Foreign institutes in the great school of Hellas

In September, the Greek state laid off seven Nemea museum staff as part of an ongoing effort to streamline its civil service. The decision sparked a backlash from national and international archaeologists alike. “The firing of seven guards would leave active only three permanent guards, which would not even be sufficient to leave the site and museum open to the public. This means that visitors will now find it closed,” lamented Dr Stephen Miller, director of the Nemea site. A final decision regarding the Nemea guards – and hundreds of other workers in Greece’s archaeological sector – is expected shortly.

Pressure has mounted for Greece to privatize that which it can’t afford to operate – its archaeological parks – and sell off ancient treasures to fill empty state coffers. “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks! And sell the Acropolis too!” the German Bild advised in a headline that ran adjacent to its daily topless section. The country’s response to those demands has been admirably disciplined: It has refused to privatize its historical sites and has yet to hoist its relics up on the auction block. Even attempts to reappropriate looted Greek antiquities have lost no fervor in recent years.

For centuries Greece’s antiquities were yard-sale pickings for Western travelers. The rules of the game changed in 1832, when Greece became a sovereign nation for the first time in its history. The young kingdom dutifully asserted rights of management over its own soil. Those who sought access to Hellenism’s monuments now had to negotiate their presence through permits. Foreign parties were to provide for all excavation expenses and to compensate Greek peasants dispossessed of their land; they were to receive exclusive control over choice of excavation sites; the Greek government would provide museum staff and site guards; officials appointed by both parties would ensure adherence to terms. All finds were to remain in Greece.

If they were to continue their study of Greek material culture, European and American scholars would now have to make their way to Greece. To accommodate their libraries and social functions, they set up academies on the northwest outskirts of Athens. L’Ecole Francais was constructed in 1846. The Germans built their Deutsches Archaologisches Institute in 1871. The Americans set up their school in 1881. The British followed shortly thereafter. A spirit of “honorable rivalry” was engendered among scholars seeking to affirm their devotion to the cultural birthplace of their respective countries. These original schools can still be found on the southern and eastern slopes of Lycabettus. They are gated complexes marked by well-weeded gardens and libraries larger than most domestic airport hangars. Their imposing columns are a nod to Classical precedent and the colonialist spirit embodied by their founders.

The 19th century witnessed further shifts in foreigners’ relationship with the Greek past. Philhellenism was evolving from an aristocratic pastime into an academic discipline. Mimicking contemporary efforts to verify the historicity of the Bible, Classicists found that reading Thucydides in Western universities could advance one’s understanding of the ancient world only so far. A new science called “archaeology” stood poised to unveil historical details about ancient day-to-day life that the Greeks themselves had failed to record. These details were to be gleaned not from museum-worthy sculptures, but from coins, shards of pottery and epigraphical inscriptions. To uncover ancient settlements with a scientist’s attention to detail came to rival textual analysis as the preferred method for decoding the Greeks. “The Classical archaeologist who has not trodden Greek soil is becoming a curiosity,” announced the American scholar Alfred Emerson in 1885.

The French, Germans and Americans began dispatching their archaeologists to the most famous cities and sanctuaries of Classical Greek antiquity. The French began digging at Delphi and the island sanctuary of Delos. The Germans headed to Olympia and the potters’ quarter of Athens, the Kerameikos. The Americans began excavating at Corinth and eventually settled over the neighborhoods believed to rest over the city center of Classical Athens. The ventures proved expensive and extensive; they are, in nearly every instance, still ongoing. At Delphi the architectural features of the ancient hippodrome are only now being unearthed. The German excavations at Olympia are currently uncovering the west wing of the sanctuary’s gymnasium. Recent American School excavations in the Agora have focused on revealing the floor plan of the Painted Stoa, the building in which the Athenians showcased paintings commemorating their greatest military victories.

Archaeology went a long way toward illuminating the Greek past. It also revealed just how convoluted that past was. Discovering new tracts of ancient history – a prehistoric Bronze Age, a Dark Age, a post-Classical Hellenistic period – and their corresponding material cultures posed vast new outlets for Greek scholars. “A Classical education does not end with the grammatical interpretation of a prescribed round of Greek and Roman authors,” noted Charles Bennett, celebrating a decade of American School studies in an 1890 speech to the Archaeological Institute of America. “Its province is broader, including the whole domain of Greek and Roman civilization.” At the turn of the 20th century, a second wave of foreign academies swept Athens. The Austrians founded their Institute in 1898, the Italians their School a decade later. The former assumed the excavation of Ephesus (Ottoman Efes) in 1898; the latter inherited the archaeological survey at the Minoan palace of Phaistos in southern Crete.

The decades following the Second World War saw 11 additional institutes make their way to Athens. The total number now stands at 17. These new schools were humbler than their predecessors; most occupy just a single floor of a concrete residential building. The so-called “Scandinavian Circle,” comprising the Danish, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian institutes, sits to the south of the Acropolis and runs a single Nordic Library. These newest additions are almost entirely state-funded. In addition to sponsoring archaeological excavations, they assist their respective embassies in diplomatic duties. Energies have been directed toward new disciplines – the digital humanities, geoarchaeology – in Greece and beyond – Albania, Cyprus. Scholarly attention has shifted from the monuments of the Classical period to settlement patterns across Greek history; the Norwegian Institute’s excavations, for example, have unveiled centuries of cult continuity at the temple of Athena Alea at ancient Tegea.

The foreign institutes have generally been too in thrall to dead Greeks to acknowledge the living ones. The economic crisis has at times exacerbated the schools’ relationships with the Greek government; but it has also, refreshingly, precipitated a rise in foreigners’ interest in contemporary Hellenic culture and studies. The “Balkan Futures” project, initiated by the French and British schools, traces the history of policymaking in Southeastern Europe since the collapse of Yugoslavia. In the northern port city of Kavala, the Swedish Institute has renovated an old mansion which had been built by a wealthy tobacco merchant into a guesthouse for Greek and Swedish artists. The Canadian Institute’s weekly lecture series frequently addresses topics pertaining to archaeology as well as modern Greek poetry and films.

For all the reassessing spirit of recent years, ownership over the past remains an irrefutable priority for the Greek state. But the country cannot cling to its antiquities and curtail their caretaking. In the case of Nemea, the state still has time to rectify its September decision. To do so would keep tourists coming to the country’s ancient sites – and keep Greek antiquities in Greek hands.

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