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.

The Toynbee Connection

While in England, Robert attended Balliol College following a family tradition. Although without a Wikipedia entry (unlike his father), Robert’s name appears in searches that connect him with the famous British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975). It was at Balliol College that Robert met and became close friends with the slightly younger Toynbee. Together they travelled to Italy and Greece in 1911-1912. Since researchers are more interested in studying the life and work of Toynbee, it is he, who is quoted in the excerpts of the Toynbee-Darbishire correspondence.

We don’t know anything about Robert’s first experience of Greece, but Toynbee’s was negative. He referred to the Greeks and the Italians as “dagos,” dreaded his encounters with them and offensively described modern folk in his letters, while continuously asking himself: “Were the Ancient Greeks like them”? Toynbee visited Greece as a philhellene and left the country as a mis-hellene. “Well, I shall religiously preach mis-hellenism to any philhellene I come across…” he wrote in one of his letters (W. H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life, New York 1989).  Toynbee in old age would retract most of the comments he had made about the Greek folk as a young man, blaming himself for his inability to understand them. Whether Robert shared his friend’s feelings, one could only learn from Robert’s letters to his mother in the Kentucky University Special Collections. Also, unlike his friend Arnold who avoided Greece, Robert would live in Greece for many years.

In the School’s Archives there is only one, but an important, letter from Toynbee. Addressed to Director Bert Hodge Hill from Smyrna on February 10, 1921, he alerts American archaeologists to the destruction of the excavation site of Sardis by the Turks during the Greek-Turkish War of 1919-1922.

“I am afraid my news… is bad. The house was smashed up by the Kemalists before the Greeks drove them out… I am afraid the damage is very great. Roofs mostly gone, except the roof of a big building at the back of the courtyard which I take to have been the museum; staircases, floors, window frames etc ripped away; safe lying on its side with big hole punctuated in it.. The statues in the central court have been badly defaced – arms, faces, etc mutilated; the pottery in the big shed at the back smashed… but luckily the Lydian inscriptions , which I suppose are the most valuable objects there, are intact, and mostly under cover…” (Bert H. Hill Papers, box 4, folder 4).

Toynbee and his wife Rosalind were engaged in relief work in the Gemlic-Yalova peninsula near Constantinople in the summer of 1921. Their photographic archive of about 160 photos has been recently discussed by G. Giannakopoulos in “Once Upon a Time in Asia Minor: Arnold and Rosalind Toynbee’s Frames of the Greco-Turkish War in Anatolia (1919-1922),” Camera Graeca: Photographs, Narratives, Materialities, ed. P. Carabott, Y. Hamilakis, E. Papargyriou, 2015.

Most of the information about Toynbee’s and Darbishire’s journey to Greece in 1911-12 comes from a biography about Toynbee written by another historian, William McNeill, a giant in the field of macro-history, his most famous book being The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community” (1963). (McNeill was also the first editor of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies.) McNeill came to know Toynbee personally when he married Robert Darbishire’s daughter Elizabeth (1921-2006). To Elizabeth, Toynbee was known as “Uncle Toynbee” (McNeill, The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian’s Memoir, 2005). McNeill and Toynbee met for the first time in 1947 in Darbishire’s Kentucky farm. During that meeting Toynbee invited McNeill to work for him and contribute essays to a series titled War Time Survey published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs that Toynbee was directing.  Later McNeill would become friends with Toynbee’s second wife, Veronica, and it was through her that he gained access to the personal papers needed to write Toynbee’s biography.

The Greek Years of R.S. Darbishire

Returning to Darbishire, his life can be sketched only in broad strokes. Not much is known about his time in the U.S. after he returned to Kentucky in 1912. According to the biographical note in the finding-aid of the family’s papers in the Special Collections of the University of Kentucky, Robert joined the Near East Relief in 1919-1921, where he met his future wife Ruth Whiting; by 1920 the couple was in charge of the Brusa section.  In 1926, at the age of 40, Darbishire applied to attend the School’s year-long program. In his application, in answering “What ultimate purpose have you in view in seeking membership in the American School” Darbishire answered: “Grasp of historical background of possible work in or for Near East, educational or literary, as preferable to previous Relief work.” And indeed, soon after his year at the School, he would get a teaching job at the newly-founded Athens College in Psychiko.

One of his classmates at the School in 1926-27 was Oscar Broneer with whom Darbishire kept in touch throughout his life. (Darbishire’s daughter Elizabeth McNeill would also correspond with Broneer for many years.) A prolific writer, Darbishire is the only student who submitted at the end of the program, not one, but seven papers, one of which is a long poem (“Prologue for the Prometheus Revival at Delphi”) inspired by the Delphic Games of 1927. I suspect that the Darbishires must have known the Sikelianos couple, and possibly helped in the organization of the games, but I don’t have any written proof of it. Putting in use the little Turkish he knew from his time with the Near East Relief, Robert also helped, in the spring of 1927, with the arrangement of the Turkish section of the newly acquired library of John Gennadius. He excavated at Nemea, Corinth and Prosymna where Blegen entrusted him with one of the excavation notebooks.  Darbishire is briefly mentioned in the introductory note of the preliminary report of David Robinson’s 1928 campaign at Olynthus. Then I lose track of him until 1937 when he communicated to Broneer his permanent address in Hartford Connecticut.

Imagine then my surprise when, last spring, while packing the School’s archival collections for our transfer to the East Wing of the Gennadius Library, we found in a box of unprocessed material from the Blegen House on Ploutarchou, a set of seven blueprints in perfect condition showing floor plans and elevations of the “Residence of Mr. + Mrs. R. S. Darbishire. Psychiko Greece, on Lot #11.” The plans of this exquisite, two-story house had been drafted on May 26, 1931 by Konstantinos Sgoutas (1897-1983), a well-known architect of the Interwar period with many signature buildings in his name. Sgoutas was also the architect of the Athens College at Psychiko. It is also interesting that Sgoutas co-signs the Darbishire plans with the architectural firm of Thompson & Churchill of New York City. My readers will recognize in Thompson’s name, Stuart Thompson, the architect of the Gennadius Library (1926) and of Loring Hall (1929).

Blueprint of the Darbishire House in Psychiko, now part of Athens College. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

At first, I thought that these were plans of a house that was never built, but after I began looking at the buildings on the campus map of Athens College, I discovered the Darbishire House (Κτίριο Darbishire) tucked in between the Ioannis Karas Kindergarden and the President’s House. And the only explanation for why the plans of the Darbishire House had been saved in the Blegen/Hill house on Ploutarchou 9 is Bert Hodge Hill’s connection with Athens College, as a member of its Board of Directors. What I don’t know yet is why the Darbishires left Athens soon after the erection of this magnificent house in Psychiko. Darbishire’s spirit would return to Athens College four decades later: his grandson, John Robert (named after his grandfather) McNeill would teach for a year in 1975-76.

The Campus of Athens College. The Darbishire House is on the far left, between the Kindergarden and the President’s House.

Picturing R. S. Darbishire

I spent many hours on the web trying to find a photo of Darbishire. I found a photo of his father Godfrey (the rugby player), but not of Robert. In the end several incidental pieces of evidence gave me clues to identifying not only Darbishire but his entire family in a wonderful photo from 1926-1927, or around that time.  After he was accepted to the School program in 1926, Darbishire inquired about housing. “I shall have my wife and three small children with me” he informed Blegen in August 1926. Blegen suggested that they lodge in the “Tourist Pension” near Syndagma Square, but in his “Membership Form” of October 3, 1926, Darbishire listed Academy 18 as his address. This was the newly “acquired” Annex of the School, the Palace of Prince George (about which I have written a separate essay, “Living Like Kings: When the Palace of Prince George was the Annex of the American School of Classical Studies”). In the Broneer papers, there is a set of beautiful photos from a costume party in the Annex with several people, of whom I have been able to identify only a few (Priscilla Capps and George Mylonas). The photo of the couple with the three small children had been a mystery to me for years. I then checked the photos in a volume dedicated to the 75th anniversary of Athens College. There, in one of the photos, that of the 1929 class, I recognized the man from the costume party.

Robert and Ruth Darbishire with their three children, ca. 1927. ASCSA Archives, Oscar Broneer Papers.

Athens College, Class of 1929. Darbishire, third from right standing. Photo: Κολλέγιο Αθηνών 1925-2000. Σταθμοί και Ορόσημα (2001).

Enamored of the Near East  

By 1937, as I noted above, the Darbishires had settled in Connecticut. The family’s new house “is just opposite the Seminary which has a good library, not so much for Greece but anything you want for Asia. I am reading Islamic history and even bit of Arabic, so as to get inside the skin of it… Hope you are not disturbed by wars or rumors of wars…  We keep the farm to retreat to when everything explodes – but perhaps we’ll be caught as absentee landlords,” scribbled Robert to his old friend Broneer (Oscar Broneer Papers, Box 10, folder 1, Jan. 3, 1937). To which, Broneer answered a few months later (May 14, 1937): “I was glad… to see that you are still enamored of the Near East. Have you already mastered Turkish to such an extent that you are ready to embark on a new linguistic venture in Asia Minor? Your letter is already out of date, for the ‘wars and rumors of wars” of which you spoke seem less likely to spread to our part of the world than they did at the outbreak. When the greatest empire in the world can take time off for a coronation spree, international complications must seem to them distant,” alluding with a touch of irony to the coronation of King George VI on May 12, 1937.

Darbishire’s immersion in the study of the Near East produced several essays, all published in the Muslim World, including: “The Christian Idea of Islam in the Middle Ages, according to the ‘Chanson d’ Antioch’” (vol. 28:2, 1938, pp. 114-124); “The Moslem Antagonist” (vol. 28:3, 1938, pp. 258-271); “Mutual Trust in International Relations of the Recent Past” (29:3, 1939, 285-291); and “The Social Principle of Equality in the Qur’an” (vol. 31:1, 1941, pp, 61-68).

I lose track of him again after 1941. His wife Ruth died in 1946 at the age of 60. Through McNeil’s memoir we know that he was in touch with his college friend, Arnold Toynbee, in 1947. It wasn’t, however, in the genes of the Darbishires to live long. Robert Shelby died in 1949, at 63. Broneer lived to be 98. When Elizabeth Darbishire McNeill announced to Broneer in 1982 that she and her husband Bill had become grandparents, he responded by telling her that:

“… all such news are reminders to me that I am everybody’s Grandfather, including your own. You may have forgotten but I belong to the generation of your parents” (Oscar Broneer Papers, box 17, folder 2, April 14, 1982).

“Dollars and Dreams”: American Archaeologists on the Hunt for Greek American Money in Chicago

A still from The Aunt from Chicago (Η θεία από το Σικάγο) with the eccentric aunt (played by Georgia Vasileiadou) in the middle.

A still from The Aunt from Chicago (Η θεία από το Σικάγο) with the eccentric Greek American aunt (played by Georgia Vasileiadou) in the middle.

The Aunt from Chicago is one of the most beloved films in the history of Greek cinema. Produced in 1957, it became an instant hit and remained in demand for many decades. The movie had all the ingredients of a successful production: a great set and superior performances by the best actors of its time. As much as the film is a satire on the conservatism of the Greek family, it is also a subtle mockery of the “aunt’s” Americanization.

Proud of their successful relatives in America, but also feeling uncomfortable with their rapid assimilation by American culture, Greek intellectuals such as novelists Elias Venezis and Yorgos Theotokas tried to rationalize the loss of national identity by the Greek migrants.  If, before WW II, stories of hardship and suffering prevailed over stories of success, after the war America’s new supremacy left little room for a narrative of failure. Instead, a new transnational narrative wanted Greek migrants — with their age-old values and in light of the bravery they had demonstrated during the war — to have contributed to the building of a new America. Novelist Yorgos Theotokas in his Essay on America (Δοκίμιο για την Αμερική), in the wake of a visit to the United States in 1953, would go so far as to claim that “From now on, the American people will be—to a small, but considerable extent—descendants of Greeks also” (Laliotou 2004, p. 86). (For a thorough study of the Greek migration in America, see Ioanna Laliotou, Transatlantic Subjects: Acts of Migration and Cultures of Transnationalism between Greece and America, Chicago 2004.)

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“This Horrible Crime Will Have to be Paid For”: The Sinking of the LUSITANIA

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 reviews Erik Larson’s most recent book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LUSITANIA, and briefly reflects on the history of the ASCSA during the Great War.



“Today we learned of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine.  This horrible crime will have to be paid for by Germany some day.”
Carl W. Blegen, May 9, 1915

I confess that I have long been a fan of any Erik Larson novel, from the time my mother-in-law gave me The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003). But did I say novel? His non-fiction tales read like novels, and The Devil is currently being made into a major motion picture (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese). For my birthday this year, my mother-in-law Nan hit another homerun: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania — a terrific (and fast) read. (I finished it in just over two days, one of them on a trans-Atlantic flight, a suitable environment for reading about an oceanic disaster!) Read the rest of this entry »

Living Like Kings: When the Palace of Prince George Was the Annex of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Immediately after the destruction of Smyrna in 1922, a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of Asia Minor refugees created severe housing problems for all those arriving in Athens, including the incoming students of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter ASCSA or the School). Its female members could not find any accommodations, whether rooms in a boarding house or a hotel. Until then, only the male students were allowed to board in the School’s facilities. Plans for a female dormitory on a plot of land on the other side of Speusippou Street had been in place since 1916, but construction delays sprang up after communication problems between the School’s Managing Committee, headed by the mighty Edward Capps, and the Women’s Hostel Committee, led by M. Carey Thomas, the dynamic president of Bryn Mawr College.


The palace of Prince George on Academias Street as Annex of the ASCSA, 1926 (American School of Classical Studies at Athens)

To cope with the situation, the School allowed women to live “on campus” for the first time since its establishment in 1881. Elizabeth Pierce (Blegen), Natalie Gifford (Wyatt), and Dorothy Cox were among the female students to stay in the School’s bedrooms in 1922-23 and share bathroom facilities with the male occupants of the building. Not surprisingly, the Managing Committee, unhappy with the solution, expressed its “earnest hope that the emergency arrangements of the year 1922-1923 might not recur….” It was suggested “that an annex might be rented which could be used for the accommodation of the women” (Louis Lord, History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Cambridge, Mass. 1947, 163). Read the rest of this entry »

The Pride of Amphipolis

Posted by Betsey Robinson

Betsey A. Robinson, Professor of History of Art at Vanderbilt University, here contributes to The Archivist’s Notebook an essay about the history of the reconstruction of the Lion of Amphipolis in the 1930s and the people who spearheaded it; she also reminds us of recent work by the American School in the area in 1970. Her current essay is based on extensive archival research she conducted in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens a few years ago, which resulted in an article entitled “Hydraulic Euergetism: American Archaeology and Waterworks in Early-20th-Century Greece,” in Philhellenism, Philanthropy or Political Convenience? American Archaeology in Greece, ed. Jack L. Davis and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan (Hesperia 82: 1, special issue), Princeton 2013, pp. 101-130.

The Lion of Amphipolis. Photo ASCSA Archaeological Photographic Collection

The Lion of Amphipolis, 1962. Photo ASCSA Archaeological Photographic Collection. Click to enlarge.

Εἰπέ, λέον, φθιμένοιο τίνος τάφον ἀμφιβέβηκας, βουφάγε; τίς τᾶς σᾶς ἄξιος ἦν ἀρετᾶς;
Tell, lion, whose tomb do you guard, you slayer of cattle? And who was worthy of your valour?

Anthologia Palatina 7.426.1-2 (Trans. M. Fantuzzi & R. Hunter)

The lines above, by Hellenistic poet Antipater of Sidon, are as much of a tease today as they were when Oscar Broneer quoted them in The Lion Monument at Amphipolis in 1941. As I write, each day brings tantalizing new discoveries at Amphipolis where the Kasta Hill is being excavated by the 28th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. Less than 5 km to the south, the colossal marble lion that was reconstructed in 1937 has attracted renewed attention since archaeologist Katerina Peristeri and architect Michalis Lefantzis reported evidence connecting it to the mysterious tumulus ( Nearly a century after the lion’s discovery, as we await the excavators’ next revelations, it seems a good time to reflect on the lion and its modern history. Read the rest of this entry »

Unbalanced Academics, Scribblers, and an “Odd Christmas”

Jack L. Davis, Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes to The Archivist’s Notebook an essay about the non-archaeological pastimes of some of the School’s most distinguished past members, including Carl Blegen, Emily Vermeule, Rhys Carpenter, Oscar Broneer, and Dorothy Burr Thompson.

Not so long ago I stumbled across an internet site called “The Academic Ladder,” a career counseling service. Its newsletter headlined a story of interest: “Get A Life!  A Chart For Living A Balanced Life (Even If You’re An Academic),” by Gina Hiatt, clinical psychologist.

“Why do academics lead unbalanced lives?”

You can never do enough. The academic life is a writer’s life, only worse. This is because the academic constantly feels that he or she has not done enough. … There is always someone better than you.  Academics constantly compare themselves to each other. … And face it: no matter how good you are at some aspect of a profession or field, there is someone else who does another part of the profession better.

In the long run, this is no way to live a life. You will end up with health problems and not enjoy your career, if you don’t balance your life better.  There is more to life than academia!

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)

German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)

While recognizing that academics may not feel they “deserve” leisure time as a “reward,” Gina suggests ways to live more balanced lives by finding things to do, other than work, that are relaxing, fun, and important. Most of us at least are somewhat familiar with the concept (I am constantly being told by loved ones that I should relax more and have more fun), but the notion that leisure time should be filled with important activities is another matter entirely, and brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s 1963 essay “Free Time.” There he succinctly wrote:

Time and again in interviews and questionnaires one is asked what one has for a hobby. … I am startled by the question whenever I meet with it. I have no hobby. Not that I’m a workaholic who wouldn’t know how to do anything else but get down to business and do what has to be done. But rather I take the activities with which I occupy myself beyond the bounds of my official profession, without exception, so seriously that I would be shocked by the idea that they had anything to do with hobbies -that is, activities I’m mindlessly infatuated with only in order to kill time- if my experiences had not toughened me against manifestations of barbarism that have become self-evident and acceptable. Making music, listening to music, reading with concentration constitute an integral element of my existence; the word hobby would make a mockery of them. Read the rest of this entry »