Black Ships and Sea Raiders: History, Archaeology, and Odyssey in the Late Bronze–Early Iron Age Transition

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This lecture was given at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology (Brown University) on April 30, 2018. The topic is a condensed version of the 2017 book "Black Ships and Sea Raiders: The Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Context of Odysseus'

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   1 Black Ships and Sea Raiders: History, Archaeology, and Odyssey    in the Late Bronze–Early Iron Age Transition  Jeffrey P. Emanuel Lecture presented at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology, Brown University  Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak on the topic of ‘black ships and sea raiders’ today. This talk will touch on several topics, including Homer, seafaring, and the events of the Late Bronze–Early Iron Age transition in the Eastern Mediterranean, but it will hopefully maintain an at least somewhat–visible connective thread throughout!  We begin with the lines that introduce Homer’s epic and its hero Odysseus, the  pol  ū tropos  ‘many-sided, much-traveled’ man: “Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own life and the return of his comrades. Yet even so he saved not his comrades, though he desired it sore, for through their own blind folly they perished...” Odyssey   i 1–7 From here, the epic chronicles that which happened to Odysseus in the decade following the Greeks’ defeat of the Trojans. During these years, the hero was taken to places like the city of the Kikones, the land of the Cyclopes, and even Hades itself, before finally returning him to Ithaka, ten years after he first left Troy and twenty years after sailing from home with Agamemnon and the Mycenaean armada.  As we know, trials and tribulations after the Trojan War were not unique to Odysseus. The Odyssey   tells us of the eight-year journey home endured by Helen’s jilted husband, Menelaos, as  well as the death of recently-returned Agamemnon at the hands of his wife’s lover Aigisthos. We shall focus primarily on Odysseus himself, though, for the purpose of shedding light on the interplay between a Homeric individual and the historical and archaeological background. Like all epic products of oral tradition, the “master myth” of the Homeric Odyssey is a tapestry  woven from many fascinating micronarratives, each of which has its own srcin, development, and – in some cases, at some points in time – individual grounding in historical truth. Further, though it may sound ironic, our discussion of history, archaeology, and Homer will pay particular attention to an itinerary of places and events that Odysseus may not have visited or experienced at all – those he tells to his own swineherd Eumaios, while disguised, in the portion of the Odyssey    known as the “Second Cretan Lie” (xiv 199–359, and the portion retold to Antinoos in scroll xvii). Though   2 this specific micronarrative is portrayed as fiction within the Homeric macronarrative, several of its elements have precedent in archaeological and literary records dating to the Late Bronze Age and the Late Bronze–Early Iron Age transition. Over the course of the next hour or so, we shall see what some of these elements are, and how they fit within the larger tapestry of the chaotic transitions that took place in the years surrounding 1200 BCE. At the outset, though, we must provide some background both on epic and history, as  well as on piracy and naval warfare at the end of the Bronze Age. Then we may begin to see how these some of these events and some of the tales of Odysseus in Iliad   and Odyssey   are intertwined. Myth, History, and the Mythical History of Epic    The possible existence of epic in oral tradition from earliest Mycenaean times and even before, perhaps conveyed to us in art – like that seen in Miniature Fresco from the West House at Akrotiri, or on the Siege Rhyton from Shaft Grave IV at Mycenae – may help explain the strands of continuity and vague memories of people, places, and events that seem to have come down to the archaic composer(s) of Homer’s epics from centuries long past. Sarah Morris has referred to these works of art as “a  visual counterpart to early epic poetry,” while Eric Cline and Assaf Yasur–Landau, the excavators of the Middle Bronze Age site of Tell Kabri in the Levant, have suggested that “miniature narrative art, possibly relating to an early epic tradition…could serve as a unifying epos  or epic cycle in the time of extended colonization and diaspora, for instance on Crete, Kea, and Santorini during the [Late Minoan] IA period, and it served somewhat as a membership card to a Mediterranean club of members who shared this tradition – a club which extended from the northern Cyclades to Crete and perhaps beyond.” 1   Why is this important? At perhaps the most basic level, it is a reminder that whatever measures of truth may be contained in the Homeric epics cannot truly be accessed  without peeling back the layers of the received text.  These layers are abundant: a characteristic of oral tradition is composition–in–performance, which lends itself, over time and a broad geographic area, to many slightly different versions of a single story. Temporal contradictions remain, and hint at the complexity of the  whole. Add to that the agglutinative nature of epic poetry, which has among its progenitors “a vast reservoir of inherited myths, legends, and tales, the conflation of which has left traces and 1  S. Morris 1989 515; Cline and Yasur–Landau 2007 164 Scene from the Mycenaean ‘warrior krater’ (Shaft Grave IV at Mycenae) showing warriors with tower shields and spears engaged in battle. Procession of armed men from Room 5 of the West House, Akrotiri   3 sometimes, at least by literary standards, rather glaring anomalies of structure and detail,” and the complexity of the topic can be appreciated that much more. 2   A famous example of this temporal complexity is what we might call the ‘Mighty Morphing Shield of Hektor.’ We see this in Scroll 6 of the Iliad   as a tower shield typical of the Bronze Age (“…the black rim of hide that went round his shield beat against his neck and his ankles”; VI 117–118), but in the very next scroll, Homer describes it in terms that are far more at home in the 12 th  century, when the iconography of  warriors and their “kit” had changed significantly (“Then Ajax threw in his turn, and struck the round shield of the son of Priam...”; VII 249–250). 3   Another potential example of a “inherited myth” is the set of false ainoi   in Homer’s Odyssey    known as the “Cretan Lies.” One Classicist has noted that these micronarratives feature a “remarkable contrast of our poet's vague notion of the topography of the Peloponnese [with] his quite detailed knowledge of Crete.” This is one of a number of points that may mark these false ainoi  as remnants of an alternative version of the epic – perhaps one   in which they were presented as truth rather than fiction.  We shall now continue exploring a bit of that potential truth. Seaborne Threats and Refuge Settlements Seaborne threats to coastal polities are well documented in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean long before the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age, around the end of the 13 th  century BC. Like all sailing in the ancient Mediterranean, piracy was a seasonal pursuit, and in many cases the same groups seem to have partaken in it on an annual basis. Odysseus himself speaks to this, in a statement that may refer to annual raids over close to a decade: “...before the sons of the Achaeans set foot on the land of Troy, I had nine times led warriors and swift–faring ships against foreign folk, and great spoil had ever fallen to my hands. Of this I would choose what pleased my mind, and much I afterwards obtained by lot.” Odyssey   xiv 229–233  Two further historical texts which will be discussed more fully in a few moments, one a Hittite document and the other a letter from the Amarna archives, speak of “often raiding the land of Cyprus and taking captives” and of sea raiders who “year by year seize villages,” respectively. 2  Reece 1994: 157 3  Images of Warrior Krater and Warrior Vase from Blakolmer 2007 and Tsountas & Manatt 1897, respectively Procession of soldiers carrying round shields and spears, from the LH IIIC Mycenean ‘warrior vase’   4  Additionally, the early 13 th  c. Tanis II rhetorical stela of Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 BCE), which  will also be discussed shortly, refers to a piratical group called the Sherden   as those “whom none could ever fight against” – a reference which likely means that they, too, had been raiding coastal settlements for several years prior to that point.  These seaborne threats seem to have increased in number and severity as the Bronze Age reached its end. In the Aegean and the East Aegean–West Anatolian Interface, scenes of naval warfare appear for the first time on Mycenaean pottery in Transitional Late Helladic IIIB–C or in LH IIIC Early, while Linear B tablets from the last days of Pylos may    – and I stress the may    here – communicate an effort to coordinate a large–scale defensive action or evacuation in response to a heightened threat from the coast. Further evidence for a growing threat from the sea at this time can be seen in settlement changes and destructions around the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, including at Odysseus’ fictive home port of Crete, which had been a key node in the international network that characterized the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Settlements across Crete appear to have been abandoned or destroyed at the end of the Late Minoan IIIB, while new sites with larger, more concentrated populations were founded in defensible areas of the island, both inland and on coastal hilltops. The inland refuge settlements seem to have been a reaction to a new, or more serious, threat from the sea. The coastal hilltop settlements, on the other hand, were primarily founded on rocky promontories overlooking the water. These not only provided for early warnings of approaching ships, but they may have been used as bases for seaborne raiding of exactly the type claimed by Odysseus in his Cretan Lie. Crew Size and Ship Capacity Now a transition, as we jump into Odysseus’ raiding activity itself: “Nine ships I fitted out, and the host gathered speedily” ( Odyssey     xiv 248)  The nine ships outfitted by Odysseus may seem like a rather ineffective “fleet” at first blush. However, before jumping to that conclusion, it is important to consider two points. First, we must note that, in the words of Oliver Dickinson, “raiders and pirates in this period tended to operate in relatively small groups, whose basic tactic would be fast sweeps to gather up  what could be easily taken, whether human captives, livestock, or portable loot.” 4  This isn’t limited to the period under discussion, of course; in the early 20 th  century CE, scholar Philip Gosse defined a so-called “cycle of piracy” that goes from individual beginnings through agglutination to a point 4  Dickinson 2006: 48. ‘Sea Peoples’ vessel from Medinet Habu, crewed by horn–helmed warriors carrying round shields, spears, and cut–and–thrust swords.   5 at which the confederation of bandits becomes too large to sustain, at which point it either disintegrates into something resembling its initial parts or becomes, in effect, a state navy (or surrogate for one). Second, and of particularly critical import, we must consider the type and potential capacity of the ships in question here.  The roughly equivalent Late Bronze II and Late Helladic IIIB were periods of, among other things, rapid maritime innovation. The Mycenaean ascendancy in the 14 th  and 13 th  centuries BC (by which I mean ascendancy over the former Minoan power, not   a Mediterranean “thalassocracy”)  was accompanied by the introduction of the Helladic oared galley, a long, narrow, light vessel propelled primarily by rowers and designed specifically for speed.  The galley represented a true break with the design of earlier ships, like those seen on Minoan seals and on the walls of the West House at Akrotiri. As such, it has rightly been called both “a strategic inflection point in ship architecture” and “the single most significant advance in the weaponry of the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean.” 5  Sometime around 1200 BCE, the revolutionary galley began to be paired with another revolutionary innovation in maritime technology: the brailed rig and loose–footed sail. This system consisted of lines attached to the bottom of a sail and run vertically through rings sewn into the front of the sail, which were also called “fairleads.” From there, they were run over the yard and to the stern. Using this system, sails could be easily raised, lowered, and otherwise manipulated in a manner similar to a set of Venetian blinds.  To this point, sailing craft had relied on large square sails held fast by upper and lower yards. While clearly an advantage over oared propulsion alone, this boom–footed squaresail’s use was limited almost entirely to downwind travel. The manipulation of the sail made possible by the addition of brails and removal of the boom, on the other hand, allowed for much greater maneuverability, as well as the ability to sail in directions other than downwind. This sail type would become a mainstay of eastern Mediterranean sailing vessels for the next two millennia.   5  Wedde 1999: 465 Boom–footed Cycladic vessel from the ‘ship  procession’ scene in Room 5 of the West House, Akrotiri ‘Kynos A,’ a brail–rigged galley on a LH IIIC krater from mainland Greece
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