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Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc

On 3rd July 1908, the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, working in the so-called ‘House 101’, northeast of the palace of Phaistos, found an object with symbols on both sides, next to a Linear A tablet. The object became known as the Phaistos Disc—and it remains as intriguing and mysterious now, over a hundred years later, as it was then. Physically it is round, hand-made, about 1.5cm thick and approx. 16.2cm in diameter, with an incised spiral decoration. The spiral is filled with little symbols, 241 or so of them (most of the motifs occurring more than once), stamped on the fresh clay. They represent the earliest evidence of the use of movable type. The clay is free from impurities and the object, unlike the tablets, was fired deliberately.

The excavator assumed it had fallen from the upper storey and that it was of Cretan manufacture. Not much progress has been made since then, though not for want of trying. Nothing else remotely similar has ever been found—and that is the main problem. Accusations of foul play were made as early as 1913. The villain of the piece was said to be Pernier who, jealous of his fellow archaeologist Halbherr’s success at Gortyn (also in Crete), where he found the famous Law Code, and of Evans’s discoveries at Knossos, deliberately planted a forged object with an invented script in order to raise the profile of his excavations. However, while it is true that Phaistos could not rival Knossos as to finds, at Aghia Triada nearby, also excavated by the Italians, the quality and quantity of material was truly amazing. Pernier and the Italian School had their hands full. He seems an unlikely accomplice in a forgery of this magnitude.

Interpretations of the object’s function and meaning are extremely diverse, ranging from an astronomical or astrological calendar to a hymn to victory, a nursery rhyme or a sacred text. Current thought assumes it is a piece of writing though the direction of it, from the centre to the periphery or the other way round, has yet to be established. The small number of characters, 45 in total, suggests it is a syllabic script and close to Linear A, which has not yet been deciphered. There has been no shortage of proposed translations, based on languages as diverse as Chinese, Dravidian, Georgian, Hittite, Luwian, Semitic, Slavic and Sumerian. Indeed it was this abundance that prompted the late John Chadwick, who decoded Linear B with Michael Ventris, to appeal to those producing their own solutions ‘not to send them to him’.

With appropriate testing, it would be possible to put this case to rest one way or another. Modern techniques such as thermoluminescence are not invasive and would ascertain the date of the firing, thereby deciding once and for all the question of authenticity, while the analysis of a minimal quantity of the clay could assist in determining provenance. So far the authorities involved have resisted all calls for such tests. But the case should not be allowed to linger.

Blue Guide Crete, which combs the island in loving detail, will be available in digital format later this month.

The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper. John Murray, 2012


Walking seems to be back in fashion. Pilgrim routes, secret pathways, ancient trackways: it is as if we are rediscovering the traditional pace of life. One catalyst for the interest has been Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, in 1934, when he was only eighteen. It was immortalized in his two books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Although they are among my favourite travel books, I had not realised quite how long after the walk they were written. A Time of Gifts appeared 44 years later and Between the Woods and the Waterseveral years after that. So they are as much reflections on the walk, with added colour and insight, as they are of the reactions of an eighteen-year old.

Virtually abandoned as a child in England by his family—his father had a distinguished career as a geologist in India—Paddy (the name by which his biographer and his many friends knew him) grew up essentially feral. School did not work for him and he seemed unemployable. Yet he had a passion for the Classics, an acute memory for texts and a fascination with languages and how they shaped cultures. All this was incipient when he began his walk, but as he uncovered the ancient landed families of eastern Europe, explored their libraries and became a lover, notably of Princess Balasha Cantacuzene on her remote estate in Romania, he discovered new roles for himself. He was always to be a wanderer, attracted to the aristocracy as much for their heritage as for their status, ever willing to be financially supported, and happy to drink and sing his way through the night in a variety of languages and cultures.

When war came, it was again apparent that Paddy was not employable in any conventional role; but with his fluent Greek he could be found a job as a general dogsbody in Intelligence. This is how he ended up supporting the resistance in Crete against the occupying Germans. His most famous exploit, kidnapping the German commanding officer, General Heinrich Kreipe, forms the narrative highlight of this book. The moment when Paddy was able to complete a Horatian ode begun by the General is an unforgettable homage to the common roots of both cultures. Of course, with reprisals against villagers and Paddy’s own careless shooting of a partisan with a gun he thought unloaded, the kidnapping remains controversial, but for many Cretans Paddy was a hero. Hard-drinking reunions followed in the years to come.

Artemis Cooper knew ‘Paddy’ well, but her subject still presents a challenge. Cooper is wise enough not to try to match Paddy’s style when describing the famous walk and is content to tidy up discrepancies and fill in gaps. The kidnapping of Kreipe is well told. The problem comes with the years that followed. There is certainly good material for charting Paddy’s sophisticated survival skills, his charm and success in persuading others to finance him (notably his long-term lover and eventual wife, Joan). It is moving to read of the shattered lives of his friends and lovers, Balasha among them. Full tribute is paid to his publisher, Jock Murray, whose guile and persistence ensured that the books actually appeared. Most publishers would have abandoned Paddy in sheer exasperation at his penchant for parties over disciplined writing.

Cooper also hints at the darker side: the depressions, the sexual dalliances—some of them actually encouraged by Joan—and at Paddy’s ability as much to bore his listeners as to amuse them. And yet somehow she does not capture the full personality. The chronology is there, the house in the Mani is built (at Joan’s expense), the wanderings are well charted, but the subject remains strangely elusive. Doubtless there are more perceptive and probing memoirs to come, but this biography provides a solid background and serves well to send one back to Paddy’s writing, not only the famous walk but also the vivid studies of Greece, Mani and Roumeli. And we are promised that the fragments of the third volume of the walk, awaited by his readers for so long, are due to appear next year.

(One correction. Paddy’s friend was Ian Whigham, not Wigham. He was a man of fastidious good taste and generous hospitality: I count the two occasions when I had lunch with him, as a friend of a friend in the 1970s, as among the more civilizing experiences of my life.)

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

21.09.2012
17:05

Edward Lear and Crete

The well-known nonsense poet and artist Edward Lear paid a short visit to Crete in 1864. He was coming from Corfu, where he had lived for nine years; when the British government returned the Ionian islands to the Greek state, the British community dispersed. At that point in his life he needed to find a warm place for his indifferent health and to produce another book like his Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, which had sold steadily. Lear chose Crete, and arrived in Chania on 11th April, with his faithful valet George Kokali and armed with Pashley’s Travels in Crete. Although he was aware of the presence of Venetian monuments and of some earlier ruins, what he was searching for were beautiful, exotic landscapes that he could sell in England, possibly in a book reworked from notes in his diary. Crete proved a disappointment in many respects. The landscape, vast, rugged and raw, did not lend itself to artistic composition according to the classical canons. The weather did not help and living conditions, from the food to the ever-present fleas and the state of the pavements, proved a perennial source of complaint. The only things that seemed to cheer him were the wine, the birds and the flowers. Lear took more notice of the latter than of the people. Unlike Pashley he makes very few ethnographical observations, even though he spoke Greek and took lodgings with local people.

Lear first travelled west in the Kissamos direction, venturing as far south as Topolia. He then went back to Chania for the Akrotiri and continued east to Souda and Aptera, cutting across to Vamos and Lake Kournas, finally sailing from Rethymnon to Megalokastro (i.e. Herakleion), which failed to impress him. He continued south, ascending Mt Juktas on the way. This he pronounced ‘Cumberlandish’, a term that he had already applied to Lake Kournas and of which he was obviously fond. The Mesara reminded him of the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon, but wanting in colours, lines and shape, and Mt Ida, around which he skirted from Tymbaki on his way north through the Amari Valley, was forever lost in the clouds. Lear was probably relieved to arrive back in England on 11th June. He had with him some 200 sketches and a diary: nothing of either was ever published in his lifetime. A few drawings were reworked and completed on commission and are now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The bulk of the sketches found their way onto the London art market in the late 1920s. The Gennadius Library in Athens has 92; the remainder are in private collections and museums. The diary was published in 1984.

An extract from Blue Guide Crete by Paola Pugsley. © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.

To mark the bicentenary of Lear’s birth, the Ashmolean Museum is currently running an exhibition entitled Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense.

 

The Trouble with Snake Goddesses

Over 100 years after the excavations at Knossos, Crete, it is hard for the modern observer to appreciate the excitement engendered by Evans’s finds. Here was a whole new civilization with artistic achievements rivalling Egypt’s. Evans himself fostered expectation by dwelling on the modernity of the style and by embarking on a (now) controversial restoration programme which owed much to his own romanticized image of the ‘Minoan’ (his own word) past. As Minoan artefacts became prestige objects for museums, unscrupulous dealers, smugglers and restorers were quick to react. Top of the wish list was the snake goddess.

With her full exposed bosom, pinched waist, flounced skirt and modern expression, she looked exactly what was expected: an art even superior to that of Classical Greece and comparable to the Italian Renaissance. But Getty curator Kenneth Lapatin has suggested that the famous snake goddess might not be a genuine antiquity.

It is certainly true that from modest beginnings in Crete in 1903, the production of modern Minoica moved onto a world-wide market. In 1914 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts paid a staggering $950 for a very damaged chryselephantine snake goddess with no detailed provenance. It has affinities with the faïences from the Temple Repositories but also a number of crucial unexplained differences, not least that it is the only example in Minoan art in which ivory is used for a female figure. Questions about its authenticity remain unanswered. In the 1920s the curator at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, wishing to enhance the status of her department, fell for a marble snake goddess, once again with no provenance except for a vague ‘east of Knossos’. £2750 were duly paid to a local intermediary who said he had it through a Paris dealer. Doubts raised in Crete were set aside and ascribed to jealousy and embarrassment at having allowed such a unique artefact to leave the island. Yet questions soon began to be asked. No archaeologist had actually seen the object come out of the ground. Authentication was based purely on style, subjective judgement and expectations. Evans was still defending it in 1935 but the Fitzwilliam Museum, after demoting its status to ‘dubious’ in 1964, last showed it in 1991.

Who dunnit? Evidence points in two directions: first the Gilliérons, father and son, who worked as restorers for Evans from the very beginning and eventually set up shop in Athens producing fine detailed replicas of Knossos finds for academic collections. Alternatively it was one of the Cretan workers trained by them. Sir Leonard Woolley in his memoirs tells how a forger, confessing on his deathbed, had wept bitter tears on discovering how much money his work could ultimately command.

Extract from Blue Guide Crete by Paola Pugsley. Knossos is also one of the sites featured in Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World .

For more on the Gilliérons and the artworks of Knossos, see here , for details of an exhibition currently running at the Met Museum in New York.

RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE

As a brief introduction here are six hotels and one restaurant that are recommended in the new Blue Guide Crete. Note that, as with all Blue Guides Recommended establishments, all have been visited by the author or our editors and contributors (see the criteria for recommendation here), indeed in the case of the below we have stayed at all of them.  Considerably longer listings appear in the book itself.

Most of the below are available through www.cretetravel.com who we found excellent. As well as handling the reservations (at no cost to the visitor, they receive a fee from the hotel), they will also give helpful email or telephone advice:

1. Tamam Restaurant, Chania (details»)

2. Casa Delfino, Chania (details»)

3. Villa Kynthia, Panormos (details»)

4. Villa Kerasia, Venerato (details»)

5. Kalimera Archanes, Archanes (details»)

6. Palazzo Apartments, Agios Nikolaos (details»)

7. Aspros Potamos, near Makrigialos (details»)

Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Aegean Islands

 

The result of five years of fresh research by author Nigel McGilchrist, and detailed editing by Michael Metcalfe and Heinrich Hall, this is the first full Blue Guide treatment of all the Greek Aegean islands in a single volume.

(And Nigel McGilchrist has published the full manuscript that he wrote for this book in twenty volumes as ‘McGilchrist’s Greek Islands’, an invaluable resource.)

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from blueguides.com here »

Comments on Blue Guide Crete

 

This completely re-written new edition of Blue Guide Crete focuses on the long history of the largest Greek island, from Minoan civilization to the present day. It includes detailed coverage of the major resorts and archaeological sites, Venetian and Ottoman architecture, the island's unique landscape and wildlife, and its important history in the Second World War.

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from blueguides.com here»

 

Familiar face

Displayed on its own in a glass case in one of the later rooms of the excellent Archaeological Museum in Aghios Nikolaos, Crete, is an arresting clay head. It was found near Siteia, where it had been left at a shrine as a votive deposit. The young man’s lips are slightly curved in the famous ‘Archaic smile’. They would originally have been painted red, his eyebrows black and his enormous eyes probably dark as well. His features call to mind those of someone very famous. A frivolous idea? Perhaps. But once it’s occurred to you, it’s hard not to stroll the museum’s halls without ‘Pretty Young Thing’ ringing in your head.

The new edition of Blue Guide Crete is published February 2010.

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