Before Greece and Rome

I find stories like this one fascinating:

TEHRAN — A team of archaeologists working on Bam riverside in Kerman Province have recently unearthed ruins of a large ancient site, which are believed to belong to a 5000-year-old civilization.

The site was discovered while excavating for a construction project in the Khajeh Askar region near the city of Bam, team director Nader Alidadi-Soleimani told the Persian service of the Mehr News Agency on Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, part of the site was damaged during the excavation,” he said.

“Based on the artifacts unearthed there, the site was one of the early places of human habitation in Iran, whose inhabitants had a connection with other civilizations such as the Jiroft civilization,” he explained.

There are reports of inscriptions found at these sites in cuneiform and the proto-Elamite script. Very little is known about the Elamite language—it doesn’t seem to be related to Semitic, Indo-European, or even the Sumerian languages (to which nothing else seems to be related, either). It may be that there’s an entire chapter of human history waiting to be uncovered.

Most people are only marginally aware of it but until about 300 years ago virtually nothing, outside of a few hints in the Hebrew Bible, was known about civilization prior to Greece and Rome. There’s an entertaining book on this subject, named, appropriately enough Civilization Before Greece and Rome. It outlines the story of the deciphering of hieroglypics, cuneiform, and other scripts and a few of the challenges that remain.

In a theme that I return to repeatedly here, we actually know very little about ancient Greece and Rome. Most of the great Greek and Roman literary works, e.g. M. Antoninus’s Meditations, Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, Xenophon’s The Ascent of Cyrus, are known only from fragments, quotations from them in other works, or a handful of manuscripts copied by Christian and Muslim scholars that date from a millennium or more after their supposed writing.

We know remarkably little about antiquity, indeed, little about the time before the invention of the printing press a mere 600 years ago. Much of what we know is just what people who came much, much later wanted us to know.

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