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Archaeological Interpretation in Greece

Tourists at the Parthenon

Tourists at the Parthenon

Back from Greece, head buzzing with many things, I feel moved to write about this subject, which is intimately caught up with Greece’s self-presentation and cultural identity, and thus lies like a layer of modern stratigraphy over getting to grips with the traces of its past.

After all, before the archaeological/antiquarian discoveries of the C18, most if not all of them by ‘western’ Europeans, Classical Greek material culture and architecture where effectively unknown, influencing the world only through their Roman imitators.  Even given that Greek had been the language of Plato, Aristotle, the New Testament, etc, one wonders whether the Greek wars of Independence of the 1820s and 30s would have panned out the same without them, or (to stretch a point) if the country would even today seem much more than a Balkan state with a particularly interesting history. I’d love to have seen the Parthenon in the mosque/church/castle state it was before interfering Classicists stripped all that away.

That these things still matter is evidenced by such issues as the Elgin Marbles controversy, and the investment put into new museums at some of the great Classical landmark sites — Delphi and the Athenian Acropolis, to be specific — over the last few years. Of these it is the Acropolis Museum that has really hit the headlines, and is now near the top of many tourist’s must-do’s when in Athens, alongside the Acropolis itself, and the knockout National Museum of Archaeology, surely the only archaeological museum in the world which functions just as well as a gallery of great art.

There is much to praise about the Acropolis Museum. After decades of discussion and inactivity, not a penny seems to have been spared, either in its construction or in its ongoing functioning: a phalanx of helpful staff with excellent English; well-produced, imaginative and multi-lingual kids’ trails, etc. More to the point, the narrative panels which guide you round it are the most eloquent and well-informed things of their kind I think I’ve ever read, and I’m delighted to find them reproduced verbatime in the visitor’s guide. I challenge any recent publication to better them as an account of the site. Not bad considering they presumably had to be translated from the Greek.

The collection in essence comprises two elements, broadly spread over two floors. First, most complete and earliest — and, appropriately, on the lower floor — are the finds from the pre-Classical Acropolis. These are a revelation. The Parthenon and other structures currently gracing the top of that ancient rock are so famous, so globally iconic, that one forgets they are replacements for (and a dramatic reworking of) a complex that had been evolving rapidly for several centuries, and that the scale of their ambition (and much of their sculpted iconography) addresses the destruction of this complex by the Persians (…yes, those Iranians again…) in 480BC. It’s thus obvious that the pre-Classical acropolis was itself a major site, but what I hadn’t realised was that much of its statuary was buried on site by the Athenians, who at first refused to rebuild at all; large quantities of major sculpture thus lay convenienlty buried on-site in pits that were, in effect, Treasuries, keeping beautiful objects created for Athena as intact as possible and placing them physically within Her premiere sanctuary.

Excavated and re-presented they form almost as impressive a collection of artefacts as the rooms of Archaic sculpture in the National Museum: for example, astonishingly, almost a complex pediment of the temple that preceded the Parthenon is preserved. And because this sculpture was buried rather than allowed to weather, much of its bright colouring is intact, giving a more authentic sense of the original appearance of all ancient Greek sculpture than one is used to. I love this stuff, with its wide-cheeckboned, almond-eyed, smiling faces, and its muscularly stylised figures. Less coldly perfect, more aesthetically interesting, than the true Classical statuary, miraculous though that is.

The upper floor, of course, is much more barbed. It’s quite clear that this building’s other function, perhaps even the function which justified to the Greek parliament the expense that has been lavished on it, is as a statement to the world that Athens is ready and waiting and equipped to *have those Marbles back, thank you very much*, and parakalo for looking after them. Rough-and-ready plastercasts of the originals are arranged around a floor which presents the carvings just (if providing a closer-up point of view) as they would be on the Parthenon itself, which is itself visible from its windows. A fine gallery of first-rate work Elgin left behind (I was particularly struck by the scale and exotic beauty of the dramatic finials which grew from the top of the Parthenon’s pediment) is arranged around them, and the staircase which replaces the Parthenon’s cella in the building’s plan has at its top, ie the point equivalent to the most sacred position in the Parthenon itself, an honest and informative video about their history and that of that structure, with excellent reconstructions of its phases of development right through to the modern age. Clever stuff. The experience of the upper floor, all-in-all, is at once worthwhile in itself and a none-too-subtle statement that the marbles restored here would find a good home, be secure, protected from the elements, etc.

Parthenon finial

Parthenon finial

 

Internally, the museum is hard to fault, with cool natural light falling everywhere that major sculpture is displayed, and circulation routes that make sense both intuitively and historically. Glass floors are often used to evoke the stratigraphy indicated by the arrangement of the collections themselves, most effectively on the ground floor, where one peers down at the excavated remains of ancient Athenian domestic buildings. A cafe-cum-viewing platform provides a view of the Acropolis, though one wonders why it couldn’t have been placed higher, ie where the view would have been better — on the roof?

Externally, things are less good. The building’s not disastrous, and is expensive-looking and meriticious in a manner standard for modern ‘heritage-temples’ across Europe. But it’s big, and unsubtle, and given its intervisibilty with the Acropolis and the lightness-of-foot that truly imaginiative modern design can achieve in such settings when it wants to, it surely could have been better.

The problems come when one approaches the Acropolis itself. Many of the reasons for this may be historical — as Stonehenge indicates, there is nothing like the presentation of an Iconic World Site to send the powers-that-be into gridlock, but the result is not always a happy one. The infrastructure — ticket booths, cloakrooms, etc — is astonishingly small scale given the pressure this site must be under at peak season. Nothing wrong with a light footprint, but I fail to understand why — given that the path of the Sacred Way still exists — we can’t be allowed to follow the approach to the site that its creators intended. Instead one first encounters the Propylaie — a brilliantly and subtly-designed open air porch — from the side, and then *leaves* the site along the path from which it is designed to be approached.

The site itself comprises a series of much-patched and hugely impressive structures whose history has not been a happy one. At some stage pretty early in the process of its rediscovery, the Acropolis was wrested from and cleansed of the layers that had preserved it — Frankish castle, Orthodox and then Catholic church, Mosque — leaving a battered and much patched skeleton behind for us to admire. Those sculptures not hacked away by the good lord Elgin have been consumed by pollution. And this marble skeleton, hugely impressive though it is, has been undergoing conservation for a very long time now. There is something inconclusive, to this uninformed outsider, about what is going on in this respect. I know what conservation looks like: painstaking, slow, but very, very focused. This isn’t that; it’s a bunch of youngsters hanging around waiting for something useful to happen. Meanwhile collossal cranes and scaffolding dominate everything, placing metal skeletons alongside those of Athenian marble; interpretation panels, understandably under the circumstances, go into faintly defensive detail about the scale of the problems faced and the kinds of solutions being discussed.

It’s off the beaten track, on the south slope of the acropolis, where things get more worrying. At least one of the great sites here – the Roman Odeon/theatre of  Hadrian, the Classical Theatre of Dionysius, a hodge podge of lesser sites and ritually/mythologically significant caves — seems to be being reconstructed rather than conserved, flying in the face of the last 50 years of concensus about such sites, and undermining the responsible approach trumpeted by the Acropolis Museum a few hundred metres beyond. But I hesitate to carp further: I wouldn’t be the first person to sling criticisms around on the basis of a two-day acquaintance with what must be one of the world’s most challenging and complex conservation problems. Especially with Stonehenge just an hour’s drive from where I write this.

More insights into the complexities and oddnesses of Greek archaeological presentation are provided by some of the less well-known sites we visit. Here, one big plus: everywhere, interpretation is provided in English as well as Greek, and is unfailingly, and (to many English eyes) old-fashionedly, authoritative and detailed.

Now my head, swayed by a few years too long at English Heritage, knows that the general public need spoon-feeding and talking-down-to if they are to understand the past; but my heart leaps to be offered instead phased plans, detailed information, stratigraphy and intelligent explication from which I can draw my own conclusions. Hooray! One weirdy, though: everywhere, a small army of people treat you as if you are bound to be committing some crime or other. Little Lily goes 6 inches under a rope fence at the Delphi Stadium: a young woman comes across unsmiling and tells me I can bring her back but not wander off into the stadium itself. What else was I likely to be about to do? In the archaeological museum on Naxos — great collection, bewilderingly ordered — a man follows us from case to case as if we are about to whip out a hammer and a binliner. In the Temple of Dionysius there I am forbidden from photographing the finds, which are displayed in a shed-sized building, even though more spectacular discoveries from the same site can be freely photographed, and are under the same management, at the above museum, which is just a couple of miles away. Weird.

The latter site embodies much that is odd and much that is good about such places in Greece today. To the un-intiated it’s very much a third-rate Classical temple site, albeit within a mile of a very popular high season beach (the proximity of which may explain why IMF-battered Greece maintains no less than two full-time staff at this small reconstructed ruin); it’s actually, of course, fascinating, embodying in its history some of the many options for the design and decoration of temples being explored in the centuries of the C8/C5BCE when the Classical langauge was gradually defined. It even claims to hold fragments of the oldest dated Ionic capital, though I suspect this claim has its competitors.

And like much that is prehistoric, the temple ruin an archaeological invention, a putting-back-together of once fallen and buried elements, mainly by outsiders, in a manner that manages to imitate a ruin rather than the half-reconstruction it in fact is. Indeed there is a book to be written about the extent to which the world’s most famous sites are largely, in their modern form, reinventions by north European nineteenth-century gentlemen: this is true from Stonehenge to Angkor Wat, from Avebury to Sanchi.

Raised on a podium overlooking the site is a signboard from which one can look down the axis of the temple, and by moving sheets of glass backwards and forwards look at each phase of its development in succession with the actual site in front of one: a very neat idea, which one would love to apply to innumerable English sites.

Interpretational excellence at the Dionysius temple, Naxos

Interpretational excellence at the Dionysius temple, Naxos

But this is where the problems start. This podium overlies most of a rectangular dip in the ground marked as an ‘altar’; next to it is a jumble of Early Christian worked stone. The interpretation makes it clear that a church (St George) succeeded the temple here, but the plan and site of that church has been excised from the presentation, as if this phase is less authentic or interesting than the rest. So does the podium overly that church’s altar (positioning the church outside the temple, and beneath the viewing platform)? Or does the podium lie atop the site of the external sacrificial altar of the temple itself? Either way, why could it not be placed a metre or two off the core of the site, and the ‘altar’ it half-covers better explained? Very odd.

The site is also oddly cut off from its landscape. This matters: Temples of Dionysius are often situated in marshland, and this is no exception. One approaches through groves of bamboo, narrow lines lined with waterways, freshwater lakes thick with seabirds. Yet the landscaping of the site itself cuts it off from this redolent setting, replacing it with wires, fences, stone-flagged and walled walkways and steps, set in a brief outbreak of municipal parkland which must in itself be expensive to maintain, compared to the natural environment around it. Perhaps it needs protecting from flooding.  

Much better is the temple of Demeter, a few miles up a scarp and on a plain to the north-west, again presenting an early variant on later, more canonically defined, architectural mores, and again later converted to a church. Very strikingly, both here and at the Dionysius temple, excavation revealed the site of the altar around which the temple was constructed to be truly ancient, and never to have moved despite multiple expansions and additions to the temple itself.

Here, the archaeology of these oldest interventions in the landscape is illuminatingly laid out: fragile sacrifical drainage channels and pits dug into the earth are the earliest features found; one wonders how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, such cult sites were never graced by a temple and lie unidentified in Greek countryside and townland alike.

But here, the site’s last incarnation — as a church — is not ignored; we get to see how the columns of the temple where at once preserved and re-oriented as part of this process. Though where the church itself has gone is anyone’s guess. And even better, the site is open — it has a staff, but when they knock off anyone can wander in — and its modern landscaping, while directing the visitor clearly, leaves clear beguiling views down into a broad, wide, fertile valley, every bit as typical of Demeterine (is that a word?) sites as the Dionysiac marshes are of that cult.  

Last but not least, there is the massive porta or doorway of the Temple of Zeus which once dominated the harbour at Naxos, and which has become as iconic a symbol of Cycladic culture as the Parthenon is of the Athenian world (indeed of European Classical civilisation as a whole). This is the collossal doorfame for an equally ambitious, and unfinished, temple built on an islet by the tyrant Legdames. Its foundation fills the surface of the island, overlooking the hill and harbour of this strategically-crucial islet.

Naxos was the political centre of the Cyclades which cycle around it (Delos is their spiritual centre), and its high-quality marble made the island one of the birthplaces of Greek sculpture. It is the largest of the stepping-stone islands which linked Anatolia/modern Turkey/Asia with Greece/Europa. Its history features Venetian, rather than Ottoman, domination, giving its hilltop castro — which dominates the dramatic view from the Temple and remains the centrepiece of the Hora, as Naxos town is known — a distinctive flavour. A little cathedral serves a still-surviving Catholic population; marble doorframes feature displays of medieval heraldry seperated by copies of classical triglyphs. Yet this was surely, earlier, Naxos’ acropolis; and certainly, the Greek settlement of Bourgos, which clusters around the northern fringe of the castro, and which contains the town’s Orthodox cathedral, has been settled — perhaps continually — since Mycenean times and perhaps before. An excavated tumuli sits in the Mitropoli cathedral square.

So this is a crucial site, and the great rectangle of Naxian marble frames a striking view of it all. Oddly, it is almost entirely un-presented and uninterpeted, despite being two minutes from Naxos’ harbourfront cafes and tavernas, thronging in summer with tourists from all over. Ropes meekly discourage couples from getting shots of themselves standing in it: yet the collosal Classical opening dominates all.

The castro of Naxos, viewed through the gateway of the Temple of Zeus Naxos

The castro of Naxos, viewed through the gateway of the Temple of Zeus

And presents something of a mystery. Photographs and engravings going back to at least the eighteenth century suggest this doorway has stood here, unsupported, without being blown over by the strong winds for which this area is famous, for centuries. It certainly looks as if it has been lashed by a few salty storms. Yet it is standing ontop of — is kept up by — a pile of miscellaneous worked stones which are entirely un-eroded, and in a photograph of the 1920s mentioned by Nigel McGilchrist in his excellent Naxos and the Lesser Cyclades (2010) it is completly absent. At some point, in fact, it thus must have fallen and been re-erected. The result is the curious mixture of the extraordinary, the emblematic and the absent, the reinvented and the authentic — a fitting conclusion to a hasty tour of modern presentations of Greek’s remarkable past.

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