Category Archives: modern Greece

Modern Greek, Classics, and archaeology

I just got back from a wonderful weekend in sunny Sacramento, where the Modern Greek Studies Association (MGSA) held its 26th biennial Symposium. Johanna Hanink and I organized a special session entitled “Modern Greek Programs in Classics Departments: Historical Perspectives, Present Challenges, and Future Prospects” featuring papers by Susan H. Allen, Ismini Lamb, Artemis Leontis, and Seth Schein, followed by an all-too-short discussion about the relationship between Classics and Modern Greek. Allen and Lamb focused on historical figures who bridged the gap between the two disciplines – Harriet Boyd Hawes and George Horton, respectively. Leontis focused on the administrative and institutional issues faced by modern Greek programs housed in Classics departments, while Seth Schein reflected on his personal and professional relationship with Ioannis Kakridis.

In preparing for the panel, I ended up writing a short paper that sketched out some of my ideas about the role that archaeology plays in this relationship. Before I get to my paper, here were some initial thoughts:

  1. In some ways, Classics and Modern Greek studies are similar in that language teaching forms an important core to the curriculum. As Artemis Leontis pointed out in her keynote, teaching modern Greek excellently is the sine qua non of a thriving modern Greek program, and Classics as traditionally defined focuses on teaching Greek and Latin literature in the original languages. This makes archaeology something of an outlier to both disciplines.
  2. On the other hand, there is certainly more to Classics and modern Greek studies than just language — they are impoverished disciplines if they don’t reach out to art history, history, archaeology, anthropology, and so on.
  3. Both Classics and modern Greek have the problem of narrative. Both are entangled in a master narrative of linear time and progress, and both have struggled to free themselves of that narrative, with mixed results in both cases. As some of the papers that I heard at the MGSA made clear, modern Greek studies has not yet fully shed itself of the nationalism and Eurocentrism that centers on Classical Greece and that emerged in the 19th century. I wanted to think of ways that archaeology had fallen prey to these same narratives but also had the capability to contribute to a reckoning with them.

So if there had been time, here is the paper that I would have given. Many thanks to Bill Caraher for useful comments on an earlier draft. I’m now thinking of organizing a panel on the archaeology of the contemporary Greek world for the next MGSA in 2021!

sacramento

Sacramento is very flat

Archaeology, classics, and modern Greek studies
MGSA conference 2019
Dimitri Nakassis

As the only archaeologist on the panel, I thought that it might be useful to reflect briefly on the role of archaeology in the relationship between Classics and Modern Greek studies. I should say from the start that I’m especially focused on the role of archaeologists who work in Greece and are housed in Classics departments in north America – a narrow scope, but for reasons that I hope are clear. My own perspective is that of a Greek prehistorian with a traditional north American training in Classics and classical archaeology, and who has always taught in traditional Classics departments. Like many people in my situation, my work has occasionally involved the archaeology of contemporary Greece, largely through regional studies.

I’m not alone in this. Archaeological surveys in Greece, beginning in the 1950s but accelerating in the 1970s and 1980s, incorporated archaeological ethnography (or ethnoarchaeology) into their field practices and analytical procedures. Field survey and archaeological ethnography were both disproportionately dominated by prehistorians, largely for theoretical reasons. Greek prehistory in the 1970s was being infiltrated by a theoretical school of archaeology then known as the New Archaeology in the United States, now normally called processual archaeology, which (among other things) was heavily influenced by cultural evolutionism and cultural ecology. The ecological givens of “traditional” Greek life, as expressed by modern rural populations, were therefore useful to the ‘new’ archaeologist seeking to understand the ecological givens that were experienced by prehistoric communities, since modern communities could be understood to occupy a similar landscape and environment (sort of), and farm similar crops (again, sort of). One origin point of this approach in Greece was the Minnesota Messenia Expedition, or MME, directed by Bill McDonald from 1959 to 1969. As Michalis Fotiadis pointed out in 1995, MME’s approach to modern Greece employed tactics that effectively marginalized modern communities and placed them in a cyclical “traditional” time and space that effectively removed them from modernity. Or, as Sutton put it, these projects operated on “an implicit assumption that current Greek villages are carriers of an unbroken agricultural tradition only recently transformed by the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and tourism.” (Although MME understood this as the product of ecology and environment rather than the result of some Hellenic essence).

The marginalization of these rural communities is tied to the fact that archaeological surveys in Greece generally focus on areas that are understood as marginal in the present and in the past. For instance, in the Argolid surveys have focused on the southern Argolid (Kranidi), the Berbati-Limnes plains, the valley around ancient Nemea (Iraklio), and my own project in the western Argolid (modern Lyrkeia and Schinochori). The ultimate expression of this is an extremely intensive survey dedicated to the island of Antikythira, an island whose population in the 2011 census was 68. This was also one way that Greek survey archaeology differentiated itself from excavations, which were generally urban and focused on elite material culture: in contrast, survey focused on rurality.

I basically agree with the conclusion of Fotiadis, that although work in the 1990s and afterwards indicated that regional projects were shedding their reliance on tactics of marginalization and subordination, there remained, and there still remains, much “unfinished business.” That is to say, even if survey archaeologists today avoid the mistakes of earlier work, there is a persistent tendency for the archaeology of modern Greece to focus on rural communities and “traditional” economies (like agriculture and ceramic production), because this research is effectively subordinated to work on earlier periods. That is to say, although archaeologists now use the modern period as a way to characterize the dynamism that rural regions experience and their hypersensitivity to changes in broad socioeconomic networks – the “contingent countryside” – archaeologists do so not to understand modern Greece, but as an analogue for some other period or periods of antiquity. Among the many consequences of this attitude is the perception that modernization is a threat (both to the archaeological record and to traditional Greece) and, as Fotiadis points out, effectively a foreign influence on Greece.

As dismal as this sounds, it could be worse: many of the institutions of Classical archaeology ignore modern Greece altogether. One thinks of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and its regular program, whose field trips reluctantly include Byzantine sites but nothing after. Large-scale excavations may be predicated on the eradication of all traces of the modern.

Many of you may be thinking of counter-examples, although I think that in general most of these involve people who are not trained as Classical archaeologists and do not hold positions in Classics departments. Much of the best work has been done by scholars trained in Late Antique and Byzantine archaeology. On my survey project, we were lucky to have graduate students who are interested in working on the modern period, a Late Antique colleague on the research team, and Byzantinist colleagues (Kostis Kourelis and Guy Sanders) familiar with the material culture of modern Greece, as well as an ethnographer-archaeologist, all of whom worked alongside us. This much emphasis on the modern period isn’t typical for foreign survey projects, in my experience.

In sum, the state of problem is that the encounter between Classical archaeology and the archaeology of modern Greece occurs in a very circumscribed intellectual zone that emphasizes the marginal and the rural, and it largely does so as a means to another end. Outside of Greece, the archaeology of the contemporary past is often “the archaeology of us,” in contradistinction to the archaeology of the ancient Other. But in Greece, it’s often not, since every effort is made to “Other” contemporary Greeks.

Our panel’s statement articulated the hope that histories might suggest productive models, and I do think that a radical proposal mooted by Bill McDonald is worth considering. McDonald, the director of the MME, was awarded the AIA’s Gold Medal in 1981, and in his acceptance speech he suggested that in order to capitalize on the new technologies and techniques available to classical archaeology, students would need to be trained in archaeological science. This “new breed” of archaeologist-scientist wouldn’t be employable in traditional science departments, however, and so would need to be hired by Classics departments.

McDonald was clearly being aspirational here. But some 40 years later his plea is just as pressing; there is an increasingly wide gap between what constitutes cutting-edge technical research in Classical archaeology and what gets you a tenure-track job. This is related to my topic, because despite the interest in the archaeology of contemporary Greece it will always necessarily be a marginal side project for any archaeologist who aspires to get a job in Classics. Be this as it may, McDonald’s model of Classics is interesting, since it is constituted not by a set of core competencies (i.e., reading and interpreting canonical literary texts in Greek and Latin), but by a diverse set of methodologies that are brought to bear on a specific set of research questions about the Greco-Roman world. It seems to me that a disciplinary reorientation of Classics, away from a focus on canonical texts and the methods required to explicate them, and towards the methods that constitute work in the field, is needed for an archaeology of modern Greece to flourish in Classics. Another way of putting this is that as currently constituted, graduate programs in classical archaeology teach a tiny percentage of the actual skills needed to do archaeology in Greece, which leads to the dilettantism that I’m in the process of revealing right now (namely, prehistorians trying to do the archaeology of the contemporary).

I’ve been thinking about, and trying to articulate, why the study of the modern period matters to my field project as much as it does. One answer is that we think we can contribute to the study of modern Greece. A second is that it contributes to a critical rethinking of our practices. Especially in comparison with archaeologies elsewhere, Greek archaeology fails to engage seriously with modern communities. Many archaeologists may feel that they would like to communicate their knowledge, but in this interaction “we” give something to “them.” As archaeologists move into the study of the contemporary world, however, these encounters change their character: they become more cooperative, discursive, and even multivocal, and fundamentally different ways of understanding come into contact and even conflict. A third advantage has to do with rethinking our theoretical approaches. As Kostas Vlassopoulos has observed, one of the main contributions of archaeological survey was to suggest new and alternative periodizations for Greek antiquity. A focus on the contemporary might also force Greek archaeology to come to grips with different temporalities, and respond to approaches that reject “the linear, causal and homogeneous conception of time.” (F. Hartog) Such a questioning would be potentially valuable to Classics, a discipline that is struggling  – in fits and starts – to redefine itself and to jettison in the process the ultimate master narrative.