A Special Issue of Hesperia: Philhellenism, Philanthropy, or Political Convenience: American Archaeology in Greece

April may be the cruelest month, but it’s also a time when archaeologists shift our attention to summer fieldwork and imagine languid days of writing and research. The spring number of Hesperia kicks off these summer reveries and the most recent issue is a particular treat. The issue, edited by Jack Davis and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and deriving from a conference held in 2010 at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, looks critically at the history of American archaeology in Greece with attention to philhellenism and philanthropy. Rather than being a brazen paean to the work of American archaeologists in the first half of the 20th century, it rings a more critical note and suggests that not all acts of generosity and affection toward Greece reflected altruism.

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I have not made my way through the entire volume yet, but I would urge anyone interested in this topic to start with Jack Davis’s contribution titled “The American School of Classical Studies and the Politics of Volunteerism”. Focusing on the crisis years of 1918-1919 and the involvement of American School officials in the activities of the American Red Cross in the aftermath of the First World War, the article explores the role that personal relationships between important figures in American archaeology like Edward Capps had with members of the Greek political elite. These relationships, Davis argued, fueled by philanthropic efforts on the part of Capps and other high profile individuals associated with the American School not only contributed the Greek struggle to survive the chaotic decade at the end of WWI, but also American efforts get exceptional concessions from the Greek state, the most visible of which was the right to excavate the Athenian Agora.

Y. Hamilakis in a contribution titled “Double Colonization: The Story of the Excavations in the Athenian Agora,” suggested that appreciation and mutual respect was not the only impetus behind the willingness of the Greek state to allow the Americans to not only excavate the Athenian Agora, but also to expropriate the property of hundreds of residents in a traditional Theseion neighborhood. In Hamilakis’s more critical account, the Agora excavations represent the politics of double colonization. The space of the Agora reflected both the colonial experiences of Hellenism and archaeology’s commitment to modernist practices and the long tradition nationalism in archaeological practices in Greece. As one might expect from Hamilakis, he weaves the political machinations of various Greek and American archaeologists (and the reflection of their maneuvering in the Greek press) together with development of archaeological impulses toward revealing the hidden and “real” Athens below the houses of contemporary residents. His arguments for the “allochronization” of Greece in the rhetoric of the American School officials are particularly critical. In short, he argued that School officials expected concessions from the Greek government that we the same as those afforded to the French and Germans over 50 years earlier ignoring the radically different situation in Greece at the time. At the same time that Americans were negotiating the destruction of a neighborhood in Athens, the Greek state (with the help of the international community, to be sure) was navigating the massive influx of refugees from Asia Minor and continuing aftershocks of the First World War.

What makes this volume all the more significant is the backdrop of both the current economic crisis in Greece and the changing economic realities of archaeologists working in Greece (and this, of course, extends to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens). To state simply that the American School, American archaeology in Greece, philhellenism, or 20th century American philanthropy in Greece is an expression of a modernist colonial impulse would be a gross over-simplification of a complex relationship between the two states, their political culture, and individuals. These essays offer a critical corrective to simplistic perspectives on this interaction at a particular fraught time in history of Greece and Greek archaeology.

Congratulations to the editors and the Hesperia staff for producing a timely contribution. If I’m not mistaken, this is one of the very few times that Hesperia has turned itself over to a single theme in a Special Issue. I am not sure why they decided to do this rather than to release a Hesperia Supplement, but whatever the format, this is a supercool contribution to the history of our field.

3 Comments

  1. The other recent special issue of Hesperia was “The Mycenaean Feast” edited by Jim Wright, published in 2004.

    Reply

  2. Rather than being a brazen paean to the work of American archaeologists in the first half of the 20th century, it rings a more critical note and suggests that not all acts of generosity and affection toward Greece reflected altruism.

    Is it really a surprise, in the political and intellectual climate of contemporary academia (and stretching back a good many years), especially the humanities, to find such a subject treated not as a paean to American anything?

    Reply

  3. Mike,

    The culture of the American School often introduces a strange kind of hero worship to institutional histories so in some corners critique remains the exception to the rule.

    The ASCSA can be an odd little corner of academia for better or for worse.

    Bill

    Reply

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