Ex-submariner Gavin Menzies attracted global attention with his eye-catching farragos “1421” and “1434”, books laying out how he imagined 15th century Chinese fleets sailed through a dried-up Egyptian canal to reach Renaissance Europe and beyond. And now he’s moved onwards and backwards to the Minoans, an ancient Mediterranean civilization he proposes were in fact the sea-faring glue holding European Bronze Age trade together. Yes, and he thinks that it was the volcanic eruption on Thera / Santorini that destroyed the Minoans (though via a tsunami), and that this is what Plato was talking about when he talked about “Atlantis”. Hence Menzies’ book is entitled “The Lost Empire of Atlantis“.
So far, so nondescript – nothing that isn’t already in a thousand books (and disputed or disproved by ten thousand more). However, Menzies’ particular new shine on all that rusty metal is that he has a vastly grander vision of the Minoans’ geographic sprawl. For one, he thinks not only that it was they who were the first Europeans to discover North America, but also that they mined and shipped out millions of tons of extraordinarily high-purity copper from beside Lake Superior. Oh, and that the Egyptian Pharaohs basically outsourced sea-trading to the Minoans, and that you can (if you squint at all the evidence) see evidence of the Minoans on the Red Sea and even in India, too. [Though not Australia and New Zealand yet, but perhaps Menzies is holding those back for a sequel, wouldn’t be the first time, eh?]
I think the main things just about any reader would notice are the book’s relentless stylistic tics and its metronomic structure. In pretty much every chapter, Menzies jumps on a plane or boat with his wife Marcella to some vaguely-connected place, looks out of a hotel window while musing to himself on how much it had all changed since he had last visited it while still in the Royal Navy, and then trolls round a local museum or historical site, where he is suddenly struck by the ineffable kindness of the ancients to have left him yet another glaringly obvious clue to add to his list – another cookie crumb in his global trail.
This struck me most strongly in Menzies’ mercifully brief Chapter 21, where he is transfixed in the Prado by the similarities between a 19th century AD drawing of bullfighting by Goya (Sketch No.90) and another image of bullfighting he had previously seen at Knossos. “What I’d been witnessing – had I stopped to think about it – was a calling card. It had been sitting out the centuries, but it was there, written in the colourful script of the Minoans.” Yes, in this book Menzies does indeed raise his pursuit of historical bull to an epic new level.
In many key ways, all he’s really doing is trying to fit into the idiot wet dream vision of ur-historians that TV producers have talked up over the last decade: genially talkative late-middle-age
buffoons buffers who (conveniently for the constraints of the medium) practise history just by striding around, all the while making dramatic & striking connections to camera. But of course that’s simply a nonsensical fiction: to a very great degree, history is driven more by detailed textual study and a curiously rigorous kind of critical empathy than a series of ever-longer intuitive leaps towards an eerily uncanny mega-Truth That Lies Beneath.
For me, I think Menzies sees the great swathe of historical textures not with an historian’s eye but more as an abstract artist might see a series of impressive colours: as things demanding to be used, appropriated and joyfully displayed. Enjoy the scenery as a whole sequence of contested Bronze Age artefacts – the Nebra Disk, Stonehenge, the Amesbury Archer, the Uluburun wreck, the Antikythera device, Orkney voles, the Nabta stones, Cornish tin mines, the Great Orme copper mine, and countless others including (yes, finally) the Phaistos Disk – drift pleasantly past your eyes.
Of course, for a cipher mystery reader, YABOA (“yet another book on Atlantis”) ain’t no big thang at all: but sporting the Phaistos Disk on the front, spine & back of Menzies’ book is surely intended as some kind of provocation, right? But given that he clearly does not have the historical apparatus for decrypting the Disk’s mysterious spiral messages, why does his book sport it so jauntily?
The answer is that Menzies happened to meet Dr Minas Tsikritis, who has long been studying all the extant Cretan hieroglyphs, including the Phaistos Disk, the Arkalochori Axe, seal fragment HM 992 [which contains the Phaistos Disk’s distinctive “double-comb” symbol #21], together with all the known Linear A inscriptions… and who believes that he is now able to account for a large proportion of them. So, what’s the Phaistos Disk, then? Well, according to Tsikritis (p.320), “at least one side is a [Tragoudi]”… basically, a sea-shanty. Well, pickle my timbers and sell my soul to Captain Teague: who’d have thunk it, eh?
Buy Gavin Menzies’ book if you like: but please bear in mind that his ongoing Voyages of the Damned proceed despite capital-aitch ‘istory, not because of it. Despite a sensitive nose for what’s wrong with big picture accounts, his syncretistic urge to jam all his pieces together serves only to weaken his overall case, not to strengthen it. The reader departs with the impression of having met a kid trying to build a Lego wall without knowing how to make brick bonds: for as a discipline, history is far less about simply accreting evidence than about examining the nature and limits of the bonds binding those pieces of evidence together.
To me, Menzies’ Lego walls really don’t stand up to close scrutiny: though they’re formed of all the right sort of brightly coloured bricks, their bonds – those connections that move us along the continuum from coincidence to correlation to causality – are simply absent. So, even though what his approach yields is a series of vividly-coloured, imaginative accounts of how things might have been, these ultimately are little more than modern-day sea-shanties. What shall we do with him? Shave his belly with a rusty razor!