Regarded with suspicion and sometimes hostility by a state that had mixed feelings about their presence from the start, Greece’s foreign archaeology schools and institutes are now being thanked for a contribution to antiquity research spanning nearly 160 years.
From Heinrich Schliemann’s Mycenaean discoveries to the reconstruction of Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans and the laborious French excavation at Delphi, archaeologists from 17 foreign schools have been instrumental in breaking new ground in the fields of Greek and Roman antiquity on Greek soil.
By way of paying homage, the Greek culture ministry on November 30 gave honourary awards to the directors of the French, German, American and British schools, which have the longest tradition of excavation in the country.
A first-ever exhibit of foreign school finds from around 50 excavation sites across the country is currently on display at the Athens Concert Hall, until January 8.
“This is the first time that we are all here together,” Dominique Mulliez, director of the French School at Athens, said.
“We’re becoming aware of the amount of our work,” he said. Working on what was essentially still virgin territory, the schools turned up one amazing discovery after another in the late 19th century — the marble statue of Hermes by the ancient master Praxiteles, the gold burial mask attributed to king Agamemnon of Mycenae, the bronze charioteer of Delphi. But even though they brought much-needed expertise and equipment to the task, the visitors were often seen as near-colonials by the Greek authorities, who resented the pressure brought to bear by their respective governments.
Past controversies regarding theft allegations at Turkish and Egyptian sites likewise did little to help the early profile of foreign experts.
The French were the first to create a archaeology outpost in Athens in 1846, 17 years after French general Maison had led an expeditionary force to assist the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.
The German Archaeological School followed suit in 1873, at a time of intense rivalry for European supremacy among the Great Powers of the continent.
Competition between Paris and Berlin manifested itself almost immediately, with the Germans obtaining permission to excavate Ancient Olympia — birthplace of the Olympic Games — in 1875. Mortified, the French lobbied the Greek government for a concession of equal importance. But it would take them another 17 years to secure rights to Delphi — location of a sacred oracle to the sun-god Apollo and one of the focal sites of Greek antiquity. By this time, other suitors had arrived in the form of the American School of Classical Studies (1881) and the British School at Athens (1885).
The Austrians and Italians would come next, establishing their own institutes in 1898 and 1909 respectively. Today, experts from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland are also present. The relationship has not always been smooth, even in recent times.
In October, the culture ministry had a run-in with the Italian school after a Roman-era statue of Hera, senior goddess of the ancient Greek pantheon, fell and broke soon after its discovery at the Minoan city of Gortyn, on the island of Crete. On the other hand, the schools not only help maintain over a dozen key sites across the country, but continue to foster interest in Greece and its antiquity.
In addition, the American School is the custodian of the Gennadios Library, an extensive collection of Greek and Balkan history which includes the private papers of Schliemann, Nobel poet laureates George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, and celebrated Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos.
... I hope there were representatives from (and acknowledgement of) the Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens there ...