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Posts Tagged ‘Helen J Kantor’

My last two blog posts here were about the tenuousness of history, that is, the idea that we really know relatively little about the human past, especially about the ancient world — see “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” and “The First Named Author in History Was a Woman, but When Did She Live?

nilotic landscape from Santorinii

A bronze-age Egyptian-inspired “Nilotic” landscape from the Greek island of Santorini. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I thought I was done with this topic for awhile, but then by chance I ran across an interesting quotation by Helen J. Kantor (1919-1993), the famed Near East scholar who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. In her 1947 masterwork, The Aegean and the Orient in the Second Millennium B.C., Kantor admits that our knowledge of the ancient past is limited. Nevertheless, investigation is worth the effort, she writes, and as a result “it is possible to sketch a tentative outline of Aegean relations with the East and of the concomitant effects produced in Egyptian art.” (74)

However, in her lead-up to that statement, she makes an honest admission of the limitations of archaeological knowledge:

The evidence preserved to us by the passage of time constitutes but a small fraction of that which must once have existed. Each imported vessel from Egypt represents scores of others that have perished. Although objects testifying to the operation of Aegean influence on Egyptian art are rare, we must remember that those that do exist are but tokens of groups which would have been far more impressive in their entirety. Serious gaps in our knowledge exist even in the case of Egypt, where so much has been preserved and where supplementary data are yielded by tomb reliefs and paintings. Nevertheless, large, unplundered tombs are unusual and rich burials containing even a portion of their original contents are not often found. Most metal objects, in particular the more valuable ones, have perished. Elaborately decorated weapons such as those belonging to Ahmose and Tutankhamun are preserved only in exceptional cases. Relatively few carefully ornamented small objects of daily life remain to us. The amount of information that can be extracted from such occasional articles as the scraps of harness from the tomb of Amenhotep II or the dog collar of Mahirper indicates how much has been lost. In addition to these few objects, there must have existed many others; together they would have revealed the full story of the adoption of Aegean artistic traits by Egyptian craftsmen, a story of which we now possess only disjointed segments. (73)

I quote all of that just to emphasize that the most honest experts are willing to admit to the limitations of their knowledge. As a student of history and simultaneously a student of the Bible, I’m constantly reminded that knowledge of the past is fragmentary. Experts construct models of the human past based on the best information that they have, but often these models get presented to the public as the ‘official version of the truth,’ and average people pass these models along as factual, treating the Bible account with scorn.

I encourage the thinking person to keep an open mind to alternative points of view and to be careful about making strong assertions when your knowledge is, in fact, limited — see “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”

ARK — 4 November 2014

 

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