A Q&A with Professor Carla Antonaccio, plus submit your question for author Margalit Fox!

Here’s a Q&A—inspired by The Riddle of the Labyrinth—with Bob Bliwise and Duke’s Carla Antonaccio, professor of archaeology and department chair for classical studies. Professor Antonaccio is a field archaeologist whose research is focused on the late Bronze Iron Age and later phases in the Aegean and Mediterranean. Having worked on excavations in Greece and Cypress, she has devoted almost every summer over the past twenty years to excavations at a site in Sicily. She is particularly interested in uncovering social and cultural history through the study of material remains.

In the book, Margalit Fox offers this quote (from Maurice Pope): “Decipherments are by far the most glamorous achievements of scholarship. There is a touch of magic about unknown writing, especially when it comes from the remote past, and a corresponding glory is bound to attach itself to the person who first solves its mystery.” Would you assess the rewards of decipherment in similar terms?

I think this privileges the written word too much, because there are some spectacular discoveries and achievements outside of these feats. But I do think that lost languages are poignant and intriguing, since language is so much a part of human identity and culture, so intimate. In this time, literacy is so much taken for granted in the industrialized West that I think we just want to be able to read ancient texts and hear the words of the past.

How would you characterize the challenges that made Linear B especially hard to decode, given the fact that the decoding process dragged on for fifty years?

There was no key. In many cases (like Egyptian hieroglyphics), there is a bilingual text, and one language is known, helping to guide the decipherment of the other. The sample wasn’t that big either: We have many, many more texts in some ancient languages that had to be deciphered, like Akkadian or (again) Egyptian. We still can’t read Etruscan or Linear A.

Fox presents Alice Kober, a classicist at Brooklyn College, as a largely forgotten force in unraveling Linear B. How do scholars regard her contributions today, and how do they explain the fact that her contributions for so long have been unrecognized?

This book is the major corrective to how forgotten she had become. She died before success, and history loves victors; but also she was working at Hunter, alone, not in a major research university or part of a team excavating sites like Knossos and Pylos that produced this kind of material. With this book and the availability of her archives at Austin (a hub of Linear B and Bronze Age archaeology), this will change.

The average reader would have a pretty good sense of the legacy of Classical Greece, but not of Bronze Age Greece. Are there particular aspects of that earlier period–the crafts and decorative-arts tradition, the robust commercial relationships, the organization of civil society, etc.–that you find particularly compelling?

The Bronze Age on the mainland is best known through sites such as Mycenae, with its monumental fortifications and the wealthy tombs filled with gold and weapons. Most intriguing to people is the connection with Homer and his epic poetry, which talks of Mycenae and other places like it: What is the connection between these myths or legends, and history? On Crete, the Bronze Age culture is called Minoan, and the best-known site is Knossos; the question there is its connection to the myth of the Minotaur and labyrinth. Both cultures had vivid wall paintings, many styles of ceramics, and monumental architecture.

What mysteries remain around Bronze Age civilization (maybe including how it collapsed)?

Yes–why it ended, but also how it began, how it took off in about 1600 B.C.E. and had a zenith that then ended around 1200. What happened on Crete in the late Bronze Age? It seems to be under Mycenaean control at the end. How to interpret their religious practices, which seem so different in many respects to those of the later classical period? Yet we can read the names of many of the Greek gods on the tablets, so there is some cultural continuity. Whether there was a “king” or ruler at every citadel, who built the walls and why? Many questions.

As someone who has led archaeological excavations, how would you characterize changes in the field of archaeology since, say, the Victorian era and figures such as Arthur Evans? (Fox notes the famous Schliemann legacy, including excavation methods that involved “the wholesale hacking away of huge, potentially fruitful layers of soil.”)

Well, we don’t dig on that scale for the most part; we work hard to recover as much information as possible about ancient diet, environment, climate, and more. We save every scrap of evidence and are not so interested in moving mountains of earth in search only of spectacular finds. Archaeology is very much an interdisciplinary field, partnered not only with art history, philology, or history, but also now with science (for dating, faunal and floral analysis, environmental analysis, etc.).

What was your most exciting moment in excavating a site?

Excavating a late-sixth century cemetery in Greece and finding the actual physical remains of the people who lived in the ancient city, together with everything that they had been buried with.

Next up: A Q&A with Margalit Fox. What are your questions—about the themes she explores, the characters in her book, or her process of researching and writing—for the author of The Riddle of the Labyrinth? Submit them here!

One thought on “A Q&A with Professor Carla Antonaccio, plus submit your question for author Margalit Fox!

  1. really this part Excavating a late-sixth century cemetery in Greece and finding the actual physical remains of the people who lived in the ancient city, together with everything that they had been buried with. was amazing

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