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Mycenae the Indefensible

From early scholarship on the Bronze Age citadels to Michael Wood's documentary In Search of the Trojan War, the conceit about Mycenae has been that the citadel's Cyclopean walls and high position rendered the site unassailable.  But could that view be mistaken?  Could Mycenae's very geography have contributed to its undoing?

In browsing the Internet for new and interesting material on the Mycenaeans, I came across this article on Mycenae the Indefensible, which convincingly lays out the argument that an enemy could have taken Mycenae (and nearby Tiryns) quite easily.  Through Google Earth, computer graphics, and careful calculations, the author, squinches, lays out a thorough, thought-provoking argument that high Mycenae was actually quite vulnerable.  Taking the citadel did not require attacking the walls, but seizing the heights of Mount Zara, which towers above the citadel walls, and firing down inside.  The high point of Mycenae's development included the Cyclopean walls and massive Lion Gate, but at some point during the late phase of Bronze Age Mycenae, the rulers may have realized this fatal flaw in the design of their citadel, that it could possibly be taken from above, and sunk the underground cistern to protect the water supply.

A shame I did not know about this vulnerability when writing the Orestes novels, but I may go back and mention it should the day come when I decide to issue the trilogy in print.
Last night's episode of Myth Hunters was a mixed bag of okay and meh.  The program basically got things right, even mentioning Schliemann's earlier interest in a site called Bunarbashi, and his association with Frank Calvert, who told Schliemann to dig at Hisarlik.

However, I found the program headache-inducing and a bit boring.  I think the presence of Dr. Donald Easton stirred too memories of "The Age of Heroes" episode of In Search of the Trojan War, in which Easton and Michael Wood have a very interesting discussion about the inconsistencies in Schliemann's field notes.  My nostalgia for Wood's particular style of documentary made this episode difficult to sit through.  I wasn't interested in the goofy dramatic reconstructions, which were not well staged, but rather wanted to see Wood in his too-tight jeans trekking around the Troad, Mycenae, and past Checkpoint Charlie to the strains of Terry Oldfield's amazing musical score.

Myth Hunters bases its study of Schliemann on the premise that Schliemann was looking for buried treasure rather than the site of Homer's Troy, and that he used Homer as a guide to find the treasure.  First of all, Homer doesn't cover Troy's final days, so the Iliad contains no references to hidden hoards of gold.  And Myth Hunters does a very poor job reconciling the Trojan hoard Schliemann did discover with the discoveries made at Mycenae; the two treasures were not pulled from that convenient little chink in the wall, and the Mycenaean gold from the Shaft Graves doesn't even date from the time of the Trojan War, but from around 1550 B.C.  Nor was the Trojan gold from Troy II, but a grave deposit dug into that layer from Troy III or IV.

You want to see good replicas of the Trojan treasure?  Michael Wood actually visits the basement of a museum in East Berlin to view artifacts that had to be dug out of the ruins of that building after 1945; the scorch marks are either Trojan War or World War II.  And the conversation between Wood and the German curator about the nature of human conflict down through the ages is eye-opening.

Oh, here, just watch "The Age of Heroes" episode for yourself.

Myth Hunters: The Lost Jewels of Helen

If you watched the Myth Hunters episode Quest for the Minotaur's Labyrinth 10 days ago, then you'll have seen the series make use of some footage from this Sunday's episode, The Lost Jewels of Helen.  Here is a link to the teaser for the upcoming program.

Right away, I can tell that, as with Arthur Evans, we're about to get the Reader's Digest condensed version of the discovery of Troy.  And as with my review of the Evans episode, where I recommended Episode Two ("The Legend Under Siege"), I'm going to refer you to Episode One ("The Age of Heroes") of Michael Wood's In Search of the Trojan War, in which Wood does an exhaustive study of Schliemann and the Troy digs.
Having watched tonight's episode of Myth Hunters: The Quest for the Minotaur's Labyrinth, I have but one conclusion to draw: do NOT refer to this program if you are researching Sir Arthur Evans and the excavation of Knossos.  If you are looking for a superior reference for Evans (and Schliemann, whose finds influenced Evans), I highly recommend the first two episode of Michael Wood's 1980s 6-part series In Search of the Trojan War.

The problems with this episode of Myth Hunters start right away.  I have never heard the story that Evans's favorite Greek myth was that of Theseus and the Minotaur, or that it was a driving force behind his excavation on Crete.  He was never really looking for the Labyrinth, but for the source of the earliest writing system in Europe.  Schliemann, on the other hand, claimed that his later quest for Troy was driven by a copy of the Trojan legends he had received as a gift a child--an anecdote that, by the way, he never mentions in his letters until his excavations in Turkey in the 1870s.

Myth Hunters mispronounces "Mycenaean" to the extent that my ears are still bleeding.  Watch In Search of the Trojan War instead.  I could listen to a younger Michael Wood's narration for days. *sigh*

Evans did go to the Balkans, but not necessarily as a spy (that red-lined cape is a crappy disguise for a British spy if ever I saw one).  He was a private adventurer (okay, so he did do a little spying) and a war correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, documenting the abuses of the Ottoman occupation.  The program never mentions this fact, or that his wife Margaret's health suffered from the constant trekking around and roughing it.  It never mentions why Evans took a shine to coins and seal stones.  He was near-sighted, necessitating the need for a cane which he called Prodger.  And his nearsightedness facilitated his sensitivity for making out fine details on objects such as coins and seal stones.  Again, Michael Wood manages to score an interview with Evans's godson, who remembers Evans using his little finger (his "excavator") to pick out details others would have missed.  If you want firsthand accounts of what Evans was like, you simply must watch this episode.

Evans did amass seal stones as well as coins, but the program neglects to mention that on his 1883 visit with Schliemann, there were seal stones in Schliemann's Mycenaean collection, and that Evans was far more interested in them than in the gold treasures.

Myth Hunters does mention Federico Halbherr, who went on to become the first excavator at Phaistos, but completely ignores the excavations of and Evans's visit with Minos Kalokairinos.  Evans not only viewed Kalokairinos's collection in Herakleion (called Candia at the time), but Kalokairinos took Evans to see his excavations at Knossos (which had been stopped by the local Cretans for fear that the Ottoman pashas would remove any artifacts to Istanbul).  Evans did not just happen to pull weeds from a wall and find some symbols; those symbols were on the remains of walls that Kalokairinos had found inside the western magazines.  Evans's 1900 excavation simply carried on where Kalokairinos's had left off.

The workers did not excavate in caverns.  The site was cleared top to bottom, the Great Staircase being reconstructed for preservation's sake as the workmen went.  The only excavation I recall that ever attempted to create passages in the earth was at Akrotiri, when Spyridon Marinatos tried tunneling through the Theran ash until the excavations became unstable.  Also, the shot of the Grand Staircase is actually a shot of the Theatral Area.  The fresco of the ships is from Akrotiri, not Knossos.  The program does not explain that the columns and many of the structures are reconstructions, and that Evans blew his inheritance on the restoration of Knossos.

So watch this episode if you absolutely must, then go find In Search of the Trojan War on Youtube, or own it on Amazon.  Better yet, buy the book that goes with the miniseries.  It's been updated, and still as good as when it first came out.

In Search of the Trojan War

It's come to my attention that some of my readers never learned about the Aegean Bronze Age in school.  Let me remedy that by making a video recommendation.  Now, I own several excellent films and many books on the subject, but this particular documentary series and its companion book rate among the best.

Michael Wood's 1985 series In Search of the Trojan War is well worth six hours of your time.  Although its stated purpose is to investigate the Trojan War, it goes beyond that.  Wood explores not only the history of the excavations at Troy, but also other sites known from Homer, such as Mycenae and Pylos.  He examines the nature of Mycenaean Greek literacy through an analysis of Linear B and its decipherment.  He discusses Mycenaean warfare and weaponry.  He traces forty of the locations named in Homer's Catalogue of Ships, and even goes to Sparta to examine the legend of Helen, and at Pylos he looks into the real-life Bronze Age women who were seized on piratical raids.

Even though the book and documentary came out more than twenty-five years ago, Wood's assertions still stand.  The only thing you may find woefully outdated is the model of Troy.  Remember, it was an age before CGI.

You get to see marvelous locations and some fantastic artifacts, and of course, there are the usual interviews with academics, many of whom are extremely interesting to listen to.

It sounds very dry, but isn't.  All this material is made accessible through Wood's lively style of presentation, some fantastic cinematography, and a great musical score by Terry Oldfield.  Even if your knowledge of the period is limited to vague memories of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, you should have no trouble following along.  If you want a detailed discussion, I highly recommend the companion book that inspired the series.




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