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.

 A Pathfinder

In 1958-59, McDonald (1913-2000), Professor of Classics at the University of Minnesota, enjoyed a sabbatical year, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. He was familiar with the School since he had participated in the academic program as a regular member the in 1938-1939. An athletic Canadian, who loved to play rugby and hockey at the University of Toronto, McDonald followed his professor’s advice (no other than Homer Thompson) to enroll for graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University and also spend a year at the American School. While in Athens he made use of the School’s rich library to research his dissertation topic, The Political Meeting Places of the Greeks.

In the spring of 1939, McDonald was invited by Carl W. Blegen to join his new dig at Pylos. It was in McDonald’s trench on the first day of the excavation (April 3, 1939) that the pick hit the rich cache of Linear B tablets. McDonald would return to Pylos in 1953 for another season. He was so eager to get back to the field that he offered to do anything on the dig. “Please feel no constraint in putting me at whatever job you have that needs doing-even washing potsherds. Remember how useful I proved in 1939 in the luncheon commissary department?” McDonald wrote to Blegen a couple of months before arriving to Greece (McDonald to Blegen, undated but postmarked April 2, 1953). By then he had already found a position in the department of Classics at the University of Minnesota, where Theodore Blegen (Carl’s brother) was dean of the Graduate School. It was during that season that McDonald, most likely at Blegen’s suggestion, went on a four day field trip (June 18-20, 23, 1953) in the company of Charalampos Christophilopoulos to survey the area that once comprised the Mycenaean kingdom of Pylos.  McDonald continued his project in 1955, this time with the help of Nionios Androutsakis (Blegen’s trusted foreman), and during his sabbatical year in Greece, in 1958-59.

William A. McDonald, Nichoria 1969. ASCSA Archives, Nichoria Excavation Records.

An interdisciplinarian in the making, McDonald sought to combine the results of his first field survey with a study of modern toponyms. The study of place names and their origin flourished in the wake of Michael Ventris’s decipherment of the Pylos tablets in 1952. Ventris’s discovery “had made it possible to compile a list of phonetic approximations of the names used ca. 1200 B.C. to designate the towns, villages, and districts which belonged to the kingdom of Pylos,” as McDonald explained in the preface to his publication of the place names (Place Names of Southwest Peloponnesus: Register and Indexes, Athens 1967).  To publish his research McDonald collaborated with lexicographer and professor of Modern Greek at the University of North Dakota, Demetrius J. Georgakas.  “This valuable pioneer work, however, has been overshadowed by his later achievements,” noted Nancy Wilkie and William Coulson in the preface to their Festschrift for McDonald, titled Contributions to Aegean Archaeology: Studies in Honor of William A. McDonald (Minneapolis 1985).

The Nichoria Excavation team in 1969. Except for McDonald in the middle, I also recognize Mary Sturgeon on the lower right. ASCSA Archives, Nichoria Excavation Records.

In addition to his extensive survey of Messenia under the auspices of the University of Minnesota Messenia Expedition and his excavations at Nichoria, today McDonald is remembered as a “pathfinder,” who “pioneered in bringing about changes in the theory, methodology and general conduct of archaeological research in Greece” (for the quote see N.C. Wilkie, “William Andrew McDonald, 1913-2000” AJA 104:2, 2000, p. 310). He was one of the first archaeologists who applied interdisciplinary—not multidisciplinary, as he emphatically stressed— methods on his field projects. McDonald summarized his contributions to Greek archaeology in a daring speech (still remembered by Aegean archaeologists who are in their 60s and 70s today) that he gave on the occasion of his acceptance of the Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement, awarded by the AIA on December 29, 1981. (The speech is reproduced in the preface of Wilkie and Coulson 1985.) His speech, which criticized the elitist, art historical approach that dominated the studies of ancient Greece until the 1970s, must have felt like a manifesto to a new generation of field archaeologists, particularly prehistorians. After all, it was the time of the “Great Divide,” but unlike the “New Archaeologists” who chose to break away from classical studies and history, McDonald looked for ways to build bridges between classics (that focused on the extraordinary) and anthropology (the ordinary). McDonald strongly objected to compartmentalization and envisaged Classics departments that reached out and hired scholars with expertise in geology, metallurgy, botany, etc.

Οξυδερκείν or the Act of Sherding

Archaeologists love to take field walks (frequently dragging their entire family with them) looking for ancient walls, horos (boundary) inscriptions, pottery sherds, stone tools, or rock art. Older archaeologists, such as Bert Hodge Hill and Blegen, called it “οξυδερκείν” (to be sharp at sight), using an ancient Greek verb to describe the act of sherding. This is how Blegen discovered the site of Korakou in 1915. In search of Homeric Ephyra, one Sunday morning very early in May 1915, Blegen and his friend Emerson H. Swift “climbed the hill from the landside and immediately began to find prehistoric potsherds. There were great quantities of Mycenaean fragments scattered about the surface of the ground. We filled our pockets in no time… There were many sherds that looked earlier than Mycenaean but neither of us could identify them properly…”  By Friday, May 8, 1915, Blegen and Alan Wace, the famous British archaeologist, were excavating at Korakou.

Royal Walks

In the personal papers of Bert Hodge Hill, Director of the ASCSA (1906-1926), there is a letter from Princess Alice of Battenberg, wife of Prince Andrew of Greece (1903) and mother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, written on April 7, 1922, at Mon Repos. (Prince Andrew and Princess Alice appear in the last episode of Season 2 of The Crown on Netflix.) Addressing Dr. Hill, whom she obviously knew from before, she described some recent finds from Corfu and invited Hill for an autopsy: “I wonder if you are very busy just now, for walking along the shore of our little property we found what we think are the remains of an ancient Greek necropolis. Quite close to the sea is a fairly perpendicular beak of clay which at a certain level is full of fragments of pottery and bones and traces of skeletons lying horizontally… As we are rather ignorant of the periods of Greek pottery, we send you some samples which we think are characteristic and should be glad to know your opinion… If by any chance you think the matter sufficiently interesting to investigate it yourself we should be only too pleased if you will come to be our guest for a few days.”

Princess Alice of Battenberg writing from Corfu to Bert H. Hill, 1922. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

Princess Alice of Battenberg (aka Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark after her marriage). Portrait by Philip de László, 1922.
Private collection of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Public Domain.

You would think that Hill would not have passed on an invitation to take a trip to Corfu as a guest of the royal family; but he did, delaying in answering her letter for two months (his response dates to June 6, 1922) and then begging her Royal Highness not to judge his “dilatoriness intentionally discourteous.” Nevertheless he dated the sherds to the “fifth century B.C. (one or two may be of the sixth) to about the first century B.C.,” and hoped that the graves would be “properly excavated someday” because there had been “altogether too little scientific investigation of ancient nekropoleis.” What they could not have imagined –Hill and Princess Alice- was that a few months later Prince Andrew would be blamed, arrested, and court-martialed for the Asia Minor disaster of August 1922, and that he and his family would be sent into exile for the rest of their lives.

Sherding in Boeotia

Blegen was also aware of another site with large concentrations of surface material. “Near the site of ancient Thespiai on the south bank of the river Thespios opposite Eremokastro, there is a low mound which marks the place of a prehistoric settlement. As early as 1920 it was known to Professor C.W. Blegen, who first showed it to me. In recent years members of the American School have stopped there several times and have gathered samples of the fragmentary pottery that lies scattered over it whole surface,” wrote John L. Caskey in the introductory paragraph of a short, two-page article about one fragment of pottery that one of the School’s students, Charles Fleischmann, had picked up and presented to the School’s study collection in 1950 (Hesperia 20, 1951, p. 289).  The fragment, which preserves small part of a rim and side wall and dates to the Neolithic period, is highly unusual because it preserves a human face. “The brows are heavy, ending at either side in projections that are almost hornlike. The forehead, where the brows meet is unnaturally prominent and forms a sort of lug; the nose is disproportionately small. Eyes and mouth are formed by lumps of clay, deeply cut with horizontal slots… Bulbous eminences on either side of the mouth portray the cheeks,” according to Caskey’s accurate description of the fragment, who also sees “character and individuality” in the piece.

Fragment of anthropomorphic vessel found at Thespiae. ASCSA Archives, Antiquities Collection.

A few years later, another student of the School, George F. Bass (Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University and a pioneer in the field of underwater archaeology) would publish in 1959 (Hesperia 28:4, 1959, pp. 344-349), at Caskey’s instigation, a small collection of Neolithic steatopygous figurines in the ASCSA study collection, also from Thespiai. With accentuated breasts and buttocks and well-defined navels, the Thespiai figurines fit within a strong, local Boeotian tradition with parallels in near-by Chaironeia and Eutresis.

Young George F. Bass at Lerna, 1956. ASCSA Archives, George F. Bass Photographic Collection.

Caskey was intrigued by the site, and, if he had had the time, I think he would have applied to conduct excavations at Thespiai. But he was near the end of his term as ASCSA director (1949-1959), and already involved in another major prehistoric excavation at Lerna in the Argolid. His interest in prehistoric Boeotia, however, led him and Elizabeth Caskey to revisit the site of Eutresis, dug by Hetty Goldman, in 1958 to conduct a one-season dig. In addition to refining the stratigraphical sequence of the site, the Caskeys also found fragments of two Neolithic female figurines, also “built up with pellets of clay,” like their “sisters” from Thespiai and Chaironeia.

I became aware of the Thespiai figurines in the School’s study collection about three years ago when Kalliope Sarri of the University of Copenhagen visited the Archives to examine them for inclusion in an article she was writing (“The Neolithic site at the Thespiai Magoula,” for the Boeotia Project, vol. II: The city of Thespiai, ed. J. Bintliff, E. Farinetti, B. Slapšak, and A. Snodgrass 2017). In fact, we had to re-identify some of the Thespiai figurines since their “provenance” had been lost over the years. Thanks to Bass’s article, this was easy to do.

One of the Neolithic female figurines (AST 36) found at Thespiai and published by George F. Bass. ASCSA Archives, Antiquities Collection.

Sherding: A No-No

Many study (or teaching) collections in archaeology departments of Greek and foreign universities have been built through οξυδερκείν, at a time when Greek Law still allowed for the collection of surface material. Today the act of “sherding” should be limited to a brief, in-situ examination of the material before fragments are placed back on the ground without any disturbance of their context. Archaeologists have become very conscious of the dangers of destroying evidence valuable for future archaeological surveys. We are, however, still able to glean important information from these earlier methods and data. In 2015 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the first investigations at the site of Korakou and inspired by Blegen’s οξυδερκείν, the ASCSA organized a conference that featured results from both old and more recent fieldwork in the Corinthia. This scholarly bridge would no doubt have also pleased the likes of Bill McDonald.