Ancient History & Civilisation


East and West

The modern tendency to identify ‘Euboians’ in Syria, Cyprus, Crete, Ischia, and even Euboia itself may be a mistake…Those who initiated this network of trade and settlement were not Greek, but Levantine, and the culture they helped sponsor was too mixed to call Greek.

Sarah P. Morris,
Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (1992)

If the Greek pottery found in Syria in the 8th century [BC] was carried there by Easterners we await an answer to the question, often posed but not answered, why it is overwhelmingly from the Euboean straits, and none for example from Crete which we know to have been visited by Easterners, both Syrian and Phoenician. The answer can be only – Euboean carriers. But I do not wish, or need, here to argue further about the role of Euboea…prejudice against them in the West [is] shown by some scholars and the same applies also in the East.

Sir John Boardman, ‘Al Mina: Notes and Queries’,
AWE 4 (2005), 286

It is a reasonable supposition that, somewhere in the soil, almost all the pottery vessels ever made survive in fragments waiting to be excavated and studied.

Bryan Ward–Perkins,
The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005)


Home and Away


The general traces of eighth-century Greek contact with the Near East need to be made much more precise, even, if possible, accurate, so that we can trace a trail of particular travellers and connect them to accompanying myths. We have two types of contemporary evidence, archaeology and poetry, including Homer, on the well-founded and widespread modern assumption that Homer, like Hesiod, was an eighth-century poet. We also have a supporting range of evidence and information, some of it the evidence of places. It helps us to identify particular sites where contacts with Greeks occurred, to reunite sites known in texts or modern archaeology with their correct ancient place names and thus to exploit, above all, a knowledge of their landscape. Not much of this landscape has changed dramatically. There were many more fine trees on Sicily or Cyprus, and there were no untidy eucalyptuses in the Mediterranean which eighth-century Greeks saw, no oranges or lemons, no maize or cotton or tomatoes. However, there were still the same mountains, bays, plains and rivers, with only some relatively minor changes to their courses.

We also have widely scattered references in texts which were written much later in Greek and Latin and which allude to events, places and people whom we would date, on reasoned grounds, back in the eighth century too. It is easy, but misguided, to dismiss all this information indiscriminately, as if it is all guesswork or invention or the tendentious creation of people with later interests to advance. Some of it goes back to earlier written sources (mostly c. 450 BC onwards), including the researches of Aristotle and his pupils (c. 330 BC) into the earlier ‘constitutional’ history of 158 Greek states, which they based on local oral sources, texts and even laws and inscriptions otherwise lost to us. Even when storytelling and typical motifs have elaborated what survives, a core of historical names, places and events can still be unwrapped from them: this critical rereading is quite different from misplaced attempts to find underlying factual history in purely mythical narratives about mythical people outside historical time. Ultimately the value of such later material depends on oral sources maintaining it from the eighth century to its first writer’s own age. Most Greeks, like many people nowadays, tended to remember accurately back to about two generations before their own time (their great-grandfather’s doings were a haze to them), but, as in many other semi-literate societies, ‘great events’ were sometimes passed down accurately across many more years. They might include the origin of a social group or city-state, its founders and its siting. These items in ‘social memory’ are particularly useful for tracing our trail of Greeks overseas.1 They might also concern wars, civil conflicts or monuments which were still visible to posterity. Memories of such things were sometimes passed on by regular retelling at festivals or commemorations. Not every such item in our later texts is therefore true or well based: guesses, inventions or distorting bias are always possibilities. Their use rests on critical discrimination, not on a random determination to fit every surviving reference into one and the same eighth-century jigsaw puzzle.

Of the primary sources which are the main guide for our trail, the most copious, Homer’s epics, are an oblique witness to his own times. They are set in a distant heroic world and their main stories are myths lying far outside any eighth-century warrior or traveller’s real life. However, Homer is frequently very precise about places or points in a real landscape, known, therefore, to him or to previous poets in the hexameter tradition which had formed him. Whatever its ultimate origin, there is detail here of places known to Greeks. There are also ‘tales within a tale’, shorter tales of travel which Homer causes his heroes to tell, particularly in the Odyssey. They lie off the main lines of the plot which he inherited and when they refer to specific places and travels outside a world of fantasy, the details have to arise from Homer’s own invention. He would probably draw on bits of what he had heard or known in order to make these invented stories seem convincing. They even cohere in a typical pattern which he uses in several contexts and in a general way this pattern too may tell us something about the poet’s horizons. If we heard a poet nowadays telling us a story of Australians travelling abroad and of students on summer vacation in Bali or Thailand (even without telltale mobile phones), we could assess it as critical historians and see that these elements in it belong after c. 1790 (the mention of Australians) and after c. 1965 (the student-travellers, in hordes).

When Homer’s epics tell tales of eastern travels they deploy similar elements and a similar pattern. They refer to Phoenicians, but only to the rich city of Sidon, not Tyre or Byblos or any of their other city-states from Arwad to Acco. Greek heroes only visit Sidon in exceptional circumstances, when eloping with fair Helen or returning home from Troy. Phoenicians, in turn, are found abroad, but mainly in Egypt and as visitors to Crete or as traders with plans to visit Libya.2 Once they sell goods from their dark ships off the wondrous isle of ‘Syrie’, a fantasy island peopled by fortunate Greeks whom neither we nor Homer can place in the real world. Abroad they are imagined as faraway visitors who motivate rare travels and adventures in stories which Homer’s heroes tell. They are not a presence back in the heroes’ own Greek homeland. They tend to be rapacious and crooked, but there is no racial animosity, blackening all Phoenicians as deceitful non-Greeks. In one tall story, Homer’s Odysseus tells of ‘noble’ Phoenicians who are the trusted mainstays of the tale.3 The fact is that Homer’s Phoenicians tend to be traders and in Homeric epic, traders both Greek and non-Greek tell lies and are out for gain in a most unheroic way. So is Odysseus, but his own lies, deceit and gain are not a trader’s: they are nobly and heroically deployed by a king, a man of war.

At Phoenician Sidon, Homer’s local king gives away cleverly worked bowls of metal and fine textiles as gifts to his noble Greek visitors. As traders, Homer’s Phoenicians sell ‘trinkets’ and fine necklaces when they moor off a faraway Greek island.4 The main ‘triangle’ of Phoenician trading is Sidon, Crete, the coast of Egypt (‘Aigyptos’ is Homer’s name for the Nile) and an outlying point in ‘Libya’, our north Africa. From Crete, alternatively, they might go north-west, up the sea and islands off the north-west coast of the Greek mainland, presumably on their way to south Italy, Sardinia or Spain, lands which Homer never mentions.

Naturally, the plots of Homer’s two epics do not concern the trading and travelling of real Greek traders and raiders in Homer’s own (eighth-century) times. However, when Homer is most free to invent off the main lines of the plot, Egypt, Libya and Sidon are the place names which he repeatedly invokes for the trading and raiding. We shall return to the significance, even the sources, of this recurring pattern, but instead we must follow alternative evidence, real objects from the eighth century and its forerunners, the ‘dark’ tenth and ninth centuries, which have been unearthed and classified by archaeologists. In a more general way there is a useful Homeric contribution to their understanding, the reminder that not every person or object travelled because of trade. Homer’s epics show us that Near Eastern objects could sometimes arrive as gifts, not items of trade, and then be recycled and travel as ransoms, like the Phoenician silver bowl in the Iliad which first stopped on Lemnos as a gift, then passed to Patroclus as a ransom and ended as a prize on offer from Achilles at the funeral-games he held in Patroclus’ honour. If we found it buried with its final winner we would never give it such a complex prehistory.5 Solid, material objects can thus be elusive evidence too. With this Homeric lesson in mind we can use them to follow Greeks in the real world, my ‘travelling heroes’ who knew very much more than Homer’s epics of foreigners and their lands.


The most abundant evidence of people and objects on the move in the eighth century BC is not poetry: it is pottery, the most durable debris which archaeologists find. It has none of Homer’s consummate art, and it does not address us through inscriptions or stories painted on its surface. In the eighth century BC human figures were sometimes painted on pots at particular places of production, but narrative painting of mythical stories was rare and on our surviving examples the painting of an epic scene from Homer’s poems was not yet attempted.6 The most impressive eighth-century pieces are densely patterned with geometric designs which probably derived from the patterns of Greek textiles. Few visitors to museums still value their smaller contemporaries, the drinking-cups with handles and ‘compass-drawn concentric circles’ or the cups and big bowls with the most frequent types of figurative decoration, schematic birds, horses or trees. However, these same pots, even small fragments of them, are significant for historians. Archaeologists can now reconstruct a whole piece from a significant fragment and can often ascribe its manufacture to a particular Greek site. Sometimes their ascription is supported by analysis of a pot’s particular clay. Each piece contributes to a complex story of the movement of goods and people, exactly what we need to retrace.

There is history in the travels of cups and bowls, although ‘ceramics do not equal history’.7 They are only one small part of history and even there, they are only part of the evidence. In the tenth to eighth centuries BC Greeks from particular places may well have travelled more widely than we can trace. The lack of finds of Greek pottery from Egypt in this period means that we cannot document Greek contacts with Egypt, not that such contacts never existed. In an illiterate age, however, pottery lays the only contemporary trails of travellers which we can still follow. Pottery’s ordinariness has several advantages for such a study. Most of it is more relevant to everyday exchanges than fine jewellery or metals, which might travel only as booty or rare personal gifts. It is also a marker of other goods now lost to us which travelled in it or perhaps with it and were then consumed, wine perhaps, or grain, scent or olive oil. Here, the shapes of pottery tell a story too, whether they are big open-necked containers of bulky goods or narrow-necked slow-pouring flasks for contents which were precious, like our French scents, and were used only drop by drop.

The exact context of discovery is significant too for its social history. When pottery is found in a tomb it may have been an important part of the funerary rituals or perhaps a status symbol or a marker of the dead person’s former social contacts. If it is found in a secular building or a settlement it may have been there because of the goods which it once contained. If it belongs in a set of related pieces, it may have been used socially by bigger groups of diners or drinkers. How did they acquire it, by purchase, exchange or perhaps by gift? Homer’s poems show the importance of gift-giving between noble guest-friends: did some of the biggest items of pottery, far from home, travel as gifts to important people? The relations between makers, transporters and eventual users are important too. In the tenth to mid-eighth centuries pottery is more likely to have travelled with Greeks from its place of production, because trading was more localized than later and a separate class of carriers and ‘international traders’ had probably not formed. Even so, we need to be cautious: a Corinthian pot may mean a Corinthian Greek is present, but not necessarily. If found in a non-Greek site there is the further question of whether a Greek or a travelling non-Greek brought it there. However, the discovery of a high proportion of everyday Greek pottery among the total pottery of such a site is significant. It strongly implies, without proving, that Greeks were present.

Used in this way, pottery has corrected a popular view of Greeks’ relations with their eastern neighbours. Fifty years ago they were quite widely believed to have been cut off for four ‘dark’ centuries. Greeks had visited Cyprus and the coast of the Levant during the age of the Mycenaean palaces (c. 1350–1180 BC), but when this palace-society collapsed, their capacity for travel was thought to have contracted. A few Greeks migrated eastwards initially, but then the eleventh and tenth centuries were believed to be a time of isolation and poverty. ‘Darkness’ was considered to have persisted until contact was renewed with the Levant in the late ninth century. Until then long-distance travel by sea was at most a memory from the former Mycenaean age.

Archaeology has now moderated this extreme idea of darkness. The first phase, c. 1100–1050 BC, has been recognized to be even more active, because a migration of Greeks to post-Mycenaean Cyprus has become more solidly supported by evidence.8 Across the Aegean the continuing discovery and classification of Greek pottery then brings light to the darkness of the eleventh, tenth and ninth centuries too. The chronology of the earlier phases is much debated because pottery dated in Greek sites is also found in Near Eastern contexts. Here, archaeologists apply a separate timescale which is grounded on the local changes of style in accompanying non-Greek pottery and a few externally attested sieges and local destructions, mostly mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.9Both the Greek and the Near Eastern chronologies depend ultimately on the same fixed points: events or objects connected with Egypt’s pharaohs, the rulers whose dates are deducible in a sequence with justified precision.10 Unfortunately such connections are still rare.

Meanwhile the arguments are less about the sequence in which particular Greek styles of pottery decoration evolved than about the lengths of time and dates at which the changes in the decoration occurred. The sequence deduced from Greek sites is the most detailed and whatever absolute datings we give to its upper reaches between c. 1050 and c. 850, we can now detect Aegean Greek networks of exchange in this era. The best-represented items are pots made in the tenth century BC in Attica, which travelled across the Aegean to Crete and even Samos just off the coast of Asia.11 Another network extended up much of the east coast of central Greece and north to the coast of what later became Macedon, through the Cycladic islands and across to the east Aegean islands of Rhodes and Cos. This Greek network was already close to the non-Greek Levant. By origin its objects link especially to the long island of Euboea off the east coast of Attica.12

My eighth-century Greek trail depends on the existence of close Greek contacts with particular points on the south coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey) and the Levant (now Syria and the Lebanon). It is important, therefore, to see that this trail does not mark the first renewal of a Greek presence in the east. It is important, too, to consider whether Greeks from one and the same home site take the credit both for this overture and for laying the eighth-century trail of myths which followed, and if so, why they laid that trail only then. However humble and fragmented, pottery is a contemporary clue to the answers.

Its first lesson is that mainland Greek objects in the east were preceded by goods from the island which our maps identify as the likeliest intermediary: Cyprus. Less than 50 miles of sea divide northeastern Cyprus from the coast of the Levant and during most of the sailing season the local winds blow steadily from west to east. Unsurprisingly, Cypriot pottery of the eleventh and tenth centuries is found in quantity at sites on the Levantine coastline, including the major Phoenician site of Tyre.13 Exchanges of Cypriot metal objects were also especially active on Crete where potters later imitated the imported Cypriot shapes.14 Cypriots are also credited with the most elegant new pottery of the tenth and ninth centuries, the ‘black-on-red’ style for small flasks and jugs which held precious contents, surely scents and oils. ‘Black-on-red’ was exported widely down the coastal sites of the Levant and travelled inland, too, to sites which are now in modern Israel.15 As tenth-century Cyprus was populated by pre-Greeks, Greeks and Phoenicians, we cannot yet be exact about the ethnic identity of the originators of ‘black-on-red’ on the island. Even so, the carriers of this Cypriot pottery to the nearby Levant will have included Greek-speakers.

In the wake of such Cypriot pottery, pieces of pottery made or influenced by more distant Greeks have begun to be found very early in Near Eastern settings. The two most recent finds typify the surprises and problems. One is a big rounded vessel, a sort of pottery cauldron with Greek decoration whose pieces were found in a building, perhaps a storehouse, at Tell Hadar on the east shore of Lake Galilee, 50 miles south-east of Tyre. They were discovered with about a hundred local and Levantine Phoenician vessels and had been broken up before the building was damaged.16 The other is a small piece of a Greek deep pottery bowl which was found in a building at Tell Afis, a major site in Syria south-west of Aleppo and well to the east of the main route south down the Orontes river.17

Lake Galilee and inland Syria are remarkable places in which to find early imports from the ‘dark’ Greek world. Their excavators have proposed dates for them which are remarkable too: c. 1020–1000 BC for the Galilee piece, before the building (on this view) was destroyed during the reign of King David, and c. 1050–1000 for the Syria piece at Tell Afis. However, the Greek style of their decoration implies a later date. The Galilee piece’s style belongs c. 950–920, while the Syria fragment has clear parallels in Greek contexts c. 950 too.18 Both pieces then fit well with other Greek finds on and near the coast from where they travelled inland. We have pieces of four big storage-jars at the Syrian coastal site of Ras el-Bassit less than 30 miles north of modern Lattakieh: from their Greek style they are dated c. 980–950.19 Pieces of another such storage-jar were found a little further north in the plain near modern Antioch and a piece of a cup (whose Greek date is c. 950–900) was found recently on the southern sector of the coast, just south of Mount Carmel at ancient Dor.20 Above all, Greek objects have been found in identified levels at tenth-century Tyre, a storage-jar and two cups, while four other big pieces and a cup were found in unstratified levels. All of them are datable by their style to c. 950–900. Importantly the cups at Tyre match three others which have been found in a coastal cemetery at Amathus (modern Limassol) on the south coast of Cyprus.21 They suggest that the two sites shared similar contacts with travelling Greek goods in the late tenth century. The journey, with a following wind, was easy from Cyprus to Tyre.

Even the lower, Greek-based dates for these finds are surprising: so, too, are their non-Greek contexts, some of which lie far inland. Another surprise is their origin or likeliest Greek milieu. Almost all of them connect to the pottery known in one Greek region: the island of Euboea. From our maps we would never pick Euboea as the source of Greek objects which travelled to Tyre or Mount Carmel and even to inland Syria and Lake Galilee. However, excavations on and around Euboea itself have helped to blunt the surprise. The important excavated site there is Lefkandi, a settlement on the Euboean Gulf.22 The gulf runs up the western, inner coast of Euboea’s long island and divides it from the mainland coast of Attica and Boeotia opposite. This part of the Euboean coastline is characterized by beaches and natural harbours without steep cliffs behind. The settlement is beautifully sited on a slight hill above the sea which probably ran in on either side of it in antiquity, offering a good anchorage. Inland it looks across from its slope to the peak of Euboea’s own Mount Olympus to its north-east. Lefkandi’s ancient name is unknown, posing a fine challenge to modern scholars, but Old Eretria is the most attractive guess.23 A little further up the gulf, the channel narrows and the currents become complex and very dangerous, but the great settlement of Euboean Chalcis lay here, although most of it is inaccessible to excavations as it lies under the modern town. In ancient Chalcis’s absence Lefkandi is especially significant because its cemeteries have been found unplundered: they are concentrated on a separate hill and its slopes, about half a mile to the west of the settlement. It is through pottery finds made recently at Lefkandi that we can ascribe an exact Euboean origin to tenth-century Greek pieces in the Near East.

2. Euboea and its neighbours

Finds at Lefkandi also show that there was a reciprocal route from east to west.24 In the early tenth century BC a small pottery jug of Cypriot or Near Eastern origin had already reached one of the tombs there. It was followed by faience and glass beads, also of Near Eastern origin, in another tomb and then, mid-century, by the finds which have done most to puncture ideas of an isolated Greek ‘Dark Age’. On a levelled hill, separated from the nearby cemetery, archaeologists have excavated the ground-plan of a monumental building, 150 feet long, which was buried under a big mound of earth (Toumba).25 The floor of its central area was found to contain a pit-burial of four horses, and beside them the burials of the bones of a man and the skeleton of a woman, surely the ruler and his lady, perhaps his wife. The man’s bones had been cremated and then placed in a cloth in an antique bronze jar, originally made in Cyprus and decorated with scenes of hunting. Beside it lay weapons befitting a warrior. The lady’s skeleton, facing west, had her arms folded and feet and hands crossed. She was buried with finger-rings, dress-pins and two big gold discs on her dress over her breasts. They were evidently the cups of an externally worn gold bra. Her necklace of gold beads included an exceptional pendant of ancient Near Eastern origin. Beside her head lay an iron knife with a choice ivory handle. One view is that the knife had been used to kill her, but it might symbolize one of her public roles, as a priestess at sacrifices of animals to the gods. On either view, the warrior-king was laid to rest and his ‘wife’ was buried beside him: four of his horses were killed nearby, probably from his chariot team, and so was a dog whose bones, after cremation, were found in a box with other ashes from the pyre against the wall of the section of the building in which the burials lay. After these burials the building was constructed over them, only to be destroyed soon afterwards: a large mound of earth was heaped over the site. The ground to the east of this mound then became a cemetery too, in which men, women and children were buried during the next hundred years. Many of their burials included imported objects, some of which are of Near Eastern origin. The Euboeans who were buried near the Toumba mound were therefore people of social eminence. The first such burial was placed carefully in line with the buried building’s axis. Families were choosing to be buried close to the monument which covered the ‘very special dead’.26

In several ways these remarkable Euboean burials relate to aspects of Homer’s poetry. In Homer’s Iliad, great heroes are cremated and their bones are laid in precious urns to be set beneath man-made mounds of earth. The grandest funeral is the one for Achilles’ beloved Patroclus, on whose pyre are thrown various animals, including four fine horses and two of Patroclus’ nine household dogs.27 His bones are placed in a gold urn, and a man-made mound of earth is to be set above the pyre. It is a modest mound at first but it is to be enlarged when Achilles dies and is set beside him. Naturally, poetic licence enhances the memorial. For Patroclus a dozen ‘sons of great-hearted Trojans’ are also slaughtered. Earlier in the poem we hear about a burial mound for Andromache’s father on which exquisite elm-trees (no doubt disease-resistant) were planted by the mountain-nymphs, the rural daughters of Zeus. No wife of a Homeric hero was ever killed and buried beside her husband, but Hector’s bones, too, were wrapped in ‘soft purple robes’ inside their golden urn. The grave-mounds for Homer’s heroes ensure fame in the future, fame for themselves or even for their killers. Hector imagines how a great Greek champion will be covered by a huge mound when he kills him in a duel. The mound will be so big that a future passer-by ‘sailing on the wine-dark sea in his many-benched ship will say, “This is the mound of a man who died long ago whom noble Hector killed, champion though he was.” ’ The name of Hector, not his victim, is the one to be remembered.28

The burials under the building covered by Lefkandi’s Toumba were some two centuries older than Homer and in general terms are a source in history for what might otherwise seem to be Homer’s own poetic invention. Travellers on the Euboean Gulf could look across from their ‘many-benched ships’ towards the man-made mound on the shore, the memorial to the very special dead beneath. There were no elm-trees by courtesy of the mountain-nymphs, but under the floor of the big building there were horses (buried, not cremated), a metal urn (bronze, not gold), cremated bones in a special cloth and even a dog cremated and deposited on site. In Homer’s poems, burials were never placed inside a big building which was then destroyed, but in his heroes’ world and funerals there were many antique objects, weapons, bowls or jewellery which had ‘taken on a life of their own’,29 just like the antique bronze funerary urn in the Lefkandi ruler’s burial which had been made on Cyprus at least a century earlier or the astonishing Near Eastern pendant on the lady’s necklace whose nearest analogy lies some nine hundred years before the burial.

The big building above this couple is of uncertain purpose, and its history is much discussed.30 It seems from its layout to have been built after the burials inside it. There are no signs of funerary cult, although one side of the site is inaccessible under a modern road. It is unlikely, then, to be a shrine in which the dead were worshipped as heroes. It cannot be the buried couple’s house, as they died before it was built. Perhaps it was a funerary house in their honour which was then demolished as part of their funerary rites. Was it, perhaps, modelled on their hall elsewhere in Lefkandi where they entertained and dined with their contemporaries? They may have lived on the hill of the nearby settlement and surely such an important couple paid poets, long before Homer, to sing poems for them in hexameters.31 These could have been short episodic songs about the heroes, like the episodic songs which Homer gives to the poets whom he imagines in a world long before his own. In the tenth century BC there were as yet no long epic poems with an overarching plot, but in nearby Thessaly there were localized myths of many great heroes, Achilles among them, of whom, at shorter length, tenth-century poets of Lefkandi may already have sung.

The funerals of major Homeric heroes are on a grand scale, extending over two or three weeks. The effort put into Lefkandi’s big building, its platform and the mound above it were huge projects, implying a ruling group in the early to mid-tenth century who were far from feeble or impoverished. Burials of weapons, gold ornaments and cremated bones in bronze urns can be paralleled archaeologically, at first on Cyprus and then on Crete, suggesting that this expensive style of funerary rite may have spread through social links between leaders of these ‘dark age’ Greek communities. Horse-burials are also known on Cyprus in the eleventh century BC, where they resumed a practice known earlier in the second millennium. It is possible that, like the bronze urn, a knowledge of this style of death reached Lefkandi from Cyprus.32 Like the imports in the Euboeans’ graves they refute the idea that these Greeks were isolated from the world beyond. The couple who were buried under the Toumba mound were contemporary with the far-flung travels of Euboean pottery to Tyre, north Syria and the hinterland. They were contemporary, too, with Hiram king of Tyre and Israel’s King Solomon, famous kings in the Near East. It is extremely important that scattered, fragmentary pottery in the Toumba mound above their building matches exactly some of the Euboean pottery which is found in the near-contemporary east.33

The Euboeans who were then buried beside the Toumba mound, from c. 950 to 820 BC, continued with similar contacts. More than eighty tombs and thirty funeral-pyres have been studied here and the presence of imported objects is notable throughout. In the other nearby cemeteries at Lefkandi these imports are much rarer. It seems, then, that imported objects were included here as marks of the dead’s superior status. Goods of Near Eastern origin are the most conspicuous markers, including faience, glass beads, two more Syrian bronze bowls and several objects of Egyptian style and origin, including finger-rings.34 One burial included six unusual faience vases and some Egyptian-style trinkets, so much so that intermarriage with a Levantine bride has even been suggested as an explanation: the grave, however, is more complex, as it contains two burials, one of which seems to be a child’s.35 Throughout the cemetery there is a distinctive difference between men’s and women’s grave-goods. The women are the people buried with the gold rings, ornaments and beads of faience necklaces: they are ‘trophy wives’, decorated by their husbands to look smart and showy, even in death.36 Male burials had a different scope. One male burial of the mid-ninth century included arrows and weapons, six Euboean-style plates, some local weights, an antique north Syrian seal, a small Cypriot-style ‘black-on-red’ jug and others of Levantine or Cypriot origin beside a bronze cauldron for the dead man’s bones. This male was not an eastern immigrant. He was a Euboean who had evidently combined warfare with Near Eastern contact and exchange. For such men the line between war and trade was blurred.37

The social context of the buried building and the cemetery which grew up round it is also a vexed question. The settlement at Lefkandi shows a rare continuity from the Mycenaean age into the succeeding centuries and it may be that under and around the Toumba we have evidence of a transition which has long eluded archaeologists. Perhaps the couple buried under the building’s floor were the last of Lefkandi’s old ruling family and those who were then buried beside their mound are the families of the upper class who followed them. If so, we see here the transition from monarchy to aristocratic rule by ‘kings’ in the plural, the basileis whom we then meet in eighth-century Greek evidence, when monarchy has largely disappeared. Certainly the objects buried with them continue to run gratifyingly in parallel to finds of Euboean pottery in the late tenth- and ninth-century Near East: any gap in the earlier ninth century is more apparent than real.38 At Lefkandi we have the ‘home’ end of the connection which runs ‘away’ to the Levant. On ninth-century Cyprus, Euboean pots appear only in tombs and in this period only at Amathus and Kition (Larnaca) on the island’s south coast.39 In the ninth-century Levant, it is at Tyre that finds of Euboean pottery are at present most conspicuous, including a small number of Euboean plates. Others are now reported, predictably, at Sidon: further south a very few Greek pottery items continue to turn up from the same century at a distance from the coast. Here too connections with Euboea are in the majority. In the Jordan valley, on the river’s west bank, we have bits of two mixing-bowls and two cups which are Euboean objects made c. 850–830, and an Attic storage-pot of a similar date which Euboeans probably brought to the Levant too. These objects had travelled to the big site of Tel Rehov, close to the major route for goods along the Jordan valley.40

The Euboean finds thus run in tandem, ‘home and away’, but who were their carriers and which way did the exchanges go between Euboea and the Near East? An older view was that Greek cups in the Near East always required Greeks themselves to be present, just as wineglasses later indicated the presence of Europeans in Muslim countries. However, Greek cups have now been found in several non-Greek cemeteries and this sharp distinction is no longer valid. The very few finds of Greek pottery inland behind the Levantine coast also imply that non-Greeks carried these stray objects inland, apparently from coastal points like Tyre or Ras el-Bassit. River- and land-routes run inland here and the land-bound stage of the objects’ travel would probably not be in Greek hands.41

Were Phoenicians, then, the carriers of all the Greek bowls, jars and cups found in the tenth- and ninth-century Near East, their own home sphere? Phoenicians certainly crossed the Aegean: Phoenician pottery has been found on Cyprus (from the period c. 1050–950 BC) before any Greek cups and plates there: the important Cypriot centre at Old Paphos has produced Phoenician pottery, but no imported Greek pottery, in at least half of its excavated tombs of this date.42 Phoenician pottery is present with the Greek pottery in the seven tombs which are most ‘Greek’ among those at Amathus; above all, a Phoenician’s grave on the island was protected by a Phoenician inscription whose style is dated by its lettering to c. 900 BC.43 In the ninth century Phoenicians founded their ‘New Town’ on Cyprus, surely at Kition.44 Phoenicians are also said to have settled and intermarried at Ialysos on Rhodes, though admittedly only in much later Greek sources; they had contact with parts of Crete, including a stopover point at Kommos (byc. 900 BC) on its south-west coast, and in later Greek sources they are credited with contacts with the islands of Melos and Thera and above all Cythera off the southern tip of Greece.45 Could they not have visited Euboea too, exchanging jewellery and trinkets (as the Odysseydescribes elsewhere) and bringing back to the east the contents of the big Euboean jars (which the Odyssey never mentions) among our earliest Greek finds in settlements in the Levant? The problem is to see what could have drawn them up the Euboean Gulf to Lefkandi. Briefly, between c. 850 and c. 830 BC silver was worked from the nearby Athenian mines at Laurion, but this phase was short-lived and silver remains a notorious absentee from burials in Greece of the tenth to early eighth centuries BC.46 Lefkandi and no doubt Chalcis had families who were honoured by a burial with horses under a big mound of earth, but in terms of Sidon, Tyre or Solomon their ‘splendour’ was relative and inconsiderable. Farther west, meanwhile, Phoenicians had contacts with metal-rich Sardinia and southern Spain, destinations for which the Greek islands of Crete or Cythera were stopping-points on a much more lucrative route.

Above all there are no Phoenician goods of this period on island stopovers which would lead to Euboea and the islands in its immediate sphere of influence. No Phoenician burials have been found on Euboea, either, and nothing which requires a Phoenician’s prolonged presence. Nothing in the smart Toumba cemetery suggests that any Phoenician was buried here among Euboean families, the basileis, perhaps, of the new age.47 If there were eastern immigrants resident on the site they would at most be craftsmen, not shippers of valuable Phoenician trinkets: in subsequent Greek history the usual transfer of such foreign craftsmen was as slaves. There is no sign, either, of any Phoenician women travelling to marry Euboean men. All the women’s funerary rites are Greek and although some of them were buried with Near Eastern seals, so were men who were certainly not Near Easterners.

Should we think of Cypriots, rather, as the intermediaries between Euboea and the Levant? Some of the Near Eastern objects at Lefkandi are Cypriot by origin; Euboean objects appear at Cypriot Amathus; did Cypriots simply carry all the other Euboean objects on to the Levant? The problem is that on Cyprus there are no Cypriots’ graves with the same Phoenician and Egyptianizing objects as at Lefkandi: why would they pass these luxurious objects only to Lefkandi in Euboea and not retain similar ones themselves? The obvious answer is that Euboeans brought their own goods, including pottery, to Cyprus and the coast of the Levant, even if a few pieces were then casually carried further inland by non-Greeks. The selection of Euboean-made objects as the main goods from Greece to the Levant is then most readily explained. There are no obviously ‘Euboean Greek’ burials in the Levant at this date, but there too we need only think of visitors, not resident settlers.

The range of the Euboeans’ contacts elsewhere supports this explanation. Graves at Lefkandi which contained objects from the Near East also contained distinctive pottery from northern Greece: it points to their contact with the coastline which would later become Macedon and with the bays and promontories of the nearby Chalcidic peninsula. To reach it they passed from Lefkandi up a coastline where settlements already existed and over parts of which, even in the tenth century, their rulers may have exercised power. Across the gulf, on the Boeotian side, lay the Greek settlement later known to us as Oropos.48 It was said in later sources to be a foundation by Eretria: it first becomes significant in the later tenth century BC when this ‘Eretria’ would surely be Lefkandi, whose pottery sequences precede those at Oropos. Further up this same coastline, about 40 miles north-west of Lefkandi, lies a newly located Greek settlement at Mitrou, protected for archaeologists on its islet set in a bay off the Euboean Gulf. It, too, was thriving in the early tenth century: there are then signs of destruction, perhaps because it lay within easy reach of Euboeans from the north of their island.49

The Euboean orbit extended even further north, as the graves at Lefkandi imply. Excavations on two of the prongs of the Chalcidic peninsula and at sites in and near modern Thessalonica, the future lands of Macedon, have greatly enriched our impressions of a Euboean northern presence.50 At Sindos, near Thessalonica, Euboean contacts may well have begun by the time of the Lefkandi burials in the tenth century BC. The nearby river was a recognized source of gold: some of the gold for the Euboeans’ jewellery at Lefkandi may have derived from the north here, including the gold for their royal lady’s gold bra. At Mende, on the west side of the Chalcidic peninsula, Euboean contacts may also be contemporary with Lefkandi’s main graves, just as they are at the beautiful site of Torone on the peninsula’s central prong.51 Here, a Euboean influence on the pottery of the best-excavated cemetery is more evident than actual early Euboean imports: at present there are only two Euboean cups there before 850 BC. Scarcely 3 miles to the east of Torone, however, there are signs of Euboean contact at the site of modern Koukos. Sources of copper and iron lay nearby: there is a local mould and tools for metal-working at the site dating to the mid-ninth century BC.52

The Euboean contacts here are signs of a new Euboean presence. They had not been preceded by an earlier, post-Mycenaean settlement of migrant Euboeans in this area:53 during the eighth century BC these contacts then developed into a series of Euboean settlements, as never happened on Cyprus. The local ethnic structures in the north were weaker than the Cypriot kingdoms’ and did not keep them out. The evidence of Euboean imports intensifies at several northern sites: the local use of the Euboeans’ distinctive calendar, well attested later, goes back at least to this eighth-century phase, implying a dominant Euboean presence. The Greek historians of the fifth century BC then endorse the existence of real Euboean colonies here and attest the name of the ‘Chalcidic’ peninsula which derives from Euboean Chalcis.54 As well as providing metals, the north was a fine source of timber for shipbuilding, an asset in which Euboea herself was not rich but which her naval adventurers would welcome.

Nearer home, Euboeans were also in close contact with contemporary ‘Dark Age’ Attica. There is a strong presence of Attic pottery in burials at Lefkandi: a huge Attic urn, about 3 feet high, was even found in pieces at the big Toumba building. One possibility is that Athenian immigrants, even brides, came over to the site.55 Before Lefkandi’s discovery much was made of the foreign elements in two mid- to late ninth-century Athenian burials, each of which included objects of Near Eastern origin. Although one was even called the ‘Rich Lady’ of the Areopagus hill, she now seems only modestly rich in the light of Lefkandi’s contemporary residents: it is some compensation that archaeologists now recognize that she died pregnant.56 Two other well-equipped burials at nearby Eleusis were also burials of women: one of them was buried with an Egyptian figurine, but this item is no longer so special when set beside the Lefkandiots’ earlier examples.57 Formerly, some of the techniques of these ladies’ gold jewellery and earrings were suggested to be the work of ‘migrant craftsmen’, experts who had settled in Attica from the Levant. They were used to support arguments that Phoenicians came and even settled among ‘Dark Age’ Athenians.58 However, we can now see that these Athenians’ Near Eastern objects and jewellery were not innovations: they need only have come down from nearby Lefkandi where contemporary Attic pottery was being imported and similar jewellery had already long been in use.

Euboeans’ close contacts with Athens, with Chalcidice and the north were matched by another of cardinal importance: Euboeans (with Cretans) are credited with settling on the favoured island of Chios in the east Aegean where the Greek presence was to be so rich for so long. Excavations here are still minimally relevant to this period, but Euboean pottery of the early to mid-ninth century has been discovered on the island.59 The settlements go further back in time, making Chios an eastward horizon of Euboeans and their kin as early as the lifetime of the warrior-ruler who was buried beneath Lefkandi’s mound. On Chios there were also Cypriots and it may well be through contacts made on this island that Euboeans were drawn to try their luck on Cyprus too and thence move on to the Levant. Phoenicians are not linked in our surviving texts with Chios, but with Chios’s rival Erythrae on the mainland of Asia opposite, a stopping-point on their separate route up the Asian coastline to the north.60

From the south coast of Chios the Aegean coasts of south-east Euboea are surprisingly visible on a clear day: tenth-century Euboeans had an eastward horizon beckoning to them here, independent of any Phoenician contact. It built on the older Aegean Greek networks laid by their fathers and grandfathers, networks which ran already as far east as Rhodes and the islands of the Dodecanese. Like Lefkandi’s burials, these contacts point to an outward-looking and enterprising group, for whom the further trip to Cyprus or even to Tyre was not such a leap into the dark.

We can therefore answer one of the puzzles of these once ‘dark’ centuries: why was Euboea so prominent?61 It is not just an accident of our limited archaeology. At Lefkandi the settlement was unusual in continuing through the post-Mycenaean centuries; there was a ruler c. 950 BC who was remarkable enough to be buried and commemorated on the grand scale; the next generation of an upper class continued his outward-looking contacts, north, south and east. What was true at Lefkandi was true, surely, at nearby unexcavated Chalcis. Some of these Euboeans already had kin or compatriots on Chios and perhaps in settlements on the western coast of Asia. They carried their existing network a little further to Cyprus, then on to the Levant. No other contemporary Greek settlement is known to have had this scale, social structure and connected horizons of kinsmen and contacts. Euboeans also had the necessary sea-skills. Seamen who could cope with the complex currents of their home Euboean Gulf would be less deterred by a crossing of the Aegean from one island to the next.

There were also important riches to be brought home for local craftsmen who knew increasingly how to work their raw materials. At Lefkandi the burials included gold jewellery and evidence of local bronze-working. Gold was to be found in the north, with copper, too, near Torone on the Chalcidic peninsula. Above all, copper proliferated on Cyprus while copper and tin were available in north Syria and the Levant. One reason why Euboeans continued to spread outwards was the scope for acquiring metals to be worked at home and one reason why they began to work them so skilfully may have been their early contact with Cyprus and its skilled workers.62 We can at least see beyond Homer’s picture of heroes who travel only to Sidon in the Levant, and then only when returning home from war or as an adulterous lover, Paris, on the run with his prize Helen.


We are left wondering what Euboeans might have given, carried and exchanged abroad. In Homer we are especially aware of the role of splendid gifts, given by one noble hero in honour of another; everyday trade, however, is considered vulgar and ignoble. In real life the two types of exchange were not always separable. A trip eastwards was an adventure which would offer scope for raiding and fighting in self-defence. Those warriors who risked such a trip might give or exchange gifts with a social equal overseas, someone who might one day be buried with a memento of his contacts with a Greek. Those Greeks who gave such gifts could also exchange and trade perishable goods with others whom they met through their foreign guest-friends.63 By its nature none of this perishable trade survives: how, then, should we relate it to the durable items of pottery which we still have? The big Greek mixing-vessels for wine have been explained as gifts to important people, interpreted by the sort of gift-giving which we know from Homer. Although only a few such vessels survive for us in Cyprus or Hamath or Samaria, they survive in places which were all royal centres in the ninth and eighth centuries BC.64 Perhaps these very big vessels were grand enough to be gifts at court, but the cups, bowls and plates were not, especially in eastern cultures where the finest vessels were made of precious metals. In Homer’s Odyssey we are told of the gifts which were considered suitable for nobles: they were ‘swords and cauldrons’, metal ones, not humble pots.

If the other imported Euboean pots and plates are relics of a bigger trade, they are unlikely to have been that trade’s main items: the existing cultures of eating and drinking in the Levant had plenty of bowls and plates of their own. The items, however, may have acquired a symbolic value which was greater than their cheap materials. On Cyprus they are found in tombs, although they were not necessary for the funerary rites. Only a small proportion of the tombs on each Cypriot site includes them and so, despite appearances, we should perhaps understand this Greek pottery as a memento of the foreign contacts which the tombs’ occupants had made. If so, even some of the simple Greek cups were unusual enough to be deposited as a social statement about the dead person’s previous life.65

What perishable goods might have been traded beside them? In the late sixth century BC the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel imagines the far-flung trade of Tyre with foreign peoples and credits Greeks with supplying ‘the souls of men’, meaning slaves.66 Raiding and plunder along the Near Eastern coastline would indeed provide Greeks with slaves for resale, but in the tenth to eighth centuries Euboeans would be unlikely to set out on a prolonged sea-journey with cargoes of Greek slaves and surplus children for exchange in a Near East which had local sources in plenty. From later Greek papyrus evidence, sheep have been suggested as an alternative cargo, but their management at sea across long distances would be even less likely in this early period.67 Textiles are a more plausible guess, supplied by the weaving of Greek women, both slave and free: the designs of contemporary Greek pottery may give us an idea of their patterns. The Levant, however, had its own long history of fine textiles, including those with valued purple dyes, and an interest in simple Greek fabrics is unattested. The source of purple dye was a small mollusc, one of whose many homes was the Euboean Gulf: we know that the dye was extracted on a small scale at Oropos, opposite Euboea, and also at Eretria.68 However, Phoenicians did not need to import any more of it: they had rich local sources of their own. Much likelier exports are products of the soil. In later centuries Euboea was known for its excellent use of localized scent-plants, from which the Eretrians made a particularchrisma, or oil.69 In the tenth to eighth centuries BC, however, these plants were not the source of their eastward trade: Euboean pottery in the east does not include small slow-pouring bottles and flasks for oils and scents. Vessels of that type are above all a Cypriot speciality.70 In the big Euboean jars the likelier export is olive oil. Olives grew in the Levant too, but quality mattered and Euboean oil may have been clearer and finer.

Above all there was local Euboean wine. Vines grew well in the fertile and contested Lelantine plain around Lefkandi, as they still do in its rapidly disappearing traditional vineyards. They grew well, too, in the plain east of Eretria where some vintage personal names based on ‘wine’ (oinos) were bestowed on male children in antiquity. There was also wine from the north-west coast where Histiaea was already praised by Homer for its grapes.71 Histiaea has a small fertile plain behind it but the supreme site for vines in Euboean history has been modern Koumi on the island’s north-facing Aegean coast. In the 1830s William Leake, travelling carefully in the area, remarked how Koumi was providing a huge quantity of wine each year to contemporary Smyrna (İzmir in Turkey) and to sites on the Black Sea. The reasons lie in local conditions which the ancients, too, would have recognized.72 The district round modern Koumi has a high rainfall, the highest in the island, while the slopes of the mountain ridge beside the modern town are made of volcanic soil. In the very distant past this ridge was volcanic and its old craters are still traceable near Mount Oxylithos, its terminal point. Blocks of its brown lava-stone have been used in the local buildings and the volcanic soil is ideally suited to vines. The wine from modern Koumi’s territory grew partly in vineyards on these volcanic slopes until the vines were killed in the epidemic of the early twentieth century.

Did an ancient site called Cumae stand near modern wine-growing Koumi? It has been dismissed as an ‘urban myth’, because only one later Byzantine text attests it directly. However, that text used earlier Hellenistic sources and there is indirect evidence about a Cumae in the eighth century BC which is hard to evade.73 Archaeologically, the ancient Euboean Cumae remains to be found in this very area, but for historians it is already an important missing link in our understanding of Euboeans in the tenth to eighth century. From this area they looked out onto a bay with access for ships to the nearby island of Scyros and thence to the eastern Aegean. Items in graves on Scyros of the tenth to eighth centuries are closely matched by items found on Euboea, whether pottery or handsome gold diadem-bands which were worn on the forehead.74 These objects came across from the Euboean coastline near modern Koumi. From Scyros, Euboean ships could then travel up to their contacts in the north or turn eastwards to go over to Chios. The northern Aegean coast of their island was important in the Euboean network.

In the tenth to eighth centuries, as in later times, volcanic vineyards near modern Koumi may have been one of the main sources of Euboeans’ eastward exports. Wine from here and Lefkandi’s nearby Lelantine plain could be transported more easily in skins than in breakable pots, a reason why we find only the accompanying Euboean cups and plates which were the extras and the gifts beside the main perishable cargo. Certainly, wine would find ready buyers in the Near East. In the later sixth century the prophet Ezekiel’s list of Tyre’s foreign imports includes wine imported from two faraway sources, one in north Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the other ‘Helbon’, the district of wine-growing hills about 10 miles north of Damascus in Syria, which produced excellent wine, appreciated throughout antiquity and on into the Middle Ages.75 Phoenicians had a taste for fine wine from far afield and also, according to Ezekiel, re-exported it. Euboean wine could fit neatly into this Levantine demand which was considerable and had a wide span.

Whatever the trade which went on beside the gifts, its total scale should not be exaggerated. Fragments of at most a hundred Greek pottery vessels dating from the period down to c. 800 BC have been found at Tyre, our most prolific source of them, and even so, they are a tiny fraction of the total pottery recovered on the site. About 140 Greek pottery vessels of the period c. 920–720 are the total so far discovered in Cyprus, all in tombs, not settlements. Even at Amathus, they occur in only about a fifth of the known tombs and usually there is non-Greek pottery with them too.76 Finds of imported Euboean pottery are concentrated along the southern and eastern coasts of the island, where the local winds and weather help us to put them into perspective.

In the eastern Mediterranean the prevailing winds for most of the year blow from the west. From the harbour-site of Amathus on south Cyprus, ships could sail directly across to the north Syrian coast with a wind from the west, and the trip could be done in a day. North-west winds would also blow regularly here, taking ships easily down the Levantine coast to Sidon or Tyre or further south to Ascalon.77 Our finds of Euboean pottery in the tenth and ninth centuries fit this pattern very well; they concentrate at Amathus and Tyre with outlying pieces found to the north and south of Tyre on the Levantine coast. The problem was the return voyage, especially for ships which had travelled on south to Egypt. The best evidence comes from eyewitnesses in the age of the Crusades when this region was again of major importance. ‘The blowing of the winds in these parts’, observed the acute Ibn Jubayr at Acre in the mid-fourteenth century, ‘has a singular secret. The east wind does not blow except in spring and autumn. The spring voyages begin in the middle of April when the east wind blows until the end of May. The autumn voyages are from the middle of October when the east wind sets again…it blows for fifteen days. There is no other suitable time.’78 Cargo-ships would cluster off the Holy Land in late April and early May or late September and early October, hoping to unload quickly and then return during the brief spell of easterly winds. Traders did not wish to be caught in the eastern ports all summer nor to set off to the west so late that they would hit the storms of mid-November.

There were also difficulties in the passage to and from Egypt. A trader could be helped south from Crete, Rhodes or Cyprus by a fine spell of north to north-west winds, but the return to each of these islands was more difficult across open sea. Crusaders knew they should return from Egypt up the coast of the Levant: they would then use the current which ran up to southern Asia Minor (Cilicia) as often as voyaging against the wind directly to southern Cyprus. The straight crossing from Tyre and Sidon to Rhodes was possible but not always easy: the journey of some 550 miles took Ibn Jubayr an entire month on a rough, unpleasant sea. One speech by an orator in classical Athens claims that travelling between Rhodes and Egypt’s Nile Delta was easily done three times during winter.79 Connections between Rhodes and the Delta were very important, but the orator is being tendentious here for the sake of his case, inventing this winter travelling before an ill-informed jury based in Athens.

Centuries earlier, travelling Euboeans had been subject to similar conditions. For them, cargoes had to be traded, gifts given and local contacts sought and maintained: they would usually be held up at their destination for longer than a simple unloading. Journeys to the Levant and back were thus seasonal affairs, best managed when carefully timed. As for Egypt, it was best visited when a return up the coast of the Levant was possible. Many of the Egyptian goods discovered at Lefkandi are probably to be imagined as goods acquired in the Levant from Phoenician intermediaries and then brought back to Greek waters.

In the light of these conditions, the Greek pottery found on Cyprus and the Near East down to c. 800 BC is not evidence of a big production for export which was transforming its producers’ home economy. The underlying trade was very much smaller than the big cargoes and quantities of objects which are attested by surviving ‘Mycenaean’ texts and which we recover from local shipwrecks in the age of the ‘Mycenaean’ kingdoms (c. 1350–1180 BC).80 Historically, the trade c. 980–800 does not matter because of its scale. It matters, rather, because it brings Greeks, especially Euboeans, across to Cyprus and the Levant when ‘darkness’ used to be ascribed to their Greek world. Has this renewed Greek contact c. 980–800 left any trace in later written texts?

There are two suggestive bits of evidence. In the Hebrew Scriptures, King David is credited four times with troops of ‘Kerethites and Pelethites’. They have their own important commander and they seem to rank as the king’s guards. One possible interpretation is that both groups are foreigners, the Pelethites being Philistines from the coast and the Kerethites being Cretan Greeks from across the sea.81 Archaeologically, Crete c. 850–750 BC appears to be only the passive recipient of Phoenician and north Syrian objects, whether bronze, ivory, faience or glass. But Homer’s Cretans are fighters and travellers and if there was any raiding to be done on the Asian coast it is hard for historians to credit that Cretans were not somehow involved. Perhaps there were Cretans who had already seen Jerusalem in the early tenth century, just when the first Euboean Greek pottery imports were travelling inland from the coast.

More solidly, we have the inscribed genealogy of a Greek on the island of Chios. Without citing any hero or mythical ancestor, one Heropythos was listed here on his gravestone with fourteen generations of his family’s forebears, a remarkable chain through the generations of an orally remembered past.82 His inscription is dated before c. 400 BC by the style of its lettering, perhaps c. 440–420, and if we allow an average of about three generations to a hundred years the fourteenth ancestor, the oldest, would have livedc.870 BC. His name is none other than Kyprios, presumably a Cypriot: on Chios, Euboean settlers could indeed meet Cypriot settlers, people who could support their further travels and encourage contacts with Cyprus.

These connections are slender, for a good reason. No contemporary Cretan wrote of his service in Israel or the Levant and no ninth-century Euboean recorded his family’s links with Chios or the Near East. They were illiterate, and the finest witness to Greeks’ travels in this area is eventually the alphabet itself. As we have seen, our earliest alphabetic Greek inscription dates to c. 750 BC, but there are earlier signs of the alphabet’s influence which imply that it must be an earlier innovation, arguably beginning c. 820–800.83 We know one thing for sure: it arose from an individual Greek’s contact and discussions with a Near Easterner, a Phoenician from the Levant, it still seems, rather than someone from the north Syrian zone of Aramaic writing. It arose, therefore, in a place where Greeks and Phoenicians had personal contact and on the evidence of its early diffusion and of the style of its earliest known examples its inventor is most likely to have been a Euboean Greek.84 Its place of invention is still uncertain: the coast of Crete or Rhodes, perhaps, or somewhere in the Levant itself, perhaps even Tyre where Greek pots and plates had found a home. It might even have had a floating origin on board ship, when a Phoenician and a Euboean passenger had long hours to pass and writing-tablets (as we know from shipwrecks in the Aegean) might have been to hand for a lesson. My own guess is an origin on coastal Cyprus, despite the syllabic Greek script which already existed in parts of the island. An alphabet was more convenient. On the south coast at Amathus we know from tomb evidence that Euboean and Phoenician goods had coexisted from c. 920 BC onwards. So, no doubt, did the two peoples, and one day an alert Euboean might have learned from a neighbouring Phoenician the signs and names of his lettering. He learned them in the standard sequence of their Semitic script: alpha, beta, gamma…the order which Greeks themselves then learned, taught and preserved. The inference is that the “inventor” who first used these letters for the notation of the Greek language had participated in at least one school lesson…’ Crucially he misunderstood it and so introduced vowels where his Semitic prototype had none. The alphabet was the result of ‘the Greek genius for creative misunderstanding’.85 It was not, as we shall see, to be the last such result in the Near East.

Chariots decorating the neck of a Geometric amphora, c. 740 BC.

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