It is especially fitting when scholars of antiquity reach a great age themselves; doubly so if they remain active and thoughtful even as they surpass a century. Sinclair Hood, who died last month at the age of 103, met both standards admirably. Many fellow archaeologists who remarked upon their sadness at his death noted that his most recent book, The Masons’ Marks of Minoan Knossos: Volume I, was published just last year. Such productivity is rare and it is admirable.
But Hood’s career is not just one marked by longevity. He also gave the lie to Lawrence Durrell’s view, of 1930s vintage, that ‘archaeologists come and go, each with his pocket Odyssey and his lack of modern Greek. Diligently working upon … refuse-heaps, they erect on the basis of a few shreds … a sickly and enfeebled portrait of a way of life’.
Hood was the director of the British School at Athens between 1954 and 1962 and followed the example of Sir Arthur Evans to Knossos, where Hood worked on the Minoan Palace and Minoan civilisation. Far from being in thrall to the writings of Homer and pre-conceived notions, Hood engaged in scholarly controversy and bucked orthodoxy. His predecessors were prepared to read the Trojan war into very much beside its own remains. Heinrich Schliemann, an earlier archaeologist excavating in Mycenae, found in the process a celebrated and beautiful bronze age mask.
In thrall perhaps to the romance of the situation, Schliemann is said to have declared, ‘I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon’, the king of the Iliad, for whom the mask is still named. This conclusion is now considered unfounded. The mask likely predates the Trojan war, and it may have originated from a society which was hardly Greek at all.
Meanwhile, in his excavations, Hood made precisely the opposite case: that the Minoans, an even earlier people who built at Knossos, were not Greeks, but in fact preceded them. In his book The Home of the Heroes, Hood argued that, ‘the people of Greek speech to enter the south of Greece came, not as the creators but as the destroyers of the Mycenaean world’.
And unlike the excavators who held their Odyssey close, Hood criticised the ‘strong sentiment like Philhellenism [which] is for that reason more at liberty to distort our views’.
Nor is the book a mean testament to an archaeological monomania of refuse and drainage. Hood’s work is thorough, but also descriptive and lyrical. He draws a picture of an Aegean world of pastoral quality, of the sort one may romantically associate with later Greece and its poets, but notably does so with reference to the broader Neolithic world, where pottery is first plain and dark, and statutes which take human form are finely made but not wholly distinct from other attempts at figurative human art of the same era.
Hood’s view of the Aegean of this period is counterintuitive to modern eyes. It is pictured as a ‘sea of islands’ whose boundaries are the mountainous land. The roughness of the ground may have made going further inland so difficult as to render the territory impassable in winter. ‘In such a region the sea unites rather than divides.’
When discussing the Minoan period, Hood paints one vivid picture after another. On religious functions:
The kings and queens were evidently priests, if not divine, like the kings of the other nations of the Near East of the time. Large areas of the palaces were reserved for magical or religious ceremonies. One of the surviving scenes painted on the walls of the palace at Knossos seems to depict some such ceremony taking place in the central court there. The women in their long flounced dresses dance before serried masses of spectators.
He describes a world of votive offerings and shrine-like caves, animal sacrifices and sacred groves. ‘Sacred trees and pillars of stone and wood evidently stood in the open air of the sanctuaries … Processions and dances, gladiatorial fights and bull-leapings, depicted in wall-paintings or engraved on stone vases and seals, were probably religious or magical in their origin even if not without a sportive side’.
The wall-paintings of Hagia Triada depict the subjects of art and life: ‘a cat stalks a bird, a deer bounds away through a flowered landscape, and there is a richly dressed woman, a goddess perhaps rather than a mortal, sitting on a rock’.
Ancient art is more moving than modern in large part because of the distance in time it has travelled. The people who made it are like us, but they are not us. Their world is both ordinary and unimaginable. Those tasked with finding it and explaining its aspects have a duty to poetry as well as posterity. Hood did his duty well, and for so very long.
This piece was originally published at The Critic.