Friday, September 26, 2014

Welcome Sarah! Amphipolimania surges ever onward

This past weekend Sarah Rolko arrived in Athens to spend three months at the Institute as the Schaus Intern from Wilfrid Laurier University. Sarah is the fourth WLU undergraduate intern to hold this position. A second year Classical Archaeology major she has excelled in her academic work. This summer Sarah participated on the Brock University Archaeological Practicum digging for six weeks at the Minoan town at Gournia in eastern Crete. Her professional goal is an advanced degree in Museum Studies so that she can become a museum curator.

While here Sarah will undertake the inventorying of the Library’s collection and the continuing digitization of the Institute’s Archives. You’ll have a chance to meet her at the CIG events this fall and lectures at other venues. So please welcome warmly Sarah to the Athenian archaeological community!

Amphipolimania is alive and kicking

In the past two weeks there has been a relative lull in the official reporting of the “finds” from the excavation of the tomb within the tumulus at the locality of Kasta at Amphipolis. This is due to the fact, the public is told, that the third chamber’s structural integrity is uncertain and so internal support must be erected and various unspecified conservation measures are undertaken. In addition, the sediment of the tumulus over the chambers is being removed by large scale mechanical means. In the meantime, the clearing of the second chamber continued, revealing the full height of the Karyatids. Images of them with emphasis of various details are omnipresent in the media.  Fragments of their missing arms supposedly were found below them. This discovery along with blocking walls with holes in them and sediment filling the chambers suggests looting at some point in antiquity.

This lack of new significant information has not stopped the “Amphipolimania”, however, in the newspapers, on TV and in the various social media. Various hashtags relating to the topic are “trending” for sure on Twitter. In fact, the manner of the excavation of the tumulus, who might have been buried there, is it really a burial monument, the date of the construction, the purpose(s) of the government’s direct intervention into the excavation and the media coverage, and the monument’s potential meaning(s) for the identity of the Greek nation are all heated discussions that have taken on lives of their own, regardless of any “hard facts” or “solid evidence” produced by the excavation itself. This is like a Greek “dramedy” TV serial that has been kept alive desperately for a few more seasons long after the original plot lines had reached their logical conclusions. The excavation itself, who might be buried there and the personalities involved have become the butt of numerous political cartoons, limericks, mandinades , satires and social media “discussions”.  There are even advertisements on TV using the tomb and who might be buried in it as grist for the sales pitch. And finally, there are conspiracy theories circulating about what has been found but “hidden” from the public for various ulterior motives.

The monument is increasingly seen in some sectors of Greek society as a metaphor for what is being argued as the end of the economic crisis that has afflicted the country since 2009. In this context the monument at Amphipolis is presented as the symbol of hope for a regeneration of Greece. Related to this is the persistent belief among many Greeks that Alexander the Great has some direct relationship to this monument.

Many archaeological colleagues continue to make comments in TV and newspaper interviews as well as in the social media on both the possible date of the tumulus and who might have been buried there. Given how little we really know about what has been found so far (except for limited number of images of the architectural details and the sculpture) it can only be pure speculation on the question of the date of construction.  As no sherds, metal vessels, coins or other artifacts have been referred to, let alone any reference to floor deposits in the chambers, one can only resort at the moment to stylistic arguments from known architectural monuments and preserved works of sculpture. Plausible archaeological arguments are best constructed from multiple lines of evidence which corroborate each other in a “best fit” manner.  So these expert comments are often like doctors, psychologists or psychiatrists diagnosing from afar on TV or in the newspapers the illness or mental state of someone in the news from pictures and/or anecdotal accounts about the individual and what s/he has done or suffered. The professionalism and motives of such a practice are open for debate.

In my previous blog I lamented on the lack of direct public discussion on the purposes of archaeological research in the modern Greek nation as well as on crafting a coherent national long-term strategy for the preservation and the stewardship of Greece’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. The intense focus on the excavation of one exceptional monument is not conducive to a thoughtful examination of the cultural heritage management policies for a non-renewable cultural resource. I spoke too soon about the silence relating to the larger questions. In one Saturday newspaper four archaeologists were asked about their views on the stewardship of the country’s cultural heritage. A Greek archaeologist teaching in England was interviewed in another newspaper on his opinions concerning the possible meanings of the project. On this past Saturday night two archaeologists from the Union of Greek Archaeologists and a professor in the University of Athens archaeology section addressed the implications of this excavation as a model of archaeological research as well as its impact on the future of Greek archaeology and how the public perceives what archaeologists do. From all of this, however, there is no broad consensus. Given the severe cuts to the budget of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sport, the calls for the privatization of cultural heritage management continue to mount:

This fascination with the tumulus is certainly indicative of a deep interest in the history of their country by many Greeks. The problem is that the general public does not understand what are the purposes of archaeological investigations as well as the methodologies employed to recover data toward these goals beyond the fixation on the uncovering of spectacular “museum quality” finds in “National Geographic moments” and the “star” agents of the past. The textbooks used in Greek schools to teach students about the past and its study certainly do not present the roles that archaeological research plays in constructing historical narratives of the country.  This may be one of the reasons the excavation of the tumulus has rekindled a romantic pre-20th-century view of antiquities and how they might be used in public discourse.

It seems obvious that archaeologists working in Greece – Greek and foreign – need to make a greater effort to educate the public on all levels and at every opportunity on what are the goals and methods of archaeological research and how the findings of this research can be used to elucidate aspects of the past, as well as the inherent limitations of this knowledge.  Unfortunately, too many people just want “the unchanging truth” about the past strung out in Twitterable sound-bytes, not in the ambiguities and the fluidities of archaeological evidence. This popular tendency to seek out the ephemeral and the fantastic about the past must be responded to in a proactive and positive manner by archaeologists and historians alike in the public discourse concerning cultural heritage issues.

David Rupp

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