Lessons From Greece

Travel extends the mind. Here are some of the things I learned from a recent trip to Greece: about the age of the human condition, about how civilisations end with environmental depletion, about the stresses to the current Greek economy and about how trivial are New Zealand news websites. 

There are remnants of wall frescos from the 3500-plus year old Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete – home of the legendary Labyrinth and Minotaur. (The building is rambling enough to be a maze and some of the frescos show boys leaping over bulls.) I was struck by their love for the environment (Beethoven would have been moved) while some had personalities with which a modern mind could empathise.

I first became aware of how old was this empathy from reading Homer. The humans in his great poems are just like us, without as much scientific knowledge of the world. So they attribute what they cannot explain to the gods (we might explain by a heart attack when someone gets struck down by a thunderbolt from Zeus ). The frescos are 800 years earlier than Homer – longer than humans have been in New Zealand. One is left pondering just how far the essence of our humanity goes back – before the beginnings of literature; before the beginnings of art.

I also visited the acropolis of Mycenae with its great stone palace and its lion gate. Mycenaean civilisation is a little later than the Minoan one and probably conquered it. The stone buildings of the palace/citadel are impressive. Its blocks weighed an average of 10 tonnes and it is thought it would have taken 100 man-years, to put them in place. It too came to an end, about 3100 years ago; there is some dispute as to why.

There is a problem with archaeology in that, inevitably, it collects what has survived: stones, pottery, other mineral-based artefacts. Perishables are not there. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years in which Elizabeth Warren Barber brought together evidence of weaving in early times – loom weights, a few bits of fabrics from bogs, mentions in literature (like Odysseus’s Penelope weaving), frescoes and pottery which show us the clothes they wore – to make a compelling case of the importance of activity largely forgotten because the evidence is so sparse. (What you observe -- or measure -- frames your understanding.) 

Museums pay little attention to weaving (loom weights aside) and I did not see the remains of a single boat in one, despite the Greeks being fundamentally a seafaring people . (Compared to the more recent Maori middens – which are very revealing – there is not much on their food either.)

So what is left is a very selective picture of what actually happened. I got thinking about wood – another perishable. It was probably the material first used for the citadels. Later it was used in constructions (such as roofs on houses), and probably also for scaffolding. It was used for furniture, looms, tools, and as a source of energy.

The hills surrounding Mycenae are denuded of forests; the valley below a flood plain planted with olive trees. (Any river is a long way from the acropolis; in Mycenaean times it must have been closer.) Presumably once the hills were covered with trees,. As they were felled, the hillsides eroded and their good soil swept into the valley below. It would not have happened overnight. Each year – over centuries – some trees were taken, some slips resulted until eventually the valued resource was exhausted – unrenewable given the environmental destruction. Nobody would have particularly noticed the erosion each year but cumulatively a key resource was exhausted and the civilisation which depended on it died too.

Jared Diamond has written Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed in which he describes communities ended by environmental depletion. He did not mention ancient Greece but despite other (relevant) explanations – external invasions, technological change, earthquakes – deforestation is surely part of the story. (Incidentally the ‘golden age’ of Athens was based on silver mines they owned; when the silver ran out so did Athenian power.)

Not far from Mycenae is the 3250 year old ‘Treasury of Atreus’, an impressive tholos (tomb) – its lintel stone weighs 120 tonnes. Like the other Greek treasuries we saw it was empty, looted and full of tourists.

On the whole, Greece looks a modern economy. If you are in the tourist sector it is hard to see signs of fiscal and economic austerity. (I did not get any sense of personal danger from the political turbulence which is said to have discouraged some tourists.) I did see half-finished blocks of town houses – perhaps speculative ventures which had run out of cash. There were no ongoing roadworks – in one place there was an almost complete expressway with no finishing being done – presumably a consequence of fiscal decisions. To my inexpert eye agriculture also looked prosperous. I take it that austerity’s big impact is outside the export-oriented tourist and agricultural sectors.

Did I say ‘looked a modern economy’? The one exception was outside a number of tourist sites there were people standing around selling postcards and such trivia – one was selling ‘genuine imitation watches’ – something characteristic of much less developed economies. They were probably the unemployed eking out their minimal unemployment benefits, if any.

Apparently the Greek economy is further contracting this year and is expected to contract next. So much for the neoliberal mantra that austerity would mean a return to economic growth. (You may remember the Rogernomes promised this too, while the New Zealand economy remained in one of its longer postwar stagnations.) There is far too much international complacency about the prospects of the Greek economy. There is a further round of financing to be discussed later this month; perhaps this time those outside the country will face up to the reality.

(The Greeks and Turks were also greatly troubled by the refugees flowing through their country from Syria.)

I travel in part to get an outside perceptive of New Zealand. I was struck by the trivia on the New Zealand news websites I consulted while away. They were dominated by anecdote and opinion, reminiscent of your suburban giveaway rather than a proper newspaper. They were particularly thin on serious international news – in hard copy they do better. Travel may extend the mind; I am not sure that our news sources do.