Curtis RUNNELS & Priscilla MURRAY, Greece before History: An Archaeological Companion and Guide. Stanford University Press, Stanford: California 2001. Pp. xiii and 202, line drawings. ISBN 0-8047-4036-4 (Hb), 0-8047-4050-x (Pb).
Review by Christina Souyoudzoglou-Haywood
At a time when hundreds of publications on Greek archaeology are available, it may seem incongruous to claim that a new book fills a gap. Yet the authors of Greece before History quite rightly identified the need for a readable and well-informed account of Greek Prehistory which would serve equally the general reader and the virtual as well as the real traveller to Greece. This book is the result of ten years of endeavours by the authors to meet this need.
The first chapter is a general introduction which explains the scope of the book and defines the geographical setting (present-day Greece) and the chronological period covered (over 250,000 years of human existence in Greece). The next three chapters review, in chronological order, the three broad periods of Greek Prehistory and their subdivisions: the Old Stone Age (the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods), the New Stone Age (the Neolithic period) and the Bronze Age. In each chapter the authors give a comprehensive account of our present state of archaeological knowledge about each period, frequently supported by their long personal experiences and research in the field. The topics covered include settlement and movement of people, major sites, trade and exchange, social and economic organization, spiritual life, technology, and the changes and innovations which characterize each period. This wide-ranging information is conveyed in a clear, lively and eminently readable style. The authors have skilfully avoided a simple narrative; differences over interpretation, prevailing archaeological debates and hypotheses, old and new, are shared with the reader. Major unresolved questions, for example the time of arrival of the first Greeks, the nature and character of the Minoan ?palace?, human sacrifice in Bronze Age Crete, are highlighted and discussed more or less briefly. Moreover, the reader is introduced, gently and painlessly, in this otherwise jargon-free work, to some theoretical approaches and concepts, for example the ?Wave of Advance model?, used in theoretical interpretations of the spread of farming, and the ?Secondary Products Revolution? which refers to the stage of development when the by-products of animal and plant domestication begin to be exploited.
Equal amounts of thought and space have been allotted by the authors to all the periods, but, even if they had not made the point of telling the reader in the Introduction, their special interest in and predilection for the Stone Age, particularly the Palaeolithic, is transparently obvious; the accounts of the Stone Age periods are especially comprehensive, vivid and lucid, while the Bronze Age is somewhat disdainfully labelled an ?age of savage virtues and barbarous grandeur?. This is not to say that the Bronze Age is dealt with less authority, but to stress that we should be even more grateful to the authors for making such a splendid job of the Stone Age, the period most deprived of popularizing works.
Chapters five and six discuss the theories and controversies relating to the two most publicised enigmas of the Greek Bronze Age: the collapse of the Mycenaean Civilization and the legend of Atlantis (which has been identified by some with the excavated town of Akrotiri on Santorini). In both cases the authors express their honest opinion. In the first instance, they favour Robert Drew?s masterful scenario which sees the Mycenaean palaces destroyed by forces from the fringes of the Mycenaean world. In the second, while keeping an open mind about the identification of Atlantis, they do not scorn the quest for the substantiation of the myth.
Refreshingly and very appropriately, the authors do not conclude on a note of historical ?ifs and buts?. In the last chapter (?Last reflections?), the significance of the natural environment, which has been an underlying theme throughout the earlier chapters, is further acknowledged and stressed, both landscape and human societies being seen as dynamic and their interaction as the basis of development and progress.
Finally, the authors? aim that this book would also function as a travel companion to Prehistoric Greece comes to the fore in chapter seven (?A Tour of the Principal Monuments of Prehistoric Greece?) and in Appendix C (?Planning an Archaeological Tour of Greece?). Again, their major contribution is particularly to have put the Stone Age sites and museum collections on the archaeological itinerary. The authors are justifiably brief about the Bronze Age sites, since several guidebooks include them in suggested itineraries, although the author of this review (unlike the authors of the book) would have included Lerna in the Argolid and the Mycenaean ?Palace of Nestor? at Pylos (with the nearby museum at Chora) among the highly recommended Bronze Age sites to visit. Appendix C is not only useful but most entertaining: the authors give advice about touring around Greece based on their personal experiences, including suggestions about what to eat and how to dress. The visitor is encouraged to travel by car, but one wonders how many will dare to do so after reading about the temperament of Greek drivers, the prevailing ?traffic anarchy? (their words), and roads where one may encounter any number of the twenty-two unexpected items (of the animate and inanimate variety) listed.
In conclusion, this is a delightful book which will be useful and enjoyable reading for many people, and which more than fulfils its aims. As a highly authoritative and up-to-date work, its readership should extend to students, including students of Classical Archaeology, as well as to classicists, often wary of the notion of ?Prehistory?.