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

Archeology as defence: the 'Vergina Syndrome'

In the heyday of the Vergina bewilderment, a university professor described the course that archaeological matters had taken in Macedonia as 'the Vergina syndrome'. As one would expect, the accusation prompted an immediate response from Professor Andronikos (1987), who pointed out that the Vergina finds were primarily 'archaeological facts which contribute to historical knowledge'. Andronikos was of course right: the deeper significance of the unique finds of Vergina lay not in their spectacular richness, not even in their undeniable artistic value, but in the historical evidence they were offering and in the spell they cast on the public. Ever since 1977, when the royal cemetery of Vergina was excavated, a rush of excavations overwhelmed Macedonia. The academic community was flooded with reports on excavations and new finds which were quickly filling the gap of decades of neglect and of the courageous but marginal efforts of the first pioneers. Suddenly, the centre of archaeological research shifted to the North and, for the first time, the finds of archaeologists acquired a prominent place in the popular press and the media. Vergina placed archaeology at the centre of public interest and attracted popular imagination by force. [3] State interest was soon to follow. Most of the research received state financial support on a scale largely unknown to archaeological matters, at least in this part of the country. In the opening address to the first meeting of the archaeologists working in Macedonia and Thrace (1987) the Minister of Macedonia and Thrace expressed the political argument very clearly:

I need not repeat that we will continue to support your work steadily, both morally and materially. We believe that beyond their value as a means of aesthetic and spiritual culture of our people... [your finds are] the most prestigious interpreter of the essence and the uniqueness of Greek history.... We need this historical function of art now more than in any other time in order to answer to the attempted, on an international scale, falsification of our history.
(my translation, Papathemelis 1987: xvi)
The results of this archaeological cosmogony are gathered in a series of bulky volumes published by the University of Thessaloniki and the Ministry of Culture. [4] The seven volumes that have appeared so far include 308 papers which represent the impressive outcome of approximately forty projects every year, covering the whole of Macedonia. They offer, therefore, an excellent panorama of the directions and goals of archaeological research which, for the first time since the annexation of Macedonia to the Greek state, operated within an environment of administrative attention that gave first priority to its needs. Although it is obvious that the administrative concern was not about archaeological research per se, but about arguments of historical nature, the positive outcome was a proliferation of research which gave the archaeologists a unique opportunity to advance their own objectives and purposes.

I will not reiterate here the well-known discussion concerning the political role of the discipline of archaeology (Fowler 1987; Gathercole and Lowenthal 1990; Miller et al. 1988; Trigger 1984; 1989; Ucko 1995). It is a general conclusion that archaeology, just like history and anthropology, is often endorsed, directly or indirectly, by political claims which in many instances have drawn arguments supporting their political narratives, although the degree of joint responsibility of archaeology and archaeologists can be contested. As Fowler (1987: 241) points out '[the] interpretations of the past... are seldom value neutral.' Note the word 'seldom', which implies the responsibility of the discipline.

In this light, it is interesting to examine the contents of these seven volumes in more detail. Of the papers published, 210 (68 per cent) discuss projects related to classical and roman antiquity, 51 (17 per cent) to prehistory and only a meagre 47 (15 per cent) to the Byzantine period. The marked variance between projects related to the classical period and those related to prehistory and the Byzantine period is striking. To some extent the preference is a predictable outcome of the attempt to counter the claims of nationalist historiography of the Macedonian republic. The challenge was historical in nature, and the answer had to rely on the appropriate 'facts'. The notion of an archaeology offering historical 'facts' rather than interpretations of the past is probably beyond the point, and will not be discussed here. Whatever the concepts defining archaeological practice, it is obvious that projects related to prehistoric periods would not be promoted in this context. Greek nationalism never had much use for prehistoric studies anyway, except for those cases where prehistory could somehow be related to the Greek world, either directly, as in the case of the Mycenaean civilization, or indirectly through Greek myths and legends, as in the case of Minoan civilization (Kotsakis 1991: 70 1). [5] However, the same argument is not directly relevant to the scarcity of projects dealing with the Byzantine period. Not only was the Byzantine past in an equal position to offer historical arguments, but it had also been a powerful model for the identity of Macedonia, inasmuch as classicism and the perception of a well-defined Hellenic past were, for a number of reasons, not easily applicable in the case of Macedonia, as we have seen.

To understand this ideological preference, one probably needs a deeper grasp of the perplexities of the social and historical conditions in which this narrative took place. The issue is vast, and I can only hope to raise few points here. It is well-documented that historians and archaeologists, among other intellectuals, create the symbolic capital which is used to construct a national culture, a fundamentally political process (Bourdieu 1977). In the particular case of Greece, this symbolic capital had two distinct parts already shaped in the nineteenth century: that which I will describe as 'extrovert', addressed primarily to an international audience, and that which by analogy could be termed 'introvert', mainly meant to reach a domestic or, more generally, a Greek-orthodox audience. I suggest that the 'extrovert' part of the symbolic capital was primarily concerned with the classical past, while the 'introvert' relied heavily upon the Byzantine heritage. This last was the basis of the Greek irredentism of the nineteenth century which became known as the 'Great Idea', introduced in 1844 by Koletis, and having as its main concern the reconstruction of the State in its original lands (Kofos 1997: 208 10; Koliopoulos 1997b: 165 7; Skopetea 1984). Moreover, the young Bavarian monarchy found in the Byzantine Empire a legitimisation of its own political authority (Skopetea 1984: 161 7).

In this sense, we can perhaps understand more clearly the emphasis on Byzantine monuments and culture which followed the annexation of Macedonia to the Greek state in the early twentieth century. It was primarily an instrument for national integration, and for the assimilation of the orthodox local populations living in the region, a basically domestic affair of extreme complexity. On the other hand, the recent dramatic shift to the classical past, the basic constituent of the 'extrovert' symbolic capital since the nineteenth century, was a reaction to a challenge which formed part of international politics, and consequently issued a response which was addressed to an international audience. If, following Gellner (1983: 89 95), nationalism is about identification with a high culture which covers the totality of a given population, than the imposition of classical Greek civilization as a central element of Macedonian identity should be understood accordingly.

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3. The famous star of Vergina, the symbol which the Macedonian state decided in 1992 to place on its new flag, had already been used extensively from the Greek side in many different circumstances, ranging from institutions like the Macedonian Press Agency, banks, public buildings and 100-drachma coins to trademarks of insurance companies, buses, taxi companies, even take-away shops. This secularisation may seem to run completely contrary to the strong feelings which drove the large rallies and demonstrations against the 'usurpation' of this 'national symbol' by foreigners. On the other hand, pace Bourdieu (1977), it may also reveal a familiarity, signifying complete appropriation and eventually complete authority on the symbol. On 18 February 1993 it became the national symbol of Greece. For similar phenomena in Greece, see Hamilakis and Yalouri (1996, esp. figs 1 and 2) and (Boulotis 1988).

4. To Arhaeologiko Ergo sti Makedonia kai Thraki (The Archaeological Work in Macedonia and Thrace) appears annually as the proceedings of an annual meeting held in Thessaloniki. Up to now it has published seven volumes covering the years 1987 93.

5. In this context the attempt to link the prehistoric past of Macedonia to the Mycenaean world is very significant (Andreou and Kotsakis 1992: 269 70, esp. n. 26; Andreou and Kotsakis n.d.).