Tag Archives: nationalism

On “the classical debt”

I was once describing to a non-archaeologist Hellenist colleague and friend how archaeology works in Greece. In the course of that discussion I mentioned in passing that the directors of regional archaeological offices are called “ephors” (Greek έφορος). “Really?” she asked, before exclaiming, “How cute!” I didn’t say anything, but privately I was annoyed at the remark. I guess that it is kind of neat for a Classicist, who naturally associates ephors with ancient Sparta… but is it really so remarkable that the word for “supervisor” in Greek (ancient) is also the word for “supervisor” in Greek (modern)?

There are two ways that I think about this little anecdote. They’re interconnected, and both have been stimulated by recent work by Johanna Hanink, an associate professor of Classics at Brown University. The first part is from an article in the journal Eidolon entitled “On not knowing (modern) Greek“, where she argues (in short) that “our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek” and that “classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language.”

She’s absolutely right, of course. One little example: I almost lost my mind when, just two years ago, a new Journal of Greek Archaeology was announced with the following statement:

Announcing an international journal printing contributions in English, French, German, and Italian…. Work from Greek scholars is particularly welcome, but should be either translated into English or sent to us for English translation or assistance.

Yeesh. I saw that statement on July 22nd, 2015. On social media there was palpable anger about the policy’s neo-colonial implication (and much gallows humor too, of course). Through direct intervention on the part of more established scholars, with cooler heads than mine, the policy was changed (to English only! Huzzah?). Part of my irritation at my colleague’s off-hand comment was, to be sure, the implication that modern Greek was cute: just cute. It didn’t really count, as demonstrated by the fact that she, a specialist in ancient Greek, didn’t really have any acquaintance with the modern language.

But this blog post was supposed to be about the second part of this: a book, The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity (Harvard University Press 2017), which I just finished last night. (There’s also a nice review in the WSJ by Alicia Stallings). This book pulls on a thread and traces it through time, that thread being the idea of the debt owed to Greece by the West because of the achievements of the Classical (senso latu) age – democracy, philosophy, and that – and especially how that idea has manifested itself and been reacted to since the economic crisis. In pulling on this thread, she deals with many interrelated issues, all dealing with the productive and strained relationships between Classical antiquity and modern Greece and the West. In the end, Hanink suggests that the debt ought to be understood as “a debt owed for the centuries of destruction that other people’s dreams of the ancient past have wrought.” It’s a really thoughtful, accessible, well-written book, and one that I’ve been recommending to anyone who will listen.

It’s also helped me to think about why the “cute” comment so rankled. As so many commentators have noted – including Hanink, who is very good on this – Greece is caught in a bind. Here’s how Michael Herzfeld describes it in Anthropology through the Looking-Glass (1987: 19):

the West supported the Greeks on the implicit understanding that the Greeks would reciprocally accept the role of living ancestors of European civilization – the standard, for most romantic writers, of civilization in the most general and absolute sense.

And yet the terms of this tacit agreement were unequal in the extreme. Whereas the Greeks sought genetic confirmation of their cultural destiny in the link with the ancient past, western observers, operating on the basis of a self-fulfilling prophecy, more often saw in it the evidence of Greek backwardness and “obsession.” The Greeks of today are still living out the consequences of that imbalance…

Or, maybe better, here’s Nikos Dimou (translation mine; cf. Hanink, p. 206):

Η σχέση μας με τους αρχαίους είναι μία πηγή του εθνικού πλέγματος κατωτερότητας. Η άλλη είναι η σύγκριση στο χώρο και όχι στο χρόνο. Με τους σύγχρονους «ανεπτυγμένους». Με την «Ευρώπη.»

Our relationship with the ancients is one source of the national inferiority complex. The other source is a comparison of space, rather than of time. With contemporary “developed” people. With “Europe.”

I’m sure that the title of έφορος for the head of a regional archaeological department was motivated by the word’s antiquity. It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t, and that corresponds to the desire to forge the “link with the ancient past” that Herzfeld refers to. Indeed, early in the history of the Greek state, the creation of a purified Greek language (Katharevousa) was extremely important (this too is well-covered by Hanink). But this purified Greek wasn’t the same as ancient Greek; it was equally built up from modern European languages, especially French. And it was crucially important to the image of Greece, internally and externally. As Herzfeld writes (1987: 52):

Katharevousa would be the means of liberating the Greeks, not only from the cultural corruption that was the legacy of the Turkocracy, but also from the shackles of their humiliatingly dependent status in the European community.

This linguistic link to antiquity, then, well illustrates the bind of being Greek. “Cute,” then, for me at least, was rubbing salt in the wound. It pointed to the inevitable failure of the attempt at Greek linguistic liberation and to both sources of the Greek inferiority complex.

I hope that this too-personal post doesn’t divert attention from my intention, which was to reflect on what I think is a remarkable book. Hanink richly traces the contours of the issues I’ve mentioned here (and many more), sensitively and perceptively, and shows the reader how they played out through much of Greek history, from the 5th century to the present day. It really should be required reading for anyone who’s interested in Greece, past, present or future.


On genetics and the Aegean Bronze Age

Today Nature published an article entitled “Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans“; it already seems to be circulating through the media (e.g., here, here, and here). I managed to get a hold of the article and thought that a quick response was in order. Some caveats: I’m an archaeologist and Linear B specialist, not a geneticist at all, so I’m going to assume that the genetics side of the article isn’t problematic. I’ll just be responding as an archaeologist who’s interested in the results and their analysis.

First, there’s not much new here. I mean, the data are new, but the conclusions are largely consistent with the archaeological consensus: there’s no big genetic difference between “Minoans” (Late Bronze Age Cretans) and “Mycenaeans” (Late Bronze Age inhabitants of the Greek mainland), and both are pretty close genetically to Late Bronze Age southwestern Anatolians:

This analysis showed that all Bronze Age populations from the Aegean and Anatolia are consistent with deriving most (approximately 62–86%) of their ancestry from an Anatolian Neolithic-related population (Table 1). However, they also had a component (approximately 9–32%) of ‘eastern’ (Caucasus/Iran-related) ancestry. It was previously shown that this type of ancestry was introduced into mainland Europe via Bronze Age pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe, who were a mix of both eastern European hunter–gatherers and populations from the Caucasus and Iran; our results show that it also arrived on its own, at least in the Minoans, without eastern European hunter–gatherer ancestry. This ancestry need not have arrived from regions east of Anatolia, as it was already present during the Neolithic in central Anatolia…

Genetically, the sampled “Mycenaean” individuals had 4-16% of their ancestry from a “northern” source connected to eastern Europe and Siberia, but generally “Minoans” and “Mycenaeans” were genetically homogeneous.

This doesn’t seem to me to be particularly shocking. I do wonder about the sample sizes, though. The new data are from 19 ancient individuals, 11 from Crete, 4 from the LBA mainland, 1 Neolithic individual from the Mani, and 3 BA individuals from Harmanören Göndürle in southwestern Anatolia.

I do think that some opportunities were missed here. The article specifically positions itself as investigating the origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans. The authors do pose the question “do the labels ‘Minoan’ and ‘Mycenaean’ correspond to genetically coherent populations or do they obscure a more complex structure of the peoples who inhabited Crete and mainland Greece at this time?” but in the end there is no question of doubting that these cultural historical labels are meaningful and even have a genetic basis. Minoans were like this, Mycenaeans were like that.

Indeed, the article generally embraced the early-20th century intellectual inheritance of culture-history. A sentence like this

migrants from areas east or north of the Aegean, while numerically less influential than the locals, may have contributed to the emergence of the third to second millennium BC Bronze Age cultures as ‘creative disruptors’ of local traditions, bearers of innovations, or through cultural interaction with the locals, coinciding with the genetic process of admixture

is perfectly at home in the pre-WW II writings of Gordon Childe or some of the more traditional ideas of Aegean prehistorians prior to the war, but these ideas have been subjected to savage and devastating critiques since the 1960s. It is odd, and a little disturbing, to read in 2017 that “Relative ancestral contributions do not determine the relative roles in the rise of civilization of the different ancestral populations.” (I keep re-reading that sentence and it is far from clear what it actually means).

On a final note, I kept thinking while reading this article that many Greeks will certainly welcome the conclusion that the modern populations most similar to the Mycenaeans are Greeks, Cypriots, Italians, and Albanians. I can easily imagine many taxi rides in Athens where I talk to the drivers about this article. This occurred to me because I’ve been reading Johanna Hanink’s excellent The Classical Debt, in which she discusses (among many other things) the fury that Fallmerayer still provokes in Greece. (For those who aren’t aware, this is the guy who argued in the early 19th century that “Not the slightest drop of undiluted Hellenic blood flows in the veins of the Christian population of present-day Greece,” and I’ve had dozens of taxi rides where we talk about him and how terrible a person he was). That part of ancient genetics always gives me a little bit of pause; it can reinforce the tendency to think of people and communities in the past as belonging to well-defined nations defined by blood. Or, as Eric Wolf put it in Europe and the People Without History:

By turning names into things we create false models of reality. By endowing nations, societies, or cultures with the qualities of internally homogeneous and externally distinctive and bounded objects, we create a model of the world as a global pool hall in which the entities spin off each other like so many hard and round billiard balls.

The article in question doesn’t seem to have a problem with the “billard ball” way of thinking. The article ends with “Minoans” and “Mycenaeans” safely intact, δόξα τω Θεώ. The last sentence proclaims that “the Greeks did not emerge fully formed from the depths of prehistory, but were, indeed, a people ‘ever in the process of becoming'” (citing here JL Myres’ 1930 book Who were the Greeks?). Sure, I guess; I don’t know anyone who really thinks that they did emerge like Athena, fully armed, from her father’s head. But so what? Are these really the best questions we can ask?

Against the universal museum

For some time now, I’ve been fairly suspicious of arguments for the universal museum (the museums themselves I have no problems with). There has been some momentum in this area: James Cuno has been banging the drum for some time now, and he’s been joined recently by Tiffany Jenkins. The latter author’s work has been especially visible lately, both in articles written for the popular press and in reviews of her published book, most recently in the Wall Street Journal.

The argument, distilled down, goes something like this (this is taken from the summary of Cuno’s book linked above):

“Antiquities,” James Cuno argues, “are the cultural property of all humankind,” “evidence of the world’s ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders.”

Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities–and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics.

The universal museum thus saves antiquities from nationalism by putting them into a global context.

My suspicion with this argument is simply that while it is happy to criticize others, it does not engage in a self-critique. That is to say, the politics of the universal museum are not something that is interesting to those who make these arguments. Indeed, the politics and the history are actively white-washed.

Take, for the example, the review of Jenkins’ book in the WSJ, written by Henrik Bering. He tells us that “From the early days of private curio cabinets and onward, the underlying idea of a museum was a desire to understand the world, an ambition to tell a common story.” Perhaps. But he tells us this immediately after reporting that “when things started to show up in British museums a decade later [after the 2nd opium war, 1857-1860], curators chose to display them as loot rather than art in order to underscore the military might of Britain.” (Chris Lovell brought this contradiction to my attention).

Indeed, it seems odd to argue that universal museums like the British Museum are somehow immune from the charge of nationalism. After all, Croker argued in parliament that the Elgin Marbles should be purchased

for the benefit of the public, for the honour of the nation, for the promotion of national arts, for the use of the national artists, and even for the advantage of our manufactures, the excellence of which dependent on the progress of the arts in the country.

whereas Grant argued “that that would be a mistaken economy, as well as bad taste, which would deprive this country of such valuable works of art as lord Elgin had collected” (emphasis mine throughout). It’s not like the British government is immune from the nationalistic desire to keep cherished artifacts from leaving the country – as this government ban from the sale of the dagger and robes of T.E. Lawrence abroad shows. Or see this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Where is the criticism of the petty nationalism that seeks to deny Kelly Clarkson ownership of a ring owned by Jane Austen? The UK’s Culture minister Ed Vaizey said of the export ban that it “provides us with a ‘last chance’ to save treasures like these for the nation so they can be enjoyed by all of us.” (Emphasis mine).

It’s worth noting that British nationalism, or American nationalism, is never flagged as a problem by those discussing repatriation and the proper home for material culture. Instead, the nationalism problem is always framed as Us against Them. Consider the opening of Bering’s review, which begins as follows:

Pity the plight of today’s museum director: What used to be a quiet kingdom with creaky floorboards and sleepy custodians has become a raging battlefield where scarcely a day passes without a demand for the return of some of his treasures.

The Greeks have forever been clamoring for the Elgin Marbles,which have resided in the British Museum for two centuries. The Turks have their own list, including an ancient marble carving of a child’s head in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Egyptians want the Nefertiti bust from Berlin, and from Boston, the Nigerians want the Benin bronzes, sacrificial idols still “caked over with human blood” when taken by a British punitive expedition against the king of Benin in 1897.

The Greeks. The Turks. The Egyptians. The Nigerians. These are homogeneous national groups. But the other protagonists in this drama have names, identities, carefully thought out opinions. Thus the discussion is structured to oppose the museum curators with academic credentials and carefully thought-out opinions to anonymous groups who apparently all think alike along narrow nationalistic lines.

Finally, we are told that these parochial, nationalistic museums that want their treasures back reproduce an ethos that “resurrects racial ways of thinking” (Jenkins). Indeed, we are told that “far from tearing down walls between people, these institutions erect new ones.” This is the ultimate twist of the knife: the victims of imperialism and colonialism are now accused of “racial ways of thinking” whereas the poor, downtrodden curators of the noble universal museum (the real victims in all of this!) don’t see race. In this they are not unlike Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Instead, these brave men and women only see the grand sweep of the history of humankind. Yet neither do they see, for they choose not to see, their own past or for that matter their own present.