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Perspective: Getting to know the ancient Greeks was a Gas.

Byline: Chris Upton

I t's customary for a newspaper to review an exhibition near to the start of its run, allowing its readers the opportunity to decide whether the show is worth a visit or not.

It's also traditional for me (and probably most of you) to leave a visit to the last minute, when the exhibition is about to close.

I'm now going to tell you how interesting the exhibition on the Minoans and Mycenaeans in Gas Hall was, which you have missed by three days. (It closed on Sunday and is even now being packed off back to Greece.) Let that be a lesson to all of us to organise our diaries better.

The Minoans and Mycenaeans were the chief civilisations of Bronze Age Greece, spanning the period from around 3000 BC to 1100 BC, when these cultures suffered a cataclysmic collapse.

Unfortunately they've not been well served by history, or by popular history, at least. For generations archaeologists and writers have been more interested in tying in their work with the legends of the period - Theseus and the Minotaur, the Trojan Wars and the Plagues of Egypt - and forgetting these were real people living real lives.

The Gas Hall exhibition presented the work of archaeologists and scientists from the UK and US, employing new laboratory methods to get inside (literally) the artefacts unearthed in digs on mainland Greece and Crete. For centuries an ancient Greek pot was simply that.

Now spectroscopy allows us to analyse the minute substances inside the vessel to uncover what it contained and what it was used for.

It has to be said that the exhibition was not easy going for the casual visitor. Some of the scientific panels made my brain hurt and there were times that I needed a dictionary with me, as well as a medical encyclopaedia.

On the positive side, here was a show that made no attempt to dumb down its content.

Inevitably, I suppose, most of the pots were used to hold (or to cook) food and drink, and we can get a good idea of the Bronze Age family tucking into a meal of meat (pork or mutton), flavoured with herbs and fried in olive oil. Broad beans and lentils also turn up, as well as cereals and fruit. The weather might have been hot, but stew was clearly part of the staple diet.

We can also investigate the diet by analysing the bones from Bronze Age cemeteries. Despite all those illustrations of marine life on their pottery, it seems that the people themselves rarely ate fish.

If you've ever been to Greece on holiday, you'll probably have felt the after-effects of an overdose of retsina or ouzo.

The exhibition reveals that the Mycenaeans and Minoans were knocking back the retsina 4,000 years ago. Wine flavoured with various resins were being drunk even then, as well as others mixed with honey or herbs such as rue, which is a narcotic. Of course, this may have been used for 'medicinal purposes'.

The ancient Cretans also made a beer from barley and (not a beverage I would be tempted by) mixed it with wine and honey mead to conjure up a cocktail. Perhaps that's a clue as to why this civilisation died out.

Not that the Minoans spent all their time eating and drinking. The pots from Chamalevri in western Crete reveal that they were distilling and exporting perfume, especially oil of iris, still a vital ingredient in the manufacture of scents today.

Whether these essential oils were used for making the living or the dead smell sweet is another matter, but it was undoubtedly one of the factors that made this civilisation as rich as it was.

Dr Chris Upton is senior lecturer in history at Newman College of Higher Education in Birmingham and promises to get to exhibitions earlier in the future.
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 8, 2003
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