Orientations in Sunlight: With Durrell in Rhodes

“In Rhodes the days drop as softly as fruit from trees. Some belong to the dazzling ages of Cleobolus and the tyrants, some to the gloomy Tiberius, some to the crusaders. They follow each other in scales and modes too quickly almost to be captured in the nets of form,” wrote Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in the first pages of his acclaimed memoir Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (1953). More than seventy years later, if Durrell were still alive, he would have added “… some to the crusaders, some to the Italians.”

Durrell was stationed in Rhodes for two years when the Dodecanese was under British Administration (1945-1947). As Information Officer, he supervised the publication of three daily papers, in Greek, Turkish, and Italian. (I found copies of the Greek one, ΧΡΟΝΟΣ, in the Nicholas Mavris Papers in the ASCSA Archives. Mavris, a prominent member of the Greek American community, in 1948 became the first governor commissioner of the freed Dodecanese.)

ΧΡΟΝΟΣ, Aug. 8, 1945. ASCSA Archives, Nicholas Mavris Papers.

WW II had just ended and the fate of the Dodecanese was still uncertain. Despite their Greek past, these islands in the southeastern part of the Aegean (also known as Southern Sporades) did not join Greece until 1947, having passed from the Ottomans directly to the Italians in 1913, from the Italians to the Germans in 1943, and from them to the British. In 1946, the Allied Forces in Paris finally agreed upon the integration of the Dodecanese with Greece. It was not until the 31st of March 1947, however, that the British officially delivered the administration of the Dodecanese to the Greek State.

Durrell did not write Marine Venus while on Rhodes but a few years later, relying on his memory and “sifting into the material, now some old notes from a forgotten scrapbook, now a letter” (Marine Venus, p. 3).[1]

“Of Paradise Terrestre”

I read Marine Venus for the first time about ten years ago, when I was doing research triggered by the reissue of Triumph Over Time.  Produced by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter) in 1947, in addition to promoting the School’s excavations at Old Corinth and in the Athenian Agora, this film presents a serene and idyllic view of Greece, emphasizing the country’s rural aspects and her continuity with ancient Greece. Reissued in 2007, the film received mixed reviews during viewings: older Greek people embraced it with great fondness since for them it was a walk down memory lane, especially for the those who had grown up in villages; younger people, on the other hand, especially those born post-1970 found fault with it because it did not show the ruined state of Greece after WW II, lacked urban scenery, and avoided any references to the Civil War. Seventy years after its production, Triumph Over Time was criticized for not being a true historical documentary.

Out of curiosity, I started looking for literature that had been published immediately after WW II. I was nonplussed to find that one of my most favorite novels, The Three Summers (Τα Ψάθινα Καπέλα) by Margarita Lyberaki, ­was first published in Greece in 1946 (and in France in 1950). Like Triumph Over Time, “the world inside the book could [not have been] more unlike the world it came into when it was first published in 1946,” as Karen Van Dyck, Kimon A. Doukas Professor of Modern Greek Literature at Columbia University, who translated the novel in English (Paris Review, July 16, 2019), recently emphasized in an interview. Idyllic and timeless, this coming-of-age- novel “must have offered [its readers] an oasis from the unbearable realities of the day,” Van Dyck added. Another common thread between Triumph Over Time and Lyberaki’s Three Summers is that both works are steeped in the sun. “The sun has disappeared from books these days. That’s why they hinder our attempts to live, instead of helping us. But the secret is still kept in your country, passed on from one initiate to another. You are one of those who pass it on,” wrote Albert Camus to Margarita Lyberaki when he first read the book in 1950.

My literary wanderings eventually led me to Durrell’s Marine Venus, which I had not read. I wasn’t even aware of it. Having not ever visited Rhodes or any of the islands of the Dodecanese, I read Marine Venus impatiently, unable to appreciate Durrell’s rich descriptions of the island. Yet its reading left me with a residue of happiness, as if in a “paradise terrestre.” Later I read that, before publication, Marine Venus was chopped almost in half by Faber & Faber’s editor Anne Ridler, who cut most of the passages dealing with the recent war, and “oriented the book to sunlight, blue skies, and clear sea.” (See David Roessel in his Introduction to the 2001 Faber & Faber edition.)


I finally made it to Rhodes last September. Not being able to find a hotel we liked within the boundaries of the castle of the Knights of St. John, we opted for one outside, in Mandraki. Within a few hours on Rhodes, I began to notice that Mandraki was full of public and private buildings dating to the interwar period, but constructed in diverse architectural styles. On the one hand, there were fascist buildings, such as the Theater and the City Hall; on the other, highly eclectic buildings, such as the Palazzo del Governo, or modernist ones, such as the Ronda.

Rhodes, Teatro G. Puccini (now National Theater). Architect: Armando Bernabiti, 1936-1937.

Rhodes, Il Palazzo del Governo (now The Perfecture of the Dodecanese). Architect: Florestano di Fausto, 1926-1927.

Rhodes, Ronda (now ΕΛΛΗ). Architect: Armando Bernabiti (?), 1936-1938.

Florestano Di Fausto, ca. 1930.

Soon after the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which recognized officially the Italian possession of the Dodecanese, the first civilian governor of the “Italian Aegean Islands” Mario Lago (1878-1950) enlisted the services of architect Florestano di Fausto (1890-1965).  By 1926, Di Fausto had laid out Rhodes’ city plan. retaining the Medieval zone, while setting the new city outside the castle by Mandraki harbor. That’s where one can find today many works  by Di Fausto and other Italian architects, works such as the Palazzo del Governo, the Catholic cathedral of the Knights of Saint John (now the Evangelismos church), the Post Office (1927-1929), the New Market, and the famous Grande Albergo delle Rose. Di Fausto’s career in Rhodes did not last long since he and Lago came into a conflict that ended with a legal dispute in 1927, forcing Di Fausto to leave Rhodes. (Di Fausto continued his illustrious career in Albania, Ethiopia, and Libya, and became Italy’s most important colonial architect.)

Rhodes, Grande Albergo delle Rose (before 1936). Architect: Florestano di Fausto, 1925-1927.

According to architectural historian Vassilis Kolonas, the Italian architects of Rhodes, after an initial experimentation with academic examples, began “to incorporate elements from the island’s various historical periods in their designs… from the city’s Byzantine, Crusader, or Islamic past… the local anonymous architecture…, folk art and even echoes from the architectural tradition of Middle Eastern countries,” creating a new colonial Mediterranean style, unmistakably recognizable today.  Lombardi, who replaced Di Fausto in the Directorate of Public Works in 1928, managed to blend harmoniously Byzantine, Islamic, and Classical elements in the Kallithea Baths (1928-1930), “a fantasy set for tourist Rhodes that would remain the island’s symbol for many decades” (Kolonas and Gerolympos, 2002, 55). Moreover, the Italian architects in the Dodecanese under Lago, a visionary politician who promoted cultural assimilation, felt free to adopt their architecture to the local climate and history, strongly embracing the concept of mediterraneità:

“…not a single stone was placed by me without having filled myself in advance with the spirit of the place, so as to make it my own,”

wrote Di Fausto in 1937 in the only essay he ever wrote about his work. (His essay carried the title “Visione mediterranea della mia architettura,” and the quote comes from Santoianni 2008, p. 93).

An Italian Tourist in Rhodes, 1933

Aspiring to make Rhodes a cosmopolitan destination, the Italian Administration of the Aegean Islands (Governo delle isole italiane dell’ Egeo), on the tenth anniversary of Lago’s governorship in 1933, published a celebratory, forty-page guide, Rodi: L’ isola delle rose, a copy of which I found in the Gennadius Library.  The guide begins with a brief historical introduction underlining the island’s illustrious Greco-Roman past, and continues with the glories of the Knights of St. John until it was finally reduced to a sleepy oriental village (“un sonnolento borgo orientale”) in the hands of the Ottomans after 1522. By taking it from the Turks in 1912, it fell upon Italy to restore Rhodes’ previous glory, as an intermediary between east and west.

RODI: L’ISOLA DELLE ROSE (1933). ASCSA, Gennadius Library, E. Dalleggio Collection. Note the all inclusive imagery on the cover (deer, rose, Maltese cross, hydroplane, cruise ship, crusader’s boat, and castles).

By promoting Rhodes’ mild climate throughout the year, which allowed the growth of exquisite oranges and grapes, dates and bananas, and flowers such as roses, hibiscus, and bougainvillea, the guide invited the tourist to explore the walled city (“la città murata”) and its monuments; by then, the Grande Ospedale dei Cavalieri had been transformed into a museum to hold the treasures that Italian excavations had brought to light since 1912.

Once outside the medieval castle, Italian visitors could continue their wanderings in the new city which combined “Venetian, Sicilian architecture with oriental elements” (“architettura veneziana e siciliana tutta impregnate d’ Oriente”). To top off their Rhodian experience, the tourists were encouraged to explore the countryside of the island on a newly constructed 400 km ring road. For mountain lovers, there was L’ Albergo del Cervo on Mount Prophetes Elias and for those seeking a recreational cure, the “Terme di Calitea” combined the Greek Hippocratic tradition with the Roman passion for elaborate bathing complexes.  And where could one stay? From the Grande Albergo delle Rose, as luxurious and comfortable as any European hotel of that class, to a host of inexpensive but good family pensions, the Italian Administration of the Aegean Islands met the needs of all tastes and wallets.

The alpine-in-style Albergo del Cervo (now ΕΛΑΦΟΣ Hotel). Architect: Rodolfo Petracco, 1928-1930. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan.

Rhodes, Le Regie Terme di Calitea (The Kallithea Baths) after their recent restoration. Architect: Pietro Lombardi, 1928-1930.

From Splendid and Thoughtful to Florid and Tasteless

Durrell used these two pairs of adjectives to describe the diametrically opposed personalities of Governors Mario Lago and Cesare de Vecchi.  1936 marked a significant change in the administration of the Dodecanese that presaged the disastrous years that were to come. It was that year that Mussolini formalized his alliance with Hitler and set in motion a series of changes across the newly established “Italian Empire,” including the replacement of Governor Lago with Cesare Maria de Vecchi (1884-1959). The latter, a card carrying member of the Fascist Party, persecuted the local population by terminating the autonomy of the various ethnic groups, banned all newspapers except for Italian ones, activated racial laws, created Italian settlements on the islands, and instituted Italian as the only official language of the Dodecanese. He also introduced a period of architectural purification in Rhodes, by stripping all the ornamental elements from Di Fausto’s buildings, including the arabesques from the Grand Hotel of the Roses (Grande Albergo delle Rose). De Vecchi promoted a rationalism in architecture that sought to provide a unified and nationalist architecture across the Italian Empire, banning any kind of borrowings from other civilizations except for Imperial Rome.

The Grande Albergo delle Rose after De Vecchi stripped all of Di Fausto’s ornaments.

In the collective memory of the Rhodians, the two administrations also remained separate. Until recently people distinguished between the “good Italians” and the brutal fascists; they also remembered that, from the 1920s until the mid-1930s, their lives had been transformed largely for the better, containing one of the biggest problems of the Dodecanese — emigration (Doumanis 2005).

After stopping for a coffee at Hotel ΕΛΑΦΟΣ (Albergo del Cervo), we hiked up to see the (abandoned now) villa that De Vecchi had built for himself. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan.

While looking for more information about the Italian Occupation of the Dodecanese, I also came across an old promotional film that must have been produced on the occasion of Lago’s tenth anniversary in office. (In fact, I noticed that the RODI guide of 1933 used stills from the film.) The online version of the film is about 13 minutes long and one does not need to know Italian in order to enjoy it, and also appreciate the multicultural approach of the Lago administration.

Two American Women in Rhodes, 1933

In late January 1933, two young American women, members of the ASCSA, Dorothy Burr (Thompson) and Lucy Shoe (Meritt) took the boat to Rhodes. What they recorded both in writing and film, matches very much in spirit the descriptions of the Italian guide: a multi-ethnic crowd in a multi-period city.

“We walked down to the quay, by Turkish tombs and a minaret with lattice balustrade, past a handsome series of modern buildings in an Oriental Italian style, sarcophagi mounted on canon balls with the shields of the Grand Master –to the modern market [i.e., the Mercato Nuovo built by Di Fausto] in a sort of store around a central pergola of fish-market, full of Turks in pale pink and violet turbans, Greeks, women in leather boots… an almost Roman sight of underlying order with the color of squalor and independence of the East fretting on top” (entry for Jan. 26, 1933).[2]

Rhodes, Il Mercato Nuovo (New Market), 1933. Architect: Florestano di Fausto. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

Rhodes, Il Mercato Nuovo (New Market), 1933. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

At Embona, a mountainous village, Dorothy and Lucy chatted with the local women in “queer Greek with soft lambdas and perhaps mixed with Turkish” and photographed their dresses, “blue skirt over a white jerkin with red embroidery, very high-waisted, leather boots, and the head tied up in white” (entry for Jan. 29, 1933).

Rhodes, Embonas, 1933. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

Of the many photos that Dorothy took, my eyes rested longer on one depicting the Murad Reis Mosque. Thirteen years later, Durrell would write: “…we stumbled upon the little garden which encircles the Mosque of Murad Reis—a garden at whose heart I was later to find Villa Cleobolus; and here we sat for a while perched upon Turkish tombstones, smoking and enjoying the darkness which had now an almost touchable smoothness, the silkiness of old velours.” Durrell dedicated an entire chapter of his book to the garden of the Villa, where he, together with his beloved E[ve] Cohen, entertained their close friends: the idiosyncratic A. Gideon, the newly appointed Director of Agriculture, doctor Raymond Mills and his Greek wife Chloe, Hoyle (whose first name is not given), and Egon Huber, the gifted Austrian potter of ICARO (Industrie Ceramiche Artistiche Rodio-Orientali). “Here in the evenings we gather for drinks and gossip, sitting in cane chairs around the little painted table, hearing through the dusk the shallow strains of some forgotten fugue wafted to us from the old gramophone which is the Mufti’s special pride. Here Gideon and Hoyle play out those interminable games of chess… . Here, sitting on the ground, the grave, detached Huber is whittling at the hull of a ship or the bowl of a pipe” (Marine Venus, pp. 127-128).

Rhodes, Murad Reis Mosque, 1933. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

Marine Venus vs. Rhodian Venus

I left until last the inspiration for the title of Durrell’s book: the Marine Venus. It took many readings of the relevant passage for me to understand that Durrell’s Venus was the armless, standing Aphrodite, also known as Venus Pudica. Why did he choose the Marine Venus over the dazzling Rhodian Venus? When we were at the Museum, everybody stood in awe in front of the small, kneeling, long-haired Rhodian Venus, hardly paying any attention to the solemn, mutilated Marine Venus.

The Rhodian Venus at Rhodes Archaeological Museum. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff_Brogan

Durrell credits his friend Mills for inspiring him to write a book about their time on Rhodes. Mills wanted Durrell to capture “not history of myth—but landscape and atmosphere…” (Marine Venus, p. 35). I suspect that the defining moment that encapsulated “all the charm and grace of our stay in Rhodes,” must have been the “rediscovery” of the Marine Venus some time in 1945 or 1946. Although the statue had been fished out of the sea in 1929, Durrell and his friends must have witnessed her retrieval from the crypt where she had been hidden for protection during the war. “I can still the faces of my friends as they surrounded the dark trap door out of which she rose so gravely into the sunlight. Hoyle and Gideon sitting astride a plank; Ego Huber, who had helped to bury her, smiling with pleasure to see her undamaged; while Mills and Sergeant Croker and a collection of barefoot urchins grunted and groaned on the ropes which were raising her” (Marine Venus, p. 36).

The Marine Venus or Venus Pudica, as she was found at the bottom of the sea in 1929, and as Durrell would have seen her at the Rhodes Museum ca. 1945. Photo: G. Jacopi, “Monumenta di scultura del museo archeologico di Rodi,” Clara Rhodos V.1.

Durrell would not return to Rhodes after 1947, though he would sail by her in 1953, together with his two-year daughter Sappho, on his way to Cyprus; but not with his beautiful E[ve] who had suffered a mental breakdown in 1952. “It is good to see places where one has been happy in the past—to see them after many years and in different circumstances… each minaret like the loved worn face of an earthly friend. I am looking, as if into a well, to recapture the faces of Hoyle, Gideon, Mills—and the dark vehement grace of E.” wrote Durrell in the Epilogue to Marine Venus in 1952.

[1]. For the quotes from Marine Venus, I used the 2009 edition by Axios Press.
[2]. Dorothy Burr Thompson’s diaries are housed at Bryn Mawr College, in the Department of Special Collections of its library.

References and Suggested Reading

Anderson, S. “The Light and the Line: Florestano Di Fausto and the Politics of ‘Mediterraneità,’” Californian Italian Studies 1:1, 2010 (https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9hm1p6m5 ).

Doumanis, N. “Italians as ‘Good Colonizers’: Speaking Subalterns and the Politics of Memory in the Dodecanese,”in Italian Colonialism, ed. Ben-Ghiat R. and M. Fuller, New York 2005, pp. 220-231.

Fuller, M. “Building Power: Italy’s Colonial Architecture and Urbanism, 1923-1940,” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 3, no. 4 (Nov. 1988), pp. 455-487.

Kolonas, V. and Y. Gerolympos, Italian Architecture in the Dodecanese Islands, 1912-1943, Athens 2002.

Santoianni, V. “Il Razionalismo nelle colonie italiane 1928-1943: La «nuova architettura» delle Terre d’Oltremare” (unpublished dissertation: University of Napoli, 2008). http://www.fedoa.unina.it/1881/1/Santoianni_Progettazione_Architettonica.pdf

To Live Alone and Like It: Women and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Between the Wars.

“But it is not education only that is needed. It is that women should have liberty of experience… to idle and loiter, the mental space to let your mind wonder,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own in 1929. The work was based on lectures she delivered in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College in Cambridge (both for women). She further advised her female audience “to drink wine and have a room of their own.” I will not dwell on the issue of wine because women of all classes had access to alcohol, at least privately, but for a woman to have a room of her own was highly unusual before WW II, especially for women who had not inherited wealth. Woolf would be eternally grateful to her aunt for leaving her a lifelong annual stipend of 500 pounds.

That a woman could live alone by her own choice was almost unheard of. Young women who moved to the big cities in search of work were usually sharing apartments with others of the same sex, for a few years at most, until they got married. However, WW I upset traditional demographics by creating a population imbalance in the western world: more women than men. To put it bluntly, for these extra women it meant that the prospect of marriage was less attainable (Scutts 2017). If Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was fighting her own battles in ultra conservative England, Marjorie Hillis (1889-1971), an American writer and contemporary of Woolf, was sufficiently daring to publish in 1936 a book that encouraged single women to take control of their lives and Live Alone and Like it. “A Lady and Her Liquor,” “Pleasures of a Single Bed,” and “Solitary Refinement?” were some of the chapter titles. Her book became an immediate best-seller and remained popular for many years.

Read the rest of this entry »

Exploring the Relationship of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens with the Greek Omogeneia in the United States in the 1940s.

In 1947, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) produced a color movie titled Triumph over Time; it was directed by the archaeologist Oscar Broneer and produced by the numismatist Margaret E. Thompson with the aid of Spyros Skouras (1893-1971), the Greek American movie mogul and owner of Twentieth Century Fox (see Spyros Skouras Papers at Stanford University). Triumph over Time portrays Greece rebounding from World War II and the staff of the ASCSA preparing archaeological sites for presentation to postwar tourists. The film was made to promote the first postwar financial campaign of the ASCSA, the direct goal of which was to increase its capital and finance the continuation of the Athenian Agora Excavations. Indirectly, the ASCSA was hoping to contribute to the rehabilitation of Greece by providing employment for the Greek people and by promoting the economic self-sufficiency of Greece by developing the country’s tourist assets (Vogeikoff-Brogan 2007).

Oscar Broneer, ca. 1938. ASCSA Archives, Oscar Broneer Papers.

Triumph over Time begins with a brief overview of impressive Greek antiquities, such as the citadels of Mycenae and Tiryns and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, before continuing with rare ethnographic material capturing parts of rural Greece that no longer exist. It then moves from the Greek countryside to the buildings of the ASCSA, especially the Gennadius Library with its rare treasures. The story then covers the ASCSA’s two most important projects, the excavations at the Athenian Agora and at Ancient Corinth, explaining all stages of archaeological work. The documentary ends with a hopeful note that financial support of the ASCSA’s archaeological work will contribute to an increase in tourism so that this major source of revenue for Greece’s economy can “restore stability and well-being to this simple pastoral land.”

Stills from Triumph Over Time

Read the rest of this entry »

Francis H. Bacon: Bearer of Precious Gifts from the Dardanelles

I first came to know Bacon’s name when, as a student of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) in 1989-1990, I was asked to report on the Assos Excavations during the School’s trip to Asia Minor. Assos, an affluent, ancient Greek city in the Çanakkale Province and a colony of Lesbos, is known for having erected the only Doric temple in Asia Minor, where the dominant style was Ionic. Francis Henry Bacon (1856-1940) was the architect of the excavations, which were funded by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and took place from 1881 to 1883, as well as one of the three co-authors (with Clarke and Koldewey) of a final publication that was not completed until 1921. Although Bacon’s name appears second, the publication would not have appeared without his dedication and persistence. Joseph T. Clarke (1856-1920) had given up on it long before, and Robert J. Koldewey (1855-1925) had dedicated most of his life to uncovering Babylon.

In 1878, Francis H. Bacon and Joseph T. Clarke bought a sailboat, the “Dorian,” in London and sailed to Athens by way of Holland, the Rhine, the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Aegean. Here a self-sketch by Bacon while examining a marble lekythos at the National Archaeological Museum. Source: MIT Libraries, Institute Archives and Special Collections.

Read the rest of this entry »

Hetty Goldman: The Potentate of American Archaeology in Greece

In 1924, Hetty Goldman (1881-1972), who was directing an excavation at the site of Eutresis in Boeotia, hired architect Piet de Jong to draw some of the finds she had unearthed during the season.  To beat the dullness of the evenings, De Jong, who worked for American and British excavations in Greece, made pencil caricatures of his fellow archaeologists which he later turned into striking Art Deco watercolors. The majority of these caricatures once in the possession of Sinclair and Rachel Hood, are now in the care of the Ashmolean Museum. Published by Rachel in Faces of Archaeology in 1998, they constitute visual biographies of American and British archaeologists working in Greece in the 1920s and 1930s.

Hetty Goldman’s caricature by Piet de Jong, 1924. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

De Jong’s caricature of Goldman depicts her “holding a Neolithic pot of which she was particularly proud. The object behind Hetty’s head is a seated archaic statue found up in a Roman villa which was excavated at some distance from the mound [of Eutresis]… There is the mound itself surmounted by the shelter to protect the diggers from the heat of the sun… The horse, Kappa, on the road below the hill to the right draws the cart containing Hetty herself, Hazel [Hansen], Dorothy [Thompson] and Mitso the driver, on their way to work… a sailing boat or caique refers to the expedition organized by the foreman, George Deleas, to try and row across the Gulf of Corinth from Creusis, the harbor settlement of Eutresis.  On the left of the picture at the foot of the mound two village girls with long plaits carry on their heads baskets of washing… Below them is a temple which probably refers to classical architectural findings at Hetty’s previous dig at Halae…” (Hood 1998, p.51). Read the rest of this entry »

The Riding Goddess of Mycenae

“In the summer of 1954, while Dr. Papademetriou and I were investigating the new Grave Circle of Mycenae, we removed the fill to the south of that circle; it proved to have been the dump of a previous excavation. Its position seems to indicate that in all probability it was made up of earth removed either by Mme Schliemann or by Tsountas from the dromos of the Tomb of Clytemnestra. Among other objects found in this earth were two carved gems, one of which bears the figure of an animal, and the other a design not only interesting for its excellence of its workmanship but also important because of the subject represented,” wrote archaeologist George Mylonas in the introduction of his book Ancient Mycenae: The Capital City of Agamemnon (Princeton 1957).

Tomb of Clytemnestra, 1953. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.

The Accidental Discovery of Grave Circle B

The Tomb of Clytemnestra had been robbed by Veli Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of the Morea, in the early 19th century; he had, however, missed the dromos. Years later, in 1876, it was cleared by Sophia Schliemann, while her husband Heinrich was digging the shaft graves of Grave Circle A. The Tomb was properly excavated by Christos Tsountas in 1897, who conducted excavations at Mycenae from 1886 until 1902. After WW II, the Greek Archaeological Service undertook the restoration of the Tomb of Clytemnestra, which, by then, was falling apart and needed urgent care. The restoration, which started in the spring of 1951, was completed by the fall of that year. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »