Wednesday 18 February 2015

The Nature of Archaeology

The National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Those of you who follow my scribblings on a weekly basis will know that last week I had to leave the island in a bit of a hurry and visit the mainland (referred to as Greece in these parts or simply “the up”. Despite Crete being wedded to Greece for 103 years it is still thought of as a foreign country.) I only had the one free day during my visit and you may be forgiven for thinking that I’d have spent it on Lycabettus Hill or the slopes leading up to The Parthenon searching for flora and fauna. Ordinarily I would, of course, but the temperature was only a little above freezing and it was snowing heavily. As the only thing I was likely to find at The Parthenon would have been The Four Norsemen of the Acropolis I did what any self-respecting naturalist would do and scurried indoors. So join me if you will and enter the portals of The National Archaeological Museum and we’ll take a look at the exhibits through naturalists’ eyes.

Minoan Snake Goddess (via Wikipedia)
That nature has influenced man for far longer than man has influenced nature goes without saying so let us travel back in time some three and a half thousand years to the beginning of European civilization. And here we are back on Crete with the Minoan Snake Goddess. She is always depicted holding up a snake in each hand which, people who know about these things say, symbolises new life as the snake appears to be born again when it sloughs its skin. Personally I am not convinced, especially as the experts also say that the animal on her head seems to be an imitation of a panther. Me? I think she’s just having a bad hare day.

Mycaenean Bull's Head (vis Wikipedia)

Moving on a few hundred years, Crete has suffered major destruction from a volcanic eruption on the island of Thera (Santorini) which was four times as big as that on Krakatoa (which incidentally is to the west of Java despite the film title: Krakatoa, East of Java). The Mycaeneans, based on the Peloponnese, have now taken control of Crete, Southern Greece as we know it today and most of the Aegean islands. They borrowed heavily from Minoan culture but dropped the snakes in favour of another animal dear to the Minoan’s hearts, the bull. That is not to say that the Mycaeneans just popped up out of nowhere; this bull’s head, with the magnificent gold horns, lips and intricately worked rosette, was crafted at about the same time as the Snake Goddess. It is merely that the balance of power shifted in the region.


Jumping on a few centuries more and the centre of power has moved to Byzantium (Istanbul) and a new goddess is on the scene; Hecate.  An interesting lady associated with moonlight, witchcraft and pointing the way at crossroads she was well versed in plant lore and is often represented sitting beneath that most magical of trees, the yew, with her trusty hound beside her. So from a natural history perspective the animal symbolism has progressed from snakes to bulls to dogs and thus getting ever more domesticated as history moves forward and plants now begin to put in an appearance. Hecate’s other great claim to fame concerns a story from 340BC. The Byzantines were under siege from Philip of Macedon when a bright light appeared in the sky (possibly a meteor) accompanied by the howling of dogs just as he was mounting a surprise attack. The Byzantines put this down to Hecate, who also included ‘bringer of light’ on her CV, erected a statue to her and minted coins with her head on the obverse and a symbolized star and crescent moon on the reverse and thus the star and crescent symbol was born.

Roman loutrophos with Acanthus leaves

Having trundled our way through the halls of history picking our plants and animals from among the potsherds and artifacts we now come to a riot of Roman relics. Take a look at this massive loutrphoros over here. It’s meant to be a bathwater carrier for use in funerary rites but it looks as if it would take six men to lift it when it was empty. That however is beside the point; take a closer look at those sculpted leaves – they’re modelled on the leaves of Spiny Bear’s Breech (Acanthus spinosa), a plant I often see back home on Crete and the Romans went mad for it. No sculpture, column or pedestal was complete, it would seem, without a few acanthus leaves. The story goes that a Greek sculptor called Callimachus had been inspired by the leaves growing through a woven basket containing votive offerings on the grave of a young girl. The Greeks fiddled about with the design, the Byzantines copied it here and there but the Romans really went overboard on it. Goodness knows why, it’s not the prettiest leaf in the floral album, maybe it was easy to carve.

The Atrium, National Archaeological Museum

Now here is a sign of great modernity but no little interest: “CafĂ©”.  How pleasant, they’ve put it in the atrium and the snow seems to have stopped falling. It’s still bitterly cold though and a steaming mug of coffee would go down a treat. “Ah, that’s better.” I see we have a stone lion prowling through the olive trees which provides a rather tenuous link to our final bit of nature in archaeology and brings us more or less up to date with the Venetians who held sway on Crete after Byzantium was sacked in the fourth crusade in 1204 and the island was sold to Venice. Venetian tradition has it that St. Mark, he of the second gospel, was travelling through Europe, evangelizing as he went, and stopped off at Venice where an angel appeared to him saying “May Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here your body will rest.” Actually, I think that sounds more like a Mafia death threat than something an angel might say but I suppose it depends on the intonation. Anyhow, the angel was wrong because St Mark was buried in Alexandria. Feeling a bit miffed by this a couple of likely lads called Rustico da Torcello and Bon da Malamocco nipped over to Alexandria in 828, did a bit of stealthy grave robbing and brought him back to Venice where he rests to this day in the Basilica of St. Mark.  Mark’s symbol was the aforementioned lion but with additional wings and a halo symbolizing both power and holiness. So that just about concludes our potted history of the Eastern Mediterranean  over the past three and a half thousand years with reference to the plants and animals symbolized along the way. Until next week when we’re back on home ground and hopefully enjoying a bit of winter sunshine – happy hunting.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)


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