Ethnicity and Archaeology in Modern Methana

Hamish Forbes has had a productive retirement. It seems like hardly a month goes by without some significant article from the tip of his pen. I finally got around to reading his article, “Archaeology and the Making of Improper Citizens in Modern Greece,” in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 27.1 (2014).

Forbes argues that many Methanites, who are Arvanitika speakers, do not relate to the national archaeological narrative constructed by the Greek state which have tended to celebrate the ties between modern Greece and Classical Antiquity and the monuments of Athens. Arvanitika speakers who settled in Greece at some point between the late Medieval period (say 13th century?) and the Ottoman period have stood outside of the national narrative in Greece that has been slow to recognize the existence of “ethnic minorities” typically defined by language. In fact, Forbes makes the point that there is no official capacity to recognize ethnic minorities in Greece, and this might be partially the result of conflating issues of ethnicity with desires for alternate national identities (ethnoi), partially the result of periods of hyper-nationalist political rhetoric, and partially the desire of the Greek state to distinguish itself in the European Union.

Forbes notes that Arvanitika speaking communities are common in Boeotia, Attica, and across the Northeastern Peloponnesus, but have generally found ways to hide their identities from outsiders and the unsympathetic gaze of the state. On the Methana peninsula, this has manifest itself in the community’s lack of interest in the ancient ruins on the peninsula, and attention to a fort dated to the Greek War of Independence. The fort was apparently constructed by the French philhellene Charles Fabvier to train Greek troops. Today, the fortification, visible on the narrow isthmus that separates Methana from the northern coast of Troezene, bears a large Greek flag painted on its flanks and this explicitly connects the site to a national identity. At the same time, the national identity manifest in this 19th century ruin, however, is nevertheless outside the main archaeological narrative promoted by the Greek state. In other words, the 19th century ruin provides an opportunity to locate the Arvanitika-speaking community within a positive narrative of the Greek state.

Forbes discusses the way in which local communities articulate their archaeological landscape and how it often differs from the interest of national or foreign archaeologists. He cites Susan Sutton’s description of the communities around the archaeological site of Nemea who associated more closely with a cave in a nearby hill that they relate to the den of the Nemean lion. Methanites likewise recognize the antiquity of a cave set high on the slopes of the volcanic peninsula, and Forbes notes that these natural features often provide points of reference in the landscape that allow local communities to establish regionally meaningful archaeological identities.

This article caught my attention for two reasons. First, on the Western Argolid Regional Project this summer we documented a fortification associated with the Greek War of Independence. Without getting into too much detail, graffiti festooned a number of parts of this rather visible fortification allowing individuals to locate their names within the archaeological landscape. This linked the nearby community of Lyrkeia very closely to a historical place. It is interesting to note that the nearby ancient ruins did not attract similar attention. The fort on Methana will also be a useful point of architectural comparison for our fortification in the Argolid although our fortress has far less august a historical pedigree. 

I was also interested in reading that Forbes did not mention the inventio story associated with the church of St. Barbara. According to Forbes’ monograph on Methana, a local resident had a dream which led the villagers to excavate and discover the bones of St. Barbara and St. Juliana who helped protect the island from the influenza epidemic in the early 20th century. I’ve blogged about it here. What’s interesting about this story is that it presents indigenous archaeology as more than simply the recognition of ruins or sites by a community, but the actual excavation of sites of particular significance. As Arvanitika speakers and Greek speakers in Greece share the Orthodox faith, it is significant that both communities have used these same methods to create locally meaningful archaeological landscapes (if not in the strictly scientific sense) that resonate with national narratives emphasizing the Orthodox (and Byzantine) roots of the Greek nation. This narrative is distinct from the national narrative that privileges Classical antiquity, and perhaps provides another alternate space for the forging of historically significant national identities.   

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