’s stronger archaeological and linguistic evidence for Greek settlement in southern Palestine than in Sicily during the Bronze Age. The whole thing centres up on the never-ending debate in archaeology over whether the presence of foreign “stuff” means trade or something more. One Roman wine amphora, probably trade. A thousand, probably settlement. In this case it’s pottery. While we have relatively little Minoan pottery in Sicily, people are happy to draw connections with myth and claim settlement rather than trade. Up until recently, however, despite the wealth of Mycenaean pottery in southern Palestine, settlement was fiercely contested and even those in favour were likely to hedge their bets. Add the linguistic connotations of words like Keftiu and Caphtor, Peleset and Plistim—what the Egyptians and Hebrews called people from the Aegean and those foreigners in Palestine—and it’s quite straightforward. There were proto-Greek people settled in Canaan during the late Bronze Age. Interesting it took us so long to accept that.

Let’s just take a step back for moment and appreciate what we’ve learned. Isn’t it cool that Greek peoples were influencing, trading and settling the Mediterranean half a millennium before we used to think so? I think that’s pretty cool. Turns out the Magna Graecia was bigger and older than we thought. As for the problem I wanted to mention with archaeology, it was initially just that it’s difficult to tell sometimes what the evidence means. We can radiocarbon-date something to a precise approximation (an oxymoron if ever you heard one) and know exactly how many pottery shards were found at a particular site, but what that actually means is more problematic. My bigger problem, unfortunately, is that some archaeologists think that what they do is science and so their conclusions must be inherently superior to those of a historian, who is merely part of the “Arts.” I would argue both professions can learn from each other and the best in both appreciate the tools of the other. If archaeologists appreciated that they too have biases which can sometimes cloud their interpretations, in other words, if they sometimes thought like a historian, they’d probably come to the truth a lot quicker.

Biased Daniel  out—

(Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons )

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