In which we learn how to fake citations to hide our sources...
Gavin Menzies’ entire case for Minoan trans-Atlantic trade exists on the backs of a shipload of copper and a dried beetle. The supposedly American tobacco beetle was likely indigenous to the Old World in the Bronze Age, according to recent researchers; and the copper supposedly so pure it could only come from Lake Superior is indistinguishable from smelted Old World copper according to academics who study copper. With these facts in mind, we can proceed to evaluate Menzies’ claims about the Minoans’ American empire.
This chapter starts with Menzies’ confession that he believes “at least some” of the Uluburun copper came from Lake Superior. Oh? Which parts? And if there is pure copper that didn’t come from there, what right do you have to suppose any did? Well, it must have, otherwise there would be no reason to suspect the Minoans ventured across the Atlantic in search of copper.
Menzies claims that the records of King Sargon of Akkad prove the Minoans traveled to England in 2350 BCE to get tin. I’d never heard this, and apparently with good reason. The claim dates back to the pseudo-historical work The Phoenician Origins of Britons, Scots & Anglo-Saxons from 1925, which wrote that a tablet of Sargon’s claimed dominion over “the Tin-land country which lies beyond the Upper Sea,” interpreted by author L. A. Waddell as the Mediterranean, and therefore implying the Tin-land was Cornwall, in Britain. Modern scholars instead interpret this as a reference to Anatolia instead. There is no evidence of an Akkadian presence in Britain. Menzies, in chapter 23, finally acknowledges that this was his source when he obliquely credits a “Professor Waddell” for translating the tablet in the end notes to that chapter.
Menzies knows nothing of the actual tablets of Sargon and instead takes the old claims at face value and thus “proves” that the Akkadians had Atlantic trade routes—an utter impossibility given the complete lack of any Akkadian influence or artifacts in the Western Mediterranean.
The author then suggests that a shortage of trees reported in the Epic of Gilgamesh required the Minoans to go west in search of wood. (Gilgamesh went to the Cedar Forest of Lebanon, but this story was told long before the deforestation attested in late Bronze Age records.) Why travel all the way to Spain and Gaul for wood when all the forests of Eastern Europe are on your doorstep?
Then we get more Rodney Castleden and his speculations, taken as fact by Menzies. Castleden claimed the Sicilian city of “Minoa” as Minoan, and Menzies swallows this as proof of Minoan westward expansion. Later called Herakleia Minoa, the city was named for Minos, the mythological figure, because a myth said he had chased Daidalos to Sicily and met his death there. It was founded in the sixth century BCE. Though some suggest a Mycenaean (not Minoan) occupation on the basis of this myth, archaeological evidence does not yet support this claim.
After fantasizing his way to a Minoan exploration of the Atlantic, Menzies suggests the Minoans first occupied Spain. Here he appears to be patterning his Minoans on the Phoenicians (or rather alternative history’s version of the Phoenicians), who really did colonize Spain, and whose sailing prowess was frequently (and wrongly) said to extend to Britain and the Americas. Much of Menzies speculation has carefully transplanted old alternative history about the Phoenicians onto the Minoans, which, in its way, is a work of genius since it lets him write a long book with minimal research. Simply change “Phoenician” to “Minoan” in old pseudo-history and you’ve got a fresh, exciting new theory!
Full disclosure: Minoan artifacts have in fact been found on the Balearic Islands off the Spanish coast, so Menzies’ theories in this chapter are not completely impossible; however, no evidence of Minoan occupation in mainland Spain has ever been found, nor are the Bronze Age cultures he discusses from mainland Spain in any way “Minoan.” He takes the convention of calling the Los Millares dome-shaped tombs tholos tombs like their Minoan and Mycenaean counterparts to be proof of identity; but the Los Millares tombs are a thousand years older than those of the Aegean. The Los Millares culture existed from 3000 to 2500 BCE and is related to northern European megalithic cultures. Unfortunately, the Minoan Bronze Age only began around 2700 BCE, and the first evidence of Minoans outside Crete only occurs around 2500 BCE. Something isn’t right here.
On the strength of this, he claims that the Minoans colonized Spain around 2300 BCE and built stone circles to “read the stars,” despite the non-existence of any such stone circles in actual, known Minoan centers in the Mediterranean and the fact that the circles had already been standing 700 years by this point.
Menzies contemplates just how it was that the Spanish still practice sports involving bull-leaping when the Minoans had done so 4,500 years earlier. Sigh. Bull-leaping in ancient times was practiced from Crete straight through to the Indus Valley. Modern bull-leaping in France and Spain is more than likely an artistic and less violent outgrowth of bull fighting, itself derived from Roman practices (oh, how quickly we forget the Romans!) of animal fights and gladiatorial battles in the arena. What’s more likely—the survival of a Roman practice (1,500 years) or a Minoan one (3,500 years) in an area where Minoans didn’t live but Romans did?
Menzies has no concept of trade networks. He seems to think the only way goods could move is if the final recipient travels all the way to the source and hauls it back himself. This, I guess, is why Menzies flies to China a few times a year, to stock up on his consumer goods. Goods can move independently of the people who made them or consumed them by transmission from one intermediary to the next. Here Menzies betrays his source by repeating the exact language and the same borrowed quotation. The left is the 1912 original, and the right is Menzies.
Funny thing; this translation is (with some transcription errors) by the author of “Historical Note on Tin Smelting,” from the Engineering & Mining Journal (v. 96, no. 11) of September 13, 1913. This, in turn, was an excerpt from the footnotes to book IX of Agricola's De Re Metallica prepared by Herbert Hoover (yes, the future president) and his wife for their 1912 translation. It is not from the Harvard Classics, as Menzies claims. In fact, the 1909 Harvard Classics series did not include Pliny the Elder. It had Pliny the Younger. Even Menzies’ citation follows the Hoovers', with the Roman numerals denoting the book number. The introductory line is an exceptionally close paraphrase of the original, with five words in common.
Now, here’s the kicker. Menzies stakes his theory on a very specific translation in this passage. He reads “Islands of Atlantis” as a reference to Plato’s lost continent and thus to the Minoans. Tin, he thinks, was an Atlantis export and therefore Minoan. But the original Latin, which Menzies did not consult, reads “in insulas Atlantici maris,” which is translated literally as “into the islands of the Atlantic Sea.” This refers to the Atlantic Ocean, not the islands of Atlantis, as nearly every professional translation of this passage asserts. By contrast, when Pliny means “Atlantis,” as in 6.36, he uses the word “Atlantis” not “mare Atlanticum.” Therefore, by relying on Hoover's unfortunately faulty translation instead of the Latin, or even a standard translation, Menzies has led himself down the garden path, deceived his readers, and undermined his book. Great work!
This chapter is about Cornwall in Britain, a hotbed of prehistoric mining activity. He predicates this chapter on Waddell’s Phoenician fantasies, rewritten for Minoans, so I’m just going to mark this short chapter down as a loss.
This chapter discusses Bronze Age British mining techniques—colorful, but irrelevant to the thesis under discussion.
In this final chapter of “Book 3,” Menzies discusses the Nebra Sky Disk,” an amazing bit of prehistoric metalwork from what is now Germany that was created from Austrian bronze and Carpathian gold. It depicts the sun, the moon, a solar boat, and stars, including the Pleiades. It dates back to around 1600 BCE and is, as far as archaeology knows, unique in the world. Menzies doubts that the peoples of Northern Europe were advanced enough to look up into the sky and see the stars, so the Minoans must have given them the knowledge. He thinks that this is probable because the Pleiades are depicted as having seven stars (those visible to the naked eye) just as they were in the Greek legend of Atlas’ seven daughters. (Ancient peoples worldwide typically considered them to be either six or seven stars.) I hate to burst his bubble, but the Minoans weren’t the only people with an advanced understanding of the stars. (In fact, we know nothing about Minoan astronomy.) The northern peoples were every bit as capable, as the megalithic sites demonstrate. Of course, Menzies thinks the Minoans build all of them, too.
But that is for “Book 4.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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