But beyond that most of what we regard as historical truth is defined by the agreement of historians. There are plenty of things we think we know about which can be contradicted when new evidence is discovered. Only this morning I heard on the radio that the site of the Battle of Hastings is now in dispute.
Closer to my own interests, there is one bit of history that experts have never been able to agree upon. Until the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavating the supposed site of the city of Troy people believed that the story of the Trojan War was just a legend. Schliemann proved that not only had Troy existed, but it had been destroyed and rebuilt many times. He then moved on to excavate Mycenae, the city of Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, and found evidence of a rich and sophisticated society, where the palaces were decorated with beautiful frescoes and the dead were buried with their faces covered by masks of beaten gold. Yet for three thousand years, the only indication that Mycenae had ever existed was the Lion Gate which was still visible above the ruins.
What happened to destroy Mycenae and its associated cities so completely that they were consigned to the realm of myth? The first clues came when Carl Blegen from the university of Cincinnati began to excavate the city of Pylos on the west coast of the Peloponnese. Pylos was the fabled city of King Nestor, who plays a large role in the Iliad. Sure enough, Blegen uncovered the remains of a palace and surrounding buildings situated on top of the hill of Epano Englianos. It was a sumptuous building, with a wide courtyard leading to a colonnaded portico that gave entrance to the megaron, the main hall and throne room of Nestor and his descendants. In the centre of the room was a circular ceremonial hearth and the floor, walls and ceiling were decorated with coloured patterns and beautiful frescoes depicting animals and sea creatures and in one place a seated figure playing a lyre. It had obviously been the centre of a rich and cultivated society, but the evidence showed that it had been destroyed in a great conflagration, some two or three generations after Nestor's time.
Among the ruins were many clay tablets incised in an unknown script. What surprised the archaeologists was that similar tablets had been discovered in the ruins of Knossos on Crete. It had been assumed that there was no connection between the Minoans of Crete and the Achaeans of Mycenae and Pylos. In Knossos the tablets were written in two different scripts at different periods, but no one was able to read them. They were known simply as Linear A and Linear B. The Pylos tablets were written in Linear B. The question was, in what language? Had the Minoans come to Pylos? Or had the Achaeans gone to Crete? It was not until two Englishmen, Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, cracked the code that an answer emerged. To everyone's surprise, the language proved to be an early form of Greek.
Most of the tablets are simply bureaucratic records of taxes received, in the form of wheat or olive oil or wine, and items given out, like seed corn. But in the highest and therefore most recent layer they tell a very different story. They carry orders for a census to be made of all the chariots in the kingdom and those that required it to be repaired; for ships to assemble at a point off the coast; for watchers to be sent north to towns along the coast; even for the bronze votive vessels from the temples to be requisitioned and melted down – presumably to be made into weapons. It is clear that Pylos was preparing for an invasion. The layer immediately above these tablets shows evidence of a devastating fire. Among the ruins are crushed jars which once contained olive oil, which presumably helped to fuel the conflagration, together with fragments of ivory and delicately painted cups and vases. Clearly, when the attack came the Pylians were unable to withstand it.
As soon as Linear B was decoded a great dispute began among scholars and archaeologists. Some maintained that the Minoans must have been Greeks after all. Others that the Mycenean Greeks must have conquered Knossos and imposed their language. Others again suggested that it was the Minoans who had come to Greece and were the founders of the Mycenean civilisation. To my knowledge the argument has never been settled.
As far as I am concerned, the answer is unimportant. What excited me about the tablets was the evidence they provided that Pylos was preparing for an invasion – an invasion which finally destroyed the city. How that happened is the basis for my novel THE LAST HERO.
About Hilary GreenOK, let’s get one thing out of the way straight off – the one thing everyone wants to hear about. I was once embraced by 007!
It was a long time ago, admittedly, and he wasn’t 007 then, but I am the teacher who gave Daniel Craig his first acting experience. I won’t say I guided his first steps. It was more a question of standing back in amazement and watching it all happen, because Daniel never need much instruction. It was all there from the start, the charisma, the command of the stage, the instinctive grasp of character, but I like to think my encouragement helped him along the way. For more abou Hilary Green Click Here