We had a second helping from Oliver Dickinson this morning, on Homer, archaeology and history.
Taking Homeric archaeology during mods at Oxford was what started him on Homer, apparently.
This April in Athens, OD heard from a lecturer about the discovery
of a Hittite epic from the 13th century BC about the siege and capture
of a town in Syria. In it the gods support both sides. An Underworld
goddess seduces the storm god to distract him from the fighting. The
epic was apparently published in 2000. The lecturer who mentioned it
said that the Myceneans could have heard it, and so influenced the
Greek epic tradition. Hde also suggested there there might have been
epics written in linear B, an idea which OD rejects.
OD told us that he knows more about the Trojan War than Michael
Wood, having studied it all his life. The 'Mycenean' interpretation of
Homer has had a long run. Till the 1960s scholars thought that Homer
was based on Mycenean history. Finlay disagreed. In the journal Greece
and Rome in ?1986 OD wrote an article on Homer, whom he called 'the
poet of the dark age'. In their references to customs and artifacts the
epics reflect Homer's own time, the 8th cent BC, not the Mycenean age.
The theme of this lecture is that Homer is about the dark age, not a
heroic age. Epic is a fantasy, in which reality keeps breaking through.
Whether there was a real Trojan War is a different question. The
vividness of the world created by poets leads people to think it's a
real world. But The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter present
realistic worlds which are not real.
On the Trojan War, the question is not whether there were wars over
Troy, which there probably were, but whether there was a 10 year siege
and the events described in the Iliad. The site now known as Hissarlik
was believed by later Greeks and Romans to be Ilion. But all earlier
writings about the site of Troy are now made obsolete by the latest
discovery of an extensive lower town 10 hectares in extent or more.
Troy really was a big city, not just the citadel that Schliemann
excavated. Material from Cyprus found in Troy (and vice versa) shows
that it was a centre of trade, with strong ties to the Mycenean world.
Mycenean-type pottery found there, however, is locally made, not
When we try to fit the Iliad story into the geography of Troy, there
are problems. The plain to the north of Hissarlik where fighting is
said to have taken place was, in the bronze age, a shallow lagoon.
Michael Wood's idea of the Greeks anchoring in a modern port is
unlikely – it is too far from the fighting.
Was Troy VIIa Homer's Troy? No. Troy VIIa lasted for many decades,
and the storage jars buried in the floors were not a panic measure in
preparation for a siege. So-called evidence of the sack of the city
consists of a single arrowhead, said to be Mycenean but really of a
common type, and one skeleton (probably an earthquake victim).
Michael Wood says Homer's Troy was Troy 6 – but that was destroyed
by an earthquake. What of the general plausibility of the tradition?
The motive given by the Greeks is not likely – war over an abducted
woman. It is not, however, impossible. Family troubles could lead to
war. In the middle east of those days it is recorded that a king of one
country sent his wife back to her parents in Amurru, because of some
major crime, perhaps adultery. Later he changed his mind and demanded
her return, so that he could punish her further; his action nearly led
Sieges of the period did not last long. It was hard to keep armies
fed for long. So a 10 year siege could hardly have happened. Modern
explanations offered to account for the war as Homer tells it are more
myth-making. One such explanation claims that there was a Mycenean
superpower in Asia Minor. While there was a Hittite city Wilusa, which
may or may not have been Ilion, the Acheava are not Achaeans. The
Greeks knew nothing of the Hittites, which they would have done if
Achaeans and Trojans had been in contact. We are talking of the 13th
cent BC. There is no evidence that the Myceneans were concerned with
some trade with the Black Sea, to which Troy was a barrier.
Does the picture of life in Homer reflect Mycenean daily life?
Archaeologists and others wanted to believe so. They leaned heavily on
views of oral tradition. Milman Parry's theory that Homer was composed
in oral style has been generally accepted. OD is worried that the fact
that material came from an oral tradition is taken to mean that it is
necessarily true. Tradition is there to validate the present situation
by reference to the past. When conditions change, the tradition
changes. Cf genealogies of Irish Kings. When Brian Boru became
(historical) king, his ancestry was rewritten to validate his position.
It is impossible to square the picture of a peaceful Mycenean state,
as shown by the Linear B tablets, with Homeric society with its
cattle-raiding etc. The walls of Mycenae and Tyrins (the latter took 5
years to build, according to the calculations of a research student)
were status symbols as much as or more than means of defence. The
Myceneans were not the Vikings of the 14th and 13th centuries BC.
The luxury and magnificence of Homeric palaces is from fairy-tale,
not history. Take for example Telemachus' visit to Pylos. Homer's
description of the nobles on their way to a wedding feast in Nestor's
palace driving sheep shows well-to-do peasants; that is realistic; the
gold and silver vessels used at the feast come from a world of fantasy.
In about 1200 BC all the Mycenean palaces were destroyed. There may
have been endemic petty warfare in Mycenean times. Soldiers were buried
with swords. Prestige attached to warfare. A crater fragment shows
warriors carrying 2 spears (as in Homer). Recent Locris finds show a
sea battle. This is all from the post-palatial period. Wealth was shown
by precious objects, eg Tiryns bronze vessels, jewellery, tripods.
Does the Homeric tradition derive from post-palatial period? There
is a mixture of articles from different periods. Some things mentioned
are from the palatial period. What about the use of bronze? Bronze
weapons were still in use till 1000 BC, even down to 900 BC. Some of
the pieces of armour described are old, but these are presented as
Throwing spears come only in the post-palatial period. A 750 BC pot
show these. Shield bosses come from 1100 BC. But much older shields are
said in Homer to have them – there is a mixture of periods.
Descriptions of Homeric houses have been linked with Tiryns etc. But
the reconstructions in books have been influenced by the archaeology,
and so are not true to Homer. For example, Homer describes a back
entrance to the megaron leading to the women's quarters. Such things
are not found in archaeology.
3 things in Homer are definitely post Mycenean:
Women's dresses in Homer are held by pins. But Mycenean dresses were
shaped and sewn. Earrings, found in Homer, went out between 1400 and
9th century. The rich range of beads found in Mycenaen tombs are not
referred to by Homer. Frescoes from Mycenae show rich dresses,
Burial. Cremation in Homer is the norm, followed by the burial of
the ashes in a container in a pit, over which a mound was raised with a
grave marker. This was the early Athenian practice. Known Trojan
cremations were not like this. Bodies were simply put in pits. There
are rich iron age burials in Euboea, some from the 10th century BC.
There were graves of special types and elaborate funeral rituals,
indicating the deceased's high status. For example, a man's ashes have
been found buried in an antique Cypriot bronze crater (100 years old at
the time). A woman covered in gold was buried beside him, and horses
were buried with him in the next grave. A crater was set up over the
grave. This is very near to Patroclus' burial, and it is dated to the
mid 10th century BC. Other graves with such grave goods come from 9th
Religious rituals as described in Homer are most like those of later
Greeks. Odyssey 3 describes a sacrifice most fully. Myceneans did
sometimes have burned sacrifices, but offering a clay figurine was the
commonest method. Many figurines have been found with dedications.
People point out that many Linear B names of gods are known later.
OD points out that others, Apollo, Demeter, Aphrodite, Persephone and
(OD maintains) Athena are absent. 'Podnia' (the name simply means
Mistress) is found in Linear B but not later. Many deities later
disappeared. Frescoes show goddesses, and Linear B mentions male gods.
Olympia and Delphi, though mentioned in Homer, were shrines founded later than the date of the Trojan War.
The poems have iron age traces, but are not an accurate picture of
the iron age. Why didn't Ithaca's assembly meet in Odysseus' absence?
Where were Penelope's relatives, who ought to have taken care of her in
her husband's absence? It's all part of fairytale story, with a little
The catalogue of ships in the Iliad does not give a picture of the
Mycenean world. Mycenean sites have been found all over the place, so
it's not surprising that all the places mentioned were really Mycenean
sites. But the important sites were not mentioned. Homer puts Pylos on
the coast – it's really some way inland. The mention of Athens,
standing for Attica in general, is suspicious. As for Rhodes, the three
cities mentioned are important sites in classical times. Sparta is
mentioned, but has few Mycenean remains. Argolid sites named are those
which are important in archaic to classical times. Why is Argos given
lots of territory? Because it was important later. Mycenae's territory
is put further north, to make space for Argos to have some land. Why
are Boeotians in Boeotia, when Thucydides says they came 50 years after
the Trojan War? Thebes was important in Linear B times, and has Linear
B material. Lists like the catalogue of ships could be changed – the
people of Salamis quoted a different version from the Athenians.
Epic is not bad history, but a poetic creation. Gods appear on
earth. Heroes, monsters, gold and silver vessels, people eating lots of
It's simplest to regard the Homeric epics as great stories and leave it at that.
The speaker has sent some references for further reading:
O. Dickinson, 'Homer, the poet of the Dark Age', Greece and Rome 33 (1986) 20-37; reprinted with corrections and additional comments, in P. Walcot and I. McAuslan, Homer (Greece and Rome Studies, 1998), 19-37.
I. Morris, 'The use and abuse of Homer', in Classical Antiquity 5 (1986) 81‑138.
E.S. Sherratt, ''Reading the texts': archaeology and the Homeric question', Antiquity 64 (1990) 807-24.
Likely to be worth a read if it can be tracked down is J.-P. Crielaard, 'Homer, history and archaeology: some remarks on the date of the Homeric world', in J.-P. Crielaard (ed.), Homeric Questions (Amsterdam 1995) 201‑89. There will be much more relevant stuff in the proceedings of the conference at Edinburgh in Jan. 2003, From Wanax to Basileus, at which I spoke among many others, in fact almost everyone eminent in the “Dark Age”/Homeric arena.
Best discussion of Homeric warfare H. van Wees, 'The Homeric way of war', Greece and Rome 41 (1994), 1‑18, 131‑55 (R.G. Osborne, 367-8 in Greece in the Making 367-8 is still unconvinced that militarily plausible), see also van Wees in CQ 36 (1986) 285‑303, 38 (1988) 1‑24.
Osborne cites most of above and others; I read Geddes in CQ 34 (1984) 17‑36, wasn't entirely convinced.