Friday, February 29, 2008

Writing off the Wall: Transcription as Resistance

We know that inscribing texts on masonry is a political act, whether celebrating the powers that created the building (commemorative inscriptions) or declaring an unofficial subversive message (graffiti). But what about the scholarly act of transcribing inscriptions, copying the scratchings, deciphering the paleography and interpreting their content?

Between November 1943 and March 1944, Anastasios K. Orlandos transcribed 130 unknown inscriptions from the Early Christian and Byzantine phase of the Parthenon in Athens. This act of decipherment doubled our epigraphic knowledge to a total of 232 inscriptions, which were fully published with Leandros I. Vranouses three decades later, in Ta charagmata tou Parthenononos (Athens, 1973). Reading the preface of this volume made me realize that Orlandos was operating during the height of the Nazi occupation. Orlandos remained head of the Greek Restoration Service during the war, a time when all resources for restoration were naturally limited. Climbing up on the walls of the Parthenon to transcribe these invisible inscriptions resonates as an act of resistance, keeping busy at a time of limited resources. When you are not able to inscribe your own message, transcribing a latent message seems to be a powerful alternative, especially when these texts contain political ideas in proxy. Some of the Byzantine inscriptions (like the one represented here) mention Greek generals (strategou tes Ellados). Propped on a ladder within the masonry of the Parthenon and communing with past generals must have offered the kind of political hope that a powerless archaeologist needed under the oversight of the German authorities. OrlandosAcademy of Athens on June 15, 1944, still under the German regime (the Allies liberated Greece four month later in October). One can only wonder whether there was a political tone in the public lecture. Preliminary French publication followed in 1946, during the Greek Civil War, in Bulletin de Correspondence Hellénique (1946) 70, pp. 418-427. Incidentally, the final 1973 publication took place a year before the Greek military junta fell. presented his inscriptions at the

Orlandos was not the only Greek spending wartime with inscriptions. In 1941, the Society of Christian Archaeology in Athens began the corpus of early Christian inscriptions. Orlandos’ mentor, the academician Nikolaos Vees published the first volume on the inscriptions of CorinthCorpus der Griechisch-Christilichen Inschriften von Hellas. Band I. Die Griechisch-Inschriften des Peloponnes (Athens). So what is it about inscriptions and a time of war? Is it simply a passive way to do archaeology, or is it also instrumental in regaining authorial power? and Isthmia,

How bizarre it would have been for Orlandos in 1943 to discover inscriptions referring to a number of Byzantines named Germanos (nos. 79, 142, 156, 160, 161, 187), a word which had ceased to be used as a personal name and meant quite explicitly the German. Even if the Germanoi of Byzantium were archbishops, domestikoi, episkopoi, or sakelarioi, in the realities of 1940s they were the occupying forces. Many of these funerary inscriptions, celebrated the death of the Germanos (as in no. 160 reproduced here). Could phrases like “Germanos has died” also offer hidden and subversive hope? I think they might have.

The intersection between scholarship and political oppression contains all kinds of ethical problems and compromises. Before World War II, Orlandos had been a Germano-phile, attending the lectures of Wilhelm Dörpfeld and pursuing the Bauforschungen methods of the German school. Then suddenly, his national mentors became his oppressors. Although I am not sure of Orlandos’ political leanings and activities after the War (and during the Civil War), his oppression by the German forces seems undeniable. As a government official he did not starve like many other Athenians, but his position cannot have been comfortable or easy. The situation of Vees must have been equally conflicted, having had strong academic connections with Germany from the turn of the century.

Looking down from his ladder on the Acropolis, Orlandos’ view of Athens in 1943-1944 must have been gruesome, a city ravaged by starvation and death. Mark Mazower’ Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944 (New Haven, 1993) provides a detailed account of the horrors, including the role of archaeology. More recently, Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York, 2005) revisits the utter disparity between German occupations in Greece and northern Europe (France, Belgium, etc.): “Nazis treated western Europeans with some respect, if only the better to exploit them, and western Europeans returned the compliment by doing relatively little to disrupt or oppose the German war effort. In eastern and south-eastern Europe, the occupying Germans were merciless, and not only because local partisans—in Greece, Yugoslavia and Ukraine especially—fought relentless if hopeless battles against them.” (p. 17).

The Acropolis was an important locus of representational resistance for the Greek people. It was from here that on May 30, 1941, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas (two law students) took down the Nazi flag replacing it with a Greek flag. We must also not forget that Yannis Miliadis, the director of the Acropolis left the service in opposition to the collaborationist Greek government. In 1941 he joined the Communist-dominated government (EAM/ELAS) in the mountains. During the battles between the British and the Communists in December 1944, Miliadis was arrested and exiled. Orlandos, in contrast, chose a more passive form of resistance. For more information on Greek archaeology under dictatorship, see Dimitra Kokkinidou and Marianna Nikolaidou, “On the Stage and Behind the Scenes: Greek Archaeology in Times of Dictatorship,” in Archaeology under Dictatorship, ed. Michael L. Galaty and Charles Watkinson, (New York, 2004) pp. 155-190.

I should note that the person that has turned me onto the Parthenon inscriptions is Amy Papalexandrou. My digression on Orlandos' political action was triggered by Amy's terrific new study, "Echoes of Orality in the Monumental Inscriptions of Byzantium," Art and Text in Byzantine Culture, ed. Liz James (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 161-187. The article suggests directions of "voiced readings" that animate an otherwise dull discipline. I personally cannot wait for the book, even if a couple of books down the line. Same goes to Linda Safran, whose sociolinguistic approach has transformed the inscriptions of southern Italy, see "Language Choice in the Medieval Salento: A Sociolinguistic Approach to Greek and Latin Inscriptions," Zwischen Polis, Provinz und Peripherie (Wiesbaden, 2005), pp. 819-840. I thank both for sharing their research with me. I also look forward to reading Bill Caraher's work on early-Christian inscriptions.

For a related posting on Nazi-occupied Greece, see Bishops, Earthquakes, Immigration.


Bill Caraher said...


Great post. I’ve been reading J. Clarke, Art in the Eyes of the Ordinary Roman (Berkeley 2005) and J. Elsner’s “Viewing and Resistance: Art and Religion in Dura Europus,” in his Roman Eyes (Princeton 2007), 253-288. Both works consider how ways of viewing could form an aspect of resistance in a colonial discourse.

I wonder whether Orlandos sudden attention to texts that he describes as “les importants graffiti” would have resonated with the graffiti of resistance that would appear on the buildings in Athens each night. By studying these texts on the walls of one of the great symbols of Greek identity, he may have drawn attention to this form of expression as a valid and perhaps even particular Hellenic mode of political discourse.

Another interesting avenue to consider is that by bringing to the fore the continuity of place and expression at the Acropolis, Orlandos work challenged Nazi efforts to revive the Fallmerayer thesis in an effort justify their oppressive treatment of Greece.

Finally, the first Greek to record these texts was Kyriakos Pittakis (AE (1956), 1435-1441) who was part of the Greek army besieging the Acropolis in 1821. According to legend, the Turks were dismantling parts of the Acropolis looking for lead for their bullets and Pittakis sent them ammunition in an effort to preserve the buildings there. Would Orlandos audience have known this story when he gave his talk at the Academy of Athens in 1944? Moreover, how would they have responded to the fact that these texts were not only studied by a Greek scholar (Pittakis) but then subsequently by Russian scholars Antonin and Sreznewskij?

In a time of heightened racial awareness, Orlandos, with his German training, may have been sending an intentionally ambivalent message of resistance by exploring texts that had not been the subject of previous German scholarship.


Unknown said...


Do you know A. Kaldellis' new book on the conversion of the Parthenon... forthcoming.


Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.

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