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


In November 1977, in a packed auditorium at the University of Thessaloniki, the most spectacular archaeological find of the last decades was presented to the thrilled audience. Few of us realised at that time that the rich results of the excavations of the Great Tumulus at Vergina had opened a complete new chapter in Macedonia, and that this find would affect, directly or indirectly, the fate of all subsequent archaeology in this part of Greece. Still fewer, however, had imagined that these unlooted graves connected with King Philip II would bring to the fore aspects of the political use of the past, and be the focus of conflicting claims and interpretations on an international scale which would oblige the excavators, and the rest of archaeologists working in Macedonia for that matter, to defend the prerogative to consider their archaeological work as part of their cultural heritage.

In a sense, however, superficial similarities to the task of the nineteenth century, albeit only in form, did exist. According to the nationalist historiography of the new Macedonian state, which appeared as part of Yugoslavia in 1945 and as an independent state in 1991, the association between ancient Greeks and ancient Macedonians was a post hoc fabrication (Borza 1982; Danforth 1995: 167, esp. n. 22; Kofos 1994). During this process of conflicting interests and uses of the past latent characteristics of Greek archaeology emerged, which had so far remained in the background. However, whether perceived or not, they were not novel, but already existing even from the nineteenth century when archaeology was called to construct the images of the Hellenic past of the Greek state (Kokkou 1977; Petrakos 1987; Skopetea 1984). At that time, the international acceptance of this political construction, and the general ideological background of nineteenth-century romanticism, had helped to diminish the contradictions which this process entailed. Still, at the end of the twentieth century, in a multicultural political landscape of rapid political transformations on the one hand, and the emergence of new nations and states on the other, the situation was less favourable for the presentation of powerful collective myths, similar to those which had inspired the romantic passions of the last century.

In a sense, superficial similarities in form did exist. Once again, Greek scholars felt they had to deal with questions of ethnicity as they had done in the nineteenth century when Fallmereyer had challenged the continuity of Greek history (Skopetea 1997; Veloudis 1982). Equally, the relative eclipse of interest in the obscure Middle Ages was a well-described trait of that period (Dimaras 1985: 398W00) which was repeated now, in the case of Macedonia. But more than anything else, it was the thrust of collective memory into an arena of national political struggle that brought to the surface the character of this archaeological confrontation.

It would be native to underestimate the power of all nationalisms to direct the formation of collective memories, and to embody historical continuity (Miller 1995), be it part of a distinct homogeneous culture (Gellner 1983; 1987), or a 'necessary consequence of novelty... the expression of a radically changed form of consciousness' (Anderson 1991: xiv). From this point of view, the Greek experience is not different from similar cases described in various parts of the world and probably has no special interest as a historically documented process. What is perhaps different, is the particular place that Greek identity held for an international audience which consequently challenged the limits of self-ascription against the ascription by others, as perceived by Barth (1969). Over this ideological tension, of which archaeology forms an integral part, the limits of our understanding of the discipline and of its role in a modern world are tried.

[Back to Index]