Anthony Snodgrass: Homer and the Aegean Prehistorian

Homer and the Aegean prehistorian

Anthony Snodgrass
With academic subjects as with people, many a close and intimate relationship can become cool and distant. It may even be broken off altogether, and replaced by a different relationship. In the case of academic disciplines, such a transfer of affections can lead to a radical and positive transformation of a subject, even when this also means the virtual disappearance of its older configuration. My offering to Greg discusses a development of this general kind: the radically changed tendencies of Aegean prehistory, with respect to Classical studies in general and Homer in particular, since its foundation as a discipline nearly a century and a half ago.
That today a certain coolness or distance has grown up in this relationship is something that would probably be accepted by both sides: the once unquestioned assumption that Aegean prehistory was a facet of Classical studies (notably enshrined in the rather strange concept of ‘Homeric archaeology’) is now widely doubted. This is admittedly not an objective finding; but, for the moment, we need not be too shy of pursuing more subjective value judgments.
So let us start with the proposition that Aegean prehistory could never be just another regional branch of prehistory: it is special, and not only in ways that derive from the development of its successor-culture, Classical Greek civilization. Even if that development had never happened, its content would never have been treated in quite the same way as, say (with no disrespect to Greg), the prehistory of Hungary, mainly as the heritage of one European nation-state among others. This is primarily because it deals with a series of important processes and advances, many of them new to Europe, in agriculture, metallurgy, dressed stone architecture, the use of writing and several other fields — advances essentially made possible by the maritime contacts, eastwards and westwards, of the Aegean world. Their lasting impact would still make this a subject of wide interest, regardless of developments in the Greek world in the ensuing millennia.
These arguments could be (and have been) seen as encouraging a closer institutional association of teaching and research in Aegean prehistory with European, Near Eastern, Egyptian or even World prehistory, or indeed with anthropology, rather than with Classics. Yet this has been slow to happen. Consider the institutional evidence. Some years ago, John Cherry and Jack Davis brought out the second edition of their International Directory of Aegean Prehistorians (Cherry and Davis, eds., 1995). A third edition of the Directory exists online, in ongoing or ‘rolling’ form as an index of names, but this is not so readily searchable for across-the-board information. A new hard-copy edition, say the editors, will not be issued until enough changes have been made to the 1995 edition to merit it. That point has evidently not yet been reached so, for very general purposes, the second edition may still suffice.
In any case, that edition of the Directory, based on a questionnaire mailed to subscribers of the periodical Nestor, proved to have what the editors themselves called ‘some conspicuous omissions’ (Cherry and Davis, eds., 1995:2). Geographically, this is most visible in what Donald Rumsfeld once called ‘old Europe’. Thus, Germany secured only six entries, at a date when sizeable teams were involved in the excavation or publication of at least three major German undertakings in Aegean prehistory, at Tiryns, Troy and Pevkakia magoula in Thessaly, to say nothing of the even larger diachronic projects with major prehistoric elements, at Samos, Miletos and elsewhere. The Anglophone countries accounted for over 60% of the names listed, with Greece the only major outlier. But these proportions were clearly not representative; rather, there was a gap in communication of some kind. We shall return to this point later.
Luckily, such a geographical imbalance need not necessarily distort a simple finding about institutional affiliations. The Directory included over 290 names of Aegean prehistorians, a majority of whom (about 185) were employed in strictly subject-based, rather than widely inter-disciplinary, university schools and departments. If we focus on the former group, and exclude also those working in non-university institutions or independently, then we find that more than eighty, or nearly half, worked in broadly Classical departments (including, in Europe, Philology or Ancient History or Classical Archaeology). It seems that, to institutional eyes at least, the arguments favoring a status for Aegean prehistory either fully independent, or as a component of anthropology, or of the prehistory of Europe or a wider area, were seen as decidedly weaker than those for linking it with Classics. This was true of America too. There, the main secondary role in employing Aegean prehistorians was played by Departments of Art History and Archaeology, well behind Classics but still ahead of Anthropology. In Britain the second place, after Classics, is instead held by Departments of Archaeology or Prehistory.
But is this just a case of an institutional time-lag? If, as I have hinted, many Aegean prehistorians now see themselves primarily as archaeologists working in a particularly interesting and eventful period of prehistory, then it is something of an anachronism to find them so often brigaded with Classicists. Only a very small number of Aegeanists now combine their research with work in later Greek archaeology — another point to which I shall return at the end. A minor and anecdotal observation on the recent past (here I can appeal to recurrent experience as an examiner) is that no recent British PhD thesis concerned with the later Bronze Age has been complete without a ritual statement disowning literary, and especially Homeric, evidence and historical approaches generally. This stance is, of course, to some extent justified by the findings (ironically, mostly reached within the field of Classics) of the last two generations of research.
Should steps, then, be taken to change either the institutional arrangements, or the attitudes shared by so many Aegean prehistorians? It is unusual today to find support among archaeologists for this second course but, a decade ago, James Whitley published a paper (Whitley 2002) which did, among other things, call for a reappraisal of the dismissive attitude to Homer within Bronze Age archaeology. He quoted, with irony, the slogan “Homeric archaeology is dead. Long live Aegean prehistory!”, a sentiment that he could not fully support, since ‘To ignore Homer is to ignore the driving force behind the creation of Aegean archaeology’ (2002:217). A further cause for his dissent was that this attitude on the part of Aegean prehistorians had spread into the archaeology of the Early Iron Age of Greece, which could ill afford a similar neglect of Homer. That point need not concern us here; but Whitley’s valid observation about the origins of Aegean prehistory can still stand.
How much weight, though, can it carry in terms of future disciplinary practice? There is a peculiar problem here: no return, either to the embrace of Homeric studies or to the origins of Aegean archaeology, is possible without reopening the association with Heinrich Schliemann. This has always seemed to me a high price to pay; within the discipline, though, a more equivocal attitude prevails. Aegeanists have at times been angrily defensive of Schliemann; more often, disapproval of his crude methods of excavation and of his duplicity in presenting their results is combined with a sneaking admiration for his evident success, and a surreptitious gratitude for the lasting aura of excitement that his work has conferred on the subject. But, just in the last few months, it has become harder than ever before to place reliance on any of Schliemann’s claims about the circumstances, the details and in some cases perhaps even the reality of his discoveries.
A series of anatomical studies of the skeletal material from Grave Circle ‘A’ at Mycenae (Papazoglou-Manioudaki et al., 2009 and 2010; Dickinson et al., 2012), led not only to the rediscovery in Athens of the hitherto missing bones from Shaft Grave VI, but to a reexamination of the plans and notes of the Greek archaeologist Panayiotis Stamatakis, acknowledged even by Schliemann to have excavated that grave in 1877, but now shown to have played an absolutely central role in the excavation of Graves I–V the previous year, something that Schliemann had carefully suppressed. His accounts of the excavation also clashed, in many points of detail, with Schliemann’s. So great were the discrepancies that the original authors invited the Aegean prehistorian Oliver Dickinson to give his assessment of the implications (in Dickinson et al., 2012:3–10). Dickinson found it necessary to adjust his hitherto more tolerant attitude to Schliemann, though still stopping short of endorsing the accusations sometimes made (see, notably, Calder and Traill, eds., 1986; Traill 1995) of fraud, forgery and the purchase and ‘planting’ of finds on Schliemann’s part.
The importance of this new evidence lies in the fact that it is contemporary, yet independent of any manipulation by Schliemann — a rare combination. Most writing about Schliemann, by contrast, is neither of these two things: composed many decades later, yet based to an overwhelming extent on the writings, published and unpublished, of Schliemann himself — hence its often uncritical or even adulatory tone. The new material shows Schliemann to have committed to print a whole series of factual misstatements, whether careless or deliberate, about the Shaft Graves. But its real significance lies elsewhere: it reveals the whole, circumstantial narrative of his close supervision of the unearthing of the Shaft Grave finds, at times taking part with his own hands, to be an elaborate imposture, designed to suppress the truth that it was Stamatakis who was in charge on site throughout, recording and planning the burials and preparing notes on them. Paradoxically, this does strengthen the defense of Schliemann against charges of forgery and planting, since such sleight of hand would hardly have got past the conscientious (and increasingly hostile) Stamatakis. But it simultaneously reinforces the case long ago advanced by Calder (in Calder and Traill, eds., 1986:38) that ‘assumption of Schliemann’s mendacity must be the guiding principle’, harsh though that verdict may have seemed at the time. The direct and spontaneous reactions of certain of Schliemann’s contemporaries (for some particularly scathing ones, see Calder, ibid. 34–35 and Traill 1995:154–155) are also instructive here, with the suspicion of forgery surfacing at least as early as 1876.
Is it perhaps time for a completely fresh approach to Schliemann and his discoveries, one in which the finds are judged entirely in their own right and in the light of any external documentation, but without reference to anything that he himself ever said or wrote about them? Is it for example really too late to scrutinize, not just his account of the discoveries at Hissarlik or his claim to have been its first discoverer — both of which have indeed been discredited at some length — but the certainty of the one-to-one identification of Hissarlik with Homeric Troy, the very corner-stone of Schliemann’s fame? Today, instead, we find one of the selfsame group of scholars who helped to initiate this latest exposure of Schliemann’s fraudulence, voicing the hope that their work will contribute to the rehabilitation of Stamatakis and his abilities ‘without in any way denigrating Schliemann’s achievement’; and using such an expression as ‘the flamboyant and spectacular whirlwind that was Schliemann’ (Prag in Papazoglou-Manioudaki et al., 2009:272). Whatever this is, it is not the language of disavowal.
But where will this leave the relation between Homeric studies and Aegean archaeology? To me, as to James Whitley, the Homeric interests of the founding fathers of Aegean prehistory seem much more than a matter of curiosity and antiquarianism. It was Homer whom they used, if often tendentiously, to understand the sites that were to bring worldwide notice to their subject and fame to themselves. This was as true of, say, Wilhelm Dörpfeld, Alan Wace or Carl Blegen (and recently of Manfred Korfmann) as of Schliemann: of the great names, only Christos Tsountas and Arthur Evans made less play with Homer. It is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago to investigate whether, and if so how, these scholars were led astray by Homer. But by ignoring the Homeric interests of their forerunners, prehistorians seek to re-make them in their own image — comforting, but potentially very misleading.
Today there is in any case another, better reason to continue pursuing a linkage between, at least, the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Homer. The old belief, central to all Schliemann’s work, that the physical setting of the Late Bronze Age Aegean essentially corresponded with Homer’s descriptions and formed their primary inspiration, continued to flourish in many quarters from the 1870s to the 1950s. But it could not easily survive the shock inflicted by the decipherment of Linear B, with its glimpses of the true nature of Mycenaean palatial society; nor, more specifically, the subsequent, devastating exposure by Moses Finley of the mismatch between the two elements in question (see especially Finley 1957).
But as that belief has receded, a new doctrine to take its place has won progressively wider support: one primarily located, not in the archaeological but in the linguistic field. The position is well summarized by John Bennet (1997:523–533). A series of new advances in the understanding of Homeric dialect, syntax and poetic techniques have established a stronger bridge back to the Aegean Bronze Age than the one formed by descriptions of material culture. The existence of Mycenaean poetry, probably in hexameter form, has long been widely accepted, and its survivals in occasional Homeric phrases and formulae can be plausibly identified. One archaeologist has even made the attempt, using an essentially archaeological model of stratification and combining the linguistic with the material evidence, to discern the succession of phases in the composition of the Homeric poems (Sherratt 1990); but too few scholars have possessed the necessary joint expertise to carry this interesting idea further. This may also be the place to mention Greg’s own work, so succinctly summarized for archaeologists in Nagy 1997:206–207. In developing his ‘evolutionary model’ for the Homeric texts, he has greatly widened the chronological range, mainly but not only at the lower end, of potential inspirations for their background features. If accepted, this must have profound, as yet unexplored, implications for archaeology.
We have seen more than one example of the fruitfulness of combining the results of archaeological and Homeric researches. In the early days, it was Homeric studies that most obviously gained from this cross-fertilization, a debt that has been acknowledged ever since. In recent decades, the balance of benefits has been more evenly shared with Aegean prehistory. Thus, if there is now a near-consensus that the main historical setting for the social, political and material picture presented in the Epics can no longer be located in the Late Bronze Age, then the prehistorians mainly have the Classicists, from Finley onwards, to thank — even if this has often served as their justification for ignoring Homer altogether. But there are many other potential openings to the field of Homeric studies: the Whitley article of 2002 (above, pp. 5–6), and Susan Sherratt’s paper and Greg’s work on the transmission of the Homeric poems, both just now cited, offer examples. Mutual awareness and reciprocal acknowledgment are much preferable to the kind of open confrontation seen in the Korfmann/Kolb controversy over Troy, where the main contentions arose ostensibly over urbanization, but in truth from inter-disciplinary rivalry.
Partnerships across disciplines have played a great part in the recent changes that have taken place in traditional Classical archaeology. In that case, the main partnership was with those, increasingly numerous, ancient historians who have a real understanding of archaeological methods and priorities. Even if some within the subject would deplore these transformations and others deny their significance, the wider response has been largely one of relief, at something long overdue. But can Aegean prehistory, with its less long-lived traditions, yet have reached anything like a comparable condition of stagnancy? And even if it does need to forge external partnerships, should these necessarily lie in the Classical direction, rather than that of wider prehistory, or anthropology, or the natural sciences?
A first answer might be that Aegean prehistory needs no such support, since its state of health is excellent as it is. In my own country, there are certainly Classical departments and institutes whose precarious survival has depended in part on being shored up by their inclusion of courses in the relatively popular Aegean prehistory. But that is a specifically British perspective, one that does not apply equally to the United States, let alone to non-English-speaking countries. It is time to make another (and final) appeal to statistics, taken this time not from the International Directory of 1995, but from a more recent work, Prehistorians Round the Pond (Cherry, Margomenou and Talalay, eds., 2005), two chapters of which are mainly statistical in content.
Here we see that the British position is indeed unique. Cherry and Talalay’s Chapter 2 examines, among other things, the incidence of articles on Aegean prehistory in journals with a much wider coverage, geographical or chronological or both. Perhaps their most striking finding is that in recent decades one British journal of wide coverage, the Annual of the British School at Athens, had as many as 43.8% of its articles lying in this field, scoring nearly twice as high as the next, the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology (also a British periodical), and getting on for three times as high as the American Journal of Archaeology (38, Table 2.3: compare S. Andreou’s Table 4.2 on p.76 for Greek authors, who have long been particularly welcomed to the first of these periodicals). Another British journal, Antiquity, has a world-wide coverage in its subject-matter; even so, Aegean prehistory, since 1950, has consistently generated almost as many articles there as all the fields of traditional Classical archaeology — Greek, Roman and Roman provincial — put together.
But while the picture in Britain may appear healthy enough, Prehistorians Round the Pond, the publication from which these figures are taken, was an American production with a predominantly American authorship, whose origins lay in a feeling of acute disquiet on the editors’ part about the condition of the subject in United States academe. Its text is punctuated with expressions like ‘fighting words’, ‘battle’, ‘war’ and ‘crisis’; also, tellingly, with phrases like ‘overpowering hold’ and ‘subordination’. The gist of the argument is that Aegean prehistory has been held back through being shackled to traditional Classical archaeology (and Classics). A parallel but even more forceful case for Greece is presented by Stelios Andreou in Chapter 4. Longing eyes are intermittently turned towards what the editors call ‘the fertile grounds of anthropology’ (p.7), where of course most work in the archaeology of the Americas has always found its institutional home.
Yet there are as many resemblances as contrasts between the two pictures of Aegean prehistory in America and in Britain. True, Classics and Classical archaeology in the United States are apparently seen as, in some sense, oppressors from whose ‘overpowering hold’ the subject must break free, whereas in Britain the balance of power appears reversed, with Classics in general seen as weakened, perhaps terminally, and Aegean prehistory as a potential growth area. Yet the conclusion drawn is the same in both countries: that the best hope for the future lies in a break with Classics. Again, the institutional patterns in the universities are not that different: Aegean prehistory, as we saw earlier, is in both cases most often treated as part of Classics (as it is in Greece too), with substantial differences only appearing in the less frequent arrangements. Above all, the animosity seems to be there in each case.
This is not, from anyone’s point of view, a happy state of affairs. I end with an undeniably dogmatic suggestion as to how it might be improved: this is, that Aegean prehistory needs to look to its boundaries; more specifically, to consider whether they are being allowed to become too restrictive.
For one of the arguments, we may look back to the apparent evidence of the 1995 International Directory (p.3): that Aegean prehistory has increasingly come to let itself be presented, if no more than that, as an essentially Anglophone subject, largely practiced in just two countries outside Greece (with a nod to Canada and Australia). This is not simply a function of the ever-widening use of English as the language of global communication; nor is it only an issue of linguistic aptitudes. A representation of just six names from Germany, as mentioned before, hardly gave cause for satisfaction, even if it resulted from a simple break in communication. Nor was it an entirely isolated case: even France and Austria, two of the very few countries which have established separate institutional departments for Aegean prehistory, offered only fifteen and four names respectively, as against over 120 in the U.S.A. Was there some kind of deficit here, not just in communication but in cosmopolitan feeling?
An appeal to increasing specialization will not, in this case, give a convincing explanation. Aegean prehistory in fact abounds in comparative work but, after the fashion of world prehistory, much of this looks to fields far removed in either space or time, or both. For any researcher, it is a matter of free choice whether or not to pay attention to the adjacent fields of study. Nor will it quite do to cite another slogan of our times, globalization: if that expression turns out to involve the occlusion of substantial portions of the globe in favor of a standardized, Anglophone hegemony, then there is no reason why, in an academic discipline, this should become the irreversible process that it often seems to be elsewhere.
In most other humanities disciplines, cosmopolitanism of one kind or another is rather taken for granted. Its operation by no means depends on the existence of any international consensus, but merely on a continuing international dialogue on the important issues. Thus, Homeric studies can offer an instructive case, not of unopposed cosmopolitanism, but rather of the barriers that it must surmount. Since its origins in the 1920s, the Parry/Lord Oral Theory, with its case for the formula as the main instrument of Homeric composition, has become familiar far beyond the immediate confines of the subject. Gradually, however, it has transpired that it is more whole-heartedly accepted within the Anglophone world than beyond it. In Europe meanwhile the Neoanalyst movement, initiated by a Greek and a Swiss scholar after World War II and carried forward by leading German authorities, was also achieving a growing ascendancy in the discipline (Willcock 1997). The two schools of thought were not essentially incompatible, but there was not enough intercommunication between them. Yet, as in the long confrontation of the old Analyst and Unitarian factions that had preceded this phase, mere knowledge of the existence of a rival, or at least a separate, school was enough to strengthen many arguments and sharpen the testing of many conclusions, to the benefit of the sum of understanding. There are of course major conflicts of opinion In Aegean prehistory too, but it is harder to discern similar schools of thought, in the deeper sense that derives from separate traditions. Is there a consequent risk here of loss of vitality?
For Aegean prehistory, there are of course many options for linkages with other disciplines, such as in comparative anthropological work, apart from those with linguistic or literary Classics. An obvious yet nowadays strangely neglected one, already mentioned, is with the prehistory of the rest of Europe. If I may appeal here to a volume nearly forty years old and probably now forgotten (Crossland and Birchall, eds., 1973), things very were different then. This was the publication of a British conference entitled Bronze Age Migrations in the Aegean and, appropriately for that subject, many participants came from linguistics and ancient history, as well as archaeology. But there were over twenty archaeologists present, and almost all of them combined a general expertise in European prehistory with special knowledge of the Aegean. The younger participants are today on the brink of, if not past, retirement, their seniors dead long since. It is their successors in the current discipline who are hard to recognize. Neglect of European prehistory is understandable in the New World; but if is really no longer within the scope of Aegeanists working in European universities (and if, conversely, knowledge of Aegean archaeology is no longer perceived as indispensable to European prehistory), then here is a very clear instance of the drawing in of boundaries.
What seems to many of us the easiest and most natural direction in which to extend the discipline is to later Greek archaeology: in the first instance, to that of the immediately succeeding Early Iron Age. This remedy has been widely advocated: for example, even among the contributors to Prehistorians Round the Pond, implicitly by Tracey Cullen (p.64) and more explicitly by Bryan Burns (p. 123), and by Colin Renfrew (pp. 157–158) as a respondent. James Whitley’s paper, already twice mentioned (Whitley, 2002), could be seen as a response to the same call: he drew attention to a radical change in the archaeological evidence, as between the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages, for the treatment of certain grave-goods, notably weapons and ‘antique’ objects, with the Homeric picture reflecting and refining only the later pattern.
What Renfrew called ‘this notional and largely fictitious barrier’ (158) can undoubtedly be crossed; and here too, past evidence suggests that it used at one time to be crossed much more readily. Boundaries, yet again, seem to have grown narrower. To a lifelong enemy of the constraining disciplinary boundary, who would certainly never tolerate such a thing in any of his own varied fields, I offer these observations on an allied discipline. [4314 words]


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