Greece honors foreign finds on home soil

Regarded with suspicion and sometimes hostility by a state that had mixed feelings about their presence from the start, Greece’s foreign archaeology schools and institutes are now being thanked for a contribution to antiquity research that spans nearly 160 years. From Heinrich Schliemann’s Mycenaean discoveries to the reconstruction of Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans and the laborious French excavation at Delphi, archaeologists from 17 foreign schools have been instrumental in breaking new ground in the fields of Greek and Roman antiquity on Greek soil. By way of paying homage, the Greek Culture Ministry last week gave honorary awards to the directors of the French, German, American and British schools, which have the longest tradition of excavation in the country. A first-ever exhibit of foreign school finds from around 50 excavation sites across the country is on display at the Athens Concert Hall until January 8. Working in what was essentially still virgin territory, the schools turned up one amazing discovery after another in the late 19th century – the marble statue of Hermes by the ancient master Praxiteles, the gold burial mask attributed to King Agamemnon of Mycenae and the bronze charioteer of Delphi. But even though they brought much-needed expertise and equipment to the task, the visitors were often seen as near-colonials by the Greek authorities, who resented the pressure brought to bear by their respective governments. The French were the first to create a archaeology outpost in Athens in 1846, 17 years after the French general Maison had led an expeditionary force to assist the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. The German Archaeological School followed suit in 1873. Competition between Paris and Berlin manifested itself almost immediately, with the Germans obtaining permission to excavate Ancient Olympia – birthplace of the Olympic Games – in 1875. Mortified, the French lobbied the Greek government for a concession of equal importance. But it would take them another 17 years to secure rights to Delphi – location of a sacred oracle to the god Apollo and one of the focal sites of Greek antiquity.