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Life as Master of Jesus College, Cambridge


Archaeology and language
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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Then there was another interesting issue that began to build up more in my mind at the same time and that was the question of archaeology and language. At a conference in Sheffield back in 1971 or thereabouts, which the professor of Greek there, Ronald Crossland had organised about prehistoric migrations in the Aegean. Well, I didn't believe much in all these migrations and I'd put forward the idea that maybe Indo-European speech, the Greek language and perhaps before the Greek language, Indo-European speech, Greek is a language in the Indo-European language family, might have reached Greece, not as a result of great migrations but with the spread of farming to Greece from Anatolia and then might indeed have proceeded across Europe with the spread of farming across Europe, which Grahame Clark had by then documented rather well with a map of the spread of radiocarbon dates of the first, the first farmers and, and that had been an idea at the back of my mind for some time. But when I lectured, I think in Oxford on our excavations in Melos and I was talking about the shrine at Phylakopi, which nobody particularly questioned, but then I went on to suggest that there could be an evolution in religious thinking and in the Neolithic period you have the, those figurines, sometimes thought of as fertility figurines that Marija Gimbutas was so enthusiastic about. Then in the early Bronze Age you have those wonderful Cycladic sculptures and they descend from the Neolithic ones and then you get into the developed Bronze Age with the, the Minoan religion and then the Mycenaean religion, which were reflected at our shrine at Phylakopi and then although you have something of a collapse of civilization in Greece at the end of the Mycenaeans, it does resume with a great deal of continuity with the archaic Greek period, the Geometric and then the archaic Greek period and you do find quite a lot of things which demonstrate the continuity. We had found a couple of small, bronze figurines in our shrine of the so-called smiting god, presumably a deity wielding a, a thunderbolt or something like that, which is a, a theme, an iconographic theme that continues right into Geometric Greece with Zeus and Neptune with their thunderbolts. And so I'd given a lecture in Oxford, saying I thought there was a, a continuity in Greek religion, which you could observe in various ways, probably right back from Neolithic times, right through into the Bronze Age, very well documented at Phylakopi, which was why I was talking about it, but then going on into the Greek period proper of Archaic, Archaic Greece, and Professor Christopher Hawkes was, he'd retired some years before but he was a very erudite man and he said,”Well, Professor Renfrew must be entirely wrong. Is he not aware that the Greeks were Indo-Europeans and Zeus, Pitar, Jupiter …” and he went into a great spiel about these people were Indo-Europeans and they must have come with the first Greek speakers. The, that was the coming of the Greeks, which of course was a well established theme in Greek archaeology by then but one already beginning to be questioned somewhat and so he said this was complete nonsense and Professor Renfrew should go home and think again. Well, I was a little displeased at that and I thought well now, I really have to grapple with this Indo-European argument because I felt there was some validity in the continuity idea and I already had in mind that the coming of the Greeks in the, in the Bronze Age was a complete myth. Indeed the original idea had been the coming of the Greeks with Archaic Greece and it was the decipherment of linear B by Ventris and Chadwick in the '70s and '80s that had, had made clear that the Mycenaeans were certainly speaking Greek. That's as far back as 1300 BC, 1400 BC and so with the decipherment the idea had developed in some quarters that maybe the Greeks, the first Greek speakers had entered Greece at the beginning of the early Bronze Age and that would fit with the ideas of Marija Gimbutas very well but it didn't look that way to me. I didn't think there were any suggestions of significant migrations into Greece at the beginning of the Bronze Age and so my idea had been that the only obvious change, obvious input you see in Greece on any scale, is with the, the origin of the Neolithic way of life, the coming of the first farmers, the first use of pottery in Greece, the first use of wheat and barley and domestic sheep and goat and so on and then clearly the Neolithic way of life was transmitted across the rest of Europe. So if you were looking for a solution of when did Indo-European speech first come to Europe, it was long before the Celts or whatever and it really seemed to me that the best suggestion, since I wasn't impressed by any of the other indications of migrations, was the coming of farming. So I sat down to try and put this idea more coherently and I read up what was written about Indo-European questions and one very significant point was that the Hittites in Turkey spoke and wrote an Indo-European language, what we call the Hittite language. Well, they hadn't really been, they hadn't been discovered. The archaeology of the Hittites hadn't been discovered nor had their writings been discovered when the original Indo-European theory was developed in the 19th Century and it just gradually became clear to me that scholarship, because it had missed out on the Hittites and so on, had actually got the whole thing wrong and that the prevailing theory about the Indo-Europeans coming to Europe at the beginning of the Bronze Age as Marija Gimbutas had indeed been arguing, but she wasn't the first to do so. Gordon Childe himself had done so in his book, "The Aryans", nor was he the first. So I sat down to write "Archaeology and Language" and I really worked quite hard at that and that was published in 1987 and that created quite a furore. I think a number of archaeologists felt the case was a good one because they agreed there were no very conspicuous signs of immigration into Greece or into Europe during the Bronze Age or immediately prior to the Bronze Age but most linguists thought this was outrageous and the main reason it was outrageous, or one of the main reasons, was that if you were suggesting that the first Indo-European languages were in Europe 6,000 or 7,000 BC, whereas the beginning of the Bronze Age was around 3,000 BC, obviously there was a much greater time depth and they just said it's far too early. We have a feeling for how fast language changes and it changes much faster than that. You couldn't possibly have proto Indo-European in Europe around 7,000 BC so that was an, an argument, which was an interesting one and it's a theme which it's been possible to pursue ever since. When the McDonald Institute was established, then we had some useful conferences on that theme.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 8 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009