May 3 lecture notes: Class 2: Greek Civilization
archaeology: the systematic study of the past through discovery and interpretation of material remains.
Mesopotamia: now = Iraq, encompassing the paired river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates. A seedbed of
early civilization, Mesopotamia hosted the Bronze Age cultures of Sumer and Akkad or Babylon. These
people were not Greek, but the name Mesopotamia (“the land between the rivers”) happens to come to us
from the Greek language.
1) The ugly underside of Indo-European studies
Textbook page 21 middle
The lecture began with comment on the 1930s–1940s Nazi appropriation of aspects of Indo-European
studies, which were used to support Nazi crackpot theories of racial supremacy: The Nordic Europeans
supposedly were the “true” Indo-European descendants.
The background of the Nazi swastika was explained as being the ancient, venerable symbol of a turning
wheel, evidently an age-old Indo-European design, used in ancient artwork from Greece and India and
known in Sanskrit as a svastika, (meaning “lucky” or “auspicious” or “good magic”). This fact explains why
the innocent swastika symbol can sometimes be seen on Greek Geometric vase-painting, such as at textbook
2) Our sources of knowledge about the ancient Greeks
Textbook pp. 1–6
(i) Written sources: ancient “primary sources” and modern “secondary sources”.
(ii) Durable materials, preserved in the ground or under water, to be uncovered and studied by the modern
science of archaeology.
In May 3 class, students gave the following examples of durable materials that might survive from ancient
times: stone building remnants, the metal parts of tools and weapons, and pottery. Statistically, the most
important of these is pottery. Pottery is made of ceramic, sometimes also called terra-cotta, which means
“clay hardened by controlled firing in a kiln.” Besides pots, ceramic also could provide building-tiles,
figurines, and primitive appliances like cauldrons and ovens.
Pottery takes on huge importance for world archaeology, due to pottery’s (a) commonplace use and (b)
durability: Although a pot can easily be shattered, the fragments will last 10,000 years once buried
underground. Not every ancient settlement has a stone palace or temple to offer to the modern
archaeologist. But in the Near East and eastern Mediterranean, every settlement since about 6000 B.C. has
left behind a trove of pottery fragments—sometimes buried in trash pits by the ancient inhabitants
themselves after the pots had broken by accident.
Modern scholars can analyze the fragments and try to reconstruct the original pottery, which can yield
information about the inhabitants’ lifestyle and technologies. Laboratory tests including “rehydroxylation”
and “thermoluminescence” can reveal the approximate date of the clay’s firing, while chemical analysis of a
ceramic sample and artistic analysis of the reconstructed pot can reveal whether the pot was produced locally
or acquired from elsewhere.
Eventually, facts like these can lead “upward” to more-general pictures of trade routes and industries in the
One example of an overview that pottery can provide: Starting in the 1700s A.D., huge quantities of a specific
style of beautiful ancient painted pottery (in fragments) was discovered in excavations in Italy, in Tuscany and
1 May 3 lecture notes: Class 2: Greek Civilization
Umbria, north of Rome. That region in the 600s–400s B.C. had belonged to a powerful ancient people called
the Etruscans, who were neither Greek nor Roman. The initial natural assumption of 1700s historians was
that this abundant pottery had been the Etruscans’ manufacture.
However, subsequent study revealed that the pottery had come mostly from the Greek city of Corinth,
in the 600s B.C. That is, the Etruscans were importing vast amounts of Greek pottery—which is to say they
must have been importing vast amounts of other Greek goods, such as wine (which would have been inside
some of those pots), textiles, jewelry, perfumes, wooden furniture, armour, etc. Of all those ancient goods,
only pottery fragments remained in the Italian earth to tell the tale. This is how it works generally: Pottery
survives as a small indicator of much larger story, which we supply partly by guesswork.
Not every ancient Greek pot had a painted scene on it. But where such painted scenes do survive, they can
yield precious extra info about daily life or mythology etc. in ancient times. See for example the scene posted
in the “Greek Pottery” module here on Virtual Campus, of men harvesting olives, from an Athenian vase of
about 520 B.C. Or in our textbook, see the vase-painted battle scene at Plate VIa, in the glossy photo section
after page 134. Scenes like these are highly informative for historians.
It is possible that pottery making was invented in China more than 10,000 years ago. However, for our
course of study, pottery making was reinvented, apparently in Syria around 7000 B.C. It then spread west, to
the eastern Mediterranean including Greece. Pottery making involved the use of kilns, heated by simple
charcoal furnaces: The furnaces themselves might be made of ceramic. The potter’s wheel had arrived by
3000 B.C., invented perhaps in Mesopotamia.
3) The Mycenaean Civilization of mainland Greece: circa 1600–1200 B.C.
Textbook pp. 13–15, 25–38
In 1876 A.D., a wealthy retired German businessman and amateur archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann
began excavating at the site of Mycenae (Greek Mukēnai) in the northeastern Peloponnese. At the time that
Schliemann’s crews began digging, Mycenae showed only some minor visible ancient ruins above ground.
A long-time admirer of the ancient Greek poet Homer and his poems the Iliad and Odyssey, Schliemann was
working to prove that the poems were based on fact and that the site of Mycenae could support Homer’s
mythical image of a powerful King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Although we today would say it’s dubious that
Schliemann proved that Agamemnon had actually existed, what Schliemann did quickly prove was that
Mycenae had been the site of a rich and powerful Bronze Age kingdom: He found tombs filled with treasure
(since dated to about 1550–1500 B.C.) and massive walls (of huge limestone blocks, fitted without mortar,
dating to about 1400–1300 B.C.). Schliemann named this society the “Mycenaean Civilization,” based on his
findings at Mycenae.
Subsequent studies have proved beyond doubt that these “Mycenaeans” were Greeks: They spoke Greek—
we know this because their extant writings are in Greek—and they worshipped much the same gods of
The term “Mycenaean”: The name “Mycenaean” can confuse by possibly meaning two things at once.
Technically the word means “of the city Mycenae”, but more normally it means “of this Bronze Age Greek
civilization”. Thus if we say that “Pylos was a Mycenaean city,” we mean that Pylos was a city of this general
civilization—not that Pylos was inhabited specifically by people from the city of Mycenae or similar.
The Mycenaean Civilization arose in around 1600 B.C. By about 1300 B.C., the main Mycenaean sites had
evolved into small cities that were basically fortified palaces, a bit like medieval castles. Our textbook page 29
map shows many Mycenaean sites.
2 May 3 lecture notes: Class 2: Greek Civilization
Four Mycenaean sites seem to have been preeminent, in that each was (apparently) the capital city of a
separate kingdom. So, perhaps four major Mycenaean kingdoms. Each of these controlled a major farming
plain. Also, not by coincidence, each of these four cities features prominently in extant Greek mythology.
(a) in southern Greece, in the northeast-central Peloponnese, on the plain of Argos, there was the
complex of Mycenae-Tiryns-Argos. Mycenae was obviously the capital, and its kingdom was the
strongest of the four kingdoms, judging from its concentration of treasure as discovered by
Schliemann. Tiryns would have been Mycenae’s fortified harbour-city. In Greek mythology,
Mycenae and Tiryns would be associated with the heroes Perseus, Heracles, and Agamemnon.
(b) in the southwestern Peloponnese, the city Pylos, on the plain of Messenia. In Homer’s Iliad and
Odyssey, Pylos would be associated with the mythical King Nestor.
(c) in the central Greece, on the plain of Boeotia [pronounced “bee-O-sha”], the city of Thebes. A
secondary site, Orchomenus, at the opposite end of the plain, may have been Thebes’ disadvantaged
rival or enemy. Greek mythology holds the tradition of conflict between Thebes and Orchomenus:
In myth, Heracles was born at Thebes and, as a young man, aided his native city against
Orchomenus. Meanwhile, other Greek myths preserve the tradition—perhaps historically true,