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generally applies to the people living during the Bronze Age in lands bordering
the Aegean Sea. The area predominantly included Greece, Macedonia, Thrace,
and the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. It also encompasses the islands of Crete,
Rhodes, Cyclades, Sporades and others. The general time frame is between
2800 BC to 1100 BC but sometimes extends the Stone Age cultures of the area.
Of most vital interest are the Greek legends and epics which later evolved
between 850 to 323 BC. The earlier legends are somewhat vague in that they
fail to recognize and detail the first inhabitants on the area who later
became the Grecian population. All that is left of the early people are
a few preclassical architectural remains, notably the walls of fortification
around Mycenae, Tiryns, and Athens. The masonry of such structures was believed
by the classical Greeks to have been raised by superhuman beings or the
Cyclopes from which originated the term "cyclopean masonry."
Also discovered were the tholos or "beehive" tombs, of which the
most impressive is the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae. If any documents of
the Bronze Age survived later generations were unable to decipher. There
was one official doctrine in some states that declares the Greek population
had been autochthonnous (sprung from the soil). Speculation concerning the
pre-Grecian stratum was not encouraged so no systematic history remains.
Both the Greek states and prominent families preserved the gallant deeds
of their predecessors. Among these are the Voyage of the Argonauts, the
War of the Seven against Thebes, the war between the Achaeans (also known
as the Argives or the Danai) of the Greek mainland and the inhabitants of
the city in Asia Minor known as Ilium or Troy, the exploits of Hercules (Heracles) and of Theseus, and the Return of the Heraclidae. Families kept genealogies
that professed to record continuous lines of descent from ancestors who
had traveled to Colchis with Jason or had participated in the fighting at Troy. From such
material minstrels composed lengthy narrative poems called epics. The names
and synopses of fifteen or so epics have survived, of which two, the Iliad
and the Odyssey, are the best known. These two legends have survived
in their entirety and are laden with myth and saga.
The epics which passed among the early Grecians were said to be the history
of early Greek. However, when used for dating events they proved to lack
accuracy. Eratosthenes assigned the date for the fall of Troy as about 1183
BC while the Parian marble, on which events in Greek history were inscribed,
gives about 1209 BC.
There has been much debate as to whether the epics were fictional or factual.
In early classical studies they were thought to be mostly fictional. The
composition of the Odyssey with its supernatural monsters, sorceresses,
visit to Hell, and repeated divine intervention does little to refute the
fictional charge. But, on the other hand, the Iliad appears more
factual since it fixes within close geographical limits the scene of a certain
military operation, near the Dardanelles, and to contain circumstantial
references to coastlines, streams, fortification walls and gates, the view
from the heights, the palace of the ruling prince, and other things which
might be identified and located.
Many artifacts have been discovered by archaeologists. Heinrich Schliemann
(1822-1890) contributed much to the knowledge of the Aegeans. He was thoroughly
convinced after reading the Iliad that the story portrayed the location
where the buried city of Troy might be found. He retired from business and
traveled to the mound known locally as Hissarlik in Asia Minor. There digging
begun on what was later known as Schliemann's Seven Cities of Troy. These
were seven levels containing evidence of previous occupation. It was only
in one of the lowest levels where he discovered a splendid gold treasury
and declared that he had found the treasure of Priam, which had been hidden
during the sacking of Troy. But, since he was an amateur Schlimann met much
skepticism until he uncovered the prehistoric circle graves of Mycenae and
linked Tiryns and the tholos tomb of Orchomenos to the same culture. His
assistant and successor Wilhelm Dorpfeld continued the work and found further
evidence to link this region to the legend, a work which Schliemann is now
given credit for as having begun.
Excavations have continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries which
have given many artifacts including buildings, and hieroglyphic scripts
that have increased our knowledge of the history and language of these ancient
Source: Jotham Johnson,
New York University 61.