Monday, September 28, 2009

Alright, I lied. Crete.

Apparently I just don't have time for private emails and public postings so we are all going to agree right now that this blog will just stay between you and me, k? I mean, obviously you're going to want to scream the URL to the world- but resist the urge.

on our program wide trip to Crete:

"...I think it was the first time that these ruins felt like something actually ancient and not just a modern symbol of antiquity. I think it relates back to when we were talking about that elusive experience of actually experiencing. I found myself, at sites, for moments at a time able to actually see this pot as a pot that someone made that someone used, that someone touched- just 4000 years ago. It made me feel a very real link to what I previously could only imagine. The woman who used this pot was for a second, for me, not the slave of 1650 BC with defining cranial features, of significantly lower height, who probably wore such and such a garment, and such and such jewelry. She seemed to be a girl, a real girl, who also touched this pot. ...

But I probably should back up a little. We took a 13 hour ferry to Crete, which is the Greek equivalent of Florida in so many ways. It's much warmer, much more touristy, very beautiful, and it attracts old people and couples. But that's just the southern most part. In the north and in the mountains, it is filled with rough and tumble rednecks who constantly defy the authorities and believe very strongly in the right to bear arms and the right to do whatever they want without the po-leese in-tuh-fearing (that's exactly how they say it too.) And I'm not sure about Florida's excuse (for being so rednecky and yet touristy) but the island of Crete has been in rebellion mode since around 1500 AD. They were given away to Spanish crusaders, then the Ottoman Empire, and then to Turkey for a bit and only "reunited" with Greece relatively recently. There is literally a period of 200 years in which they were in a constant series of revolts against their mainland authority and as such they, to this day, have great disdain for authority in general and instead have built up a more family-based series of clans. In fact, only recently, some policemen stopped this car on one of the main highways in Crete and discovered that they had a store of unlicensed firearms. So forty policemen went to the mountain village of the car's owner to investigate the level of arms trafficking and before they could even make it to the village they were ambushed by sixty armed men from that very village, determined to, well, I don't know- throw over the police? I'm not sure the plan was very well formulated, since a few days and a few hundred police men later, the uprising was quelled and their trial actually starts this month in Athens. They couldn't hold the trial on Crete because the entire island harbors such an anti-authority sentiment that the accused, or many of them, would likely get off. Right, so I've set the scene. I'm basically in the wild west of Greece, investigating Bad Ass archaeological sites (but are there any other kind?) with the foremost expert on Cretan archaeology. I call it Cretan archaeology (as opposed to Minoan or Mycenaen or whathaveyou) mostly because I like referring to everything as Cretan. There, we ate food made by Creta(i)ns and drank the alcohol of Cretans and would occasionally shout "Cretan!" at passing Cretans. The joke never got old.

Anyway we got there at 6 am and immediately went to Knossos and met up with aforementioned expert. I didn't know this but apparently archaeologists (or at least this archaeologist) are the modern day equivalent of Indiana Jones- he wore a leather jacket, wore i'mwaytoocoolforyou aviator sunglasses, had a faint Scottish accent, and he basically, personally, excavated every site we went to at some stage or another. And here, I'm only guessing- but I could swear that he's raced a few rock avalanches in his day. Over the next 3 cities, and ten or so sites, he- with his accent and leather coat and amazing sunglasses- led us through his fiction of Minoan culture (and to a lesser extent, the later Mycenean one).

I say fiction because that's exactly what it is and partly what makes the field of archaeology and the area of prehistory so interesting. They just make stuff up. Everything is a theory and the more dramatic the theory the more attention it gets, so the archaeologists are encouraged to come up with the most elaborate scenarios and debate among them is lively, creative, and usually has a two drink minimum. Christine- my roommate who is a philosophy major and grad-school bound- actually holds them in contempt, saying the entire field is basically an institutionalized slippery slope. For example, on many Minoan walls and on certain Minoan items there is a symbol called the "double axe." Some say they are simply mason marks used to tell who made the wall and that the double axe was a nation symbol, simply the equivalent of our bald eagle, let's say. But because of the particular placement of these double axes in the "royal apartments" and ritual rooms (which they may or may not be), some think that these double axes denote ritual or religious significance. In the "basement" of the palace there are these large columns with double axes on them, and so, some archaeologists surmise that these columns were worshiped and that people would strip naked and cling to these marked columns in a dark basement in order to commune with nature through the stone. They also venture a similar ritual was enacted on large stones in the open courtyard, which actually sounds a little more fun but a little chillier. The truth is we- they- have no idea what Minoan culture consists of because it's prehistory- before history- and without any kind of literature, it is only a series of guesses. Until only a hundred or so year ago, Minoans were considered a fictional race and even the term "Minoan" is one invented by the first man to take an interest. He saw that this island must be that of King Minos, so the people became "Minoan," and recently prehistorians of "Minoan" culture have decided that the term Minos is like that of Pharoah, so it's like us calling the ancient Egyptians the Pharoese or Pharoahites.

But anyway, having to simply make what they will of the scattered remnants of a buried culture has its downfalls and its blessings which is perfectly embodied in Knossos itself. It was the first major excavation of Minoan culture and it was excavated by the infamous Sir Arthur Evans, the same interested man who took it upon himself to name the Minoans. And he also took it upon himself to heavily reconstruct the palace. Most archaeology sites are reconstructed to a degree, to imply certain aspects of the architecture that have since been destroyed or to provide physical support for what are generally fragile structures. But Evans did one better and actually painted entire wall frescoes based on 6 square inches of the original, rebuilt walls and roofs and columns based often on little more than logic combined with an impressive imagination. What we know of the Minoan culture is completely how we choose to interpret the remains and his reconstruction embraces this notion. The reconstruction is more to give you a sense of the grandeur, the scale, and the purpose of the palace. But with such heavy reconstruction, the place starts to feel like a Disney version of a Medieval palace. It limits your own imagination because he's imposing his own which, granted, might be more informed of Minoan civilization, whatever that might be. Anyway, the Minoan culture, supposedly, is one built off a series of "palaces," epicenters of commerce and trade in which all goods went into the palace and then were redistributed to the people to fit the need and we looked at a few different ones besides Knossos. I much preferred the lesser, but still significant palace of Phaistos which we went to the next day on the opposite side of the island. There, it was easier for me see the place as actual ruins, to actually if only momentarily relate to what's there- to, as I mentioned earlier, feel like I was walking among the actual remains of something real and once vibrant instead of rocks and demarcations signifying as much.

But, of course, this is my commentary now. The actual moment to moment thought process, especially when we weren't on a site, was more "This place is fucking ridiculous." Crete is soo beautiful and aestheticly, surprisingly different than the other Greek islands (you know, which are old news by now) It was, at one time, ruled by the Venetians, the Romans, the Turks, and the Greeks and the architecture and city orientation reflect that. So, especially in the cities where we were, there were these elaborate Turkish fountains, Roman Churches and monasteries, and giant Venetian fortifications, shipsheds, and walls built out of proportion with these fragile-looking Greek and Venetian buildings crowding otherwise tranquil harbors. It looked very much like Venice reimagined onto the ruins of Rome with the coastline of Greece. Which is what it is I guess. And the tourist industry itself had its charms- the place was built for hedonism. I guess they embraced the Roman/Greek idea of lounging while you eat because there were maybe only two tavernas that had actual chairs instead of sofas and recliners. And the shopping and nightlife matched accordingly. So, you know, not a horrible place to spend a birthday I guess."

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