Bible and Beyond

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The Bull of Minos- The Discoveries of Schliemann and Evans

Leonard Cottrell, with a new introduction by Peter Levi

(New York and Bicester, England- Facts on File Publications, 1984) 224 pp., 16 color plates, numerous black-and-white illustrations, $19.95

Schliemann and Evans. The two names are inseparable from any account of Greek Bronze Age archaeology; they were its founding fathers. Heinrich Schliemann first established the historical reality of Mycenaean civilization that lies behind the epic Homeric world of Agamemnon and Menelaus, who, eight centuries before Pericles, launched a thousand Greek ships to besiege and conquer Troy. Arthur Evans revealed the Minoan civilization of Bronze Age Crete, the predecessor and begetter of so much in Mycenaean culture, and itself remembered in the no-less-colorful legends of Minos, king of Knossos, of the labyrinth and the Minotaur.

Schliemann’s own life-story is scarcely less romantic, though in a modern mold—the poor boy, apprenticed to a village grocer, who made himself a millionaire by his forties and, in the face of academic scorn for the upstart amateur, realized his childhood ambition of digging up the physical remains of Troy and Mycenae.

Evans belonged to a different world. Born to affluence, he was the son of a successful paper manufacturer who was also a learned and enthusiastic collector of artifacts from the ages of stone and bronze. Evans was equipped by all the advantages of an Oxford education for the scientific pursuit of archaeology, and with an individual genius of imagination that led him from the study of coins and engraved gems to seek a prehistoric, Bronze Age form of writing in Crete. He found it, and in doing so uncovered a whole unknown civilization, whose architecture and decorative arts achieved a fairy-tale beauty surpassing even the poetic memory of them.

The story of the Greek Bronze Age and of its discoverers has been the subject of many books. This one, by Leonard Cottrell, not by training an archaeologist but a journalist and a writer for radio and television, was first published in 1953. He wrote with skillful experience of what the nonspecialist reader needs and can enjoyably absorb. He prepared himself by wide and careful study. Though not a professional archaeologist, he consulted the professionals, used their advice and had their good will. He could not of course know Schliemann, or even Evans, who lived to 90 and died in 1941, but he knew Alan Wace, who did so much to supplement Schliemann’s work at Mycenae and to systematize our knowledge of the Greek Bronze Age. He also knew J. N. L. Myres, who belonged to Evans’s world both at Oxford and in the Aegean, and he first visited Knossos with Piet de Jong, the brilliant archaeological draftsman who had worked with both Evans and Wace, and who, after the Second World War, was resident curator of the Palace of Minos at Knossos for the British School at Athens.

The second edition of The Bull of Minos (1971) included a new appendix on the decipherment of the Mycenaean script (Linear B), achieved while the book was in the press. Here again, Cottrell was in close touch, both with the decipherer, the young English architect Michael Ventris, and with the professional philologist John Chadwick, who was Ventris’s collaborator.

But why does the book merit another new edition now? The answer is clearly and convincingly expressed in the fresh introduction contributed by Peter Levi. Cottrell’s book is a minor classic, and still perhaps the best book of its kind. It was not his first venture in archaeological writing, nor his last; but it is probably his best. It was, and is, alive with the freshness and enthusiasm of one to whom the information he purveys is still new, exciting, fascinating. We share with him, as well as with Schliemann and his young Greek wife, the thrill of unearthing “Priam’s treasure” at Troy and the astounding riches of the shaft graves at Mycenae.

What he tells of Mycenae and Knossos and their discoverers is framed in the account of his own first travels to those places, undertaken for the writing of the book. He does not merely describe the architectural wonders of the Lion Gate and the beehive tombs of Mycenae and the palace at Knossos; he shares his own first view of them. With him the reader peers through the window of the diesel car to see the improbable, village-railroad-station sign, “Mykenai”; with him one is waited on at the village inn (which had accommodated Schliemann) by a modern Agamemnon and Orestes; with him one reluctantly lays aside Homer or The Palace of Minos to go to sleep in the basement bedroom in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, where Evans had confidently sat out the seismic tremors and rumblings that helped him to understand the condition of the Minoan ruins. It is a book about a distant past, seen through the recent past, seen in the present.

Not only is it a good book in itself, it was written, as Peter Levi states, at the right time. By the 1950s, the controversies that surrounded the discoveries of both Schliemann and Evans (and sometimes their successors) had settled; and it was just before the fresh phase of startling new discoveries—especially the decipherment of Linear B and the excavations on Santorini. Moreover, it was a turning point in Greece itself. The disturbances of the Second World War, and the Greek civil war which followed it, were recently over, and the tide of tourism had not yet inundated the country. Cottrell saw a Greece not drastically changed from that which Evans and Schliemann had known.

The book is still a first-class beginning for the general reader who wants to know about Minoan and Mycenaean archaeology, and who cannot cope with the bulk of Schliemann’s own books or with the six volumes of Evans’s Palace of Minos (as a 17th-century writer said of another work- “a very portable book; a horse may carry it, if he be not too weak”). It starts from the background of the Homeric story that was Schliemann’s own inspiration. It traces his work at Troy, at Mycenae and at Tiryns, and shows the transition from Schliemann’s overly romantic desire simply to validate the historical truth of the epic to the establishment of a wholly new discipline of Greek prehistory. The tale then passes to Evans and to the very different career and outlook that led him to dig at Knossos and to reveal the older and complementary Minoan civilization. The account of these two civilizations is skillfully and continuously blended with the history of their discovery.

Peter Levi’s introduction, ably outlining what has happened in the field since Cottrell wrote, sets the book and its contents in a fuller perspective. Most important has been the decipherment of Linear B, but that is not all. The same year, 1952, saw the excavation at Mycenae of further shaft graves, second only to Schliemann’s finds. The 1960s saw the revelation of Akrotiri, a new, island province of Minoan civilization beneath the deep volcanic deposits on the island of Santorini. There is new evidence on Mycenaean religion from excavations at Hagia Eirene on Kea and in the citadel of Mycenae itself, and new light on the “dark age” between Mycenaean and historical Greece from the British dig at Lefkandi in Euboea. The reader may well want to go on to pursue these topics. What a pity that there is as yet no book like Cottrell’s to guide him.

Thirty years have seen great changes in book production. This new edition is displayed on a good quarto paper (about 9½ × 12 inches), with a far greater wealth of illustrations than the original. The black-and-white photographs, as so often nowadays, are somewhat deficient in clarity of tone, but that is outweighed by the 16 fine color plates.