To Know One’s Country as a Foreign Land

I have always found informal travel accounts fascinating. By informal, I mean accounts found in personal diaries or letters. Occasionally, they are published posthumously by the writer’s relatives (usually for family consumption) and attract little attention because of their mundane nature. Until recently, such letters and diaries of anonymous folk were avoided by historians who considered their content subjective or inaccurate. After all, why use the private diary of an American expatriate in Greece as a source, when the event (e.g., a local revolution) was described in more detail in the newspapers or other official reports?

I, on the other hand, pay particular attention to these types of publications because they provide valuable information, otherwise undocumented, about the level of local awareness, participation or aloofness within foreign communities. Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936), an English writer and philosopher, once said that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land: it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” It’s the second part of Chesterton’s comment that makes me delve into the travel accounts of foreigners-mostly Americans in my case–who have experienced Greece as a foreign land. Here I am not interested in the tourist but instead the engaged traveler, the expatriate, or, in rare cases, the committed immigrant (that is the foreigner who has almost “gone native”).

My latest source of inspiration for getting “to know my country as a foreign land” is a privately published collection of letters which came to my attention after a visit to the newly established Archives of the American College of Greece. There, Dr. Demetra Papakonstantinou, an accomplished archaeologist who now serves as the College’s Archivist, graciously shared with me a copy of a book titled Odyssey of a Learning Teacher (Greece and the Near East 1924-1925). Published in 2005 by David L. Aronson, the book contains transcriptions of the letters that his mother, Charlotte Eleanor Ferguson, a graduate from Mount Holyoke College and a teacher at the American College for Girls (what is now Pierce College), sent to her family in 1924-25. (The original letters are now part of the American School of Greece Archives.)

Front cover photograph: Charlotte Ferguson and Helen Larrabee departing from New York.

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On Finding Inspiration in Small Things: The Story of a Pencil Portrait

My story begins six years ago when we inventoried Bert H. Hill’s collection of photos at the item level. Among the images were early portraits of Hill when he was a little boy, and later, a handsome young man. A graduate of the University of Vermont (B.A. 1895) and Columbia University (M.A. 1900), Hill subsequently attended the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or the School hereafter) as a fellow for two years (1901-1903). He then secured a job as the Assistant Curator of Classical Antiquities at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1903-1905) and lecturer at Wellesley College where he taught classes in sculpture.  Bert Hodge Hill (1874-1958) was only 32 years old when he was appointed director of the ASCSA in 1906, a position he held until 1926.

Bert Hodge Hill, ca. 1910s. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

While processing the images my eye fell on a small portrait (12 x 9 cm) that was not a print but instead a well-executed drawing of Hill’s profile in pencil. On the back, Hill had scribbled “Huybers” and “BHH”.  An initial web search for “Huybers artist” produced four of his pencil sketches in the Harvard Art Museums, a gift from George Demetrios in 1933 (keep the name in mind); the artist was identified as John A. Huybers.

Portrait of Bert Hodge Hill by John A. Huybers, ca. 1915-1920. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

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Schliemann’s Culinary Adventures in Italy

Heinrich Schliemann, a man of the world, ca. 1870. ASCSA Archives, Heinrich Schliemann Papers.

A day does not go by in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) without an inquiry about the Heinrich Schliemann Papers. More than one third of the collection has been digitized and made available for research online; still, these inquiries keep coming from all over the world, including destinations as remote as Japan and Cuba.  Though unquestionably a legendary figure, Schliemann’s popularity is largely due to the richness of his personal archive, which remains an inexhaustible source of information for a wide range of audiences: historians, archaeologists, fiction and non-fiction writers, even film producers. (I have written about Schliemann before [Schliemann of Troy: The Story of a Linguistic Genius] and have hosted two posts by Curtis Runnels [Who Went to Schliemann’s Wedding? and, “All Americans Must Be Trojans at Heart”: A Volunteer at Assos in 1881 Meets Heinrich Schliemann], the author of The Archaeology of Heinrich Schliemann: An Annotated Bibliographic Handlist [2007].)

To the rich list of books and articles that have been written about Schliemann I would like to add the recent publications by Umberto Pappalardo, who has been studying Schliemann’s activities in Napoli and on the island of Motya, and Massimo Cultraro’s new book with the sibylline title L’ ultimo sogno dello scopritore di Troia: Heinrich Schliemann e l’ Italia (1858-1890). Before them, in 2012, Elizabeth Shepherd published a comprehensive article about Schliemann’s wanderings in Italy in the fall/winter of 1875, especially his interest in the site of Populonia. Schliemann travelled to Italy seven times, first as a tourist (1858), and later, especially after the discovery of Troy (1871-1873), as a celebrity and potential excavator. He even drew his last breath in the streets of Naples one morning in December 1890. Yet, until recently, Schliemann’s Italian days remained understudied. Read the rest of this entry »


The Mystery Artist: In Search of François Perilla

The American School’s haphazard art collection continues to fascinate me. It lacks any thematic cohesion and at first glance often makes no sense, because most of the works have little to do with the institution itself. Yet, it remains a source of mystery because these same works are also associated with people who were once deeply involved in the School’s affairs. Before they ended up at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter), these objects decorated the walls of private houses and were part of those households’ life history. In Janet Hoskins’s Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Stories of People’s Lives (1998), six women and men from Eastern Indonesia tell the history of their lives by talking about their possessions, thus creating an identity for themselves through objects they made, bought, were given, or collected. Our people are no longer alive but many of their possessions are with us, and they have a story to tell us (if we ask them…).

The Blegen-Hill house at Ploutarchou 9, ca. 1960s. ASCSA Archives.

Most of the artwork that hangs on the walls or decorates the mantels of the various buildings of the School comes from two households. One was the residence of two couples, Carl and Elizabeth Blegen (the Blegens) and Bert and Ida Hill (the Hills), who lived together at Ploutarchou 9 (Kolonaki) in the 1930s; the other belonged to the archaeologist George Mylonas and his wife Lela who lived in Saint Louis (Missouri) in the 1930s before they moved back to Greece in the early 1970s. Although both households were set up about the same time, the Blegens/Hills, because of Elizabeth’s personal wealth, began purchasing artwork immediately, while the Mylonases, both younger and refugees from Asia Minor, did not begin acquiring art until the early 1950s. (I have written about the nature of the Mylonas collection in a post titled “The Spirit of Saint Louis Lives in Athens”; on the two couples living at Ploutarchou Street read “The End of the Quartet: The Day the Music Stopped at Ploutarchou 9,” by Jack L. Davis; and Pounder 2015.)

Lately I have been trying to identify the items from the Blegen-Hill household, which came to school almost intact after the death of the house’s last occupant, Carl Blegen, in 1971. Although we have an inventory, the fact that the objects were not photographed or tagged before they were dispersed among the various buildings of the School (including Corinth) makes it difficult to identify their origin today.  Some of the art, such Giovani Battista Piranesi’s “Vedute di Roma,” is easily identifiable, but portions of the collection remain shrouded in mystery.

In addition, we also lack indoor photos of the house, except for the one that shows the so-called “Greek Room.” (Take for comparison the interior of John Gennadius’s house in London, which was professionally photographed, making it easier to identify the artworks from it that came to the Gennadius Library.) Still we are slowly putting together a picture of the life and art at the Blegen residence. In a recent conference about Carl and Elizabeth Blegen, Vivian Florou reconstructed through archival research some of the social life of the house at Ploutarchou 9 during its peak times, before and after WW II (Florou 2015).  In “Skyromania? American Archaeologists in 1930s Skyros,” I identified some of the embroideries and pottery that were once part of it.  In “The Grecian Landscapes of Anna Richards Brewster,” I suggested that an oil by Brewster might also have once been belonged to the Blegens.

Today’s post focuses on another large painting that once hung on the walls of Ploutarchou 9 (item no. 10 in the Blegen Collection), but is now adorning the walls of my new office: a watercolor depicting the temple of Hera at Olympia, signed “F. Perilla 1930”. A quick search on the internet produced a few brief references to auction catalogs that identified him as a French art historian and artist, born in 1874, as well as to two recent translations of books he wrote about Chios (1928) and Mount Pelion (1940). A search in “Ambrosia” (the ASCSA’s online book catalogue) proved more fruitful, with several entries to publications by Perilla.

Temple of Hera at Olympia, watercolor by F. Perilla. ASCSA Archives, Art Collection.

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Professors to the Rescue: Americans in the Aegean at the End of the Great War, 1918-1919.

Islands and coast Asia Minor still crowded with refugees. Stop. Number there still to be repatriated estimated three hundred thousand. Stop. We are maintaining three stations in Mytilene district clothing alone being available, but food urgently needed.  Stop. Above statements based on personal inspection this Commission. Stop. We recommend that work in Aegean be immediately extended to other islands like Chios, Samos and to opposite coast which can be reached by sea transport which can be secured by Greek governments. Stop.”

The text quoted above is a small portion of a long telegram (47 lines) that Colonel Edward Capps sent to Harvey D. Gibson, member of the American Red Cross War Council in Paris, on December 12, 1918 (NACP, Greece, ARC Commission to, 964.62/08). The telegram reported the activities of the American Red Cross (ARC hereafter) since arrival of its Greek Commission in Athens on October 23rd.

This is not the first time I am writing about the activities of the ARC in Greece. In 2011, together with Jack L. Davis, then Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), we organized and subsequently published the proceedings of a conference titled Philhellenism, Philanthropy, or Political Convenience: American Archaeology in Greece (Princeton 2013). Davis’s paper, “The American School of Classical Studies and the Politics of Volunteerism,” discussed the involvement of members of the ASCSA, through enlistment in the Greek Commission of the ARC, in humanitarian aid in eastern Macedonia, as well as in the repatriation of Greek citizens who had been taken as hostages to Bulgaria. Later in 2015, on the occasion of the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli, I was invited to participate in a conference about The First World War in the Mediterranean and the Role of Lemnos, with a paper that discussed the humanitarian activities of the ARC Greek Commission in the eastern Aegean at the end of the Great War. Read the rest of this entry »


“The haughty arrogance of the Nordic people”: A Scandal in the German Colony of Athens on the 20th of April 1935.

Posted by Alexandra Kankeleit

Alexandra Kankeleit here contributes an essay about an unknown episode, almost a scandal, which took place in 1935 in the German community of Athens and involved the local Catholic church and members of the German Archaeological Institute.  Alexandra, an archaeologist who specializes in the study of Roman mosaics, has also since 2016 been part of an extensive project of the German Archaeological Institute (Athens and Berlin), titled The History of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens during the National Socialist Era. As part of the project, she has examined a host of bibliographic and archival sources in both countries that document the activities of the German archaeologists in Greece from 1933 until 1944. A list of her most recent publications can be found on Alexandra’s own website.


A recently discovered episode from 1935 offers a striking picture of the predominant mood in the so-called “German Colony” in Athens following the National Socialist seizure of power in Germany. (“Deutsche Kolonie” was the official name of the German-speaking Community in Greece until the end of WWII.)  It illustrates in dramatic fashion what battlefronts were being drawn up at the time and what the representatives of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens (DAI Athen hereafter) saw as their role in this critical period.

I stumbled more or less by chance upon this incident while carrying out research at the Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes (Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office). The relevant documents are to be found in a folder that deals with the “Schwarze Front” (“Black Front”) in Greece, an underground organisation that was opposed to Hitler and his policies, and which was founded in 1930 by Otto Strasser (1897-1974), brother of the infamous Gregor Strasser (1892-1934). From 1934-1937 members of the “Schwarze Front” were based in Greece publishing illegal flyers and articles, and encouraging Germans living in Greece to turn away from Hitler. Read the rest of this entry »


Connecting the Dots: Peripheral Figures in the History of the American School of Classical Studies. The Case of R. S. Darbishire.

Steve Jobs once said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” Archives is all about connecting the dots. When processing archival material, you often come across documents, photos, or notes that don’t connect in any obvious way with the rest. For this reason all finding-aids have a “Miscellaneous” section.  And such is the case of R. S. Darbishire (1886-1949), a name I came upon in the Carl W. Blegen Papers several years ago, in a booklet of poems; and more recently, while going through a small box of unprocessed material from the Blegen/Hill household on Ploutarchou 9, in a set of architectural blueprints. It took me a while to connect the dots in the Darbishire puzzle.

The Elusive Mr. Darbishire

ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers

In the Blegen Papers, there is a small booklet with a collection of handwritten poems titled “Poems to Order. Thera, June 17-21, 1928. Robert Shelby Darbishire.”  The short poem on the first page is dedicated to CB:

Εξ αδοκήτο [Unforeseen]
You, when I asked, “What shall I do in Thera?”
Unexpectedly in my empty mind
Casually dropped this: “Write pretty!”
Here (unexpectedly) nought else I find.

Darbishire appears in the student list of the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA, or School hereafter) for the year 1926-27; he is also thanked in the preliminary reports or final publications of a number of excavations conducted in 1927-1928: Prosymna, the Odeum at Corinth, and Olynthus.

There is very little information about Robert Shelby Darbishire on the web, and one has to type his name in various ways in order to retrieve a few scraps. Born in 1886 at Fort Meade, Florida, he was the son of Godfrey Darbishire (1853-1889) -a British surveyor and a famous rugby player, who immigrated to the States in 1883– and Ann Shelby of Chicago. Robert was unfortunate in losing his father at an early age.  Mother and son lived for a while on a farm they owned in Danville, Kentucky before they moved back to England to be near the paternal side of the family. (Darbishire’s grandfather was Robert Dukinfield Darbishire, a well-known philanthropist and biologist from Manchester.) Nevertheless, the Kentucky farm remained in the Darbishire family’s possession for a long time; mother and son would move back to it after the death of Robert Dukinfield in 1910; and Robert Shelby would retreat to the farm in various periods of his life. In fact, the family papers are deposited at the University of Kentucky Special Collections, and it is from their finding-aid that I managed to obtain good and reliable information about the Darbishires.

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