Igor Petrík – Pumice and bronze: between mythology and history of the Aegean realm



The contents of this book are framed by two words from its title: pumice and bronze. As a symbol of technology and power, bronze gave its name to the age between 2000 and 1200 BC. Pumice, a characteristic volcanic rock, expresses a more regional dimension of the book, the connection of fate between the Aegean historical realm and the volcanic – seismic systems inherent to this area. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions seem to have co-determined the history of the Minoan, Mycenaean and Anatolian civilizations, their mythology and culture.

A more scientific aspect of the book involves the fascinating processes of reconstructing seemingly lost information, which can be extracted, for example, from minerals and rocks: We know not only how and when they were formed, but when they were exhumed, buried and exposed again. Trees keep the history of climate in their rings including precise timing of great volcanic events and/or climate perturbations. The use of radioactive isotope C14 together with dendrochronology promise much more precise results in dating of the important events determining Bronze Age history and not only in the Aegean realm. The faces of men who died millennia ago may emerge unexpectedly from well preserved skulls! When no written documents have been preserved, we can still find much hidden in names and words themselves – etymology may connect history with prehistory.

Bronze metallurgy requires two metals, copper and tin. The former was commonly found and used around 4000-3500 years BC, the first tin bronzes are somewhat younger: about 3000 BC. The metallurgical process of copper smelting was discovered by chance, possibly when old potters tried to decorate their pots with blue azurite or green malachite (G.R. Rapp), the secondary ores of copper. Eneolithic finds of stone hammers in the Carpathian realm – Špania dolina in Slovakia – document the beginning of a copper boom in this area rich in copper deposits, which lasted until the Middle Bronze Age (MBA) and enabled hundreds of fruitful contacts with the Mediterranean world.

In the late Bronze Age (LBA), 1500 BC, advanced mining in Cyprus produced huge amounts of copper (obtained from sulphides), in the form of “standardized” oxhide ingots. The findings of Bronze Age wrecks on the Anatolian coast gave archaeologists unbelievable probes into the Mediterranean trade in LBA. The Ulu Burun wreck displayed in the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum (Turkey) contained ten tons of copper ingots and one ton of tin ingots, and an immense wealth of artistic and commercial objects. The Ulu Burun and other Bronze Age wrecks changed the opinions on Mediterranean trading in favour of Phoenician or Canaanite rather than Mycenaean sea traders (G.F. Bass).

Another metal with enormous impact on society, gold has also been used since the Neolithic (6000 BC). Gold takes us from Cyprus directly to the most important of Helladic Bronze age centres – Mycenae. Here, huge amounts of gold (more than 20 kg) were found in Late Helladic (LHI) Grave circles A and B. They imply a gold flow, which has never repeated since then, possibly indicating the discovery of rich gold deposits (Davis) veins or placers somewhere in the Balkans (Bulgaria’s and Romania’s deposits produced thousands of tons of gold during antiquity). The Mycenaeans seem to have been in just the right place at the right time exchanging their luxury pottery and superior weapons for gold. The Mycenaean kings buried in the shaft graves boasted equally about their gold and their swords. Thanks to the effort of Manchester scientists, J. Prag and R. Neave who were able to transform their skulls (from the grave circle B) back to living faces, we know what these robust, uncompromising warriors and their pretty wives looked like! Moreover, the study of their skeletons revealed much more: their diseases, terrible wounds and traces of long term carrying of heavy loads (the tower shields of Homer!).

Just in the time of the older Mycenaean grave circle B (ca. 1650 BC) an unprecedented natural disaster heavily influenced the whole Mediterranean world, a paroxysmal eruption of the Thera volcano. This event attracted much attention of scientists and enormous amount of data obtained by volcanologists, geophysicists, and geochronologists now enables us to visualize the catastrophe and evaluate its consequences (F. McCoy, G. Heiken, Thera volumes). For example, the pre-eruption Thera, inhabited by Cycladeans (Akrotiri), was shown to have been characterized by an older caldera giving it some resemblance to Plato’s description of Atlantis. Indeed, the hypothesis that the Thera explosion was one of the sources of this legend was proposed by Greek geophysicist G. Galanopoulos. The detailed sequence of the Minoan explosion involves five phases of this Plinian eruption, which reached the intensity VEI = 6.9, (VEI, volcanic explosivity index). It was surpassed in historical times only by the Indonesian Tambora eruption in 1815 (VEI = 7). A time interval after the first smaller explosion may have provided a chance for the inhabitants to save their lives. The extreme explosions of the following stages were driven firstly by endogenous reasons – the fast bubble expansion in the rising gas-saturated magma, the later events were promoted by the influx of sea water into the vent. The vent was located approximately at today’s Nea Kameni island. The enormous amounts of hot, foamed lava, gases and ash then erupted at supersonic speed from the vent. While the lava torn into small pieces formed pumice fragments, the broken melt film between exploding bubbles produced fine volcanic ash. The first has deposited up to 7 m thick layers in the southern part of the island. By contrast, the ash mixed with volcanic gases and air rose to the stratosphere forming a column up to 35 km high, which expanded into an umbrella, the fine ash ultimately encircling the Earth. The one cm thick ash layer covers an area of 1 million km2. Even more terrible, low, dense and extremely fast high temperature (>500 °C) pyroclastic clouds burnt everything in their path depositing ingnimbrite plateaus. The collapsing column fell down as a really hot infernal storm, and heavy rain soon destabilized the fresh deposits, which mobilized in fast mudflows (lahars) destroying the country. When the eruption finally ceased everything including the surrounding sea was covered by pumice and ash. A new caldera formed in the north of the island in a series of earthquakes which caused tsunamis reaching and devastating neighbouring islands, Crete and the eastern Mediterranean coast. Minoan pumice occurs on various places of the Cretan northern coast, French oceanographer and diver J.-Y. Cousteau even found a “reef” of Minoan wrecks on the island of Psira (Mirabello bay, Crete) presumably destroyed by the Theran tsunami!

The most recent C14 dating of the explosion (S. Manning) is between 1600 and 1650 BC, thus invalidating the former suggestion of Spyridon Marinatos, the Greek archaeologist who discovered Akrotiri, on its causal relation with the fall of the Minoan civilization, which occurred almost 200 years later.

The mainland was influenced by the explosion much less, although the tsunamis may have reached Attica and the western Peloponnesus coast where some Minoan pumice was also found. Following the gold boom, the Mycenaeans turned their attention to Minoan Crete: the first wave invaded Knossos about 1450 BC. They have left characteristic warrior graves full of gold and weapons, but also many tablets in linear B all over Crete until the second wave (ca. 1370 BC) of mainlanders arrived and replaced them. Both waves possibly took advantage of earthquake storms, which destroyed Cretan palaces (although Knossos survived the first wave). It was earlier, in the Middle Minoan period (1700 BC) when the rising Minoan society surmounted the consequences of the great earthquake, which destroyed the old palaces, and built new and more magnificent ones. However, the earthquake was so terrible that in despair the Minoans turned to human sacrifices. In Anemospilia four skeletons were found in a destroyed cave sanctuary. The determined faces of two of them, presumably the high priest and priestess, who died together with their sacrifice (!), emerged from the depth of 3700 years revived by the hands of J. Prag and R. Neave. When they suffered repeated natural disasters some five hundred years later, the Minoans finally succumbed to the Achaeans possibly keeping some religious power.

The Myceaeans (Achaeans), however, also maintained vivid relations with their eastern neighbours in Anatolia – the Luwians and Hittites, the most famous of them being the Trojans. In the rich Hittite archives, the Achaeans and Achaia (Achchiyawa) appeared in history for the first time (1450 BC) thus confirming the traditional name used by Homer! Much more, the Achaeans appear as aggressive neighbours repeatedly attacking the western Anatolian coast clashing either with Luwians or Hittites. In the Hittite tablets historians discovered the unknown history of the Luwians, their kingdom of Arzawa and the story of their resistance to the Hittite imperial power. After years of manoeuvering and fighting, the rebel king Madduwattash gained independence from the Hittites and unified twenty two countries from Lykia to Troas. The last of them gained paramount importance for the Greeks of Archaic and Classical times through the immortal epics of Homer describing actually the war between the Achaeans and Luwians (Trojans). By the time of the Trojan war the Achaeans have been plundering the Luwian coast already for hundreds of years capturing women for work in their palace textile manufactures. Could not the abduction of Helena in the Iliad have been a reverse pirate action of the Luwians?
The repeated encountering of Homer’s name reflects his unique position in the historiography of the Aegean realm. Although – as a reaction to the romantic approach of H. Schliemann – he was rejected by many modern archaeologists as a historical source, the increasing amount of new knowledge either from Hissarlik (W. Dörpfeld, C. Blegen, M. Korfmann) or from various other places (Pylos, Ithaka, Thebes, Lefkandi) leaves little room for rejecting not only the historicity of the Trojan war but for many aspects of Bronze age life in the Aegean as originally described by Homer.

Although the Trojans are in great honour in the Iliad and many of their names (Priam, Hector, Paris, Aeneas) became as immortal as those of Achilles or Agamemnon, others obviously not known to Homer, fell into oblivion. Or did they? The name of the great Madduwattash, although unknown to the modern reader, may have persisted into classical times in Herodotus in the name of Atyas, the first mythological king of the Lydians. Here, I cannot resist some etymological (over)speculations using the lost letter of digamma (F, transcribed as w) common in the Bronze age but not used in Classical Greek. For example, the very name of Achaeans sounded originally Achaiwoi, the name of Miletos was Milawanda. Many others words with digamma were preserved either in linear B or Hittite cuneiform tables. The name of an Achaean prince Tawakawalash from a letter to Hittite king Khatushilish III was transliterated by classical linguists as Etewoklewes. The name omitting digammas gives Eteokles, Theban king, the son of Oidipus! Coming back to Madduwattash, omitting digamma we obtain the Hellenized form Madyattes and by further simplifying Atyas. Could the first Lydian king have been the forgotten Madduwattash? Even more speculation using the exchange l-d and t-s in names of Odysseus – Ulysses and the Attic form –tt- instead of –ss- (for example, thalassa – thalatta, the sea) gives a series Madduwattash – (M)adyattes – Odysseus, or (M)adyattes – Allyattes – Ulysses. If so, a thrilling possibility appears that the hero’s name (obviously not Greek) could also have been derived from that of the Luwian rebel king!

The Trojan War heralded the end of the Bronze Age, in ca 1150 BC; the reasons for what was in fact a collapse of the Aegean civilization are far from being clear (Rutter). Continuing in our speculations we try to apply an approach provided by the science of complexity, which offers some new insights into this unsolved problem. Understanding many natural complex systems as self-organized and being far from equilibrium (Prigogin), for example a hurricane, living cell, or even market (Waldrop) opens new ways to explain social and historical events. One great deterministic event may not be sufficient to cause a great change, as exemplified by the long term drought ca 2200 BC, interrupting the Old Egyptian kingdom, or by the Minoan Thera explosion 1650 BC, both of which did not mean the end of the respective civilizations. On the other hand, in chaotic systems with innumerable mutual interrelations such as weather (Lorenz) or human civilization (McCormick) small causes may connect and, due to negative or positive feedbacks, strengthen to such an extent that the system collapses or falls into chaos, which is ultimately followed by a new self-organization. In this sense, the fall of the Bronze Age civilizations may be understood as having resulted from many interrelating smaller causes. These would include, for example, an earthquake storm, which destroyed the palace centres of Pylos, Mycenae, Tiryns and Midea, the non-equilibrium economic system based on redistribution from these centres, the eruption of Hekla 1159 BC, followed by decades of drought, a possible cause of the Sea peoples movement, which interrupted sea trade and so on.

Although the great divide at 1150 BC ended the Bronze Age it simultaneously started the age of heroes, who were transformed from real people into semigods and became an inspiration for generations of Hellenic aoids and rapsodes. The greatest of them created not only the first LITERATURE but represented a continuation on which the classical Greeks built the foundations of modern civilization.