The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History
Colin McEvedy

Colin McEvedy

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The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History



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The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History

Copyright © Colin McEvedy, 1967


The great pioneers who led archaeology beyond the frontiers of recorded history invested very considerable personal fortunes in their chosen sites; striding confidently round their estates they would label an unexpected pot as an import and expect obedience. The habit of omnipotence spread to lesser men in colder climates; amazingly it proved possible to give blow-by-blow accounts of prehistoric battles and, in a more tender mood, tell how Woman shaped the First Pot. Archaeology was acclaimed as the science of rubbish and as fast as the rubbish was dug up it was written down.

Inevitably poetic license bred a puritan reaction within the profession, the puritans gained power and there was a ruthless clean-up. Not only was speculation condemned, intellectual activity of any sort came to be frowned upon. The new style archaeologist showed signs of distress if he uncovered an object of beauty or value; salvation lay in the meticulous description of humbler finds. Classification was allowable; sub-classification was better; attempts at synthesis or interpretation met with stony silence. As a corrective, puritanism has certainly been valuable but as a permanent attitude it is unnecessarily limiting; the recovery of the human past is after all the only reason for digging up pots.

History being a branch of the biological sciences its ultimate expression must be mathematical. As yet we have only just groped our way from narrative history with its colour and crises, its national heroes and nations personified, to the era of economics, of steel production figures and graphs of agricultural prices. The classical world is not comprehensible in the new terminology; it usually returns a ‘no’ or ‘don’t know’ to the economic questionnaire; and the study of ancient history is probably going to continue unchanged until history as a whole passes into the next stage. This is foreshadowed by the increasing interest in sociology, and though currently most sociological work yields only platitudes expressed in jargon, in time a language will undoubtedly be created for the description of human societies and statements concerning their cohesion.



50,000 B.C. If the evidence for man’s descent is scanty, we can thank our ancestors who probably ate most of it.



8500 B.C.

There is little to be gained from discussing the racial varieties of upper palaeolithic man. In the nineteenth century every skeleton discovered was minutely described and each became the type of a new race. When the number of discoveries reached double figures, the classification broke down under its own weight. It is now realized that the range of variation in any population renders such exact description of the individual pointless, the more so in the case of upper palaeolithic man because the variation in his case was probably particularly wide.

The mesolithic world is sometimes called impoverished because it lacked the art of the upper palaeolithic and the glamour of the bison chase. But though the largest quarry available were deer and oxen, and mesolithic man, to make ends meet, spent most of his time hunting the inglorious snail and the frankly sessile nut, his tools show considerable progress [...]
4500 B.C.

Using leather and basket-work containers (that have perished) and ground stone vessels (that survive), the seventh millenium villager no doubt managed happily enough; pots matter more to archaeologists than they do to people.

1850 B.C.

The spread of a characteristic artefact can be explained either by the diffusion of an idea or by the migration of a people who were its sole manufacturers. The difference between the two modes is not altogether sharp even in theory, for ideas are spread by example, and in archaeological practice the distinction is often dishearteningly difficult to make.

670 B.C. [...] the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (745-728) saw Assyria make a more than complete recovery, and this time, instead of merely being required to pay and promise, defeated princes were replaced by governors-general. The term ‘empire’ thus gains the implication of direct rule which is usual hereafter.
375 B.C.
Towns and Trade
Living in that artificial construct, a free society, and regarding the regulation of price by supply and demand as something akin to a natural law, it is difficult for us to visualize the economic processes of primitive communities. Their essential feature is a sort of rationing system that is not egalitarian but hierarchical; you are allowed three strings of beads if and when you are entitled to wear them. Consumption is both conspicuous and mandatory and its primary purpose is to express rank. The Communists have partly reverted to this system in protest at the destructive social effects of laissez-faire economics, but the price of re-tribalization is liberty.



With a fistful of coins and an eye for the main chance, the individual had arrived in history.



323 B.C.

In the opening years of his reign, Philip II, King of Macedon (359-336), transformed the levy of his backwoods state into the largest and most efficient force in Greece. The discovery of gold deposits permitted the increase in size; the increase in efficiency stemmed from Philip’s refusal to accept two conventions of Greek warfare that were responsible for its typically indecisive quality: the restriction of campaigning to a recognized season and of seige technique to blockade.

A.D. 14 Caesar’s dazzling talents had kept the Mediterranean world in turmoil: the grey genius of Augustus created peace and prosperity, and the machinery for its continuance. He used men well, shunned the spectacular, and died in bed.
A.D. 230
Towns and Trade
In line with this, archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Rome’s exports were healthy, and, as pronouncements on the gold drain often form part of moralistic ruminations on luxuries in general and tom fool foreign luxuries in particular, they should probably not be taken too seriously anyway.



A.D. 362 Perhaps originally only a move to embarrass his enemy, the determined persecutor Galerius, Constantine’s Christianity grew with his success till, on his death-bed, he accepted baptism. As the sources for his life are few and tendentious, in the matter of motive you can take your choice between the last bargain of a superstitious man and the final conviction of a cautious one, but the matter is merely biographical for Christianity had won the Empire before it won the Emperor.



A.D. 362
Towns and Trade
The attempt to convert towns that had run a chronic, but mild, deficit into sources of revenue destroyed them, the citizens simply dispersing across the countryside. Nor was taxation the only force driving them into hiding. The government’s price-fixing had made many professions profitless, and its attempts to avoid the economic consequences of its acts by making the practice of such professions obligatory and the liability hereditary, must have created many outlaws. In the Orwellian twilight of the West, citizenship had become slavery and the paradox was completed when serfdom became the free man’s aspiration. To protect himself from the summary requisitions of the tax-gatherer the small farmer bought the protection of the local magnate by the gift of his freehold.



Speculation ran way beyond the testable and dwindled into metaphysics; technology remained tradition-bound and sluggish. Only the evolution of a scientific stance – one foot inside the boundary of the known, the other just outside – could have guaranteed the superiority, and consequently the integrity, of Mediterranean society, and the world was still too young for that.

So however moving we may find the Greek awakening – the sudden discovery of the question and of the delights of intellectual precision – we must remember that this was an event of the pre-scientific era. It was not the first chord of a majestic theme but something more exciting and less important, a fashion. The golden age is in the eye of the beholder.

text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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