The past is ours. Images of Greek Macedonia, Kostas Kotsakis

The constitution of Macedonia as a research object

Macedonia became part of the Greek state in 1913. As a distinct archaeological subject, however, it has only recently attracted some interest. With little exception, until the 1970s no major archaeological projects comparable to those carried out in Southern Greece were launched in Macedonia, and the foreign missions, active in Greece since the nineteenth century, have regarded Macedonia with relative indifference. A number of reasons, not necessarily related to archaeological priorities, can be held responsible for this apparent lag in entering the area of collective archaeological imagination. The political adventures of the region, since the beginning of the century, were, without any doubt, a crucial factor. Successive wars in the region practically ended in the 1950s, and prior to that, in 1922, a huge wave of refugees from Asia Minor had settled in this land. Ethnic and social conflict had been dominant in Macedonia since the end of the nineteenth century when it became the theatre of fiercely competing nationalisms (Danforth 1995; Kofos 1997). Hence there were only brief periods of political stability to permit long-term projects. Nevertheless, similar although perhaps less acute vicissitudes did not prevent the intensive exploration of the rest of Greece, mostly by Europeans, but occasionally also by Greeks, and the development of the grand projects in the main centres of Hellenism, which gave to classical archaeology its distinctive quality (Petrakos 1982; Morris 1994). More than the political instability, it was the particular character of Macedonia which kept this region away from the main course of archaeological research.

Macedonia, however, was not totally outside the European vision of the Hellenic past. Even from 1784, Stuart and Revett in their famous work Antiquities of Athens, included drawings of the 'Incantadas', a Roman monument of Thessaloniki which was subsequently taken to the Louvre in 1864. M. Cousinery, in his work Voyages dans la Macedoine (1831) and M. Leake, Travels in Northern Greece (1835) added Macedonia to the idealised geography of Hellenism. In 1839, Theophilus Tafel published in Berlin his collection and critical discussion of ancient sources on Thessaloniki and, in 1841, a study on the Roman 'Via Egnatia'. It was Leon Heuzey who initiated proper archaeological investigations in the region with his work in Western Macedonia, which culminated in the identification of what came to be known in later years as the city of Aegae, the ancient capital of the Macedonian Kings, now near the modern village of Vergina. His book Mission archeologique de Macedoine (1876) presents the results of this expedition, among which stands the excavation of both a Macedonian tomb, the first to be discovered in the region, and of the eastern part of a palace, according to Heuzey's dating from the time of Alexander.

All this initial research was more or less forgotten, and apart from minor issues of ancient topography of a historical, rather than archaeological, character, little further work was undertaken in Macedonia in subsequent decades. In the meantime, the great discoveries of Southern Greece, in Mycenae, Olympia, Delphi, Delos and the other centres of Classical Greece (Petrakos 1987) provided a wealth of finds and a direct link with ancient literary sources which eclipsed the modest finds of those first explorations and the sparse references of the classical writers to Macedonia. The philological model of archaeology and archaeology as history of art (Shanks 1996) were at that time very powerful to allow the meek archaeology of Macedonia a significant role in the formation of the Hellenic past. Thus Macedonia gradually became the Other of Southern Greece, a view which persisted until very recently (Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 1996).

I would like to propose that the Otherness of Macedonia was a result of the tension between the geopolitical situation of the region, which at that period had a shifting and undetermined ethnological makeup (Mackridge and Yannakakis 1997: 4 5 ), and the concept of a well-defined Hellenic past that had been shaped in classicism and in classical archaeology in particular, and had a strong ethnic quality (Skopetea 1997). Their conflict formulated a stereotype of Macedonia that, for obvious reasons, could only marginally incorporate potentially meaningful similarities and differences to the rest of Greece other than those deriving from within the context of Hellenism. Briefly, the modern inhabitants of Macedonia, contrary to those of the South, could not safely, in Herzfeld's words 'accept the role of living ancestors of European civilization' (1987: 19). This ethnological obstacle of the present was intensified by the presumed silence of the past.

The prehistory of the region followed suit: it was conceived mainly as an absence of traits recognised long ago in the prehistory of Southern Greece. There was no Helladic culture here, no bronze age culture equal to the Mycenaean, nor even proper Geometric and Archaic phases, which as recently as 1932 were lumped together under the generic name 'pre-Persian' (Robinson 1932). Instead, this was an area of later colonisation from the south, the relations of which to the local population were, curiously enough, never considered. This notion of backwardness was a recurring theme in the archaeological literature of that period (Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 1996: 560 61). Even the coming of the Greeks, although at that time viewed as a migration from the north (Crossland and Birchall 1973; Haley and Blegen 1928; Sakellariou 1970) did not offer an identifiable progeny to this idiosyncratic culture, the main distinctive quality of which remained its geographic position in 'cross-roads', i.e. in a state of becoming, but not really of being a culture which could be directly related to Southern Greece. [1] This was the current opinion when Heurtley began his major project on the prehistory of Macedonia in the 1920s, following a line of research which had started a few years earlier during World War I, by the Allies stationed in Greece (Heurtley 1939).

Not all archaeologies practised in Macedonia had similar reservations. During the years that followed its incorporation into the Greek state, the Greek Archaeological Service of Macedonia was organised and numerous archaeological projects were initiated. Excavation and restoration was carried out on a number of monuments in Thessaloniki, the capital of Macedonia, and particularly on Byzantine churches which had been used as mosques during the Ottoman period. Most of these interventions had a 'purist' character, aiming at restoring the initial 'Byzantine' integrity of the monument (Theocharidou and Tsioumi 1985). Regional research and excavation was also carried out in the hinterland of Macedonia. Notable among this is the regional research of A. Keramopoullos in western Macedonia, in the areas of Kozani and Kastoria. K. A. Romaios, Professor of the University of Thessaloniki, founded in 1926, resumed Heuzey's excavations at Palatitsa where, in the meantime, a refugee village called Vergina was established near the site. A. Sotiriadis, again Professor of the University of Thessaloniki, started excavations at the sacred city of the Macedonians, Dion, at the foothills of Mt Olympus. These excavations still form the main part of the University's archaeological project.

Considerable opportunity was given, therefore, to Greek archaeologists who were working in Macedonia at that time. The relative lack of interest from European archaeology was undoubtedly leaving the field open. But, above all, it was the pressing needs of the new political circumstances which provided the main impetus to Greek archaeology. These demanding circumstances evidently gave a sense of mission to those archaeologists working with limited resources in difficult times. Still, it was more than that, as Romaios revealingly observes, opposing subtly the cosmopolitanism of modernism to the ethics of nationality (Miller 1995):

Generally speaking, Tsountas did not regard archaeological places, as every foreign scholar does, as merely an invaluable and sacred focal point of the universal civilisation, but also as our own places, which either from a distance or from a closer examination speak to us always about our national history.... It is customary in Greek excavations, or at least it should be, that the director does not remain, like the foreign archaeologist, enclosed in his mysterious wisdom, without any spiritual contact with workmen.... In this instance the workmen were refugees... who knew something of our national history ... so that their exclusion from the spiritual labour of the excavation was never to be permitted.
(my translation, Romaios 1941)
There was at least one area where Macedonia was construed as an archaeological subject, even from the nineteenth century, and which brought foreign and Greek archaeologists together. That was Byzantine archaeology, which was focused on the city of Thesalloniki, the second city of the Empire after Constantinople, and the former capital of Emperor Galerius. Excavations started here in 1917 on the palace of Galerius and were promptly carried out on most of the important Byzantine monuments of the town. An international consensus of scholars, such as Gabriel Millet, Charles Diehl and David Talbot-Rice, were soon canonising Byzantine art by defining schools and styles, as well as artists, which were active in Macedonia, Serbia and Mount Athos between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries (Bryer 1997). The Greek side would follow, if only to defend the Greek heritage of the Schools and the ethnic origins of these artists (Prokopiou 1962).

The identification of Thessaloniki with the multicultural, multi-ethnic character of the Byzantine Empire was in deeper accordance with the political, cultural and economic character of the city which, throughout the Ottoman period, had developed into a cosmopolitan centre of administration and commerce. Nevertheless, multiethnicity, which nowadays forms the main slogan of Thessaloniki as the Cultural Capital of Europe for 1997, was not in the least the main concern in the decades that followed the annexation of Macedonia to the Greek state. On the contrary, the Byzantine character of the city was closely related to the Greek assumption that Byzantium was 'a purely Greek civilization' which secured the continuity with the Greek past, albeit indirectly (Mackridge and Yannakakis 1997: 12 15). An unmistakeable symbol of this historical construction was the University of Thessaloniki which, although named after the Greek philosopher Aristotle, adopted Saint Demetrius as its main emblem.

The quest for continuity with the past, which had grossly supported the ideological construction of the Greek state during the nineteenth century (Kalpaxis 1990; Kotsakis 1991; Skopetea 1984) was thus transferred to Macedonia. The Otherness of Macedonia, which we referred to earlier, was tacitly circumvented and the Byzantine cultural heritage was used as an indirect, but powerful, link which would bind together both areas of the Greek state, the old South and the new North, and would restore the primordial character of the nation. The project of the construction of a new Greek Macedonian identity thus became part of the general project of nation-building. Aiming at the ethnologically diverse population of the region, it took the form of an assimilationist policy through Hellenisation (Carabott 1997; Karakasidou 1997; Koliopoulos 1997). That was then the ideological and political space within which archaeology was invited to work in Macedonia soon after it became part of the Greek Kingdom.

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1. Consider for instance the opening remarks of G. Mylonas' report on the excavations of the Neolithic settlement of Olynthus:

Macedonia is apt to prove one of the most interesting prehistoric regions of mainland Greece. Situated between southern Greece and the northern regions of the Balkan peninsula, countries where a great civilization flourished in prehistoric times, she holds the secret of the great wanderings of the prehistoric tribes in the Balkans and the key to racial formation of that peninsula in the Dawn of History
(Mylonas 1929: xi)
This 'geographic' view persists today in a slightly modified form: 'The similarities observed in material evidence between Thessaly, Western Macedonia, Albania and Pelagonia reflect communications between geographically neighbouring regions. As regards this particular geographical unit, N. Hammond has pointed out that it 'represents the easiest natural passage that leads from Thessaly to the Adriatic' (my translation, Anagnostou et al. 1993: 14).