Thinking about Modern Greece

One of the most remarkable things about the Western Argolid Regional Project is its commitment to documenting the recent past of the region. Over the last two days we had the good fortune to spend time with Guy Sanders and Kostis Kourelis who offered an impromptu seminar on Greek rural life and architecture.

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From this experience I’ve come away with a few things that will occupy my thoughts for a while.

1. The Modern Assemblage. One of the most interesting things about the site is the density of the modern assemblage. This represents not only the abundance of modern manufactured objects, which I’ve blogged about before, but also the level of preservation. At a single abandoned rural house in Greece, we had a bed from the 1930s, another from the 1950s, and another from the 1970s, all preserved and more or less in situ. In a similar space we had early 20th century farm implements and a water bottle with an expiration date in 2014. 

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I’m fascinated how the abundance and preservation of modern objects makes so explicit the  responsibility of the archaeologists for winnowing down our view of the site to a body of material that is meaningful for particular historical questions. Of course, I recognize that all archaeology involves producing meaningful assemblages from diverse groups of objects, but the modern period feels completely challenging not only because of the quantity but the rapid chronological superimposition of objects that makes a hash of the usual archaeological methods of discerning (archaeologically) distinct events. A century old house can have modern arthritis cream, half-century old farm tools, and a nearly contemporary water bottles and the order of their deposition is not entirely clear from either archaeological clues (that is stratigraphic relationships) or cultural clues. Even the assumption that the house is contemporary or earlier than, say, its roof tiles becomes a confusing interplay of reuse, curation, and discard. 

For an archaeologist of any period, these buildings are interesting opportunities to think about time in the past and the present. 

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2. The Other Greece. They also offer perspectives on a Greek past that are different from the predominant national (and disciplinary) narrative of Classical antiquity. While we alluded to the well-worn (and inaccurate) idea that the Greek countryside was stable and slowly changing (and therefore a space to search for survivals of Classical antiquity), most of our work was focused around understanding how a small cluster of houses in the countryside responded to economic, political, and social changes in the larger region, in Greece, and across the Mediterranean.

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So much of the narrative of Greek archaeology and history has derived from a connection with Classical antiquity. On the one hand, this is understandable as Greece’s Classical past is a key element of the mythological prehistory of the nation-state. On the other hand, as folks like Johanna Hanink have recently reminded us, the legacy of Classical antiquity, both in the West and in Greece, comes with a particular baggage. Wandering around Chelmis and thinking about the archaeology of rural life in 20th century Greece was not entirely free of that baggage, of course. I was only doing archaeology in the 21st century in Greece as an American because of institutions like the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the tradition of Classical studies in American universities. At the same time, I felt that by walking around and documenting the site of Chelmis and thinking of it – as much as possible – on its own terms, I was escaping the pressures of Classical culture even if it was just for a couple days. 

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