Collapses of Civilisation

Anthony Snodgrass

  • Centuries of Darkness by Peter James
    Chatto, 434 pp, £19.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 224 02647 X

Gigantic academic blunder? The phrase appears without the question-mark on the last page of Centuries of Darkness. That title too, as we shall see, would have better conveyed the book’s message if it had ended in a question-mark. Fortunately, though, the message is already brilliantly expressed by the book’s dust-jacket, showing the design from the painted box of Tutankhamun in the form of a jigsaw. The jigsaw is divided into two parts by a black intervening gap, yet we can see that the two halves would actually fit together. The gap should not be there.

What Peter James – the main author and incidentally the designer of the jacket – and his four collaborators seek to prove is, put simply, that the entire early history of the civilised world has been similarly distorted. An intrusive, imaginary gap, partly of modern invention and about 250 years in length, has been inserted into the sequence, artificially lengthening it so that all dates before about 950 BC are two and a half centuries too early. All historically-based dates, that is: dating by scientific methods is a separate issue.

Four years ago, in another revolutionary work, Black Athena, Martin Bernal argued that outsiders have been responsible for most fundamental challenges to disciplines. The first interesting point about this book is that its origins are of a quite different kind. Peter James is a graduate student of University College London and his colleagues are archaeologists and historians of similar standing. They are thus perfectly proper, if youngish, members of the ‘guild’. This should make their professional colleagues take their work all the more seriously, while the intelligent layman will surely detect the difference between first-hand authority and the maverick citation of deservedly-forgotten sources which usually passes for research in the game of Confound the Experts.

How could such a massive miscalculation ever have come about – let alone won universal acceptance? James proceeds by a very indirect route before he approaches the heart of the matter, which is to be found (of course) in Egypt. After a brief sketch of the problem, the next eight chapters take us in a great clockwise circle from the Western Mediterranean, through the Balkans to Troy, Greece, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Israel and the Sudan. In each case, the supposed ‘fixed points’ for dating the regional sequence are examined with a cold eye. In each region, it emerges, the archaeologists have been dancing to the magic flute of Egyptian precision.

At this stage, the argument is based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. In one instance after another, there emerges an unexplained ‘interlude’ of very slow development or apparent total stagnation, when the archaeological record becomes thin and the historical cross-references disappear altogether. In the more advanced cultures, this occurs at the beginning of the Iron Age; in the more backward, it comes near the end of the Bronze Age. Often the material record of the last period before the ‘interlude’ shows suspicious links with the first period after it. The authors find a few forerunners who have taken steps – if short and hesitant ones – in the right direction. Einar Gjerstad, a great and undoubtedly underrated archaeologist, appears as the hero twice over, in Italy and in Cyprus. The authors are so far content to pose questions in the form ‘What if ...?’ and ‘Why not ...?’ What if the ‘interlude’ is unreal and the sequence uninterrupted? Since the chronology of the later periods is in general more securely based, they cannot be extended backwards in time: so the earlier periods will have to come down. Why should they not? Because of Egypt.

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