Greek-Americans and the Preservation of Greece’s Antiquities

The Parthenon – that quintessential expression of the artistic greatness, political power, and intellectual dynamism of classical Greece – has suffered not only the ravages of time, but also vandalism, fires, and military attacks.

Built as a temple to Athena, it also has served as an Orthodox and Catholic church, Muslim mosque, fortress and munitions storage facility.

In 1687, when Europe’s Holy League was fighting the Ottoman Turks, Venetian forces under General Francesco Morosini laid siege and bombarded the Acropolis where the Turks had retreated. An artillery shell hit the Parthenon, which the Turks had converted to a munitions depot, and reduced it to ruins. Morosini also attempted removing works of art, causing further damage. The Turks retook the Acropolis and turned it into a bazaar selling souvenirs to Western travelers.

A century after this catastrophe the Parthenon suffered its worst injury, this time in the hands of Britain’s Lord Elgin. Lord Byron called it “vandalism”, writing in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the antiquities of Greece “defac’d by British hands.”

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed in 1799 British Ambassador at the Porte, the Ottoman seat of power in Constantinople. He proved a skillful diplomat and lent British support to Ottoman Turkey in its war against France. He also proved a consummate and systematic looter of the Parthenon aiming to adorn his Scottish villa.

Lord Elgin, with technical advice from an obscure Italian painter (Giovanni Lusieri), a controversial firman (it exists only in translation), and baksheesh generosity towards the Turkish officials in Athens for their liberal interpretation of the alleged authorizing document, embarked on a systematic pillaging of the Parthenon and its treasures that lasted for over ten years.

His agents caused much destruction as they cut up integral parts of the Parthenon and shipped boatloads of them to England. In 1816 faced with financial hardships due to a messy divorce he sold the treasures to the British Museum.

The vicissitudes that buffeted the Parthenon affected all antiquities – monuments, sculptures and other art objects, epigraphs, manuscripts –  and by the time of the Greek War of Independence their condition was dismal.

The newly-founded state, recognizing the importance of these treasures as a potential resource for enabling Greece to regain its historical footing and take its rightful place among the modern European nations, created the Department of Antiquities, a grossly understaffed and underfunded entity unable to deal with the immensity and criticality of the situation.

The Greek Diaspora in the face of Constantine Bellios, a wealthy merchant living in Vienna, proved helpful in this area also. Bellios suggested to influential Greek scholars and politicians the formation of an independent organization that would deal with the problems and opportunities presented by the antiquities.

As a result the Archaeological Society at Athens was founded in 1837 with the aim of locating, restoring, studying, and exhibiting the antiquities, and without government funding undertook many projects starting with the restoration of the Parthenon and the excavation of the Acropolis.

The achievements of the Ancients have influenced all aspects of our modern civilization in profound, widespread, and, sometimes, unexpected ways. Angelos Chaniotis, Professor of Ancient History and Classics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, has aptly observed, “The importance of dreaming and religious healing in sanctuaries of Asclepius for Sigmund Freud is well known. What is less known is that the ancient inscriptions, on which the work of psychoanalysts was based, were found during the excavations of the Archaeological Society at Epidaurus. These inscriptions record dream experiences…. Archaeology sometimes works in strange ways. Exactly as, according to chaos theory, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil may set off a tornado in Texas, the discovery of a monument, a site, an object, or an inscription is part of a complex process of reconstructing the past, that has an impact on areas as diverse as psychoanalysis and history of religion, art and literature—think of the influence of the Cycladic idols on Picasso and Moore—or the identity of a nation and the collective memory and cultural awareness of those who respect human values. For nearly 180 years, the Archaeological Society at Athens has been a leader in this process of exploring the remains of the past in Greece, from the Neolithic period to the Byzantine Empire.”

The work of the Greek archaeologists has been significantly leveraged by non-Greek well-known scholars and philanthropists: Heinrich Schliemann excavating Mycenae lent credence to the historicity of Homer’s works; Sir Arthur Evans discovered the Minoan civilization in Knossos; German archaeologists unearthed Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games; and The American School of Classical Studies at Athens has pursued major excavations and restorations at the Agora in Athens, Corinth, Pylos and Nemea with generous support from The Rockefeller and Hewllett Packard foundations.

On the other hand, Greek archaeologists – some towering scholars with stellar contributions to the science and practice of archaeology – are not as well known in the Greek American community. Among them: Kyriakos Pittakis, one of the founders of Greek archaeology and epigraphy, being passionate about the antiquities famously opted to supply bullets to the besieged Turks in the Acropolis during the War of Independence so they would not destroy the monuments to recover the lead for making bullets, reassembled the Erechtheion which the Turks had converted to a harem, collected valuable inscriptions, and excavated Mycenae restoring the iconic Lion Gate;

Christos Tsountas, who discovered the Cycladic Civilization, inaugurated the study of the Neolithic Civilization, and made the Society one of the greatest innovators of archaeological research; Stephanos Koumanoudis, who greatly extended the Society’s work to sites and monuments other than the Acropolis, including the Agora, later taken over by the American School of Classical Studies; Spyridon Marinatos, who in 1967 undertook the excavation on Thera (Santorini, the island presumed to be Plato’s Atlantis).

The site, an important seaport at the time of the Minoan Civilization, was destroyed by a volcanic eruption around 1500 BC. Using advanced and multidisciplinary scientific approaches, Marinatos discovered the town, buried similarly to Pompei, with intact houses, their furniture and stunning wall paintings.

Seven years into the project, Marinatos had a tragic end at the very site when a wall collapsed and buried him under the prehistoric debris; and Manolis Andronikos of the University of Thessaloniki, who in 1977 unearthed at Vergina the tombs (replete with objects of great historical importance) of Macedonian kings, including that of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

These archaeological achievements, important in defining the national identity of modern Greece, have an enormous economic benefit. Greece’s “heavy industry” (tourism) has been built on the legendary Greek philoxenia; the extraordinary variability and beauty of the country; and the opportunity for visitors to experience the evidence of an unparalleled cultural past that is the cornerstone of our modern Western civilization.

The Archaeological Society at Athens has been a leader in this effort with over 1000 projects (several of them now UNESCO World Heritage Sites), often under extremely difficult circumstances (World Wars I and II) and almost never with adequate funding.

In 2015 a group of eminent international scholars – Founding Board members are Gregory Nagy (Harvard), Angelos Chaniotis (Princeton), Nanno Marinatos (University of Illinois at Chicago), Ronald Stroud (Berkeley), and Michael Cosmopoulos (University of Missouri at St Louis) – announced the formation of the Archaeological Society Foundation, a private non-profit organization with the purpose “to raise the funds that will allow the Society (at Athens) to continue discovering and protecting Greece’s cultural heritage”.

In the current economic crisis in Greece the need for international support for the Society is particularly acute, and hopefully Greek American philanthropy will respond.

Earlier this Spring, the Foundation presented its inaugural program at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York. The speakers–Board members and Dr. Dora Vassilicos of the Archaeological Society at Athens-gave an introduction to the history of the Archaeological Society and its research (Professors Nagy and Chaniotis) and presented two old excavations of the Society, in Thera (Professor Nanno Marinatos) and Mycene (Dr. Vassilicos) and two new exciting field projects at the Mycenaean palace in Iklaina, Messenia (Professor Cosmopoulos) and at the sanctuary of Poseidon in Onchestos, Boiotia (Professor Ioannis Mylonopoulos, Columbia University). The presentations are posted on the Foundation’s website: archsocwordpresscom.wordpress.com.


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