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 Man from Damascus, the Good Wife, and Baby Solon: R.I.P. at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

ASCSA Library, 1902

ASCSA Library, 1902

“You enter a reception hall of marble and go up a flight of marble steps which give the effect of entering a museum, as there are marble busts and old sculptures round that have been dug up…” Major A. Winsor Weld wrote to his wife on October 26th, 1918, upon entering the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School hereafter). He and six other officers of the American Red Cross including Lieutenant Colonel Edward Capps would live in the School’s premises until July of 1919. (At the time one entered the Library through the Director’s residence.) Although the ASCSA was already building a small collection of antiquities –mostly pottery sherds and other small objects picked up on walks and informal surveys– the antiquities Weld described are of a different scale. The busts he refers to must have been plaster casts of originals similar to the one displayed above the fireplace mantle in the Library in a photo from 1902. I believe that the other “old sculptures” on display, the ones that “have been dug up,” were three Roman marble funerary reliefs unearthed in 1894, at the corner of Vasilissis Sophias (then Kephissias) and Merlin (then Academy) street, exactly opposite the Palace (now the Greek Parliament), during the construction of a mansion by Charles Edward Prior Merlin (1850-1898). Named after one of Merlin’s French ancestors, the “Hôtel Merlin de Douai” has housed the French Embassy since 1896.

“Hôtel Merlin de Douai” (French Embassy at Athens)

The “Hôtel Merlin de Douai” (French Embassy at Athens)

“In digging for the foundations of the large house which Mr. C. Merlin, the well-known artist and photographer of Athens, is building at the corner of Academy and Kephissia Streets, the workmen came upon considerable remains of an ancient cemetery. At my suggestion Mr. Merlin made over to the American School the right of publishing these discoveries, and afterwards generously presented to the School three reliefs and one other inscribed stone, together with some smaller fragments. The finds were made in the autumn of 1894. Only a part of them came under my observation at the time; hence the description of the graves and their location rests in part upon the accounts of Mr. Merlin and his workmen” reported Thomas Dwight Goodell a year later (American Journal of Archaeology 10, 1895, pp. 469-479).

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Communism In and Out of Fashion: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Cold War

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 contributes an essay about attitudes of the ASCSA and its members toward Communists and Communism in the 20th century.


“Feeling they were witnessing the demise of capitalism, many writers moved left, some because their working class origins helped them identify with the dispossessed, others because they saw socialism or Communism as the only serious force for radical change, still others because it was the fashionable thing to do; they went where the action was.”
Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark (2009), pp. 16-17.

DancingDark_smallIn 1974, when I first arrived at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), we youngsters were told that we should not express our political views in public. The ASCSA’s institutional mission might be hurt, were it perceived not to be neutral. In September 1974 that was certainly a reasonable position for the ASCSA to assume. Yet I was curious. In 1974, I was myself radicalized, and had definitely headed left. I could not condone U.S. policy in respect to the Junta, or the suppression of the Left in Greece. Could I say nothing? Had the ASCSA always maintained a position of strict neutrality? Or were its postures more convenient than sincere? Read the rest of this entry »


The End of the Quartet: The Day the Music Stopped at Ploutarchou 9

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 contributes an essay about the last days of Carl W. Blegen, Elizabeth Pierce Blegen, Bert Hodge Hill, and Ida Thallon Hill, the archaeological “Quartet” of Ploutarchou 9.

The Blegen/Hill house on Ploutarchou 9 in the 1950s

The Blegen house at Ploutarchou 9 in the early 1960s. Saved from the demolitions of the 1970s, today the “Blegen house” is the seat of the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation.

This short essay was composed to satisfy my own curiosity. Having recently edited Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives (Atlanta 2015) with Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Vivian Florou, it occurred to me that virtually the only aspect of Blegen’s life that had received no attention was its end. Nor had we, or indeed any of the authors who contributed to that volume, written of the later lives of the four amazing individuals who formed “The Quartet” that resided at 9 Ploutarchou St. in Athens: Blegen, Elizabeth Blegen, Ida Thallon Hill, and Bert Hodge Hill.

The start of that Quartet was tumultuous, as Bob Pounder has described it, but once ground rules were established in 1927, the Hills and the Blegens lived in perfect harmony, an arrangement that persisted for four decades until Blegen died in 1971 (Pounder 2015). Their relationships, although of an uncommon character, were no less significant for being unusual. The four loved each other and were totally devoted to their common cause. At the same time they left sufficient space in their marriages for each to address his or her individual needs. Read the rest of this entry »


Grèce en vogue: A New Wave of American Philhellenism in the 1920s

Raymond, Penelope, and Menalkas Duncan, 1912. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

Raymond, Penelope, and Menalkas Duncan, 1912. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

In early October of 1924, Elizabeth Pierce Blegen, together with Ida Thallon Hill, was planning one of their first (perhaps the first) official dinners in the Director’s House at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter, the School or ASCSA). They were both new brides. In July Elizabeth (Libbie) had married Carl Blegen at Lake Placid, New York. Blegen was then assistant director of the School. Within a month, Ida, her lover and former professor at Vassar College, married Bert Hodge Hill in England. Hill had been the director of the School since 1906. Robert L. Pounder has recently written about the complicated nature of the Blegens’ and Hills’ relationship (or partnership as they themselves described it) [“The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, edited by N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta 2015, pp. 83-96]. Libbie kept a social diary recording the activities of the two couples during the academic year 1924-1925. Read the rest of this entry »


“All Aboard”: Cruising the Aegean in 1923

On the morning of May 14, 1923, a private yacht approached the island of Santorini and cast anchor just outside the bay of Phira. The Zion carried twenty-five passengers and belonged to an American millionaire and philanthropist, George D. Pratt. Pratt, a recent widower, had come to Greece a few weeks earlier, and the cruise would allow him “to go about the islands taking photographs” as one of the Zion passengers –or so Natalie Murray Gifford wrote in her own account of the trip. There was, however, another, more practical, motivation that lay behind Zion’s Aegean course. At the end of the cruise, the yacht would sail to Mount Athos to deliver food and supplies to starving Bulgarian and Russian monks, who had lost vital support from home as a consequence of the Russian Revolution. Thomas Whittemore, one of Zion’s passengers, was monitoring this relief effort.

Santorini, 1923 (ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers)

Santorini, 1923 (ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers)

Pratt’s guests on board the Zion were archaeologists or classicists affiliated with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) or with the American Academy in Rome (AAR). All were advanced students and scholars, making the trip entirely unlike the contemporary commercial cruises to the renowned harbors of the Mediterranean that had become increasingly popular in the first decades of the 20th century. Evelyn Waugh describes such a trip aboard the Stella Polaris in Labels (1930), as well as how pleasure cruising had evolved by his time. “Before that only the very rich, who owned their own yachts, could afford this leisurely pottering from port to port,” and this is exactly what George Pratt’s Zion was tasked to do; to offer an exclusive, old-fashion cruise to the members of the School at Athens and the five “Romans” who had come from the Academy in Rome. Waugh also drew a colorful distinction between travelers and tourists, and Pratt’s guests were clearly members of the former club. Read the rest of this entry »