DURING THE PAST few years, scholar Martin Bernal has accomplished an Olympic feat: He has managed to make the subject of Ancient Greece both popular and controversial.
His award-winning history "Black Athena" presents evidence that Greek civilization -- long acknowledged as the foundation of European culture -- owes more to African and Semitic ancestry than to Aryan roots. It claims that the scholarship of the past 150 years has ignored available evidence about the past because of various cultural inhibitions.
In shrinking Europeans' role in creating Greece in favor of a model based on cultural diversity, the four-volume work has fueled the argument in Baltimore and around the nation that schools should adopt a multicultural, rather than Eurocentric, approach to studying Western Civilization. That means that "Black Athena" has also become a symbol of "political correctness" in current campus battles.
Although the Cornell University professor intends the book to lessen "European cultural arrogance," he says he didn't expect it might also become a weapon for intellectual extremism.
"I don't like its use for unthinking Afrocentrism," he says. "On the other hand, I think that the Afrocentrists are right that the history of the last 200 years has been distorted the other way. And they are arguing for mixture."
"Professor Bernal has started people thinking about the way that we look at antiquity," says Jay Freyman, director of the honors college at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and former chairman of the ancient studies department.
"You may agree with what he says, or disagree with what he
says, or agree with some of what he says, but I think the kind of dialogue his approach has elicited is healthy for any discipline."
Bernal will speak on his work, its social and academic impact and his philosophy of writing history in a free lecture at 4 p.m. Wednesday in Lecture Hall II in the Chemistry/Physics Building at UMBC.
Basing his theory upon archaeological finds and upon words in ancient Greek that have Egyptian or Semitic roots -- as much as 40 percent of the language, he claims in his book -- Bernal also proposes that Egyptians and Phoenicians colonized ancient Greece in the second millennium B.C. and helped to generate the civilization that came later.
Many scholars dispute this thesis.
More accept his assertion that European historians during the past 150 years obscured, overlooked or omitted evidence of contributions from Africa and the east Mediterranean region, the Levant. Generations of school children have been raised with the belief that Aryan invaders from the north -- people who spoke such Indo-European languages as German and French -- were solely responsible for creating "the glory that was Greece."
"For 18th and 19th century Romantics and racists it was simply intolerable for Greece, which was seen not merely as the epitome of Europe but also as its pure childhood, to have been the result of native Europeans and colonizing Africans and Semites," Bernal writes in the first volume of "Black Athena."
"We have suffered from having a Eurocentric and white male view of classical civilization which has omitted full consideration of the contributions of these other cultures," says Carolyn Koehler, associate professor of ancient studies at UMBC. "I believe there was a contribution that was edited out, but the issue [raised by Bernal's book] is what was the nature of that contribution.
"Reconstruction of ancient culture is especially difficult because a field where the historical record is even more incomplete than usual. It's often one person's theory against another's. I don't think the proof adds up yet on Bernal's side."
Bernal, 53, was not trained in the field of ancient studies. A professor in the government department at Cornell University, trained in Chinese studies at Cambridge University, he stumbled onto the beginnings of this work when he became intrigued by his own Jewish roots and began to look into ancient Jewish history. In studying Hebrew, he began to notice it had a lot of similarities with Greek. And he says that his knowledge of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Chichewa, a Bantu language spoken in Zambia, had taught him that such similarities were not coincidental.
He began to reconsider ancient Greek legends about Phoenician and Egyptian settlements, stories long discredited by most prominent scholars.
"One of the big advantages of having outrageous ideas is that you're not afraid that people will steal them from you. So I could talk very freely about my ideas to colleagues and get a lot of suggestions," he says.
Bernal says he was raised to believe in the power of fresh vision . . . and with the conviction that it's better to be wrong about a big subject than right about a small one. He comes from a family of scholars. His father, scientist John Desmond Bernal, was a founder of the field of molecular biology and widely acclaimed as a sage with encyclopedic knowledge extending from Chinese ceramics and Persian architecture to the history of science. His grandfather, Alan Henderson Gardiner, was a prominent Egyptologist.
Bernal's research took 10 years and a lot of consultations. The 575-page first volume presents his case of the scholarly cover-up. The 736-page second volume, published in July, presents archaeological and documentary evidence. The final two volumes will be published later.
Reaction so far has included the 1990 American Book Award for the first volume, a promotion at Cornell to full professor, mixed opinions from ancient studies departments -- Bernal says he is surprised at how many people agree with him -- and a book contract to explain his thesis in a less daunting form.
Many professors outside ancient studies, especially those in African-American studies, have also taken to the work. Last year "Black Athena" brought scholars to Temple University to the first symposium sponsored jointly by African-American Studies and Classics departments.
"I think it's a great scholarly achievement, one of the most erudite and masterful performances of scholarship that I can recall reading," says UMBC philosophy professor Roye Templeton. He and African-American scholar John Distefano point out that Bernal's theory about the cultural origins of Greece was preceded, in various forms, by scholarship ignored by the academic establishment.
Bernal acknowledges that he was not the first to present many of his findings. His book credits the work of many black scholars among numerous sources in several fields.
"I feel more like a conductor than a composer," he says. "One reason more attention was paid to me was because I had a book that looks more acceptable according to the rules. And the other reason is undoubtedly the fact that I am white, and people take me more seriously because they assume that I'm more objective.
"Not only am I white, but I am male, middle-aged and British in America. So I have the voice of objective authority, which is particularly true among classicists who have a great respect for European scholars. I had all the status cards in my hand. If I had been missing one of those cards, the work might well not have gotten off the ground."