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Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Aegean Prehistory and Greek Heroic Tradition

July 2007 (111.3)

Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Aegean Prehistory and Greek Heroic Tradition

By Margalit Finkelberg. Pp. xv + 203, figs. 31, maps 5. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005. $85. ISBN 10-0-521-85216-1 (cloth).


In this valuable little book, Finkelberg covers a variety of Aegean topics from the Middle Bronze Age through the Archaic period. A prominent theme is the birth of a nation, the millennium-long evolution of the self-identity of those people whom we call the ancient Greeks.

Many other problems—some peripheral to the theme of Greek ethnicity—are illuminated along the way, and Finkelberg’s wealth of information and her refreshing insights will make the book a resource for scholars in a number of subdisciplines. Although Finkelberg’s own specialties are linguistics and the literature and myths of early Greece, she has kept herself informed about the archaeological record and uses it to good effect. The result is an impressive synthesis of linguistic, literary, and material evidence.

In chapter 2, “The Heterogeneity of Greek Genealogy,” Finkelberg shows that when the Hellenic identity was constructed in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., common descent was given a lower priority than has been supposed. An eponymous Hellen was invented as the ancestor of most Hellenes, but not of all, as “Hellenes by convention” were united with “Hellenes by nature.” Of special interest for readers of the AJA will be chapter 3, “The Pre-Hellenic Substratum Reconsidered.” Here Finkelberg presents a strong case that until the arrival of Greek, the inhabitants of both the eastern and western shores of the Aegean, and of the islands between, spoke dialects of (or cognates to) the language of the Linear A tablets. The evidence, especially from placenames, is in her opinion sufficient to say that these dialects or languages belonged to the Anatolian family and so were distant relatives of Luwian, Hittite, and Palaic. A notorious predecessor of Finkelberg in advocating this thesis was Leonard Palmer, whose ideas were for a variety of reasons rejected. Since Palmer’s time, other parts of the puzzle have fallen into place. Although Finkelberg does not try to date the arrival of the pre-Greek language, there is today some reason to believe that it evolved from a language spoken in the eighth or seventh millennium B.C.E. by settlers from southeastern Anatolia who brought a Neolithic economy to Greece, to Crete, and to other islands.

Finkelberg rightly points out that, with the exception of Phrygian, all the languages of western Anatolia belonged to the Anatolian family: Lydian, Lycian, and—as has recently been established by J.D. Ray—even Carian. It may well be, as she suggests (49–50), that Etruscan, too, was a remotely Anatolian language, brought to Italy with the beginnings of agriculture. This would revise what Renfrew proposed in Archaeology and Language (London 1987). Although Finkelberg, like Renfrew, refers to the Anatolian languages as Indo-European, future discussion would be clarified if we use the term “Indo-Hittite” rather than “Indo-European” for them. Arguments from various perspectives are converging to show that not only is the Indo-Hittite theory of Edgar Sturtevant essentially correct, to the dismay of many Indo-Europeanists, but also that Proto-Indo-Hittite was originally spoken in Anatolia, something that Sturtevant never imagined. The article by Gray and Atkinson (“Language-Tree Divergence Times Support the Anatolian Theory of Indo-European Origin,” Nature 426 [2003] 435–39) cited by Finkelberg is only the latest (and not the most lucid) of a number of studies pointing to that conclusion.

Chapters 6 and 7, on the spread of the Greek language and the end of the Bronze Age, will also be of considerable interest to Aegeanists. In a detailed study of the isoglosses that link the Greek dialects, Finkelberg finds that “at the end of the Bronze Age the breaches in the dialect continuum unequivocally demonstrate the intrusive character of Doric and other West Greek dialects” (143) and so confirm the literary tradition of the so-called Dorian invasion.

Quite aware that little archaeological evidence supports the invasion, Finkelberg counters that when solid evidence provided by one discipline is met by an argumentum ex silentio from another, the burden of proof should lie with the deniers of the Dorian invasion (145). Less convincing is her treatment of the more parochial dialects. She believes that all of the historical dialects were spoken already in the Late Bronze Age. Assuming that ca. 2000 B.C.E., Greek tribes brought the Greek language to Greece, Finkelberg attempts to trace the splintering of Proto-Greek into many dialects, and to find where in the Greek mainland each of the dialects might have been spoken during the Late Helladic (LH) period. It is difficult to believe that before 1200 B.C.E., Pamphylian was spoken in Achaia Phthiotis, Cretan in southeastern Thessaly, and Lesbian in Boiotia. A more economical explanation for these dialects, pioneered by Porzig and Risch, would be that they arose in situ—in Pamphylia, Crete, and Lesbos—during the Early Iron Age, having been brought there by west (or north) Greek speakers from the Greek mainland.

A compelling argument, developed in detail (152–60), relates the LH IIIC 1b pottery found at several sites in the southern Levant to the so-called Philistine ware into which it evolved, and to the demonstration that the LH IIIC 1b pottery was locally made. In an understatement, Finkelberg notes that it is doubtful whether the impact of this discovery has been fully realized by archaeologists working in Greece or Israel. As I tried to show (“Canaanites and Philistines,” JSOT 81 [1998] 39–61), and as Finkelberg here makes very clear, the native language of the immigrant potters was very likely Mycenaean Greek. She notes that few scholars have been inhibited from identifying as Greeks the refugees who made the same kind of LH IIIC pottery in Cyprus. In contrast, discussion of the pottery at Ashdod, Ashkelon, and other nearby sites is more tentative and “uses the vague ‘Aegean’ rather than the unambiguous ‘Achaean’ or ‘Greek’ when referring to the cultural background of Philistines” (155).

On some topics treated in this book—matrilineal descent, for example, and the nature of queenship in the Bronze Age Aegean—Finkelberg may be too optimistic about the value of the Greek myths. Other readers will find other points on which to disagree because many of Finkelberg’s positions are original and all of them are stated clearly. The topics on which she is convincing, however, are many and important. Her grasp of the primary evidence is impressive, and her familiarity with the scholarly literature is broad and deep. This is a book worth reading and keeping for anyone trying to understand how it was that by the Archaic period the Greek world and “the Greeks” came to be what they were.

Robert Drews
Department of Classicical studies
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tennessee, 37235

Book Review of Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Aegean Prehistory and Greek Heroic Tradition, by Margalit Finkelberg

Reviewed by Robert Drews

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (July 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1113.Drews

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