National Geographic : 1981 Feb
JOSEPH ALSOP: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE A CONSIDERABLE STIR, and even something of an outburst of hostile expert criti cism, has been caused by this highly important archaeologi cal discovery in Crete. Hence it will be well to remind archae ological buffs of the similar first responses to the most significant find about ancient China made in the past half century. This was the discovery at An yang, last capital of the very early Shang Dynasty (tradition ally 1766-1122 B.C.). There, Chinese archaeologists cleared several deep royal tombs yield ing an enormous harvest of magnificent Shang bronze ves sels, and just as important, much additional evidence about Chinese religion, cus toms, ways of life, and technol ogy in the remote era of the Shang Dynasty. Many students of China, who had condemned the Shang Dy nasty as entirely mythical, were astonished by the great discov ery, which even included names of Shang kings almost exactly corresponding to traditional Chinese king lists. Chinese response to the discovery was even more unhappy. Confu cianism was still the basis of Chinese culture fifty years ago. Confucius taught reverence for the "former kings," as benevo lent, humane, and peace-loving rulers. Yet the Anyang excava tion showed that the "former kings" of the Shang Dynasty had practiced human sacrifice on an enormous scale, mainly using war prisoners. Naturally this was most painful news for Confucian-educated Chinese of those days. In just the same way, many modern Greeks have now been shocked by the evidence that human sacrifice was being of fered in a Minoan temple on the flanks of Mount Juktas, at the very moment around 1700 B.C. when the temple itself crashed into ruin in one of Crete's great earthquakes. The horror is il logical, however. The Minoan bull game was plainly a most dangerous sport for the youths who played it, and it cannot be doubted that the bull game was originally a special form of hu man blood sacrifice. Roman gladiatorial combats grew out of ritual combats staged at the funerals of Etruscan mag nates-still another form of human blood sacrifice. The classical Greeks offered human sacrifices more than once in mo ments of extreme emergency. The evidence collected by Yannis Sakellarakis and his wife, Efi, does not mean that human sacrifice was a regular Minoan practice. This sacrifice was a desperate measure to stave off what must have looked like the end of the world. Of far greater importance are the doubts of some Greek ar chaeologists that what was dis covered on Mount Juktas was really the ruins of a Minoan temple. It has always been sup posed that the Minoan cult cen tered all but exclusively in the shrines and sacral areas of the great Minoan palaces and in the shrines on mountaintops known as peak sanctuaries. Be sides, no temple really resem bling the Sakellarakis find has ever been discovered before. But there must always be a first time for each major discovery. Furthermore, although the Sa kellarakis find was certainly not a peak sanctuary, it almost exactly reproduces the finest Minoan representation of one of Mr. Alsop established his credentials as a writer on Bronze Age Greece with his book From the Silent Earth,Harp er & Row, New York, N. Y ., 1964. these mountaintop shrines that has yet been unearthed in Crete. This is the magnificent sanctu ary rhyton excavated by Dr. Ni cholas Platon at Zakros. The tripartite structure of the shrine itself, the temenos, or sacred enclosure, in sum the whole lay out and plan of the newfound temple ruins are there for all to see on the sanctuary rhyton. Moreover, the Sakellarakis find, with one side room for THOMASS. BERNSTEN sacrificial grains and other ne cessities, another side room for the blood sacrifices, and the central chamber where the ac tual offerings to the divine im age were made, throws more light on the actual workings of the Minoan cult than has ever before been available. Thus, this find is a splendid advance in the progressive recovery of the lost human past, which is the real task of all archaeology.
1981 Feb 28