Take Tuesday’s post tray full of income tax records, a fraud inquiry, a government report, and some instruction leaflets on self-assessment. Throw them up in the air. Take half the scattered sheets and turn them into papier maché. Discard. Of the remainder, cut about three-quarters into pieces, return to the floor and give a good stir. Leave for three thousand years. When the Novaustrals turn up, they will try to answer the following questions:
- Did the nation include all of Europe this side of the Alps or if not, which parts?
- Was the Church of England a wholly educational programme?
- Would all the males have borne arms?
- What proportion of coastal towns were engaged in maritime trade?
When finance departments at Mycenae, Knossos and Pylos burned down, some of their account books, instead of being destroyed, were rendered imperishable. For this was the age of the clay tablet, and the ones which were accidentally fired outlasted the millennia below ground, fragmented and muddled as they were. It has been a work of years to stick them back together, sort them into related heaps, and begin to interpret them. This book was a bit of a slow starter (or perhaps I was the slow starter) but gradually Chadwick’s deductive process drew me in. Some tablets would make perfect sense, for example, except for one or two words which have no Greek equivalent and are forever unknowable. Some are so specific that we can tell what women textile workers had for dinner. Occasionally the author shares a private moment of enjoyment with us, his unknown readers. For example, he takes time to inform us that someone at Knossos was driving oxen called Dapple, Dusky, Noisy and Whitefoot. Again, Chadwick mentions an item in a inventory:
One stool … is described as inlaid in ivory with a man, a horse, an octopus and a phoinix; the choice for the last word seems to be between ‘palm-tree’ and ‘griffin’, the first being the more likely. This is probably not a single scene of a groom leading a horse while the octopus climbs a palm-tree, though we have it on the authority of the elder Pliny that octopuses do climb palm trees …
John Chadwick is no longer with us. I wonder how his project is getting along?