One wishes that more books like this 1953 classic on the discoveries of the Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations would be updated and given magnificent new illustrations.
As it was, so much has been happening in recent archeology that the author had to add two appendices early on, and the introduction in the 1974 edition contained still more new information.
The present introduction by scholar-poet Peter Levi blows like a fresh breeze across the jumbled bits of misinformation lodged in many readers' minds over the years. For instance, a recently publicized theory that Knossos was just a giant mausoleum, a city of the dead, he destroys with one brisk sentence: "It is hard to see why the dead would want the first flushing lavatory in the recorded history of mankind."
He also cuts through the lovely but fuzzy notion that the island of Santorini is in fact Atlantis.
Interweaving the Greek myths and Homeric legends with the astonishing finds of that great romantic pioneer, Heinrich Schliemann, Leonard Cottrell recaptures the all but unbearable excitement of those first digs.
Just one day before he had planned to give up on his excavations at what he believed to be the ancient city of Troy, Schliemann spotted a large copper object embedded in some ruins by what he conceived to be King Priam's palace.
"Looking more closely, the excavator's sharp eyes noticed, behind the copper, something bright and gleaming. It looked like gold."
Dismissing the workmen, Schliemann and his wife dug frantically at the hard dirt, bringing to light one treasure after another, a magnificent gold diadem with 16,353 separate gold pieces, gold chains and crowns, bracelets, goblets, silver pots and other wonders.
The adventures of this gifted amateur as he dealt with hostile officials of several countries, not to mention scholarly scoffers, and persisted to unearth not only Troy but "Golden Mycenae," the storied home of Agamemnon, complete with a gold mask that he insisted was Agamemnon's own death mask, are told with measured skill, with a sense of the drama and excitement of those times.
Finally, Cottrell explains precisely how the discoveries connect with the Homeric stories, revealing some of the techniques that modern archeologists use, and how they think.
Moving on to Sir Arthur Evans and his discovery of an entire civilization on Crete, Cottrell again combines personal memoir, charming character study ("Because of his short sight Evans carried throughout his life a stout walking-stick, to which his family gave the name 'Prodger.' Ragusans soon became familiar with . . . the 'mad Englishman with the walking-stick' ") and history.
The evolution of the Minotaur myth into modern knowledge of the famous Minoan bull-dancers, illustrated in elegant frescoes at Knossos, tells a great deal about the ways of archeology, as do the speculations on connections between the Minoans and ancient Egypt.
Egyptians wrote about a mysterious people from "Keftiu" and showed them in drawings. Their dress was clearly that of the Minoans, and some of their pottery, found in Egyptian tombs, turned out to be definitely Minoan ware. Using pottery styles and the already established knowledge of Egyptian chronology, scholars were able thus to date the various periods of Minoan civilization.
Another fascinating story, recounted in some detail in an appendix, is the deciphering of Minoan Linear B script by a young Englishman, Michael Ventris, who became intrigued by the puzzle as a schoolboy.
Lacking a ready-made translation like the Rosetta Stone, the difficulties of decoding a language written partly in hieroglyphs representing objects and partly in phonetic symbols are almost insuperable, but Cottrell explains how patient cataloguing and inspired guessing broke the mystery, at least partly. The problem today is that so far little Minoan writing has been found, outside of mercantile lists and accounts.
But the most interesting aspect of this very accessible book is its description of the way deductions can be made from these scraps of information, sketching in the grand pattern of immigrations and conquests that occurred thousands of years ago. Cottrell's appeal is that he conveys to the reader his own boyish enthusiasm, gazing with delighted wonder at a lost age.
"Homer now appears not only as a weaver of dreams and fairy tales. He wrote in a period of cultural twilight. He had not seen the walls of Ilium, or watched Agamemnon ride through Mycenae's Lion Gate, or sat in the frescoed hall of King Minos at Knossos; but his antecedents had seen these wonders. So it happens that in the poems there are preserved, like flies in amber, descriptions of noble rooms, works of art, arms and armor, and a way of life which had vanished in Homer's own day, but which the spade of the archeologist has now proved to have existed."