Carl Blegen: Personal and archaeological narratives

A series of flights across North America (Denver to LaGuardia to Toronto) gave me the opportunity to finally read a volume I picked up in New Orleans edited by Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, Jack Davis, and Vasiliki Florou about the life and work of Carl Blegen, the excavator of the site for which this blog is named.

My friend Bill Caraher already wrote some thoughts about the volume, and, like Bill, rather than write a review of the book, I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts that the various papers elicited.

Archaeological teamwork

Davis and Vogeikoff-Brogan emphasize that Blegen thought of archaeology as a “team enterprise” (11), and Blegen also came up with my new favorite quote about a successful excavation (192):

On a dig, you have to live as a family lives… and if you have to live as a family, it’s better to be a happy family.

But if the excavation team was a family, it seems that Blegen was very much the paterfamiliasJohn Camp is quoted in the volume as commenting that

Among those who didn’t know him, Mr. Blegen was thought to be gentle; and he was. But among those who worked with him, he had a fuller reputation as a man who was somewhat hard to work for. Once he had stated an opinion, it was to be regarded as fact; one did not argue with Mr. Blegen, his word was law. … In short, his gentle manner was real, but it hid a forceful stubborn personality.

That’s interesting, especially because that the model of excavation when Blegen began his research emphasized not the archaeological team, but the singular excavator, a model that Bill Caraher has described as “heroic archaeology.” Blegen’s way of thinking seems to have departed somewhat from the “heroic archaeology” model: it is the model of a family-like or patrimonial structure, with the director playing the role of the traditional strict father, whose opinion is fact and whose word is law. Nevertheless Blegen was, if I understand things correctly, progressive for his day. By contrast, the projects that I were trained on didn’t resemble this patrimonial model. Instead they rather resembled a modern graduate seminar, with “skeptical graduate students” (SGSs) — people like me — engaging in a lively debate with the project directors, the “real Mesoamerican Mediterranean archaeologists” (RMAs) and the “great synthesizers” (GSs). In fact, I felt so comfortable working in this environment that as an SGS I felt comfortable working with and publishing project data, without feeling the need to worry too much about whether the RMAs and GSs would disagree with my interpretations and get angry. Thinking about it a little bit, that’s actually quite remarkable. In any case, this model seems to have emerged in the post-war period, after Blegen’s training was already complete. But it was embraced by those students he trained. In this sense, Blegen’s model of a successful excavation straddles the true “heroic archaeology” of the early 20th century and the more team-oriented model that characterizes late 20th century and early 21st century American archaeology.

I should emphasize that this is not a hidden criticism of Blegen, who by all account was extremely generous and kind, but a comment on the changing nature of archaeological knowledge production. If anything, Blegen was far ahead of his time, both with respect to the way he treated his archaeological family and in the way that he worked together with his colleagues in the Greek archaeological service (the latter point is emphasized especially by Davis’s chapter in the Blegen volume).

16 Jul 1961, Pylos, Greece --- American archaeologist Carl Blegen discovered the palace of Nestor, King of Pylos, in Greece. --- Image by © Manuel Litran/Corbis

16 Jul 1961, Pylos, Greece — American archaeologist Carl Blegen discovered the palace of Nestor, King of Pylos, in Greece. — Image by © Manuel Litran/Corbis

Insiders and outsiders

Blegen was sometimes an insider, sometimes an outsider. He was director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, but only after he had first been (somewhat voluntarily) banished from it by Edward Capps, then the chair of the American School’s managing committee. In “the most dramatic episode” in the School’s history (5), Bert Hodge Hill was forced out of the directorship of the School by Capps, and with Blegen he retreated from the School to found a salon at 9 Ploutarchou.

I’m not particularly interested in assigning blame for this episode (I don’t know nearly enough about it, although I am inclined to favor Hill and Blegen over Capps), but it is astonishing to think that Blegen — probably the most important American archaeologist in Greece over the last 100 years — was ever on the outs at the American School, an institution at which he is now revered. It’s a vivid illustration not only of the vicissitudes of archaeological fortune (i.e., today’s outsider is tomorrow’s superstar and eventual legend) but also of the wastefulness (that’s not quite the right word) of the political wrangling of archaeological heavyweights. Capps seems to have blocked Blegen from working at Pylos using “political pressure, bribery, and blackmail” (214). One of the things that I like least about archaeology is the way in which established scholars can use their influence to block access to others, and the way that research material becomes territory to be defended at all costs. I was drawn to archaeology because I had the real sense that we archaeologists are all in this together, that our data and interpretations, when combined and recontextualized and reinterpreted, are moving us closer to a better understanding of the past. That’s naive, admittedly, but I still believe it. We all benefit the more transparent and open we are with our evidence and our interpretations, and we all suffer when those doors are closed. Here too, Blegen was ahead of his time, a scholar who seems to have encouraged and enabled others. He was, after all, a man who held an open hour at his home in his retirement for anyone who wanted to talk to him (133-134). Perhaps it was the experience of having the door shut to him by Capps that encouraged him to be so open and welcoming to others.


5 thoughts on “Carl Blegen: Personal and archaeological narratives

  1. jackldavis

    Thanks for your remarks, Dimitri. It would be interesting to consider Korakou at some point, with a view to determining more precisely the nature and composition of his team there. My impression is that already at that point Blegen was rather collaborative in spirit, not adhering to the model of Schliemann or Evans. But his diaries would offer more, as would a close look at Prosymna. In reference to his relationship with ASCSA, he himself later remarked on the irony of becoming a member of the MC after Cappe was out of the picture! One wonders what Pylos would have been, had his group of “Trojan”grad students descended there, rather than at Troy. Instead, Blegen was 65 when Pylos started. Caskey, Sperling, and the others had gone on to pursue their own careers. Thank heavens for Rawson, who had been part of his family since 1927. We who now work at Pylos admire her so much.

    1. nakassis Post author

      Jack, from my memories of the Korakou notebooks (which Sarah and I transcribed about ten years ago), the team was Blegen, with Scott joining him in the second season only, with Wace acting as a consultant. Not much of a team.

      1. jackldavis

        He certainly had Orlandos involved in some capacity, also Kourouniotis was helping, and Hill advising I think. But the larger point to my mind is this: I don’t see Blegen as in any way comparable to the big self-promotors like Schliemann. I see him as essentially collaborative in spirit, elevating the significance of the material above his personality.

  2. Pingback: Archaeological futures, part II | Aegean prehistory

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