The American Dream to Excavate Delphi or How the Oracle Vexed the Americans (1879-1891)

Delphi before the excavations, April 1891. Photo ASCSA Archives. Click to enlarge.

Delphi before the excavations, April 1891. Photo ASCSA Archives. Click to enlarge.

The story of how the French secured the excavation of Delphi has been told before. Pierre Amandry published an exemplary account (“Fouilles de Delphes et raisins de Corinthe”) of the negotiations between the French, Greeks, and Americans in La redécouverte de Delphes (1992). His work drew heavily on material in the archives of the French ministries of Public Instruction and Foreign Affairs and L’ Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres to paint a detailed picture of the French side of the story. His account of the American side is much shorter because Amandry only had access to a handful of documents published in the History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1882-1942 (1947, pp. 58-62). The author of that volume, Louis Lord, included four letters either addressed to or written by Charles Eliot Norton, the President of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). Norton was not only the founding spirit of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) but also the driving force behind the Institute’s unsuccessful campaign to dig at Delphi. In a brief essay from Excavating Our Past (2002), Phoebe Sheftel presented more records from the archives of the AIA that shed further light on the American side of the Delphi story without, however, making reference to the rich archival resources that Amandry had published in his long article. Sheftel’s story about Delphi is “the story that Norton wanted told” (Sheftel 2002, p. 106).

Charles Eliot Norton

Charles Eliot Norton

The recent announcement of a conference entitled Η Αρχαιολογία στην Ελλάδα του 19ου αιώνα (Archaeology in Greece in the 19th century), to be sponsored by the Directorate of the National Archive of Monuments of Greece (October 22-24, 2014), prompted me to study an additional body of records, the papers of Charles Waldstein, who was director of the American School during the final two critical years of the negotiations for the Delphi concession. My post today is a preview of the paper that I will deliver at the conference on October 24th and is a work in progress. Waldstein’s correspondence from his years as Director of the American School (1889-1893) is housed in the Archives of the International Olympic Committee Museum in Lausanne, and copies were sent to the Archives of the American School upon request, a couple of years ago. What we are still missing is the Greek side of the story. (In the papers of Stephanos Dragoumis in the Archives of the Gennadius Library, I found copies of the commercial treaties between Greece and France were either voted or rejected during the negotiations for the Delphi concession. Dragoumis was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1886 to 1890.)
Zante Currants
In the History of the American School, Lord attempted to explain why the Americans lost Delphi to the French. “One of the conditions on which the Greek raisins known as Zante currants were to be admitted to France with a reduced duty was that the privilege of excavating at Delphi be given to the French Archaeological School” (1947, p. 62). But was this really true?

French interest in Delphi can be traced back to 1860 when Paul Foucart (1836-1926) had uncovered part of the polygonal wall. When Foucart later became Director of the French School (1879), he made it his goal to secure the site for the French. But he was not alone in wanting it. By that time, the Archaeological Society in Athens had had also expressed an interest in digging at Delphi. Antonios Keramopoulos in his Topography of Delphi (Τοπογραφία των Δελφών) refers to a small-scale expropriation as well as the excavation of the Kastalia spring by the same Stephanos Dragoumis who later became Minister of Foreign Affairs and Efthemios Kastorchis. In a letter to Charles Waldstein (January 28, 1889), Norton implied that he too had become interested in digging Delphi already in 1879 before the establishment of the American School in 1881 and that, through the efforts of U.S. Minister to Greece John Read, he had received the consent of the King and Prime Minister of Greece. Read, however, was recalled soon afterwards and the project fell through.

Paul Foucart

Paul Foucart

Norton continued to harbor his Delphic dream, but it was the French who took the first serious steps to secure the concession. By early 1882, with the support of Prime Minister Alexandros Koumoundouros (1817-1883), the French came very close to gaining control of Delphi, when they signed a convention with the Greeks. But the resignation of Koumoundouros in March of 1882 brought the recent agreement to the attention of the new prime minister, Charilaos Tricoupis (1832-1896), who refused to bring it to the Greek Parliament for the vote. Tricoupis was a shrewd politician who was aware of the value of Greek currants as an export item, especially in France after phylloxera had attacked the French vineyards in the 1870s. He decided to link the Delphi concession with a commercial treaty that would reduce French import duties on Greek currants (Amandry 1992, pp. 89-95). Note that in 1880 the French imported 19,500 tons of Greek currants (Amandry 1992, p. 112). Diplomatic negotiations continued for another year, with Tricoupis insisting on the simultaneous conclusion of both treaties and the French pushing for the Delphi concession but not agreeing to reduce tax on the Greek fruit.

Cartoon from Punch magazine (1890) with Phylloxera feasting with French wines

Cartoon from Punch magazine (1890). Phylloxera feasting with French wines

From 1883 until 1886, there is no evidence that the French pursued the Delphi matter further, not even when Tricoupis lost the elections in April of 1885, before returning to power thirteen months later. While the French interest in Delphi lay dormant, Norton must have felt that the Americans finally had a chance to stake their claim. In May of 1886, he asked Martin D’ Ooge, the Director of the American School (1886-1887), to inquire about the status of the site. D’ Ooge approached General Director of Antiquities Panayotis Kavvadias, who must have encouraged him to explore the matter higher up. Sometime in October of 1886, D’Ooge, in the company of U.S Minister John Walker Fearn, paid a visit to Stephanos Dragoumis, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Although the French had a priority because of their earlier interest in Delphi, the cost of expropriation had risen significantly, and Dragoumis noted that the French were unlikely to find the money. The site was open for other considerations, and if the Americans could raise $50,000 (note that the annual salary of the ASCSA director at the time was about $2,500), “the Greek authorities… would gladly favor us…”, wrote D’ Ooge to Norton on Nov. 23, 1886.

In hindsight this statement of Stephanos Dragoumis appears odd or even naïve, especially when less than a month later (on November 6) he signed a temporary agreement between France and Greece that granted the advantage of the most favored nation to the commercial products of each country. Article no. 4, in particular, stressed that France was committed not to raise the duties on imported Greek currants. Did he really think that the French had lost their interest in Delphi? If he did, he had not counted on Charles Jean Tristan de Montholon (1843-1899), who arrived in Athens on September 3 as the new ambassador of France to Greece. By December 18, 1886, the French Minister of Education had been informed of the new ambassador’s intention to reopen the negotiations for the Delphi concession that had been interrupted since 1883. In the meantime, unaware of these recent developments, Norton launched a campaign in New York and Boston to raise the necessary funds through an appeal to wealthy Americans.

The Delphi Concession of 1887 (Stephanos Dragoumis Papers, Gennadius Library)

The Delphi Concession of 1887 (Stephanos Dragoumis Papers, Gennadius Library)

Two months after the commercial treaty, on February 4, 1887, Dragoumis and Montholon drafted a provisional contract that allowed the French to dig at Delphi for a period of five years. For a while it appeared that each side would get what it wanted: the Greek state its tax exemptions, and the French the Delphi concession. But in May of 1887, the French Senate refused to ratify the commercial treaty between Greece and France, especially article no. 4, on the grounds that a low import duty would fail to protect French viticulture as it recovered from phylloxera. On hearing the decision of the French Senate, the Greek government responded by not presenting the Delphi concession to the Greek King for signing.

Norton must have felt optimistic after the recent failure of the French to secure Delphi and, in fact, Minister Fearns wrote that “I am at length able to report that Delphi is open to us.” Still Waldstein and Norton exchanged letters where the prevalent sentiment was that “he [Tricoupis] would use us, -was, indeed, using us as very serviceable cat’s paws.” Whether or not true, Norton was determined to continue his fund-raising. “…It would be unwise to allow those suspicions to prevent us from making the attempt to secure Delphi…” and if a failure “we should be free from the responsibility of neglect of what was a magnificent possibility” (Norton to Waldstein, Jan.28, 1889).

Charles Waldstein. Photo ASCSA Archives.

Charles Waldstein. Photo ASCSA Archives.

Norton, however, was also aware that the Americans might be breeching common courtesy by their interference in the Delphi case. He asked Waldstein to inquire “whether the French would feel hurt were we to seek for and obtain the permission” (April 29, 1889). Montholon, who must have been deeply concerned by the American initiatives, not only reassured Fearns and Waldstein orally and in writing (Monthollon to Waldstein, June 19, 1889) that the French had not given up Delphi, but he also managed to extract a commitment from the U.S. Secretary of State, James G. Blaines. In May 1889, Blaines wrote to the French Ambassador in Washington that the Americans would “not engage in the work in question except in the case of final withdrawal of the French enterprise.” It is surprising, therefore, that in Waldstein’s papers there is the draft of a response to Montholon, where Waldstein states that the American School cannot wait forever and as an independent institution is not obliged to follow U.S government policy, even the Secretary of State’s promise to the French government. Meanwhile, Norton, despite his original optimism, was not successful in gathering the funds: “New York appears entirely deaf to our appeal…”(Norton to Waldstein, Dec. 9, 1889).

1890 proved to be the most crucial year in both sides’ negotiations with the Greek state. Tricoupis kept the race open… On February 20, Waldstein assured Norton that “Tricoupis was still pledging to keep the site open.” On April 28, Montholon after a meeting with Tricoupis wrote to the French Minister of Education that Tricoupis was willing to free the Delphi concession from its dependence on a commercial treaty (aware of the decline in the exports of Corinthian currants to France, which after a peak of 69,500 tons in 1889, had declined to 37,800 tons in 1890), if the French government approved the funds for the full, not gradual, expropriation of the site at a cost of 390,000 francs. In that case, Tricoupis would turn down the Americans.

Charilaos Trikoupis

Charilaos Trikoupis

At the most critical moment in the game, there was nobody on the American side in Athens to follow the case and apply pressure. Waldstein, who had bargained with the Managing Committee of the American School for a four month residence in Athens (January to April), had left town by April 12. Before his departure he had spent a month digging at Plataea and from March 26 to April 7 he had been at Hissarlik with Schliemann and Dörpfeld. In addition to Waldstein’s constant absences from Athens, the Americans were also not fortunate to have a Minister in town who was as competent and experienced as Montholon. The new ambassador Ludon Snowden did not share Walker Fearn’s commitment to the Delphi case. “I am in doubt as to the Minister’s ability…” commented Norton to Waldstein (Nov. 21, 1890). While Waldstein was away from Athens and hardly anybody of authority was resident at the American School, the French, especially Montholon, continued to pursue the matter. By June 13, the French Parliament had approved the required funds for the expropriation of the site and Montholon had conveyed the positive decision to Tricoupis.

In the fall of 1890 serious things were happening in Athens, but again neither Waldstein nor Snowden were there. “Mr. Snowden is not here yet, and nobody either his secretary or his consuls knows when he is to come,” wrote a concerned Rufus Richardson, the annual director of the School, to Norton on Oct. 27. Tricoupis had lost the elections in October. The French, who had already made great progress in securing the Delphi concession, must have felt even more optimistic about the new Francophile prime minister Theodoros Deliyannis.

Despite all this, the Americans were lost in their own world, as Waldstein (still in England) became embroiled in an argument with Seth Low, the new President of the AIA, over who would direct the Delphi excavation: the AIA or the ASCSA? (Draft letter of Waldstein to Low, Nov. 28, 1890). Norton would write to Waldstein “to move Deliyannis to confirm Tricoupis’ more or less definite pledges to us… You will have all the diplomatic support that the good will of our State Department can afford you.” But it was too late… Waldstein’s return to Athens in late December did not make any difference, despite his efforts to put pressure on the Greek government (Montholon to Alexander Ribot, Jan. 9, 1891). The request for funds to expropriate Delphi was approved by the Chamber of Deputies on February 17. On March 4 the French senate passed the law for the French excavations, and on March 9 it was voted by the Greek parliament.

Delphi, ca. 1900

Delphi, ca. 1900

Returning to Louis Lord’s claim that the American School lost (unfairly) the Delphi concession because of a commercial treaty favorable to the trade of Zante currants, the sequence of events and actions in the public and private correspondence of the people involved tells a different story. In 1887 the Delphi concession had indeed followed an important commercial treaty that involved trade in currants. In 1890 the negotiations were conducted in reverse order. The commercial agreement followed the Delphi concession, which was the sole focus of the Greek and French negotiations. Moreover, the commercial treaty did not mention currants at all.

When Tricoupis pulled the trigger of the starting gun, initiating the Delphic race in 1889, Americans and French had the same advantages, but in the course of the race the French benefited from greater diplomatic experience and a consistency in their dedication to the cause. Paul Foucart, who had been the director of the French School since 1879, had participated from the start in the negotiations for Delphi, unlike Charles Waldstein, who assumed directorship of the School only in 1889 with the disadvantage of limited residence in Athens. The French were also exceptionally lucky to have Count de Montholon as their ambassador during the final years of the negotiations. Walker Fearn might have been similarly devoted to the enterprise but he was replaced by the inexperienced and indifferent Lupon Snowden. In the end Charles Eliot Norton’s passion for Delphi was in itself not sufficient to inspire the Americans who were negotiating in Greece. Simply put, the French had the better team.


3 Comments on “The American Dream to Excavate Delphi or How the Oracle Vexed the Americans (1879-1891)”

  1. Glenn R. Bugh says:

    Fascinating tale of a modern agon, a worthy successor to the sculptural relief on the Siphnian Treasury depicting Apollo and Herakles fighting over the tripod. I confess that I did not know the details of the French School’s acquisition of Delphi or how close we came to getting it. But Corinth ain’t bad either. But I won’t think about raisins in the same way again. Thanks again for good stuff, Natalia. Keep ’em coming.

  2. James Wright says:

    Natalia, the phylloxera blight began in 1864 to be precise. Jim

  3. Yannis Lolos says:

    Fascinating stuff and completely news to most of us who have always associated the Delphi concession to the raisin’s trade agreement. Very well written Natalia! Yannis


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