Archaeological Hikes and Accidental Discoveries

 In addition to administering the School’s institutional records and hundreds of collections of personal papers in the archival repositories of the Blegen and the Gennadius Libraries (which will soon be consolidated under one roof), the Archivist of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter) also oversees the School’s Antiquities Collection. Catalogued by the School’s former Archivist, Dr. Carol Zerner, and a host of volunteer archaeologists, the Collection features more than 10,000 sherds, hundreds of pots, figurines, fragments of sculpture, various metal objects, and roughly 3,000 coins, all registered with the Ministry of Culture. With one exception, all of the antiquities are kept in a separate, well-guarded room. The exception is a small collection of Geometric vases displayed in the Blegen Library.

“… While on a Sunday excursion we ran across a newly looted Geometric grave out at Thorikos. The sherds showed lots of joins and after talking about the problem to Gene Vanderpool, we took them down the Agora and they were [competent?] to restore a handsome amphora, an oenochoe, a very fine tripod stand and a bowl fitting it. The problem now is to inform the [M]inistry and try to get permission to keep them for the exhibit to be housed in the new wing of the School. I must talk to Mr. Papademetriou this week about it…” confided William (Bill) A. McDonald to Homer A. Thompson, Director of the Athenian Agora Excavations, on November 23, 1958.

Shortly after his discovery, McDonald published the four vases in Hesperia (vol. 30, 1961, pp. 299-304). Dated in the Middle Geometric period, the looted grave at Thorikos belongs to an extensive Early Iron Age cemetery spread on the sides of Velatouri hill. (The Belgian School at Athens has been surveying and digging the site of Thorikos since the late 1960s.) The School also received permission to display McDonald’s finds in the newly built Arthur Vining Davis Wing of the Blegen Library, which was inaugurated in the fall of 1959. Thirty years later, in 1991, when the New Extension to the Blegen Library was completed, the vases were placed (where they still are) inside a vertical glass case, on the ground floor, next to the Rare Book Room. A short text explains the conditions of their discovery.

Three of the four Geometric vases (ASP 85-87) that McDonald found on Velatouri Hill, Thorikos. ASCSA Archives, Antiquities Collection.

 A Pathfinder

In 1958-59, McDonald (1913-2000), Professor of Classics at the University of Minnesota, enjoyed a sabbatical year, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. He was familiar with the School since he had participated in the academic program as a regular member the in 1938-1939. An athletic Canadian, who loved to play rugby and hockey at the University of Toronto, McDonald followed his professor’s advice (no other than Homer Thompson) to enroll for graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University and also spend a year at the American School. While in Athens he made use of the School’s rich library to research his dissertation topic, The Political Meeting Places of the Greeks.

In the spring of 1939, McDonald was invited by Carl W. Blegen to join his new dig at Pylos. It was in McDonald’s trench on the first day of the excavation (April 3, 1939) that the pick hit the rich cache of Linear B tablets. McDonald would return to Pylos in 1953 for another season. He was so eager to get back to the field that he offered to do anything on the dig. “Please feel no constraint in putting me at whatever job you have that needs doing-even washing potsherds. Remember how useful I proved in 1939 in the luncheon commissary department?” McDonald wrote to Blegen a couple of months before arriving to Greece (McDonald to Blegen, undated but postmarked April 2, 1953). By then he had already found a position in the department of Classics at the University of Minnesota, where Theodore Blegen (Carl’s brother) was dean of the Graduate School. It was during that season that McDonald, most likely at Blegen’s suggestion, went on a four day field trip (June 18-20, 23, 1953) in the company of Charalampos Christophilopoulos to survey the area that once comprised the Mycenaean kingdom of Pylos.  McDonald continued his project in 1955, this time with the help of Nionios Androutsakis (Blegen’s trusted foreman), and during his sabbatical year in Greece, in 1958-59.

William A. McDonald, Nichoria 1969. ASCSA Archives, Nichoria Excavation Records.

An interdisciplinarian in the making, McDonald sought to combine the results of his first field survey with a study of modern toponyms. The study of place names and their origin flourished in the wake of Michael Ventris’s decipherment of the Pylos tablets in 1952. Ventris’s discovery “had made it possible to compile a list of phonetic approximations of the names used ca. 1200 B.C. to designate the towns, villages, and districts which belonged to the kingdom of Pylos,” as McDonald explained in the preface to his publication of the place names (Place Names of Southwest Peloponnesus: Register and Indexes, Athens 1967).  To publish his research McDonald collaborated with lexicographer and professor of Modern Greek at the University of North Dakota, Demetrius J. Georgakas.  “This valuable pioneer work, however, has been overshadowed by his later achievements,” noted Nancy Wilkie and William Coulson in the preface to their Festschrift for McDonald, titled Contributions to Aegean Archaeology: Studies in Honor of William A. McDonald (Minneapolis 1985).

The Nichoria Excavation team in 1969. Except for McDonald in the middle, I also recognize Mary Sturgeon on the lower right. ASCSA Archives, Nichoria Excavation Records.

In addition to his extensive survey of Messenia under the auspices of the University of Minnesota Messenia Expedition and his excavations at Nichoria, today McDonald is remembered as a “pathfinder,” who “pioneered in bringing about changes in the theory, methodology and general conduct of archaeological research in Greece” (for the quote see N.C. Wilkie, “William Andrew McDonald, 1913-2000” AJA 104:2, 2000, p. 310). He was one of the first archaeologists who applied interdisciplinary—not multidisciplinary, as he emphatically stressed— methods on his field projects. McDonald summarized his contributions to Greek archaeology in a daring speech (still remembered by Aegean archaeologists who are in their 60s and 70s today) that he gave on the occasion of his acceptance of the Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement, awarded by the AIA on December 29, 1981. (The speech is reproduced in the preface of Wilkie and Coulson 1985.) His speech, which criticized the elitist, art historical approach that dominated the studies of ancient Greece until the 1970s, must have felt like a manifesto to a new generation of field archaeologists, particularly prehistorians. After all, it was the time of the “Great Divide,” but unlike the “New Archaeologists” who chose to break away from classical studies and history, McDonald looked for ways to build bridges between classics (that focused on the extraordinary) and anthropology (the ordinary). McDonald strongly objected to compartmentalization and envisaged Classics departments that reached out and hired scholars with expertise in geology, metallurgy, botany, etc.

Οξυδερκείν or the Act of Sherding

Archaeologists love to take field walks (frequently dragging their entire family with them) looking for ancient walls, horos (boundary) inscriptions, pottery sherds, stone tools, or rock art. Older archaeologists, such as Bert Hodge Hill and Blegen, called it “οξυδερκείν” (to be sharp at sight), using an ancient Greek verb to describe the act of sherding. This is how Blegen discovered the site of Korakou in 1915. In search of Homeric Ephyra, one Sunday morning very early in May 1915, Blegen and his friend Emerson H. Swift “climbed the hill from the landside and immediately began to find prehistoric potsherds. There were great quantities of Mycenaean fragments scattered about the surface of the ground. We filled our pockets in no time… There were many sherds that looked earlier than Mycenaean but neither of us could identify them properly…”  By Friday, May 8, 1915, Blegen and Alan Wace, the famous British archaeologist, were excavating at Korakou.

Royal Walks

In the personal papers of Bert Hodge Hill, Director of the ASCSA (1906-1926), there is a letter from Princess Alice of Battenberg, wife of Prince Andrew of Greece (1903) and mother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, written on April 7, 1922, at Mon Repos. (Prince Andrew and Princess Alice appear in the last episode of Season 2 of The Crown on Netflix.) Addressing Dr. Hill, whom she obviously knew from before, she described some recent finds from Corfu and invited Hill for an autopsy: “I wonder if you are very busy just now, for walking along the shore of our little property we found what we think are the remains of an ancient Greek necropolis. Quite close to the sea is a fairly perpendicular beak of clay which at a certain level is full of fragments of pottery and bones and traces of skeletons lying horizontally… As we are rather ignorant of the periods of Greek pottery, we send you some samples which we think are characteristic and should be glad to know your opinion… If by any chance you think the matter sufficiently interesting to investigate it yourself we should be only too pleased if you will come to be our guest for a few days.”

Princess Alice of Battenberg writing from Corfu to Bert H. Hill, 1922. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

Princess Alice of Battenberg (aka Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark after her marriage). Portrait by Philip de László, 1922.
Private collection of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Public Domain.

You would think that Hill would not have passed on an invitation to take a trip to Corfu as a guest of the royal family; but he did, delaying in answering her letter for two months (his response dates to June 6, 1922) and then begging her Royal Highness not to judge his “dilatoriness intentionally discourteous.” Nevertheless he dated the sherds to the “fifth century B.C. (one or two may be of the sixth) to about the first century B.C.,” and hoped that the graves would be “properly excavated someday” because there had been “altogether too little scientific investigation of ancient nekropoleis.” What they could not have imagined –Hill and Princess Alice- was that a few months later Prince Andrew would be blamed, arrested, and court-martialed for the Asia Minor disaster of August 1922, and that he and his family would be sent into exile for the rest of their lives.

Sherding in Boeotia

Blegen was also aware of another site with large concentrations of surface material. “Near the site of ancient Thespiai on the south bank of the river Thespios opposite Eremokastro, there is a low mound which marks the place of a prehistoric settlement. As early as 1920 it was known to Professor C.W. Blegen, who first showed it to me. In recent years members of the American School have stopped there several times and have gathered samples of the fragmentary pottery that lies scattered over it whole surface,” wrote John L. Caskey in the introductory paragraph of a short, two-page article about one fragment of pottery that one of the School’s students, Charles Fleischmann, had picked up and presented to the School’s study collection in 1950 (Hesperia 20, 1951, p. 289).  The fragment, which preserves small part of a rim and side wall and dates to the Neolithic period, is highly unusual because it preserves a human face. “The brows are heavy, ending at either side in projections that are almost hornlike. The forehead, where the brows meet is unnaturally prominent and forms a sort of lug; the nose is disproportionately small. Eyes and mouth are formed by lumps of clay, deeply cut with horizontal slots… Bulbous eminences on either side of the mouth portray the cheeks,” according to Caskey’s accurate description of the fragment, who also sees “character and individuality” in the piece.

Fragment of anthropomorphic vessel found at Thespiae. ASCSA Archives, Antiquities Collection.

A few years later, another student of the School, George F. Bass (Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University and a pioneer in the field of underwater archaeology) would publish in 1959 (Hesperia 28:4, 1959, pp. 344-349), at Caskey’s instigation, a small collection of Neolithic steatopygous figurines in the ASCSA study collection, also from Thespiai. With accentuated breasts and buttocks and well-defined navels, the Thespiai figurines fit within a strong, local Boeotian tradition with parallels in near-by Chaironeia and Eutresis.

Young George F. Bass at Lerna, 1956. ASCSA Archives, George F. Bass Photographic Collection.

Caskey was intrigued by the site, and, if he had had the time, I think he would have applied to conduct excavations at Thespiai. But he was near the end of his term as ASCSA director (1949-1959), and already involved in another major prehistoric excavation at Lerna in the Argolid. His interest in prehistoric Boeotia, however, led him and Elizabeth Caskey to revisit the site of Eutresis, dug by Hetty Goldman, in 1958 to conduct a one-season dig. In addition to refining the stratigraphical sequence of the site, the Caskeys also found fragments of two Neolithic female figurines, also “built up with pellets of clay,” like their “sisters” from Thespiai and Chaironeia.

I became aware of the Thespiai figurines in the School’s study collection about three years ago when Kalliope Sarri of the University of Copenhagen visited the Archives to examine them for inclusion in an article she was writing (“The Neolithic site at the Thespiai Magoula,” for the Boeotia Project, vol. II: The city of Thespiai, ed. J. Bintliff, E. Farinetti, B. Slapšak, and A. Snodgrass 2017). In fact, we had to re-identify some of the Thespiai figurines since their “provenance” had been lost over the years. Thanks to Bass’s article, this was easy to do.

One of the Neolithic female figurines (AST 36) found at Thespiai and published by George F. Bass. ASCSA Archives, Antiquities Collection.

Sherding: A No-No

Many study (or teaching) collections in archaeology departments of Greek and foreign universities have been built through οξυδερκείν, at a time when Greek Law still allowed for the collection of surface material. Today the act of “sherding” should be limited to a brief, in-situ examination of the material before fragments are placed back on the ground without any disturbance of their context. Archaeologists have become very conscious of the dangers of destroying evidence valuable for future archaeological surveys. We are, however, still able to glean important information from these earlier methods and data. In 2015 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the first investigations at the site of Korakou and inspired by Blegen’s οξυδερκείν, the ASCSA organized a conference that featured results from both old and more recent fieldwork in the Corinthia. This scholarly bridge would no doubt have also pleased the likes of Bill McDonald.


 


FULBRIGHTING IN POST-WW II GREECE (1952-1953)

The Surplus Property Act of 1944 was an act of the U.S. Congress which allowed the Secretary of State to enter into agreements with the governments of foreign countries for the disposal of surplus American property (mostly WW II scrap) abroad. The Fulbright Act, as it is better known today, became a pioneering platform for educational exchanges between the U.S. and a large number of countries, thanks to an amendment introduced by a young Democratic Senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, in 1945. The amendment allowed the sale of surplus property (e.g., airplanes and their spare parts, arms and ammunition) to foreign countries in exchange for “intangible benefits.” One of those benefits, at the insistence of Senator Fulbright, who had been a Rhodes Scholar as a young man, involved the international exchange of scholars. Since foreign governments did not have enough dollars to pay for the purchase of surplus material, the Act allowed them to use their local currencies to pay the expenses of American scholars studying in those countries.  Fulbright strongly believed in the transformative value of educational exchanges, that they could “play a major role in helping to break down mutual misunderstandings,” and contribute to world peace. On August 1, 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright bill into law.

Graveyard of American jeeps after WW II

Senator Fulbright

The first European country to sign the Fulbright Agreement was Greece, on April 23, 1948.  The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School herefafter) with its superb reputation, was one of the immediate beneficiaries of the bi-national agreement. The School claimed that it was the only place of higher learning where American students could apply for research grants to carry out advanced work in classics and archaeology. “It is of course possible for Americans to enroll in the School of Liberal Arts in the University of Athens; but the lecture courses are largely theoretical, library and other facilities are sadly inadequate, and the language problem constitutes a difficult hurdle” argued archaeologist Carl W. Blegen to Gordon T. Bowles of the Conference Board of Associated Research Councils on September 15, 1948 (AdmRec 705/1, folder 1). Blegen, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati, had been appointed as Director of the American School for a year (1948-1949). Having served the interests of the School for a long time, Blegen naturally cared first and foremost for the institution’s well-being. Blegen and others, such as Homer A. Thompson, Director of the Athenian Agora Excavations, saw in the Fulbright Act a new source of income to finance the School’s operations and, especially, the research that was carried out in the Athenian Agora. I have written elsewhere about the curious entanglement of the American School with the Fulbright Foundation in the early years of the program’s implementation, and I will be talking more about it on November 30th at Cotsen Hall in a joint event organized by the ASCSA and the Fulbright Foundation on the occasion of its 70th anniversary. Read the rest of this entry »


An African American Pioneer in Greece: John Wesley Gilbert and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1890-1891.

Posted by John W. I. Lee

John W. I. Lee, Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, here contributes an essay about John W. Gilbert, the first African-American student to participate in the Regular Program of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) in 1890-1891. Lee is writing a book about John Wesley Gilbert, the early history of the ASCSA, and the development of archaeology in Greece.


In his official report to the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) for academic year 1890-1891, Director Charles Waldstein praised students Carleton Brownson, Andrew Fossum, John Gilbert, and John Pickard, who had “proved themselves serious and enthusiastic” throughout the year.  Waldstein went on to describe the School’s 1891 excavations at ancient Eretria on the island of Euboea.  While Fossum and Brownson excavated Eretria’s theater, Pickard and Gilbert “undertook the survey and careful study of all the ancient walls of the city and acropolis, and will produce a plan and an account which… will be of great topographical and historical value.”

Waldstein’s report gives no indication that one of the students, John Gilbert, was African American—the first African American scholar to attend the ASCSA.  With the passage of time, memory of Gilbert’s pioneering contribution was forgotten at the School, until Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick of Wayne State University searched for him in the ASCSA Archives in the early 2000s.  Ronnick’s work on Gilbert, featured in the School’s Ákoue Newsletter, forms the foundation of my research.

John Wesley Gilbert. Photo: Daniel W. Culp, Twentieth Century Negro Literature (1902)

John Wesley Gilbert was born about 1863 in rural Hephzibah, Georgia; his mother Sarah was enslaved.  After Emancipation, Sarah took her young son to the nearby city of Augusta.  From childhood Gilbert thirsted for learning.  An 1871 Freedman’s Bank register bearing his signature gives his occupation as “go to school to Miss Chesnut.” Read the rest of this entry »


Imagining and Reimagining Greece


Posted by Clayton Miles Lehmann

Clayton M. Lehmann, Professor of History at the University of South Dakota, here contributes an essay about American college students coming to Greece, as part of study-abroad programs. This post represents a modified and shortened version of the 63rd Annual Harrington Lecture, which he delivered 28 October 2015 to the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of South Dakota.  Lehmann was a Regular Member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in 1982/3, lived in Greece while he wrote his doctoral dissertation, and has returned often, three times as the Director of the Summer Session for the American School and regularly since 2005 as one of the professor-captains of the University of South Dakota’s short-term faculty-led study-abroad program “The Isles of Greece!”.


After disappointing tourism numbers for the 2004 Olympics, the Greek National Tourism Organization launched a major campaign, “Live Your Myth in Greece,” to rekindle Greece in the world’s imagination.  When a group of my students arrived in Athens in 2005 for the study-abroad program The Isles of Greece!,[1] they saw the advertisements for this campaign on the billboards and buses on the way into the city.  At first glance, the images appeal to the typical touristic expectation of the Greek quartet of sea, sun, sand, and sex.  But the classical architecture and supernatural figures suggest a more complex imaginary mix.  The fine print on some of these posters read:

Greece: a land of mythical dimensions. Where the spirit of hospitality welcomes you as a modern god. And the siren song draws you into its deep blue waters. Where a gentle breeze through ancient ruins seems to whisper your name. And a dance until dawn can seem to take on Dionysian proportions. In Greece the myths are still very much alive. And in amongst them sits your own . . . patiently waiting for you to live it. Live your myth in Greece.  Ask your travel agent.

 

Eros and Mermaid posters for Live Your Myth in Greece, Greek National Tourism Organization campaign, 2005; designed by K. Karavellas; and creative design by McCann Erickson-BBDO-Cleverbank Joint Venture. Photographs courtesy of the GNTO.

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Greece 1935-1938: Involuntary Testimonies

For the really significant history is that grass roots history which reveals the everyday life of people, in their homes, and at their retreats, in their work and in their play, in turbulence and in repose.
Theodore C. Blegen, 1948

“I suppose you have heard about the Revolution which is taking place here. It began last Friday night -March 1st. During dinner we heard various rumblings and shots out in the city, but didn’t think much about it, believing them just the ordinary noises of the city. But afterwards they became so pronounced that we knew something was happening. So Betty [Dow] and I went down-town, in the direction from which the shots came. We met many troops marching through the streets, and finally came to the region where the firing came from – near the Akropolis. A revolution is such a strange thing here – everyone takes it as a matter of course, and a little as a joke – and the firing isn’t widespread at all. We were able to approach so near –without any danger – that we witnessed a tank storming a barracks for soldiers, and saw the firing on both sides… after the attacks on the barracks which we saw (we were in a crowd of about 25 – the sole witnesses), we saw other tanks, at close range and finally came upon battalions of soldiers drawn up with guns and bayonets in the streets and ready for action… ” wrote Richard (Dick) H. Howland, age 25, to his family back in America.

Most of Howland’s letters carry the “Stadium” stamp, which was issued in 1932 as a supplementary stamp of the 1927 “Landscapes” set. The “Stadium” was withdrawn from sale in 1939. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Richard Howland Papers.

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Athens at the Turn of the Century: A Sentimental Capital and a Resort of Scholars

On February 17, 1901, a young American archaeologist and member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was “roaming over the city in search of Mr. Kavvadias, the general ephor of antiquities in Athens, in order to get a permit to begin work at Vari tomorrow” (letter of Charles H. Weller to his wife).  Together with a small group of students from the School, he had conceived of the idea of conducting a small excavation at the Vari Cave on the southern spur of Mount Hymettus, near the ancient deme of Anargyrous. Known since the 18th century, the cave had been visited and described by several European travelers who were particularly taken by the reliefs and inscriptions carved on its walls.

Vari Cave interior with sculpted figures, 1923. Source: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

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The Spirit of St. Louis Lives in Athens, Greece

Have you noticed that in the last ten days the press has been flooded with articles about the Doomsday Clock?  Here are some of the titles: “The Doomsday Clock is the closest to midnight since 1953” (Engadget, Jan. 28, 2017), “Nuclear ‘Doomsday Clock’ ticks closest to midnight in 64 years (Reuters), “Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight, Signaling Concern Among Scientists (The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2017), and “The Doomsday Clock is now 2.5 minutes to midnight, but what does that really mean? (Science Alert).

Martyl's design of the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Martyl’s design of the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by members of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s Science and Security Board; several of them were part of the “The Manhattan Project” that led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. (For those of you who want to learn more about “The Manhattan Project,” I recommend a drama series that premiered in 2014; although the series was discontinued after the second season, it featured good acting and it was fun to watch. Also see Jack Davis’s Communism In and Out of Fashion, Sept. 1, 2016.)  “Originally the Clock, which hangs on a wall in The Bulletin’s office at the University of Chicago, represented an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war; however, since 2007 it has also reflected climate change and new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity… The Clock’s original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight.  It has been set backward and forward 22 times since then, the smallest ever number of minutes to midnight being two in 1953, and the largest seventeen in 1991” (after Wikipedia, accessed 28/1/2017). As of January 2017 (and this explains the flurry of articles in the press), the Clock has been set at two and a half minutes to midnight, a reflection of President Trump’s comments about nuclear weapons: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Trump posted this remark on Twitter on December 22, 2016, and followed it with an even more worrisome comment: “Let it be an arms race,” he said, referring to the Russians.

While reading the history of the Doomsday Clock my eyes happened to fall on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which featured for the first time the Clock (at seven minutes to midnight), and the name of the artist who had designed it: Martyl Langsdorf. Martyl is an unusual name, and I had seen it before. I went to the Archives Room of the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or the School hereafter), where we keep the School’s administrative records, and personal papers of its members. There, hanging on one of the walls, was an abstract painting depicting a mountainous landscape, and signed in the bottom left corner: “Martyl.” To my surprise, when I checked our inventory, there was a second work of art, an etching, by “Martyl” in the Archives of the ASCSA. But this one also carried a personal dedication: “To George and Lela with affection and admiration, Martyl.” This meant that Martyl’s other painting had also originally belonged to George and Lela Mylonas. Read the rest of this entry »