Who are you calling Mycenaean?
The photograph on the front page of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn’s website last week was a collage by the photographer Nelly’s, produced as propaganda for the Metaxas regime and displayed in the Greek Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. There’s a ruined temple in the background, and in the foreground the ancient bronze statue known as the Artemision Zeus or Poseidon, next to an elderly modern Greek shepherd who looks remarkably like the classical god. The message of racial continuity between ancient and modern Greeks that the regime was keen to project, alongside its tourism campaign, could not have been more obvious.
The Golden Dawn headline above the picture claims that ‘the 4000-year racial continuity of the Greeks has been proved’. The article is based on a study published in Nature, ‘Genetic origins of Minoans and Mycenaeans’, by Iosif Laziridis et al. It was reported in the international as well as the Greek press, and the emphasis in most headlines was on the genetic continuity between people in the Bronze Age Aegean and contemporary Greeks: ‘Minos, our grandfather’, for example.
The scientific paper takes ‘Minoans’ and ‘Mycenaeans’ as truthful ethnic categories, representing coherent groups of people who identified themselves as such, but they are in fact archeological constructs originating in the late 19th and early 20th century, coined by the likes of Heinrich Schliemann, Arthur Evans and their predecessors. This is the ‘pots equal people’ approach which most archeologists have left behind, aware of the complexities and intricacies of social and cultural identity. (There’s also old-fashioned talk of ‘the rise of civilisation’.)
The researchers say they ‘generated genome-wide data from 19 ancient individuals’, classed as ‘Minoan’ or ‘Mycenaean’ depending on their dates and whether they came from Crete or mainland Greece. (Why 19? They don’t say. ‘No statistical methods were used to predetermine sample size.’) Other data were used for the purposes of analysis, including DNA from 30 ‘Modern Greek’ individuals, from mainland Greece, Cyprus and Crete.
One of the questions the researchers set out to answer was: ‘Do the labels “Minoan” and “Mycenaean” correspond to genetically coherent populations or do they obscure a more complex structure of the peoples who inhabited Crete and mainland Greece at this time?’ But they’d already answered it in the affirmative by their choice of categories, by the labels they attached to the sampled skeletons.
‘Modern Greeks resemble the Mycenaeans,’ they conclude, ‘but with some additional dilution of the Early Neolithic ancestry.’ The results of the study ‘support the idea of continuity but not isolation in the history of populations of the Aegean, before and after the time of its earliest civilisations’. But it’s hardly surprising that a few modern individuals living in the Eastern Mediterranean should share genetic material with a few individuals who lived in the same region in the Bronze Age; it’s a big jump from there to the neo-Nazi fantasy of 4000 years of ‘racial continuity’.
In a press interview following the publication of the study, one of the main authors claimed that ‘there is no doubt that our findings reflect historical events in the Greek lands’: ‘the picture of historical continuity is crystal clear, as is very clear the fact that through the centuries Greeks evolved receiving genetic influences from other populations.’ The category of ‘Greekness’ here appears more or less given and stable, despite the ‘influences’, from the Early Bronze Age to the present. It sounds like a version of the 19th-century national narrative of the power of eternal Hellenism to absorb external influences.
The researchers stray beyond genetics for some shaky supportive evidence. The article mentions ‘the distribution of shared toponyms in Crete, mainland Greece and Anatolia’, supported by a single bibliographic reference dating to 1896. ‘The appearance of the Bronze Age people of the Aegean has been preserved in colourful frescos and pottery,’ the researchers say, ‘depicting people with mostly dark hair and eyes.’ They ‘infer that the appearance of our ancient samples matched the visual representations … suggesting that art of this period reproduced phenotypes naturalistically.’ But there were well-known non-naturalistic artistic conventions in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean, such as the depiction of men and women with red and white skin respectively.
The idea that facial features denote ethnic types takes us back to the interwar years, and even to the late 19th century. The choice of photograph on the Golden Dawn website may not have been so inappropriate after all. Whatever its authors' intentions, this single study, with its small sample, out-dated rationale and circular logic, is being consumed as a rehearsal of 19th and early 20th-century racial discourse, updated with a modern and seemingly authoritative toolkit.
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