Thursday, November 27, 2008

Singular Antiquity 8: Sakka on the Agora

America's aggressive involvement in Greek politics during the Cold War left some indelible marks in Greek attitudes towards the United States and towards relatively innocent institutions like the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). The Athenian Agora Excavations and the construction of the Agora Museum (Stoa of Attalos restoration) within the archaeological site continues to resonate with imperialist associations. On July 1929, the Greek Parliament voted Law 4212 giving American archaeologists the exclusive right to excavate the Agora, a project that continues today under the directorship of John Camp. Unlike any other excavation in Greece, the Agora is sanctioned by Greek law and hence excluded from the limited excavation permits alloted annually to each foreign school.

The Agora is special, but not necessarily the result of aggressive American imperialism. Rather, it is the product of negotiated desires by multiple parties closely tied to the challenges of the 1920s rather than the 1950s. Niki Sakka's, "The Excavation of the Ancient Agora of Athens: The Politics of Commissioning and Managing the Project," in Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth-Century Greece, ed. Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos (Athens, 2008) pp. 111-124, chronicles those negotiations. Before World War II, both the United States and Greece had different priorities than after the War. For one, Greece's economy was dependent heavily on foreign loans that America, among others, provided. It is impossible to separate the ASCSA and its members from the investment that American businesses were making on the construction of public works, such as the Marathon water system. To this day the water bill in Greece is called "Ulen," which stands for the name of the Chicago company that built the water system in 1930; see Maria Kaika, City of Flows (London, 2005). In short, Americans had contracts with the Greek state, and Venizelos' government in particular. ASCSA director Edward Capps was close to Eleutherios Venizelos. The Agora excavations emerged from bilateral interests from both Greek and Americans. To consider the Agora exclusively as a product of American expansionism is anachronistic.

Of critical importance is the 1922 Asia Minor Catastrophe that produced hoards of refugees that needed urgent housing in public land throughout Greece. The Agora would have been appropriated for the refugees, a situation that would forever limit its archaeological study. Alexander Philadelpheus and the Greek archaeologists were alarmed by the prospects but had no financial resources to stop it. The Americans, on the other hand, possessed the financial resources (American private patrons) but no site to invest them into. In order to promote itself internationally and grow institutionally, the ASCSA had to compete against the archaeological dominance of European foreign schools. The French School had Delphi and Delos, the German Institute had Olympia and the British School had Knossos and Sparta. The Agora offered a perfect solution. A site of such international significance (cradle of democracy, etc.) would be spared from refugee housing and the Greek government would not have to foot the bill.

Sakka's essay documents a forgotten period when American archaeologists were deeply entrenched in the internal workings of the Greek state. Americans had proven their philhellenism during the Balkans Wars and World War I, volunteering their services in all efforts of war relief. For example, many of the female archaeologists (Hetty Goldman, Harriet-Boyd Haws) worked for the Red Cross. The expat community of American archaeologists, were living in Greece and working for Greece. They did not see themselves as colonizers or racially superior. The Athenian Agora is a testament to a unique inter-relationship between two countries that had been strangers till very recently. Greeks loved Americans because, unlike the French, Germans, British and Russians, they had not dominated or governed them. Undoubtedly, American paternalism emerged in 1945, but it was not foreseen 15 years earlier when Edward Capps (dir. ASCSA), Konstantinos Kourouniotis (dir. Greek Archaeological Service), Eleutherios Venizelos (Prime Minister) and John D. Rockefeller (financier) collectively arrived to an archaeological solution. Sakka's essay, which seems part of a larger project, records the terms of this trans-national conversation.

In the last few years, there has been an amazing resurgence of institutional history within the ASCSA. The group of scholars includes Jack Davis (Cincinnati), who has published a series of articles on the politics of excavation. It should be noted that, as ASCSA director, Jack Davis has been amazingly supportive of such projects and that kind of leadership is refreshing. Robert Pounder (Vassar) has been looking at the fascinating alternative family of the Hills and Blegens. Betsey Robinson (Vanderbilt) has been studying the life of Bert Hodge Hill. Despina Lalaki (New School of Social Research) has been investigating ASCSA's political connections during the Cold War. Natalia Vogeifoff-Brogan (ASCSA Archives), has been a tireless historian on many fronts, most recently on the 1948 film Triumph over Time. Other scholars are taking a fresh look at ASCSA's non-archaeology friends; Artemis Leontis (Michigan) is working on an intellectual biography of Eva Palmer-Sikelianos and has discovered all kinds of ASCSA connections (see article in Singular Antiquity). I work on the connections between Byzantine archaeology and the avant-garde; a future project includes a close study of George V. Peschke, painter and architect of Corinth's excavations. Reading Sakka's essay makes me realize how exciting this new research is turning up to be. I am titillated by the contemporary vibe.

For additional reviews from Singular Antiquity, see here.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States