Anything that Kostis Kourelis writes is a “must read” for anyone interested in the history of archaeology in Greece. Over the past ten years he’s written a book – more or less – on modernity, archaeology, and Greece with articles on the Byzantium and the avant-garde, the modern fictions of Byzantine houses in Mystras, and, this past week, “Flights of Archaeology: Peschke’s Acrocorinth” in the most recent issue of Hesperia.
Kourelis explores the intellectual and cultural world of the 20th century artist Georg Vinko von Peschke who worked in Greece in the service of American excavators. This article developed from his work organizing an exhibit of Peschke’s works at Franklin and Marshall College and then Bryn Mawr a few years back. But as with so many of Kourelis’s articles, Peschke serves as a point of entry into the rich(er) world of early 20th century archaeology inhabited by architects and artists, archaeologists and poets, and numerous other cultural figures who embraced the avant-garde, modernism, as well as rigorous archaeological research. This article also featured the mountains of the Corinthia and Acrocorinth, in particular, as a Romantic backdrop to the rational archaeological work at the site of Corinth itself. Peschke’s 1932 painting of Acrocorinth served as a point of departure for Kourelis’s consideration of modernity and archaeological culture.
The article is too rich and complex and “Kourelian” to describe here in any detail, but two things struck me about this article:
First, it reminded me how much working in the shadow of Acrocorinth shaped my work. Within days of arriving in Greece for the first time, my friends and I hiked up the hill of Acrocorinth to survey the region. I remember being struck by the unkempt and confusing settlement between Acrocorinth’s two gates and the prominent mosque and church inside the course of its crenelated walls. As someone who has never embraced the formality required of careful excavation, exploring the abandoned and decrepit settlement on Acrocorinth and looking across the Isthmus offered me a perspective on the past that wasn’t to tightly bound to minute detail. If the rigor of modern excavation at the site of Corinth below caused me apprehension, the expansive views from Acrocorinth drew me into a landscape that seemed to resist tidy fragmentation and beg for grand (and probably overly general) diachronic and regional statements.
My inability to cope consistently with the routine of field survey complemented the lure of the mountains and drew me to working extensive in the landscape. This led to my first two archaeological publications which featured sites that I documented while hiking the mountains of the Corinthia. Years later, my work with the Western Argolid Regional Project continues to draw me to mountain tops and forgotten routes and passes. While my body is no longer able to endure quite as much adventuring as I could as a 20something, the pull is still there and I like to imagine that it came, in part, from my encounter with Acrocorinth.
Second, I wonder whether the weeks and months spent hiking about in the Greek countryside have shaped my view of our field of archaeology. While I recognize that Kostis’s article samples the most rarified air from a generation of fieldwork that included as much rigorous documentation as imaginative encounters – and indeed Peschke’s ability to cross between the world of high art and formal documentation is what make him and his archaeologist colleagues so worthy of attention, I wonder whether today our balance has tipped too far in the direction of industrial production and away from the spirit of craft?
I won’t allow this post to devolve on another preachy meditation on slow archaeology, but Kostis’s articles always make me wish for an archaeological practice more explicitly informed by craft. Of course, craft is present in field work. Watching an experience colleague or workman handle a trowel or a pick demonstrates a kind of embodied expertise that no field manual can instill. At the same time, as I work on the final publication for my project on Cyprus, I often feel that the goal of archaeological publication (and even documentation) is to remove the artistry from our experiences with both objects and the past.
Peschke’s art and Kostis’s vision of early 20th century archaeology reminded me that while disciplinary practices remained deeply embedded in industrial forms of organization and technics, a parallel course has long existed that recognized the deeply personal dimension of archaeological work. Archaeological work in this context was a form of expression that resisted narrow disciplinary definition, subservience to objectivity, efficiency, and clarity, and embraced the complexities of experience without marginalizing archaeology’s methodological or intellectual goals.