Two archaeologists reveal how civilizations collapse then and now, and how ancients painted their sculptures
By Anne W. Semmes
Archaeology and those who practice it can alter the way we see art and understand history, as illustrated by two recent guest speakers of the Archaeological Associates of Greenwich (AAG) at the Byram Shubert Library.
Some 40 attendees on Sept. 16 were made privy to the probable causes of how civilization collapsed in history’s “first Dark age,” in the 12th century BCE as shared by Dr. Eric Cline, professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University, and author of, “1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed.” That collapse told Cline had some startling examples of causes that are present with us now.
Cline has spent 30 seasons excavating often in the areas of the nine civilizations he focused on in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. A slide showed the connectedness of those civilizations, including Egyptians, Babylonians, Minoans, and Assyrians, with the caption, “Here, we are considering a globalized world system with multiple civilizations all interacting and at least partially dependent upon each other.”
Then came the perfect storm: the onslaught of the “Sea Peoples”- warrior groups overrunning countries and kingdoms by land and sea, then drought, famine, invaders, and earthquakes that brought down those civilizations 3,500 years ago in the late bronze age.
“It was a pivotal movement in history,” he said, “a turning point for the ancient world.”
He pointed to how the 300-year drought’s effect on the Myceneans was similar to the havoc brought on in Syria with a four-year drought that began in 2006. With drought came famine, and with earthquakes, said Cline, “Sites were destroyed — and skeletons found under fallen doorways in Mycenae.”
These events had brought important trade to a standstill between the civilizations, “from Egypt to Crete to Messina.” How rich that trade was Cline described in the famous Uluburun sunken ship excavated off the coast of Turkey. “Eight different cultures were found…10 tons of copper that would have furnished 300 soldiers…Ingots of cobalt blue raw glass.”
Add an Egyptian golden scarab inscribed with the name of Queen Nefertiti.
Cline sees the same global connectedness today.
“There are only a few instances in history of such globalized world systems; the one in place during the Late Bronze Age and the one in place today,” Cline said.
He sees also the same problems, and “drought is at the top of the list.” “Studying this collapse is more relevant than you first suspect.” Cline’s warnings as spelled out in his book are apparently hitting a nerve – his lecture on the subject of his book given a year ago has been viewed on YouTube close to a million times.
Professor Kathy Schwab of Fairfield University had earlier given an equally unsettling while informative talk on the new reality of her subject, “Color in Ancient Greek Sculpture.” “We’re going to talk about pigments used on ancient sculpture,” she eased into her talk with a slide of the brilliant colors sourced from Malachite, Golden Ocher, Azurite, Red Ocher, Cinnabar, and Hematite.
For those who equate classical antiquity with white marble, imagine seeing the Parthenon in technicolor. Schwab, who spends her research seasons in Athens, Greece, described her plan for drawn color reconstructions of the Parthenon Metopes (her specialty) — though there’s a question of what color goes where.
“Peplos Kore — the most famous statue on the Acropolis,” she showed in a slide of a standing young girl with Archaic smile, “You see the pigment is nearly gone but you can still see color — the underpainting. After carvers completed the sculpture the painters brought it to life.”
“You see here,” she said, “how every surface is colored, even the skin, with yellow, ochre, and red mixed in.” Schwab whose expertise includes ancient Greek hairstyles, shared that “Acropolis maiden’s hairstyles have a residue of red, then brown. Painters created lights and darks in the hair, and even eyelids were painted.
“In ancient Egyptian art, color showed gender. Reddish for men, a light buff yellow to white for females. Bronze Age tattoos had color. A Mycenean sphinx had tattooed rosettes and tattoos.” In a recent news story Schwab spied a Syrian woman refugee with tattoos on her face similar to those used in 1,300 BCE. “There is a longevity of these traditions,” she noted.
And yet, “There is no evidence of paint on bronze,” she said, “only paint on marble. Paint protects the art – just like our house. Marble is protected by paint.”
“Bringing color in creates a different narrative,” Schwab concluded, and, “More and more museums are trying to find ways for visitors to understand this.” She pointed to the efforts of German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkman to change that narrative with his extensive color reconstructions of Greek and Roman statuary that have toured the world. Time Magazine had addressed the public response with, “The exhibition forces you to look at ancient sculpture in a totally new way.”
But attendee, former Time Magazine writer Jordan Bonafante of Greenwich, shared afterwards he was resisting that new colorful view.
“I find that I share an instinctive disappointment at the thought that the ancient Greeks colored those sublime — unblemished — marble statues,” said Bonafante.
But he did empathize with those now forgotten painters: “There were, in fact, two artists at work on each of those exquisite monuments. Its sculptor, of course, in many cases justly famous ever since. But also, its painter, who’s been unheralded for centuries, and may have to remain so because there’s so little of his original handiwork left for archaeologists to work with. Just a hint of blue, a flake of red, here and there, is not much on which to base a reputation.”
But there was another attendee who left bedazzled by the apparent peacock glory of old Greece, Sherry Tamalonis, who teaches Art History at Greenwich Academy, when not serving as a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I was dazzled,” she said, “by the idea that some of these sculptures from 450 BCE appeared to be wearing the colorful silks that we see later in Medieval and Renaissance Siena.” She had praise for the AAG for organizing “this wonderful lecture!”
AAG’s 2017 season concluded on Oct. 7 at the Byram Shubert Library. The subject was, “Jerusalem Before David,” how Jerusalem existed long before it became the City of David — as a living city with a centuries old history before David chose it as his capital.
The guest lecturer was Peter Feinman, president of the Westchester Society of the Archaeological Institute, and author of “Jerusalem Throne Games: The Battle of Bible Stories after the Death of David.” The lecture was free to the public.