Mycenaean Mementos and the Govs: The Materiality of the Wace-Blegen Friendship

Posted by Jack L. Davis

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here writes the biography of three objects, modern copies of Mycenaean originals, which once belonged to Carl W. Blegen and Alan Wace, the “Govs” of Mycenaean archaeology. These objects were once woven in some way into the personal relationship of these two individuals who shaped the field of Mycenaean studies.


They will honor him in their heart as if he were a god
And send him to his dear homeland in a ship
With gifts of bronze, gold, and fabrics in such abundance
As Odysseus would never had taken from Troy
If he had arrived home unscathed with his share of booty.
(Od. 5.36-40)

Such is Zeus’s prediction of Odysseus’s fate among the Phaeacians.  And guest gifts are a phenomenon not only well-known to Classicists, but a concept that has had an impact on anthropological thought for nearly a century — at least since the publication in L’Année Sociologique of Marcel Mauss’s “Essai sur la donne” in 1925 —  and, through it, on the interpretation of patterning in archaeological data.  Mauss demonstrated that in pre-modern exchange systems there were obligations to give and receive, but especially to reciprocate in the presentation of gifts, practices deeply embedded in social systems.  In the field of archaeology, gift exchange has been seen, prominently since the 1970s, as a mechanism that accounts for distributions of material goods (e.g., T.K. Earle and J.E. Ericson eds., Exchange Systems in Prehistory, New York 1977), and studies of the cultural biographies of exchanged artifacts have been popular (A. Appadurai, The Social Life of Things, Cambridge 2013).

This post is not, however, concerned with archaeological finds, but rather with the histories of a few mementos owned by two of the most famous Greek prehistorians of the 20th century, Alan Wace and Carl Blegen, best friends and colleagues,“the Govs” as they called themselves  (see Y. Fappas, “The ‘Govs’ of Mycenaean Archaeology: The Friendship and Collaboration of Carl W. Blegen and Alan J. B. Wace as Seen through Their Correspondence,” in J.L. Davis and N. Vogeikoff, eds., Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, Atlanta 2015, pp. 63-84).  The copies of Mycenaean artifacts that I consider here have sometimes been thought to have been material manifestations of their friendships, mutually reciprocated gifts.  But were they really? Read the rest of this entry »

Phantom Threads of Mothers and Sons

“Dear Mother: How far are we responsible for already inherited faults? That old Sam Hill, by whom folks used to swear when they dared not take greater names in vain, brought over to Vermont at the end of the eighteenth century among his numerous children one son, Lionel, destined to surpass in dilatoriness all the other slow-going Hills of his generation. He married very tardily and begat two sons, both in due time notable procrastinators, the greater of them being the younger, named Alson, who added to more than a full measure of the family instinct for unreasoning delay an excellent skill in finding good reasons for postponing whatever was to be done. Alson Hill was my father…”.  Bert Hodge Hill (1874-1958) addressed these thoughts to his mother from Old Corinth on February 28, 1933 when he was almost 60 years old. Hill, however, never mailed the letter because she had died when he was barely four years old.

Bert Hodge Hill as a young boy and as a middle-aged man. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

We will never know what prompted Hill to compose this imaginary missive to a person he never knew. It is the only document, however, that has survived among Hill’s papers that gives us a hint of latent childhood trauma. Just google “mothers and sons” and you will get titles such as “Men and the Mother Wound”, “The Effects of an Absent Mother Figure,” and so forth, with references to a host of scientific articles about the decisive role played by mothers. Hill’s dilatoriness cost him the directorship of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) in 1926, after having served as the School’s Director for twenty years. Hill never even finished his imaginary letter to his mother. Had she been around when he was growing up, would have she corrected this family defect and taught him how to prioritize and achieve timely and consistent results? Hill must have wondered. 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.

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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 »

On Communism and Hellenism: An Archaeologist’s Perspective

Posted by Despina Lalaki

Despina Lalaki holds a PhD in Historical Sociology from the New School university while she currently teaches at the The New York City College of Technology-CUNY. The essay she contributed to ‘From the Archivist’s Notebook’ is largely an excerpt from her article “On the Social Construction of Hellenism: Cold War Narratives of Modernity, Development, and Democracy for Greece,” in The Journal of Historical Sociology, 25:4, 2012, pp. 552-577. Her essay draws inspiration from an unpublished manuscript by archaeologist Carl W. Blegen, titled “The United States and Greece” and written in 1946-1948.

Carl W. Blegen (1887-1971) is one of the most eminent archaeologists of the Greek Bronze Age. Nevertheless, he intimately knew Modern Greece, too. In 1910, at the age of twenty-three, he first visited the country as a student of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter ASCSA), and by the time of his death in 1971 he had made Greece his home and his final resting place, having experienced first hand the land and its people in the most troublesome moments of their modern history. In 1918, for instance, he participated in the Greek Commission of the American Red Cross, assisting with the repatriation and rehabilitation of thousands of refugees who during the war had been held as prisoners in Bulgaria. During WWII, he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to head the Greek desk of the Foreign Nationalities Branch (FNB) in Washington D.C., which was following European and Mediterranean ethnic groups living in the United States and recording their knowledge of political trends and conditions affecting their native lands.

April 1946: US Cultural Relations Attache Carl W. Blegan (R) and J. W. Foster standing in headquarters of the Allied Mission For Observing Greek Elections (AMFOGE). (Photo by Nat Farbman/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

J. W. Foster (left) and Carl W. Blegen (right) standing at the headquarters of the Allied Mission for Observing the Greek Elections (AMFOGE), 1946. Photo by Nat Farbman. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images/Ideal Image.

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