Crisis comes calling at Ancient Nemea

Dr Stephen Miller, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, has been heading the Nemea excavations in the Peloponnese since 1974. Last week he sat down with Kathimerini’s Margarita Pournara to discuss his passion for Greece and its cultural heritage. The interview follows Dr Miller’s letter – addressed to the general public – regarding the Greek government’s potential layoff of Nemea’s site guards and museum staff.

Many people only found out about the work you’ve done at Nemea because of a letter you addressed to the general public regarding potential layoffs of site staff. What was the aim of that letter?

There were two. The immediate goal was to ensure that the museum and site stay open. To incite reaction. I never anticipated all the newspaper articles, but I figured there would be enough reaction for people to write individual letters saying that the site cannot be closed.

Do you mean letters from Greeks?

From Greeks, from Americans, from everybody. Many people from the US have contributed money to Greek excavations. Why shouldn’t they be able to say: “Dr Miller, I put money in this. Why can’t the site stay open?”

So the feedback was positive.

Very positive.

How many e-mails have you received?

At least 30 per day. That may not be overwhelming to you, but it’s about as much as I could handle. I made sure to answer all of them. The head guard told me: “Wait a minute. We don’t know if this is actually going to happen. Why are you going off and doing all this?”

Did the court make a decision?

A decision was supposed to be reached on September 27. But it was postponed until October 23. The problem is immediate: What’s going to happen if – though it really seems like a matter of when – these people are out of job? It’s not easy.

There’s another part, too. I’m not a lawyer; I don’t know all the details. Seven layoffs are involved at Nemea, but there are another 240 employees in the archaeological sector who are facing a similar situation. The same basic problem. If they go, then what’s going to happen then? There will be no one left to staff the museums. Take Nemea. Three people can’t guard it seven days a week, six-and-a-half hours per day. You need at least five or six people to monitor it properly.

So that was my immediate concern: to forestall the layoffs. I didn’t want to wait until the museum closed and then attempt to open it again. Why not just keep it open? People told me: “You were premature. You shouldn’t have done this.” But if you see your child headed for a cliff, would you wait for him to fall off before doing anything?

My second goal, though I have no knowledge of whether it will work, was to prepare the ground for my proposal for the privatization of Greek archaeological sites. Not every site, but a few trial sites. You could have a private company come in and take over the purchase of the property, the maintenance of the ruins, the guarding of the grounds, the construction of the museum, the storage of finds, the conservation of artifacts, the building of a hotel, restaurant, gift shop and so forth.

Like a business plan.

Exactly. This private company would sell tickets and keep the general public updated on developments. There are ways to turn archaeology into a business that benefits the antiquities.

Which sites would you propose for privatization?

I would start with “nonexistent” sites. In the valley next to Nemea, for example, there is an ancient city called Phlius. A medium-sized city, not of huge importance. There were excavations there in the 1920s and briefly in the 1960s and 70s. This site has a theater. The material unearthed from Phlius is in the Nemea museum.

The ancient ruins are completely open to the public. Anyone can go there and do whatever they want. The American School purchased it back in the 20s, but it’s now just been left to the local people. Their animals are all over it. Farmers are constantly digging up antiquities.

There’s a building there in front of the ancient theater. We don’t know what it was built for; it was probably a bouleterion, a public building of some sort. On one end were stone thrones where the magistrates sat.

These thrones had been out in the open for around 70 years. Just last winter – more recently, in fact – someone went and broke them. Smashed them. Pure vandalism. And now we’ve brought to our museum the stubs of the thrones, with all the fragments. They need to be put back together – if they can be. That should never happen. And there are hundreds of sites like this all around Greece.

There’s a basic problem here. Greeks by and large find their antiquities a hindrance. “Don’t let me find antiquities in my plot, since then I won’t be able to build my hotel.” You hear this everywhere.

But imagine you were a Greek farmer of average means and antiquities were found on your land, so you couldn’t plant your crops. How would you feel?

Probably the same way they do.

So what’s the solution?

The same solution that should have been policy the last 150 years: The government steps in and buys the property at a fair market price. Delphi is the only place I know where this was done. The village that sat above the ancient site was purchased and transplanted. You could do this right now in Argos, for example. The modern city stands right over the ancient one. Every time someone wants to build something in Argos they come across antiquities. Of course! Arta, too. The town of Arta is right on top of the ancient town.

I think that this is the only way to allow people to carry on with their lives without destroying antiquities. Afterwards you can start to exploit the antiquities.

You came to Greece in 1967. You know the country well. What are the chances that such an initiative could actually happen here?

From within Greece? Not a lot. But if Greeks begin to broaden their horizons – and if non-Greeks come in with broader horizons – then I think there is the possibility. This is the kind of thing I hoped that the European Union would bring to Greece.

Could you have told me 40 years ago that I could have come here and unearthed a temple? You have to work for these things, to push for them. Maybe I’m a little maniacal, but that’s sometimes what it takes.

Do you really think Greeks would agree to such a proposal?

If you offered to buy up someone’s house at a more than fair market price and allowed them to move 2 miles down the road? Yes, I think they would be more than agreeable.

Sure. But then you’d get, say, the Communist Party coming in and claiming that we’re selling off our antiquities…

But if your antiquities are currently under your feet and are bound to get destroyed because they’re in your way, wouldn’t it be better for you to move and to let them get excavated?

How did you first become interested in Greek history?

I went to a small, old-fashioned, all-male liberal arts school in Indiana called Wabash College. Every student must take a semester of biology, chemistry, physics etc. And two years of foreign language. I had opted for Latin in high school. I didn’t know what language I was going to take in college. For some reason I chose Ancient Greek. When my adviser asked me, “Why Ancient Greek?” I replied, “So I can read Plato in the original.” He said: “OK. That’s a good reason.”

You first came to Greece in 1967. What were your first impressions of the country and its people?

I came to Corfu via Italy. There was a site on the western side of the island that I wanted to visit. It was late by the time I finally arrived. I looked for a place to stay. It was a fishing village without electricity. It’s not that way today, but in those days it was very simple, very quiet. There was a hotel there, open and working. There was no glass in the windows, but it had beds, a roof.

I was hungry and went to a place next door that I thought was a restaurant. It had a gas lantern outside. I had a copy of The Odyssey with me. Sure enough it was a restaurant. I made gestures at my tummy to indicate that I was hungry. The owner understood and brought me some bread and cheese and wine and I sat there with his gas lantern reading The Odyssey. But I was still hungry. I motioned to him and he came over and said, “Ypomoni.” What was that? A food? I had my dictionary with me. I took it out. He pointed to the word. Ah, OK, I have to wait!

I waited 15 minutes. I was still hungry. I looked at him. “Ypomoni!”

A short while later he came over and pulled me out of my chair. I thought he was throwing me out. He dragged me down to the shore. There was light, coming closer and closer. It was his fishing boat, arriving with the day’s catch. It beached up on the shore. He pointed inside the boat. “Dialekse!” Choose! Fish were flopping all over the place. In the corner was a lobster. I pointed to it. “Bravo! Orea! Astakos!” Twenty minutes later I was eating lobster. The whole meal cost me 40 drachmas. This is something a graduate student could live with, I thought. I’d come to paradise. Wonderful antiquities, friendly people, great food. And everyone here is patient, I thought. I subsequently decided that that was not the case. But “ypomoni” was the first word I learned in Greek.

When did you come back next?

I came back in 68 as a Fulbrighter at the American School. I spent a lot of time in the library that year. And then I was awarded a fellowship to dig in the Athenian Agora. I spent the next three years digging there.

How was the political situation at the time?

Well I have to admit that the American School can be, and at that time certainly was, isolated from the rest of Greece. You lived up there in Kolonaki. That’s something I subsequently tried to change as director of the School. The students were not getting out and having contact with real Greeks. They weren’t seeing what was going on.

So you weren’t part of everyday life in Athens?

Not during those years, no.

And what brought you to Nemea? The American School?

The American School had dug there in the 20s.

So they told you to continue the work there?

Yes, that’s basically right. The director of the school in the 60s was a man named Henry Robinson. And because the custom was that after 40 years of inactivity you lost the right to the site, the school wanted someone to come and do Nemea. And Berkeley came forward and said, “We’ll do it.” I was not at Berkeley when it was chosen, so I don’t know what went into the decision.

Tell me about your first visit to Nemea.

My first visit was in 1967, as a student. I had no idea that I would eventually spend the rest of my life there. One of my first days I was walking down the road into the valley and scouting where I thought the stadium must be. This old woman came up to me, dressed all in black. A “giagia” [grandmother]. “Pou eisai?” (What are you doing here?) Tourists were virtually unknown at that time. I explained that I was an archaeologist. “Oh! Then you must know about the lion of Nemea.” “Yes, I’ve heard of it.” “You see that cave up there? Above the stadium? That’s where the lion lived.” “Really?” “Don’t make fun of me. I know what I’m talking about. That was the lion’s summer cave. It faces north. In the winter he went to a cave on the other side.” She was right: there were caves on both sides of the mountain.

So eventually you settled there are started digging. When was that? What did you find?

The first year we started digging, 1974, we had four trenches by the temple and one around the stadium. We immediately began finding coins and walls.

Was that encouraging?

Definitely. We figured that this was one of the four centers of athletics in ancient Greece: There had to be something there. And there was. But not everything we had hoped for.

What we did not understand when we started to work was that the games left Nemea and went to Argos in the 5th century. The Macedonians brought them back again in the 4th century, but they returned to Argos in the 3rd century and never came back to Nemea. I’ve spent my professional career proving that the Nemean Games were only at Nemea 20 percent of the time.

The big excitement in 74, however, was the stadium. You could tell by the layout of the land that there was something unnatural about it. Early travelers had spotted it. Some had thought that there must be a theater there. It was carved into a hillside and a mass of land was built up on a raised platform in the valley.

We started excavating at the far end, the closed end. My goal was to find the floor of the stadium, the starting line of the track. That would tell me that I was at the floor level. If you started out in the middle of the stadium, you might not find the different alterations in the earth that would tell you that this was a floor. In antiquity, they were continually digging up the track with pick axes and resurfacing it. It got built up over years and years of traffic. It would be difficult to distinguish a floor surface from any other stratigraphy.

I had a crew of 25 men and women. We dug a 10×20 meter trench. We dug a ramp so that we could wheel the earth out. And we dug fairly carefully. Didn’t want to miss the floor; didn’t want to miss anything. We dug for 12 weeks.

We didn’t find anything. No coins, no pottery, not a single trace of human activity. After 12 weeks the season was over. We closed up shop in the other three trenches. The students went into the field house to write up their reports. They had nothing to write up! I was going to have to go back to Berkeley and show them an empty trench. Six-and-a-half meters deep. Nothing. And I was going to have to convince the donors who had given me money to give me more money. It was not going to be an easy sell.

So I told the crew: “All right, we’re going to give it one more week. We’ll scrape together all the money we can so that we can pay the workmen.”

Next week we found a coin here, a piece of pottery there. At seven in the morning on Friday, the last day of excavations, we found a section of the curved water-channel that ran around the edge of the track. Around noon we began digging out our ramp, because we had failed to find the starting line within the trench itself. And there it was. Covered by 7 meters of earth. A starting line 2 meters wide. Exposed at the bottom of all the fill. I could now go home and tell the donors: “Look, this is what your money did! Give more.” We had a great party that night. It was such a relief to have found something. My first year as director of a major project. July 19, 1974.

The next day Turkey invaded Cyprus. The whole world was flipped upside down. We were stuck down in the village with no idea what was going on. Suddenly the news came through. The workmen were mobilized; trucks began moving out. The women were tearing their hair. We had no idea what was going to happen. It was a funny situation. The people in the village decided that I was so powerful that I hadn’t let the Turks invade Cyprus until I found the stadium. As soon as I had found it, they invaded.

Could you have told me 40 years ago that I could have come here and unearthed a temple?

Yes, because you’re motivated, and persistent.

Only if you work for it, you push it, you shove it. Yes, you’re right. I’m a little maniacal. But that’s sometimes what it takes. But you have to be.

I look around at the young Greeks I know. Heads-down farmers. But others: “Wow! Let’s think about this. Let’s think about that. How can we do this better?” I don’t think that’s a uniquely Greek situation. I grew up in a small town in Indiana and, believe me, there were a lot of what we used to call clodhoppers. I don’t know if that term means anything to you, but all they do is go out in their fields and hop over clumps of dirt.

I had a great stroke of luck in 1973. When I started work, the guard at the site took me to meet the mayor of the next town. A big, tall man. “This is Miller. He’s from America. He’s going to dig up ancient Nemea.” He looks at me and asks, “Are you going to dig the stadium?” He jumped up, grabbed me, gave me a big bear hug. What was going on? He explained: He had been a big fan of antiquity and ancient Nemea. His lifelong dream had been to see the ancient stadium of Nemea excavated. Sixteen months earlier he had hired a topographer to come and make a plan of the stadium and all the properties inside. And then he went to each of the owners and convinced them all – with one exception – to sell their properties for 4 drachmas a square meter.

But the Ministry kicked him out on the street. He was sitting there brokenhearted, with a stack of permits to buy the land, and he gave them to me and said: “You go to each of these and show them what they’ve signed. And negotiate with them.”

And I did. Within less than two weeks we had signed the contracts for all the properties but one. By the end of the summer I had purchased over 75 percent of the property we needed. It’s still sitting there, waiting to be dug.