Until documents of bygone ages are unearthed, located and recovered we are stuck with sacred texts, classical writings and myths of the past. Can these documents we know of now be considered as reliable material for reconstructing the picture of the past?
One hundred and fifty years ago, no scholar took the Iliad or the Odyssey of Homer as history. But Heinrich Schliemann put faith in it and discovered the legendary city of Troy. Then, like a sleepwalker, he followed the homeward route of Odysseus and discovered golden Mycenae.
Gold artifacts from Grave Circle A at Mycenae, Greece ( CC BY NC-SA 2.0 )
The city of Ur, referred to in the Bible, as the town from which Abraham had come, was not afforded any geographical or historical significance by the sages of the 19 th century. Actually, until recent times, few historians have taken the Bible seriously as a source of historical data. But after Sir Leonard Woolley had discovered the ancient city of Ur in Mesoptamia, the situation began to change.
Legends can therefore be interpreted as fanciful records of actual happenings. The myth of the birth of Zeus in Crete points to the Cretan origin of the Ancient Greek culture. Until 1952 when Michael Ventris decoded Linear B script of Crete and ascertained it was early Greek, no one in ancient or modern times had taken this Zeus myth seriously. So as we can see, folklore preserves history in the guise of colorful tales.
Clay tablet (PY Ub 1318) inscribed with Linear B script, from the Mycenaean palace of Pylos ( CC BY 2.0 )
In his Dialouges, Plato made a reference to an archaic form of Greek language. Naturally, his contemporaries had never heard of this lost dialect. But late in the 19 th century an old script was found which, when deciphered in the fifties, turned out to be pre-classical Greek.
In the Critias, Plato tells the story of Solon to whom the priests of Sais in Egypt confided in 550 BC that 9,000 years before their time, Greece had been covered with fertile soil. Now that information is scientifically correct because the soil of Greece was rich a few thousand years ago. In the remote period the Sahara was a steppe where abundant vegetation grew. This is but one example of the climate change which has taken place in the Mediterranean basin. But how could Plato, Solon or the priests of Sais have known about soil erosion in Greece for so long a period unless accurate records had been kept for 10,000 years by the Egyptian priesthood?
Solon and Croesus by Gerard van Honthorst ( Public Domain )
But even further back in time there were other ebbs and flows of cultural progress. The rock paintings of aurochs, horses, stags and other beasts in the caves of Altamira, Lascaux, Ribadasella and others, are masterpieces not only of prehistoric art but of art in any period.
Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks painted stylized bulls. But the bisons or horses of Altamira or Lascaux look like they might have been painted by Leonardo or Picasso. The realism and beauty of these cave paintings make them immensely superior to the paintings of animals in Egypt, Babylon or Greece.
Altamira Bison. Reproductions at the Museo del Mamut, Barcelona 2011 ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Sketches and trial-pieces have been discovered in the caves, suggesting the existence of art schools over 15,000 years ago. This is another example of the way a wave reaches a peak in the curve of civilization and then goes down.
In recent centuries, we have been rediscovering forgotten ancient science. Almost four hundreds years ago the great German astronomer Johann Kepler correctly attributed the cause of tides to the influence of the moon. He immediately became a target for persecution. Yet, as early as the second century BC, the Babylonian astronomer Seleucus spoke about the attraction which the moon exercises on our oceans. Posidonius (135-51 BC) made a study of the tides and rightly concluded that they were connected with the revolution of the moon around the earth.
Kepler was a German mathematician and optician. ( Public Domain )
During the course of fourteen centuries-from Ptolemy to Copernicus, not a single contribution to astronomy was made. Even in Ptolemy´s time thinkers looked back to former centuries for knowledge as if there had been a Golden Age of Science in the past.