and swore eternal brotherhood (as they said in those days) with the herders of the burned ground.
You all know what happened after that.
(Picture Credits: D300s, Gerard Sanz, via Google Earth.)
If you clicked on the link --and you should, it's worth it-- you'll be in a fugue of reference. Are you supposed to think of freedom fighting against the Habsburgs, or chasing evildoers in the Wild West? Both separately? Both together? Which came first, the 1300s or the 1800s?
History needs to be nailed down sometimes. Today I have to hand Eric H. Cline's 1177 B.C.: The Year That Civilization Collapsed.
Professor Cline is a very productive man and an expert on the Late Bronze Age, so it is probably not surprising that Princeton University Press's "Turning Points in History" Series commissioned a book on the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and you could be forgiven for expecting a bit of a cut-and-paste exquisitely timed to the Zeitgeist. "Secular stagnation" and all that.
So let's turn it over, because the press of New Jersey's mother school of American Presybterianism and stronghold of the House of Burr (1, 2, 3) knows a thing or two about publishing book series. Sure enough, there are the cover blurbs, and awesome cover blurbs they are, too. We'll leave the incredibly-on-the-nose name of Israel Finkelstein alone here. If you care about Biblical archaeology, you know the name, otherwise... But Jan Morris? Author of Why the West Rules, For Now? There's a get! Norman Yoffee? Not exactly a household name, but, as the author of a book that is just hard enough to read that we cognoscenti who have done so can congratulate ourselves for it, he neatly covers off the third angle of our marketing triangulation.
So what does Jan Morris think of this book? "1177 B.C. tells the story of one of history's greatest mysteries. Unknown invaders shattered the splendid civilizations of the Bronze Age Mediterranean in a tidal wave of fire and slaughter." Hmm. Lacks the sex appeal that you used to be able to put in this stuff (this is why we can't have nice things), but sold!
But wait! What does Norman Yoffee think of the book? "Eric Cline sets the record straight: there was a 'perfect storm' of migrations, rebellions, and climate change that resulted int he collapse of states that wer ealredy unstable in the Late Bronze Age. There followed an 'age of opportunity...that remade the world of the eastern Mediterranean...Onward and upward with collapse!"
We wonder, as so often, which of the blurb writers actually read the book. Not surprisingly (he must be smart: he uses a semi-colon! He has signature aphorisms!) it is Norman Yoffee. Just in case you missed the whole zeitgeistiness of my blurb of the blurb, here is a wordier version. The echoes of James C. Scott are hardly accidental.
“Collapse, in general, tends to ensue when the center is no longer able to secure resources from the periphery, usually having lost the legitimacy through which it could disembed goods and services of traditionally organized groups. The process of collapse entails the dissolution of those centralized institutions that had facilitated the transmission of resources and information, the settlement of intergroup disputes, and the legitimate expression of differentiated organizational components. The maintenance of those institutions demands a flexibility, a resilience of responses to stresses that are continually produced, often contradictorily, by the various competing groups on the periphery and those within the center itself, as well as by external threats or expansionist policies. A maximizing strategy, in which the political center tends to channel resources and services for its own, rather than for societal, ends, and in which support and legitimation from the periphery are therefore eroded, can lead to collapse.”
My tone may be facetious, but my admiration is sincere. Yoffee has something serious to say here. Pushed to the limit, he might have something like an explanation for "secular stagnation" here, so the optimism of his coda is overwhelming. Is everything about to break into a "new age of opportunity?"
It would be nice, to be sure, but the danger here is one of confusing now, and the future, with then, of turning history into manifesto, of confusing 1300 with 1800. I am just as facetious with Ian Morris as I am with Yoffee, but the respect here is less, if my unkind link to an ancient juvenile science fiction with horrifying gender politics isn't clue enough. I suspect that my unkindness has more to do with the fact that that Morris is importing 1890 into 1177, where Yoffee brings 2008. Morris's version of 1177 still features the Vikings that Gaston Maspero first put into the story of the End of Everything with which Cline begins: Ramses III's 1177 victory over the "Peoples of the Sea." Or maybe not. Repeating stories first told by Maspero requires that you read his old history of Egypt without understanding Nineteenth Century France, or even considering that fights between free-trading Normans and protectionist "round-headed Mediterranean-type" cattle-raisers of the Camargue might leak into a history of ancient Egypt. Yoffee's prose might be a little woolly, but that's because he is pretty strenuously engaged in making sure that that sort of thing doesn't happen in his analysis.
So much for the moralising lecture about people who write about what Cline is writing. You probably want to hear about the actual book, and some explanation for header graphics featuring mountain pastures might be nice in the way of bookending this post with, you know, a point.
Eric Cline is not just a populariser and summariser of the current archaeological state of the art. He first came to public attention with Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, a brilliant attempt to use a typology of foreign artefacts found in LBA Aegean contexts to reconstruct the maritime trading patterns of the Late Bronze Age. Some of the conclusions found in that earlier book are less dramatic than Cline makes them out to be in this revisit: that inter-regional trade was surprisingly extensive, that it fostered a cosmopolitan, "global" culture. One thing is most emphatically not: whereas earlier writers on the subject have focussed on a "counter-clockwise" trading circuit around the eastern Mediterranean, Cline finds evidence for a "clockwise" circuit.
You get hints of suppressed controversy. "Counter-clockwise" implies that Egyptian artefacts, which are surprisingly common in the Aegean, reach the area as the final stage of a point-to-point trade route leading out of Egypt to the Levant through Anatolia to the Cyclades or Crete and from there to Greece, as in the famous Uluburun shipwreck. "Clockwise" implies a direct connection from Egypt to Crete via the ancient port at Mersah Matruh, and from there to Greece. Here's Connie Lambrou-Phillipson inveighing in the mid-1980s against the notion that any Late Bronze Age sailor would have dared to set course from Mersah Matruh to Komnos on the south shore of Crete. However, Lambrou-Phillipson depends heavily on the certain notion that ancient Mediterranean sailors did not voyage in the winter, when the winds would have been fair from Libya to Crete, but the seas high and the skies overcast. So here is my chance to notice James Beresford's extended clubbing-about-the-head of that easy cliche.
|Not actually James Beresford.|
Alive to controversy which escapes my Google search, Cline talks about the "Aegean List of Amenhotep III," which looks "suspiciously like the itinerary for a direct voyage from Egypt to the Aegean and back." (45)
But let's face it: the idea that there was Egyptian influence on ancient Greece is hugely troubling to many people. It might well be the oldest idea about archaic Greece that we have: once we situate Homer as an Eighth (Ninth? Seventh?) Century figure writing about the Thirteenth Century, we are left with Herodotus, who tells us that one of the Senusrets of the Twelfth Dynasty built an empire that extended at least as far as coastal Anatolia. Herodotus had a great deal to say about the Twelfth Dynasty, and no wonder, because he visited Egypt, and was taken to see the mortuary complex of Amenemhat III, son of Senusret III (probably Herodotus's Sesostris).
Here is what Herodotus has to say about that complex, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, and typed into Wikipedia by someone else whose labour I am exploiting:
It has twelve covered courts — six in a row facing north, six south — the gates of the one range exactly fronting the gates of the other. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms, of which half are underground, and the other half directly above them. I was taken through the rooms in the upper storey, so what I shall say of them is from my own observation, but the underground ones I can speak of only from report, because the Egyptians in charge refused to let me see them, as they contain the tombs of the kings who built the labyrinth, and also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles. The upper rooms, on the contrary, I did actually see, and it is hard to believe that they are the work of men; the baffling and intricate passages from room to room and from court to court were an endless wonder to me, as we passed from a courtyard into rooms, from rooms into galleries, from galleries into more rooms and thence into yet more courtyards. The roof of every chamber, courtyard, and gallery is, like the walls, of stone. The walls are covered with carved figures, and each court is exquisitely built of white marble and surrounded by a colonnade.
Okay, here's the thing. Herodotus is telling us here that this building, the most impressive structure he saw in an Egyptian tour that included the Great Pyramid, is the original "labyrinth." You know, like the one at Knossos.
|The one and only Boris Vallejo. I think the watermark will stand as enough credit for the uploader.|
But! We really, really need to forget that Herodotus said anything of the sort. This is a forgotten idiom. You really have to dig through Wikipedia and allied sources to come to anything like the idea that the mortuary temple complex at the Hawara temple, built "in limnais," that is, "in the marsh" is the original of "labyrinth." You are much more likely to read that "Labyrinth" means "Place of the Double Axe," ie. "labrys," and refers to the cult of the Great Mother Goddess (or Triple Goddess, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole), which is that thing that they did at Knossos on Minoan Crete in the days before the Mycenaean Greeks invaded from the north and conquered the progressive Minoans, as part of their gradual transition from steppe nomads to Sea Peoples. As for Herodotus's claims about a Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian Empire in the Aegean, his basic evidence is laughably wrong: Tarkasnawa's inscription at Karabel is a Late Bronze Age Luwian text, not an Early Bronze Age Egyptian one. And if that error were not enough, Martin Bernal's Black Athena is generally deemed to be an extended Afrocentric trolling of the academic community.
(A writer from a background in the natural sciences marshalling ill-digested evidence from a host of fields in pursuit of a heedlessly contrarian reading of Bronze Age history? Crazy stuff, I've got to say.)
So just to summarise where we are: Eric Cline argues that there was direct contact from Egypt to Crete, in line with a minimalist reading of the Black Athena hypothesis, but focussing on the Late Bronze Age, whereas Herodotus points us, on admittedly shaky grounds, at a period seven centuries earlier. Since archaeological work at least suffices to support the idea that Egypt had a heavy influence on Crete, however "Egyptian objects" got there, the question really seems to be one of quarantining Cretan civilisation from perceptions of Egyptian influence. Bernal claims to see a Eurocentric bias in ancient Greek history. His corrective goes too far, but I am, in a far too brief way, subscribing to this basic point in my beating-around-the-bush way. To round off the historiographic line of inquiry here with one final book-that-I-have-read-lately (because even by my standards I cannot justify digressing here), I instead go here:
It is certainly nice that the author of what is apparently the go-to textbook on archaeological chemistry has written a site-by-site survey of the most exciting digs around Europe, but I was pretty disappointed by Price's discussion of Knossos. He begins very promisingly, with 3000BC on the one hand, and scare quotes around "discovered" when he brings Arthur Evans to the site. I say promisingly because One of the clearest pieces of evidence that led Nineteenth/early Twentieth Century excavators to this hilltop site just south of Heraklion --I mean, apart from the well-attested Classical city there that thought that it was built on the city of Knossos, which even used to give its name to the Roman Catholic titular see at Gortyn-- was the Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian pottery cast up there, but then this would take Price way back into the history of Crete in the Nineteenth Century. I mean, it uffices to wonder that at the very moment that the great powers were trying to prevent a unification of Crete and Greece that would likely lead to ethnic cleansing against Cretan Turks, an archaeologist "discovered" a cosmopolitan pre-Greek civilisation on Crete that was destroyed by Greek invaders. The fact that Knossos was extensively "rebuilt" by Evans is noted, and then we move on.
That Price does not want to write a book in which current archaeology is submerged in vectors leading us back to the insecurities and failed compromises of the Nineteenth Century is understandable. Uttering a series of sentences like this is not: "The Egyptians feared the "great green sea, yet the sturdy Minoan ships with their deep keels and high prows (known from paintings and decorated pottery on Crete) weathered the storms and controlled the sea lanes. One of the striking contrasts between the Minoan towns and the Mykenean citadels is the absence of fortifications... Some have argued that this . . . reflects . . . the power of the fleet."
I mean, seriously, dude. What is this? 1905? You can, with suppleness of argument and solid archaeology, salvage a lot of Evans. Way more than I would grant. That is, you can make a solid argument that I would still reject. But this whole "Rule Minoa?" It's just not on. Read your frigging Brewer! Read Guilmartin! Read Braudel! Admiralty does not work that way. Galleys. Do. Not. Work. That. Way.
Umm, aside from that, great book, Doctor Price. Thanks for writing it. Please don't hate me?
So that's almost all the historiography. I am going to dig up one last book, but as a proposed solution to the riddle, which I am first going to try to reframe, the Bench Grass way. So you know what that means, of course. To Google Maps!
Here's the route from the town of Kommos in southern Crete to Heraklion on the north coast. If my snip makes it hard to see the geography, I flatter myself that it is by design. I am trying to make strange what is normal. Anyway, here's the island of Crete, so that you can locate yourself.
It is easy to get a picture of a place that is defined by where people like to go. These days, the north coast of Crete is where it is at, but in the old days, the capital of Crete (and Cyrenaica, when the two were combined in a Roman diocese) was at the town of Gortyn. You may not have heard of Gortyn, but it used to be a reasonably important place, back when Egypt had the world's largest economy --not that long ago, actually! It wasn't that important, but it was practically a suburb of the industrial towns of the Egyptian Delta, so not unimportant, either.
How did it get that status? It was in the middle of the Messara plain, an alluvial basin 7 kilometers wide and 50 kilometers long, drained by the river Messara. Old time industry depended on industrial fibre, and two kinds of fibre come from Crete. The first, obviously when we speak of the Mediterranean in general, is wool. The second, when we speak of Egypt in particular, is flax. Messara's alluvial character would have made for a good flax crop, if that is what they grew (I do not know). Otherwise, Crete has mountains, and so upland pasture. The Messara, which rises in the mountains by sacred Ida, is an obvious route up to those pastures. The route which I have commanded Google Maps to show you, then runs down the Aegean watershed to Heraklion, passing by Knossos on the way.
Given what we know, I will propose a Bench Grassy way of understanding this. Egyptian travellers to the Aegean often did not make a long and fraught sea journey around the Cretan promontories. They landed on the beach at Kommos under the heights of Phaistos and crossed the island overland, guesting at Knossos and then taking ship again at Heraklion. It was a safer and probably even shorter trip, and transportation economies probably do not necessarily matter that much when you are carrying exotic luxury goods. Conspicuous consumption is kind of the point of products like these. If you have to ask how expensive they are, you are asking the wrong question.
Of course, I have begged a huge question here. Were the uplands of Crete an impenetrable, forested tangle through which a few devotees straggled to the sanctuary on Mount Ida, or a managed summer pasture? How much do iron axes count in transforming the landscape for vertical transhumance? The answer, it appears, is that vertical transhumance begins on Crete in the Middle Minoan, at least if the settlement at Monastiraki counts as sufficient evidence.
So this brings me around to 1177BC, the year Civilization Collapsed, and the promised "one weird trick" (to borrow an Internetism) that might explain it all and tie a bow on this posting.
What do we know? That Ramses III appears, like other pharaohs before him, in the role of a beloved son of the god who restores order by "binding those who were loose." In particular, in 1177 BC, the Libyans and the Asians, and the People who were in the islands of the Great Green Sea, the Ekwesh, the Denyens, the Shekelesh, and the Tekrur, whom [no excitable foreigners] could resist" conspired against Pharaoh and attacked Egypt. Ramses III kicked their ass in a land-sea battle in the north and led them bound into captivity, resettling them in supply cities so that they could live a new life as obedient taxpayers. (Also, he killed the shit out of their leaders. So don't you be thinking of trying anything.)
Now, if you are Ian Morris, the listed tribes are migrating barbarians from who-the-hell-knows-where. Except that they're probably randy northerners. Probably with horned helmets. Horned. Get it? I'll be in my bunk, thinking of sacking cities. If you are Norman Yoffee or, to give away the ending, Eric Cline [spoiler alert], you are trying to reduce this list to a symptom of "systems collapse." Move even further into the bleeding edge of the zeitgeist, and they're . . .people. . . who are mad as hell about not getting a decent pay raise in twenty years and aiming to do to Pharaoh [moar spoiler alert] what we're about to do to...
Uhm, sorry. It's just I get so mad...
So, anyway. Wrapping it up in a bow. I know, I promised. I also promised one more book. I have suggested that it is crazy. Alessandra Nibbi is a good example of a female academic who might not have got the respect that she deserved due to making the mistake of having a family. Or it might be the fact that she was so fearlessly contrarian. Anyway, the core of Nibbi's theory is that the iconic political geography of Egypt was flexible. It is like how we moderns can use "the East" flexibly in a way that constructs what we need constructed. Is the East in Lebanon, or is it China? Where does "the Orient" start? It depends on what we need to "Orientalise." In the same way, a weak pharaoh at Abydos who wants to imitate a powerful pharaoh who sent ships to Byblos to get cedar for his temple might instead sent it to Cairo, where, arguably, there were some cedars growing on the four-hundred foot-high summit of El Mokatim. You sent a ship down the Nile, it kept to eastern branches, eventually it arrived by water at a mountain with cedars growing on top. It might not be much of a mountain, it might not be many cedars, it certainly wasn't Lebanon, but, hey, it's good enough for a spin cycle, after which, hopefully, the Anubis News Network will have moved on to something else. (Benghazi?)
But this is not where I talk about Nibbi and "Byblos," because there, I think, she overplayed her hand. It is about her entirely plausible reconstruction of "Great Green Sea" as referring, if and when necessary, to the green and reedy lower Delta through which you have to take your boat to get to, eventually, Crete. That is, Crete is an island in the "Great Green," as, for that matter, are the Delta towns with which Gortyn would, so many years later, trade. One "Great Green" is the deep Mediterranean, while another is the watery realm betwixt land and sea that is the estuarine Nile; but, from Thebes, one is as good as the other!
So, now, let us think about who lives in a pre-tamed Nile Delta? People with an economic reason to be there, of course. The Delta is highly biotically productive. It just does not produce much of that biomass in a humanly assimilable form. Who can assimilate it? Livestock! But, and here's the key economic insight: there is even more forage for livestock to assimilate out in what the ancient Egyptian would call the "Libyan" and "Asiatic" deserts --the open steppe on the left and right bank of the Nile, respectively. As summer comes, and the open range dries up, the only available forage is in the Delta --which, by now, due to the flood, is a "watery waste."
And so, one presumes, the "Libyans" and "Asiatics" come in from the desert and bring their flocks to "islands in the Great Green--" to the thorps and bunds and levees in the midst of the water where livestock can be penned and fed from reeds and watergrass cut from boats. This agronomic pattern, Nibbi points out, is well-established. Another thing that she regards as well-established, although this hardly comes up in Cline, is the tendency of pharaohs to present themselves as victors over the forces of disorder --"the unbound"-- in their mortuary temples. The battle against watery chaos is for Pharaoh to win. Excitable foreigners are losing the eternal war against the "unbound," people who no longer want to engage the centre in networks of exchange, but Pharaoh can still compel obedience!
Until, of course, Pharaoh stops winning. Cline and Yoffee are agreed: something changed in the 1100s, in Egypt as well as around. Complex society collapsed, and new opportunities emerged. People stopped being bound.
Here's the Bench Grass suggestion: not the beginning of transhumance, because that was already going on, but its intensification, thanks to iron tools. "Asiatics" now had an alternative to summering in the Delta, because they could clear pastures in the heights of the Lebanon. With "Libyans" it gets more tricky, and we circle back around to the foggara, only attested for the Western Desert from the Middle Iron Age. Pushing the Western Desert foggara back to the millennium and situating them in the context of anti-Upper Egyptian sentiment would probably require a major revision of our understanding of Siwa Oasis (Kharga and the other oases along the Forty Day Road will not do, as they were under Egyptian control). But who needs a Procrustean bed at the start of a research project. Transhumance for some, tiny pharaonic cartouches for others!
And one final point: Remember Sesostris and the Twelfth Dynasty? Remember their signal achievement of taming and farming the Fayum, and building a "labyrinth" that consists of a temple in the marshes? Remember the heretical notion that the labyrinth is not a core symbol of a purported pre-Indo-European but all-European culture?
Well, here's a new model: The Twelfth Dynasty as originators of the Iron Age. Oh, not of the technology of iron, to be sure. (Unless we eventually find evidence for it, and I would not be completely surprised if we did.) But, rather, of the whole project of state-order draining, clearing, and transforming marsh land, up and down, into farms.
There's your "Afroasiatic origins of Western Civilisation." (Too bad loggers didn't actually use double-bitted steel axes until the Nineteenth Century.)