Friday, January 3, 2014

An Edmontonian in Athens: Libraries, Buses, and Antiquities

Boating to Thasos
As I sit in the back offices of the Canadian Institute writing this report, gazing out the window, I find myself thinking how today’s weather is representative of my experiences in Athens thus far. You see, today it’s a chilly and blustery Athenian day, something I thought that I would never experience given my time in Greece has always been limited to the summer months on my way to and from Thessaly. A “cold” Athens is something completely different for me. Likewise, my four months in Greece can be described as familiar yet something very different from what I have hitherto experienced in this wonderful country.

Where to start? Probably the most broadening experience of the fall was travelling with the Regular Members of the American School of Classical Studies during Trip 1: Western and Northern Greece. Allow me to provide some general information for readers who are not familiar with the Regular Program. During the fall, participants go on a total of four trips which take them to major archaeological sites all across Greece. Furthermore, on each trip, every member is required to give a twenty minute presentation on an assigned topic: this ain’t no free ride! Preparing for one’s presentation during what may only be a four day break between trips can be a monumental effort involving late nights at the library sifting through material that is usually in numerous languages. The trips themselves are intensive affairs where one is always moving, jumping from a site to another to a museum, and inevitably facing unforeseen delays and bad weather. In 12 days we covered a vast distance. From the walls and shipyards of Oiniadae to the quarries of Thasos or the tombs of Pella to Augustus’ victory monument at Nikopolis….we saw it all.

Overlooking the walls of Oiniadae
Two aspects of the trip stand out in particular for me. The first was seeing a number of Hellenistic cities throughout Epirus that are strikingly similar to what we see in Thessaly regarding urban development during the same period. Cities such as Kassope or Orraon have houses, civic buildings, and defensive architecture that is extremely well preserved and shed valuable light on the form Hellenistic cities assumed in areas of Greece where the polis wasn’t the traditional main form of political organization. Instead, these areas were dominated by ethne, or tribes, and were often looked down upon as backward or less developed by Greek historians who were generally writing with an Athenocentric world view.

Measuring a threshold stone in Thasos. It was big. Really big!
I was also amazed at seeing so many astounding facets of Greece beyond the Classical world that we tend to focus on. In particular, I was blown away but the sheer beauty of the Church of the Parigoritissa in Arta. While the exterior is a striking example of Byzantine architecture, it does nothing to prepare a visitor of the beauty that lies within. Staring up at the ceiling was a pastime that would be repeated in a very different setting when we shifted into the Roman era and were able to go inside the Rotunda of Galerius in Thessaloniki. In essence, the rich and vibrant history of Greece, ranging from the deeps of the past to the modern era, became something much more real for me and not simply something that exists in a textbook.

The dome of the Church of the Parigoritissa
Pondering various matters such as state formation and connections between Thessaly and the west and north was greatly aided by sitting beside Dr. Jeremy McInerney of the University of Pennsylvania on our trusty motor coach. Jeremy was a great sounding board for some of the ideas that were percolating in my mind as I worked on piecing my dissertation prospectus together throughout most of the fall months. Preparing for my doctoral comprehensive examinations and oral defense in January has naturally been the primary focus for me throughout the fall and all the numerous opportunities to bounce ideas off of like-minded scholars has been infinitely valuable. My personal research has involved some late nights at both the American and British School libraries pouring over material dealing with the emergence of social complexity and inequality. I never would have guessed that I would start enjoying pure theory, but at some point it happened. In particular, I’m excited about rich opportunities that exist for applying anthropological theory that has been developed in regions such as Mesoamerica and the American Southwest to problems we see in the Early Iron and Archaic periods in Greece.

Many other opportunities also presented themselves this fall. I was able to play a part in the development of the CIG’s Portal to the Past (which has been covered in some previous blog posts) and learned a significant amount about both the history of the CIG and the various digs carried out under its auspices over the last 30 years. In early November I was in Pharsala for several days with Drs. Margriet Haagsma (Alberta), Emma Aston (Reading), and Tracene Harvey (Saskatchewan) for a conference concerning the town’s ancient and modern history. Our Greek colleagues organized a fantastic conference and it was so good to be back in Pharsala, which now features its very own statue of Achilles!

The Pharsala conference group in front of Achilles
Last, but certainly not least, are the advantages of being an archaeologist in Athens. The community here is simply fantastic and I’ve been very fortunate to get to know many colleagues from the numerous archaeological schools at events, lectures, and (of course) weekly darts night at the Red Lion. Sadly a few will be departing over the Christmas break and heading home to Australia, England, America, and beyond, but the archaeological parea will continue, ready to welcome each and every one of us back to Athens. I’ll personally be off to Canada for Christmas, books in tow, and then off to UCLA in January to write exams, after which I look forward to writing the spring chapter of my Athenian adventures.

Myles Chykerda
Neda and Franz Leipen Fellow, CIG

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