In which we learn to pay attention to the difference between BCE and CE...
Today we move on to “Book Two” of Gavin Menzies’ The Lost Empire of Atlantis. This one is called “Exploration” and promises to explain Minoan voyages to the Near East. I can’t imagine this will be terribly exciting since Minoan trade networks are well known and well represented in the scholarly literature. Let’s see what Menzies turns up.
Well, this starts off poorly. I don’t know if Menzies is intentionally ignorant or if he is just presenting material in a false way to make a fake case for a Minoan Atlantis. He says that he believes the prototypes of the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey were Minoans. Is he completely unaware of more than 100 years of scholarship firmly linking the oldest elements of Homer’s poems to the Mycenaeans? Or does he just not care? Perhaps there is a third answer: He many not understand that the Minoans and Mycenaeans are two different peoples, not one. (This can’t be since he later states that “warlike” Mycenaeans occupied the mainland and fought at Troy.)
In service of his error, Menzies introduces the Uluburun shipwreck, dated to c. 1300 BCE, which he identifies as Minoan although scholars attribute it to Egypt, the Levant, or the Mycenaeans—not the Minoans. (The actual builders are unknown.) This period is the time of Mycenaean ascendancy on Crete. He calls a gold goblet found on board “Achilles’ golden chalice” because he believes it to be “just like” the one described in the Iliad in its entirety as, and I am not making this up, “a fair-fashioned cup” (16.225). That seals the case.
He then imagines this boat representative of that used by Jason and the Argonauts to sail to Colchis on the strength of Tim Severin’s attempt to retrace the journey in the 1980s. Here’s the thing: The Jason myth acquired its Black Sea itinerary only after the Greeks began exploring the region in the eighth century BCE. There is no evidence of earlier voyages, and the earliest Jason myths were in all likelihood entirely mythical, set in a fantasy land later localized as the Black Sea. (The earliest references to Jason say nothing about Colchis but rather a fantasy land called Aea.) But that is the subject for another time.
This chapter summarizes Severin’s attempt to replicate the voyage described in Apollonius’ Hellenistic Argonautica, written at a time when the Black Sea was well known and well traveled. This proved nothing about Mycenaean trade routes a thousand years before except that sailing was theoretically possible. He suggests that the discovery that Paleolithic people had ships (something known for a very long time despite his references to newspaper coverage from 2010) means that archaeological theories are incomplete and “who knows what archaeologists will find next?” On this basis, Menzies suggests the Minoans would have been able to sail around the world.
This chapter reviews the exotic trade goods from Africa, Europe, and Asia found in the Bronze Age Aegean. This is not terribly controversial; he then proposes that copper found in the Uluburun shipwreck came from Lake Superior in North America because that is the world’s only copper as pure as the shipwreck’s. I can’t attest to this fact, but I do know that smelting processes can produce purity up to 99%, so I’m not sure that this is correct. The claim was proposed first by Ignatius Donnelly in Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, but so far as I know, no chemical analysis of trace elements has ever matched Old World copper to a New World source. According to the academic literature on copper purity (and, yes, there is much of this that Menzies never looked at—he only likes newspapers), the consensus is that there is no way to distinguish between native (i.e. unrefined) copper and smelted copper because ancient smelting techniques could produce copper indistinguishable from native copper.
Nevertheless, Menzies states as fact that the Uluburun copper was from Lake Superior, refers us back to the supposedly “American” (but not really) tobacco beetle from chapter 2, and tells us the Minoans discovered America!
This chapter presents scholarly discoveries about Minoan artisans working at Near East courts from Egypt to Babylon. (Scholars call this period the “International Age” for good reason.) It exists entirely to lead to the question: “exactly how far across the world did the Minoans get?”
This chapter is a completely irrelevant digression on Egyptian ships and their voyages to Punt in East Africa.
This chapter introduces the infamous “cocaine mummies,” the alleged connection between the Old World and New World based on the discovery of traces of New World cocaine and nicotine in Egyptian mummies. Unfortunately, this theory is based on tests of mummies dug up in the nineteenth century and stored in museums during a period when cocaine and tobacco were widely consumed (cocaine was the original “Coca” in “Coca-Cola”). Attempts to replicate the findings on mummies stored in controlled conditions failed to find any trace of cocaine or nicotine. According to David J. Counsell in Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science (2008), the evidence points to contamination, especially since the so-called “cocaine mummies” exhibit substance levels in the mummies’ hair many times lower than those of comparable mummies from South America, where coca leaves were routinely chewed. So, this line of evidence fails Menzies, too.
This chapter presents Menzies' travelogue of his visits to Near Eastern cities.
In this chapter, Menzies visits Nineveh to determine if the Minoans could have used Babylonian astronomy to navigate across the Atlantic. Is it worth mentioning that Babylonian astronomy was only codified in the first millennium BCE, or that it was only the Greeks who married Babylonian constellations and the zodiac to indigenous Mediterranean constellations after 500 BCE?
Menzies believes that the Babylonians learned how to fix longitude, a problem Europeans only solved in the eighteenth century. He provides no evidence to support his assertion that the Babylonians knew the earth orbited the sun. This would be surprising since they considered the sun to be a planet orbiting the earth in their texts. He also confuses astronomy and astrology and thinks that Babylonian horoscopes, recording lunar eclipses, are evidence of navigation. Lunar eclipses can be used to calculate longitude, but only if one has accurate measurements of time. In the time of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy deduced the longitude difference between Carthage and Mesopotamia using this method, but it is no good for day-to-day navigation since eclipses are not terribly frequent. This is all irrelevant, of course, since the Minoans were operating A THOUSAND YEARS before the Babylonian astronomical records from Ashurbanipal’s library that Menzies cites as proof.
This chapter speculates that the Minoans sailed down the Nile across a canal laid out by King Scorpion to the Red Sea and from there along the coast of Arabia and Persia to reach India. This isn’t impossible, but it vastly overcomplicates the reality of trade routes: they existed so goods, rather than people, could move from one end to the other by passing them along from one middleman to the next. Unless he has some Minoan occupations or shipwrecks in India up his sleeve, even the most generous interpretation of his evidence says only that goods moved.
This chapter gives a description of Indian Ocean trade in the Bronze Age. Well, yes, the civilizations of the subcontinent did engage in export trade and were known to have a close trade relationship with Mesopotamia. And since the Mesopotamians also traded with Ugarit, where the Minoans had a trade station, there really isn’t much need to invent a water route between India and Crete for the movement of exotic goods.
But postulate he does, going in search of the Roman-era South Indian port of Muziris (first mentioned in Pliny the Elder in Natural History 6.26), which Menzies claims is vastly older. Here’s the rub: The best evidence for the location of Muziris comes from the Indian village of Pattanam, where a hoard of Roman coins was found, but this port dates back only to 1000 BCE. This is fabulously old, but 600 years too young to be a Minoan settlement. Menzies also elides the truth by saying that the site dates “back to 1000 B.C.” and “contains central Mediterranean artifacts.” Both of these statements are true, but they are not connected. The Mediterranean artifacts are Roman (probably from the eastern part of the Empire) and show up beginning around 1 CE. There is no archaeological evidence for Mediterranean trade at 1000 BCE. He thinks that the fact cows are sacred to Hindus is evidence of the survival of the Minoan bull cult in India. That would be quite a trick since scholars have yet to agree that the Minoans worshiped a bull god; many think that the bull was not the object of cult veneration. Oh, and also that bull gods were the common stock of Indo-European and pre-Indo-European peoples across the Old World. The Egyptians had some, too.
He concludes with a newspaper article about post holes in India that suggests—to his mind—that the Minoans constructed wooden circles of standing pillars for navigation, including the famous Woodhenge of Britain, as well as their stone counterparts. To be discussed in a future chapter…
We conclude Book Two, and nearly half the book as a whole, with a rundown of diffusionism’s greatest hits from the pen of Gunnar Thompson and others who have made outrageous claims with scant evidence. Menzies accepts it all without question, including the importation of New World foods into the Old World, cocaine in Egypt, and so on. This relies on silly claims that old Egyptian carvings show corn (maize) and other exotic foods, claims that I wrote about previously. He adds in some Indian scholarship claiming that Indian temples also show the same carvings. For the same reasons, these are not what they seem to be either.
The illustrations of Indian temples that Menzies provides prove that the resemblance is in the eye of the beholder; all that can be seen are heavily stylized shapes that some might choose to sea as New World plants, others as any number of other shapes and items. The sunflower, for example, is a laughably stylized flower whose species simply cannot be determined with confidence. Heck, it might just be the sun itself! But this is irrelevant because the sculptures, according to the notes section of the book, are from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE: 2,500 years too late to matter. Menzies confuses BCE and CE (’cuz they’re the same, right?) and claims the images date back to 1300 BCE, an impossibility since the oldest extant Hindu temples can be traced only to 200 BCE. (Wooden or brick temples were in use for a few centuries before that, with worship in caves preceding that stage.)
Then we get the blasted tobacco beetle again, as though it were actual proof of trans-Atlantic contact rather than a global insect species.
Somehow this means that the Minoans circumnavigated Africa to reach America and India, the subject of the next section.
All the stupid is making my head hurt.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.