— Way back in the fourth century B.C., a young Alexander the Great thundered across what is now the Middle East in a bloody mission that ranks among the most brilliant military conquests in history.
And according to almost any textbook, Alexander, though barely out of his teens, paved the way for the rapid spread of Greek culture throughout that tortured land.
But according to some intriguing research, the young Macedonian's achievements may not have been as great as his name implies. The evidence suggests quite strongly that Greek material culture, at least, flourished as far away as the coast of what is now Israel at least a century before Alexander's conquests.
The findings dispute the widely held belief that Hellenization, or the spread of Greek culture, "went into high gear" on the heels of Alexander's military exploits, says Andrew F. Stewart, an art historian and archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is heading up an international team of experts investigating the matter.
"What we think we can prove is that's not true," Stewart says.
The evidence also suggests that Greek culture did not increase, at least in that area, under Alexander.
"If anything there was a bit of retrenchment," Stewart says.
Artifacts Suggest Earlier Greek Culture
Why should anyone care, other than a bunch of art historians? Simply this. It may seem logical to assume that military victories in places like Iran, Afghanistan, Israel and other hot spots will lead to the spread of the culture and values of the conquering forces. But beneath a small mound overlooking two ancient sand-filled harbors, archaeologists are uncovering evidence that "decouples material culture from military conquest," Stewart says.
For nearly two decades Steward has been digging into the sandy soil where a Phoenician town once thrived on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, in what is now Israel. The site is extraordinarily rare in that it has remained relatively undisturbed for two millennium.
No modern city rose on the ruins of Dor, as has happened in so many areas of archaeological interest, and the nearest village was an Arab settlement just to the south, abandoned in 1948 after the Israeli war of independence. It was replaced by a kibbutz, Nachsholim, a popular retreat for beach lovers who flock to the white sands carried along the Mediterranean shoreline by the northward thrust of the Nile River.
Stewart and other researchers from Berkeley, as well as Hebrew University in Jerusalem and several other American, Canadian and South African universities, have recovered more than 100,000 artifacts from the site, mostly pottery. They tell a graphic story of how that community changed from a Phoenician culture steeped in boat building and seamanship to a veritable outpost of Greek material culture by 400 B.C., well before Alexander's exploits began in 336 B.C.
Stewart refers to it as "material" culture because there is no evidence yet of literary, or political, Greek culture spreading into that area. The artifacts show only that the people who lived there, or the people who moved there, were deeply involved in the production of material items, like pottery, that was clearly Greek in nature.
And they were into it big time.
"It tells you that the community on that site was buying lock, stock and barrel into Greek material culture, as opposed to merely sporadically importing stuff," Stewart says.