Peeling away the layers of the Agora, millennium by millennium

Ater a string of e-mails and some hesitation, I finally got an appointment with the American archaeologist John Camp to meet him at the site of his most important work, the excavations and renovations at the Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora, where the American School of Classical Studies has been conducting digs since 1931.

With the energy of a teenager, the veteran archaeologist showed me around the Stoa, which was last extensively renovated in the 1950s. He opened doors and allowed me to take a peek at treasures to which only researchers are privy, such as the diaries of the excavations, photographs and plans. He proudly showed me the numerous publications of the American School and gave me a tour around the conservation workshop and the ground floor, where finds are stored, opening drawers and running his hands over fragments of pottery or human skulls.

?All of these things tell us a lot about daily life in ancient Greece. It would be like finding a piece of a broken bottle of Coca-Cola or orange juice and the remains of a mug. You would immediately know which vessel we drink our tea or coffee in,? said Camp. ?You see, when people begin digging, they think the only real treasure is gold. But archaeologists dig because they?re interested in knowing about life in a different era.?

Camp also explained how the excavations at the Ancient Agora are 100 percent funded through private donations, the biggest donor of which is the Packard Humanities Institute from the United States, and, from Greece, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

?We have 60 or 70 kids helping with the excavation,? he said, giving some indication of the extent of the work being carried out here. ?Most of them come from America, as that is where the money comes from, whether it?s for appropriations, digital archiving, publications or renovations. But last year we had kids from 10 or 12 different countries digging, including from Greece.?

The American archaeologist first heard of Ancient Greece at the age of 10, when a teacher read the class The Iliad. ?That?s when I heard about the excavations at Troy and [Heinrich] Schliemann.? Later, he studied Latin and came to Greece as a student in 1960s. ?I lived here permanently from 1972 to 1996,? said Camp. ?Now I spend six months here and six months in America.?

Camp?s fascination with antiquity lies in the similarities that he can see between life then and life today; it is evident from his enthusiasm. ?The Stoa of Attalos,? he explained, ?had 20 rooms upstairs and 20 downstairs. They were all shops; 40 shops, 40, on two floors. Isn?t that a mall? In the States, universities are funded by people with a lot of money who once studied at that university. Over the course of their lives they decide to support the institution that marked the beginning of their careers and they built wings that are then names after them. It?s the same thing here. Attalos came here, studied under the philosophers, went back, became king and gave this beautiful building to the Athenians as a gift. Nothing?s changed.?

Has Camp?s knowledge of another civilization, which happens to be Ancient Greece, changed the way he views the evolution of the world?

?I know that what changes the world is the Internet, the automobile, the airplane, the telephone — technological achievements. These, yes, are major changes, but since they didn?t happen until after 500 BC, I?m not interested in them,? he admitted. ?But, other than technology, nothing has changed in terms of human behavior. That?s what I think. Or, at least, you can find a lot of similar conditions with the people who lived thousands of years ago. What can?t be compared is the intellectual and cultural developments of then and now. You wonder, with awe and admiration, how the people were driven to build the Parthenon. What were their needs, their visions, what were the social collectives that led to such unique works of art? The Pantheon in Rome or Hagia Sophia are dedicated to religion. But who had the skill and the money to construct such beautiful buildings that still stand today? The stuff we build today is junk in comparison.?

Camp believes that maybe the difference lies in the nature of competition. ?Maybe Ancient Athenians had more money, collected from their conquests of other cities, but this is not enough; it always takes something more. I think that the difference lies in the competitiveness that existed between the citizens. In modern societies of course, this competitiveness led to technological breakthroughs: to the discoveries of Edison and travel to the moon.? Yet, Camp believes that this competitiveness has two sides, and that while the environment may have changed, the inner self of the human being has not.

Camp admitted that even though he has spent over 30 years exploring and studying Ancient Athens, he is still awed by it all, by how one layer of the city hides another, and another, and another.

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