Martin Bernal (1937-2013)

I heard the sad news today that Martin Bernal, the political scientist/historian/classicist and ‘humanist’ in every relevant sense of the word, passed away on Monday at the age of 76 (follow the link for his obituary in the Ithaca Journal).  At the time of his death, he was Professor Emeritus of Government and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell.  One can only imagine that he was, and will be, the only figure to hold simultaneous professorships in these two fields.  He was also a genial, considerate scholar, and it was my honour to have worked with him.

Bernal is, of course, best known for his three-volume Black Athena (Bernal 1987, 1991, 2006), a massive attempt to show the indebtedness of classical civilization to Egyptian and Phoenician influences and that Greek civilization was only secondarily Indo-European but principally an African and Near Eastern civilization which, due to racism among European early modern scholars, was not recognized as such.  To say that it was controversial is a gross understatement – few claims in the study of the ancient world have attracted as much scorn, including an entire edited volume dedicated to its refutation.  The scholarly consensus today is that Bernal’s linguistic, archaeological and historical evidence is too rough-and-ready and that he was too willing to take coincidence as evidence when considering similarities in the languages and symbolic lives of Greeks and Egyptians.  The Greek pantheon is not simply a set of African deities with a European veneer, any more than the Greek language is some sort of bizarre mixed language full of Semitic and Afro-Asiatic roots.

These are serious problems, and to his credit, Bernal did attempt to address them, not always successfully. I do not, however, agree with the assessment of some that he was credulous.  Rather, I view his work as a conscious attempt to provide a counterpoint to mainstream views, even when – or especially because – the ideas he was proposing were so challenging. He was unafraid to be wrong if the alternative was to be silent.  Unlike, say, Erich von Daniken, to whom he has been most unjustly compared, Bernal’s work was meticulously thorough in its citation, and rather than simply postulating massive conspiracies, asking ridiculous rhetorical questions, and dishonestly ignoring all contrary evidence, he was a very serious scholar, sometimes out of his depth, but never out of his mind.

I corresponded with Martin over the past five years (we never met in person) during the preparation of Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger.  His chapter in that volume, ‘The Impact of Blackness on the Formation of Classics’ (Bernal 2013) will surely prove to be one of his final published works.  I do not know if he had an opportunity to read the entire volume prior to his death, but I want to echo the remarks I made in the introduction: there is enormous value in Bernal’s demonstration of the role of implicit and explicit Eurocentric biases in shaping the course of classical scholarship from the 17th century to the present day.  His chapter expands on his earlier work by addressing the role of some key scholars, such as James Bruce, in shaping views of Greece and of Africa, and their interrelations.   He insists that postulating links between societies does not stigmatize borrowing: “I do not accept that hybridity leads to sterility; a culture is not a mule!” (Bernal 2013: 14).  Throughout the process of editing and revision and production, Martin was cheerful, thoughtful, and open, responsive to editorial comment and a true professional.

I wrote Bernal to invite him to participate in the volume, knowing full well that Trigger had been publicly quite critical of Black Athena and its revisionist assertions.  Indeed, that was part of the point.  Bernal exemplified an unflinching willingness to spend decades on an extreme version of a position that, over time and with much refinement and revision, has come to limited acceptance in some scholarly communities, at the cost of great scorn from others.  You might count this in the ‘loss’ column, if scholarship were measured in wins and losses.  But this was never the point.  The point is the process, and both Bernal and Trigger exemplified the principled willingness to present a point of view regardless of its conformity to some present orthodoxy.  In my view, too much anthropology and archaeology, and quite a lot of linguistics, lack this principled willingness to challenge, to doubt even when doubting has costs, to publish the unpublishable – a luxury his position afforded him, but alas, too few of us today enjoy such freedom.

In 2002, when I was just finishing my PhD and writing my first published article, ‘The Egyptian origin of the Greek alphabetic numerals’, I un-courageously felt the need to distance myself from Bernal in writing, “This theory is a further contribution towards delineating the economic and intellectual transfers between Egypt and Greece in antiquity, though of course at a later date and with a more secure contextual foundation than that found in Bernal’s (1987) analysis of the subject.” (Chrisomalis 2003: 58).  It’s a true statement, but at the time, what I failed to recognize is that I could not have had my hypothesis considered fairly without the sort of framing that Bernal’s body of scholarship afforded me.  I am grateful, a decade later, to have had a chance to know the man and return the favour.


Bernal, Martin. 1987. Black Athena : the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization. Vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Bernal, Martin. 1991. Black Athena : the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization. Vol. 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Bernal, Martin. 2006. Black Athena : the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization. Vol. 3: The Linguistic Evidence. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Bernal, Martin. 2013. The impact of blackness on the formation of classics.  In S. Chrisomalis and A. Costopoulos (eds.), Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger, pp. 12-30.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Chrisomalis, Stephen. 2003. The Egyptian origin of the Greek alphabetic numerals. Antiquity 77 (297): 485-496.

Three new anthro-blogs

Readers of Glossographia may be interested in three new anthropology blogs that have popped up over the past month:

Archaeogaming focuses on the intersection of archaeology and video games, and promises to be a lively discussion – it’s brand new this week!  Those of you who may not be up-to-date on differences between artifact types in the Elder Scrolls series may nonetheless be fascinated by the most recent post, ‘Video Game Archaeology in Meatspace‘, where Andrew Reinhard deals with the science and ethics of the recently announced excavation/looting to take place in Alamogordo, New Mexico at the site of the infamous Atari Dump Site where, purportedly, 14 truckloads of unsold E.T. cartridges were discarded and cemented over in 1983.

Bone Broke is authored by Jess Beck, a former student of mine who now studies bioarchaeology at the University of Michigan and whose blog will feature material on osteology and other related topics.  I particularly like her post ‘Taylorism and Teaching‘ where she develops a research protocol for evaluating the evolution of the hand and/or the qualifications of undergraduates for industrial line work (hold the comments on the job prospects of anthro majors, please).

The Human Family seems at first glance to be what would result if you brought Zombie Lewis Henry Morgan to life and sat him in front of a computer.  But far from just recapitulating classic theory in kinship and social organization, the author brings it into contemporary relevance with his discussion of ‘Pedigrees, genealogies, and same-sex parents‘, showing the continued practical applicability of kinship studies for modern biological and social relationships.

Maya Decipherment blog / research tool

Last week, a nice article came out about Mayan epigraphy and specifically about David Stuart’s Maya Decipherment blog.    Don’t be fooled by the title – this isn’t about Zooniverse-style crowdsourced science (which has its own merits and challenges), but about the way that the blog is being used for early discussion and review of new ideas by very prominent scholars (which Stuart clearly is) – not supplanting peer review but in parallel to it.  I particularly like the article’s emphasis on the ongoing and collaborative nature of Maya epigraphy (while acknowledging that it can be an incredibly contentious field at times).    I would, however, like to propose a moratorium on the journalistic use of the word ‘mysteries’ in reference to archaeological findings.

Numerals inside the Great Pyramid

A couple of weeks ago all the news was about some new red ochre markings found in a shaft on the interior of the Great Pyramid at Giza (a.k.a. the Pyramid of Khufu), identified using an exploratory robot. That was pretty cool. But if you’re a professional numbers guy (as I am) you’ll be doubly excited to learn that it is probable that those marks are hieratic numerals. If this interpretation is correct, these are almost certainly mason’s marks used to indicate some quantity involved in the construction. Other than the fact that I would like all news outlets to stop calling them hieroglyphs (they aren’t – the hieratic script is a cursive Egyptian script that differs significantly from the hieroglyphs, and the numerals look nothing alike), this is really cool. I do want to urge caution, however: this does not imply that the Great Pyramid was designed along some sort of mystical pattern or using some numerological precepts. It actually doesn’t tell us even that the marks indicate the length of the shaft (as Luca Miatello suggests in the new article) – it could just as easily be 121 bricks in a pile used to make a portion of the pyramid. I am also not 100% convinced of the ‘121’ interpretation – the 100 could be a 200, very easily, or even some other sign altogether, for instance. But the idea that numerical marks using hieratic script would be made by the pyramid-makers is entirely plausible and helps show the role of hieratic script in the Old Kingdom. Although it’s hardly going to revolutionize our understanding of Egyptian mathematics, it may well help outline the functional contexts of the use of numerals in Old Kingdom Egypt.

Pseudo-writing in the news

I promise I didn’t plan it this way – if I’d known about the article I’d have included it in my post earlier this week – but there’s a good short piece on pseudo-writing in New Kingdom Egypt at Past Horizons, about work being done by Dr. Ben Haring. At the workers’ village of Deir el Medina, one of the richest sources of our knowledge of daily life in the New Kingdom, ordinary (cursive, hieratic) script is found alongside a nonlinguistic system of marks used by tomb makers as personal marks of identity, and many writers were familiar with and used both systems, thus refuting the notion that pictograms are supplanted once phonetic writing comes along. The question of influence of hieratic script on this system of marks, and vice versa, is a rich line of intellectual inquiry.

From ancient to digital archives

Belatedly, I note that Numerical Notation features prominently in the annual report of the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project published online last month (the section on my book is near the end). Matt Stolper, the head of the project, graciously gave me permission to reprint the Old Persian cuneiform tablet Fort. 1208-101 in my book, as it features the first evidence of the Old Persian numerals for the higher hundreds (in the numeral phrase ‘604’), and is the only known Old Persian document that serves an administrative function. Ultimately, the tablet was chosen by my editors to grace the extremely attractive cover.

Stolper alludes indirectly in the report to the serendipitous inclusion of this tablet in my research. I’ll be more direct: online publication and open access to the research findings of the Archive are the only reason I was able to integrate this important artifact into my research, at what was a fairly advanced stage of publication. If Stolper and his co-author Jan Tavernier had not published their findings directly online (Stolper and Tavernier 2007), enabling me to rapidly track it down once the media began to report on the tablet’s analysis, I could never have discussed it. (I should also give full credit to my wife, who first alerted me to the news articles on Fort. 1208-101). There are other arguments, such as cost, in favour of this model of publication, but access and speed – especially in fields like this, where data can lie unpublished for decades – are absolutely critical.