This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
“From the Trojan Expedition until the battle of Marathon the Greeks seem to have done nothing either at home or abroad worth mentioning.” –Zosimus, New History 1.2 (transl. Ronald T. Ridley)
Not so long ago, the sentiment the Greek historian Zosimus expressed around 500 AD was not uncommon in scholarship of the ancient world. If one translates “the Trojan Expedition” as “the Bronze Age” and accept some flexibility about the Archaic Period (ca. 700 to 489 BC, i.e. including the battle of Marathon), his comment covers almost the entire period that is known among ancient historians as the “dark age”.
The idea of the “dark age” began to emerge as the chronology of Mycenaean and “Dipylon” (i.e. Late Geometric) pottery was figured out in the late nineteenth century. Subsequent excavations not only confirmed this picture but added to it: the decipherment of Linear B showed that the Greek language had not only been spoken in Late Bronze Age Greece, but that it was written down in a completely unrelated way to the Greek alphabet, which is first known in the eighth century BC.
The dark age has, however, become much more popular over the last half-century. In the 1970s three scholars in particular contributed to the elucidation of the period and our historical understanding of it. Anthony Snodgrass’s The Dark Age of Greece was first published in 1971, surveying the entire period from the eleventh to the eighth century BC; the following year V.R.d’A. Desborough’s The Greek Dark Ages focused on the eleventh and tenth centuries, the “Protogeometric” Period; while in 1977 J.N. Coldstream’s Geometric Greece covered the latter two centuries. Anglophone scholarship in particular has followed their lead ever since.
The term “dark age” was initially adopted on the analogy with medieval Europe, with the eighth-century BC acting as a “renaissance” in Greek history as the Greeks discovered their Bronze Age past. The pejorative connotations of the term mean that medievalists and archaeologists have reacted against the term; for this period of Greek history “Early Iron Age” is now usually preferred. When teaching, however, I have often found that this term also leads to some confusion, as there is no “Middle” or “Late” Iron Age in Greece once we reach historically defined periods (i.e. the Archaic and Classical, from 700 BC).
While it is important to understand how terminology affects our understanding of periods of history, the dark age would not be worth studying if the most interesting thing about it were arguments about what we call the period.
The dark age begins with a civilisational collapse: the destruction of the Mycenaean Palaces. Or so it is normally understood. Certainly, around 1200 BC, the buildings we know as the Mycenaean Palaces are destroyed and there is a significant change in social organization in Greece.
But the scale and substance of that change depends on where you look. Mycenae itself certainly declines. Messenia in the south-west Peloponnese is largely abandoned (you may know it as the region from which the Pylos Combat Agate comes). But at the (former) palatial site of Tiryns, very near Mycenae, there appears to be substantial growth, and the same phenomenon is noticed at Achaia in the north-west Peloponnese and in the Euboean gulf. Mycenaean culture, in terms of pottery style, shapes, and burial practices, seems more resilient in this period than we might expect.
Nevertheless, around a century later something has changed. When we reach the period of Desborough’s book (beginning ca. 1100-1050 BC) it seems that Mycenaean civilisation is well and truly over. The most significant indicators – largely because of the nature of our evidence – is that burial customs change. It is around this period that the Athenian Kerameikos becomes a cemetery and that cremation becomes a much more widely known burial custom.
What we also see more generally we might consider a kind of recovery. For all that the eighth century seems to be an explosion of Greek culture, what we see is undoubtedly building upon several centuries of activity. Mycenaean civilization may have “collapsed”, but the people of Greece survived and rebuilt. The Early Iron Age is, in this way, a kind of success story. It offers hope that “collapse” is not the end, and can in fact be the start of something new.
This sequence of events requires some acknowledgement of theory to be useful. Responses to disasters are a matter of human agency. Understanding that what we see in the twelfth century and later are the responses of human beings to the changing world around them helps us to understand how groups survived what appears to be the collapse of their entire world. They will be responding to events beyond their control – the collapse of the eastern Mediterranean empires – by making choices rooted in what their culture and society have taught them. What we see for the most part is human resilience, and survival. (This observation was inspired by two sources. More directly, O’Brien 2017 discusses the use of “resilience theory” to explain responses to the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces. However, just before reading that paper I read Welsh 2016, who emphasises that in understanding the tectonic events at the end of the Cold War in AD 1989 we must emphasise not “inevitability” (as in Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The end of history”) and rather on “the interplay between tectonic forces, the actions of individual agents, and sheer accident”.)
Or at least, so it seems. For one thing, we are not completely certain how far the influence of the Mycenaean palaces was felt across Greece as a whole. In a period defined, in part, by the limitations of the material, part of what we can learn is that we do not know everything.
Knowing that you don’t know
“I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” –Plato, Apology 21d (spoken by Socrates; transl. G.M.A. Grube)
In a recent Twitter conversation about Minoan Crete, I commented that it was strange to favour literally any explanation for an archaeological phenomenon over the idea that we don’t know something, and do not have the means of knowing. (The conversation-haver blogged about it.) I developed this position on reading this sentence by Gregory F. Viggiano: “There is simply no reason to retreat to the position that we cannot know” (Viggiano 2013). But the point is not usually that we cannot know; rather, it is that we do not know. For a period that is largely prehistoric, it does not seem to me that “not knowing” is an unreasonable position.
One aspect of “not knowing” is understanding what Anthony Snodgrass calls the “positivist fallacy”. This fallacy is the belief that events that we can see in the archaeological record correspond to those that are historically important. Understanding the processes by which the archaeological record is created is an important element of countering this fallacy. (The science fiction writer Malka Older coined the term “narrative disorder” in her novel Infomocracy (2016) to describe a similar phenomenon: the tendency to build narratives into everyday situations and expect life to follow cultural tropes.)
The counterpoint to this agnosticism is that there are some things that we do know. Reading Oliver Dickinson’s survey of the EIA, The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age (2006), I was stuck by his unwillingness to say anything with any certainty. It struck me that his skepticism is highly cynical, his conclusion usually that the evidence we have is insufficient for us to conclude anything. It is an easy argument to make, because one of the defining characteristics of the Early Iron Age for many is the paucity of evidence, especially for settlements.
In contrast, other skeptical historians of early Greece such as Jonathan Hall (A History of Archaic Greece; 2014) and Robin Osborne (Greece in the Making; 2010) offer a different solution. Rather than focusing on what we cannot know, they emphasise that we simply need to ask different questions of the evidence we actually have. This approach, to think about the evidence that we do have in different ways that produce results, is a much better reason to study this period: focusing on the positives, rather than the negatives.
Challenging Greek exceptionalism
“But this does not necessarily make it any easier to fulfil the ‘urgent task’ identified by Snodgrass, to explain why, for such a relatively long period, the people of Greece were so unambitious materially, when they had supported cultures of marked achievement earlier and would do so again ( 2000, p. xxxii).” –Oliver Dickinson, The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age (2006, p. 238), citing Snodgrass, The Dark Age of Greece (second edition 2000).
Greek history has had a monumental impact on the world as a whole, both positive and negative. At times, it seems as if the Classical Greeks, particularly of the fifth century BC, are exalted to such heights as to be semi-divine in their own right. This may not be a particularly scholarly approach, but it is one with cultural currency, particularly among those who believe “Western Civilization” to be superior to others. (This article by Donna Zuckerburg in Eidolon is a good starting place for understanding the relationship between Classics and White Supremacy.)
Less prominent, but certainly spectacular, is the Bronze Age history of Greece, particularly of Mycenae and the other palatial centres. Between artefacts such as the “Mask of Agamemnon”, monuments like the Lion’s Gate and Tholos tombs, and more recently beautiful agates with exquisite detail, mean that the achievements of Bronze Age Greece are easily understood.
The dark age, however, has no such spectacular achievements. Certainly, there are beautiful objects like the Lefkandi Centaur, the vases of the Dipylon workshop, and the gold earrings in the grave of a rich Athenian lady. But this a period in which the most monumental building we know may have been demolished because it was incapable of supporting itself; in which many regions of Greece produce so little evidence that we cannot tell whether they were inhabited.
Snodgrass and Dickinson phrase this as a problem. Their solution is a massive population drop. It may be correct. Once again, I prefer to follow Jonathan Hall and ask the question “whose dark age?” The achievements of the Bronze Age and Classical Period belong to particular subsets of the population: elites, often men. With the collapse of the Mycenaean Palaces, the rest of the population may have gone on with their lives with limited interruption. After all, the people of dark age Greece probably had little idea about the achievements behind them, and no idea about those that were in front of them. (How much they knew about their Bronze Age past is of course a matter of dispute: elements of it influenced the epic poetry that, in certain regions of Greece, would have been performed throughout the dark age. Nevertheless, the details – the walls that became known as Cyclopean, the fantastic metal- and stonework – largely do not seem to have been appreciated.)
I do not aim here to undermine the achievements of Classical Greece, not even Mycenaean Greece. Only to show that they did not spring up because the Greeks were in any way special or unique; but rather they were the end result of an extremely long formative period. That the ancient Greeks were not exceptional and did, in fact, experience prolonged periods in which they achieved very little.
The problem is that we are accustomed to expect Greek history to be exceptional, rather than expecting it to be human. This means that its exceptional achievements become blasé, and its regular behaviour becomes disappointing. If we are careful, the dark age can be a corrective to this belief. It reminds us that in Greek history there are prolonged periods where everyone got on with the business of living, with all the ups and downs that entails. It can remind us that the Greeks were human.
But still… it contains the origins of Greek culture
If I might have my cake and eat it too: one of the attractions of the Early Iron Age is that it contains the seeds of that prestigious Classical culture. It is difficult to look at the Lefkandi Centaur, with it’s wounded leg that suggests narrative, perhaps that of Chiron, the wounded centaur who trained Achilles, without some excitement. To look at the metal urn burials at Lefkandi, Eretria, and on Cyprus, and to speculate which came first, these burials or their epic equivalents Achilles, Hector, and Patroclus.
Here, again, is the point: that the seed of Greek culture in this so-called dark age is present in a society that is rich or magnificent only insofar as it compares to some of its contemporaries, across the Mediterranean but also in Greece. But within this relatively impoverished period there is humanity and agency, and people who are making something wonderful, as their ancestors had done and their descendants would do on a grander scaler.
But where that seed lies is not just in Greece, but rather in those regions of Greece that are interactive, plugged into a Mediterranean network that is recovering and expanding after the Bronze Age “collapse”. Here, in what seems to be the darkest point of Greek history, we see the importance of communication and cross-cultural interaction in growing and becoming something great. It is not Greece alone that blooms into the Classical Period, but a region that understood the importance of interacting with other cultures and societies, of travel, of adaptation.
“The Dark Age of Greece is our conception.” –James Whitley, Style and society in Dark Age Greece (1991, p. 5).
As Whitley said, the idea of a Greek “dark age” is based on the modern perspective; but it is also comparative, relative, and, as others have also argued, rather arbitrarily defined. This perspective is not necessarily a problem, as I have said: it is useful for us to understand that not every period of history needs to be exceptional. The so-called dark age may be better understood not as an exception that needs explanation, but as a variation within the rules.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to study the Early Iron Age on its own terms. It helps us to understand the questions that we need to ask and to reformulate our ideas about what we can and cannot know. It shows us that a culture does not have to be spectacular to be interesting, informative, and exciting. It reminds us that the people of the past, like the people of the present, are human too.
By focusing mainly on surveys of the Early Iron Age, the works referenced have primarily been those written by male scholars. I should also mention the more recent synthesis of the eleventh and tenth centuries BC by my DPhil supervisor, Irene Lemos, The Protogeometric Aegean (2002); also the collection of essays that covers a wide range of subjects from the Late Bronze Age through the Early Iron Age, edited by Irene Lemos and Sigrid Deger-Jalkotzy, Ancient Greece: From the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer (2006).