BMCR 1997.10.13

1997.10.13, Down from Olympus. Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970

, Down from Olympus : archaeology and philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. xxiv, 400 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780691043937 $39.50.

Suzanne Marchand’s history of German philhellenism and archaeology appears at a time when the precarious position of classical studies stands in peculiar contrast to the commercial success of Hercules in film and television. The current situation, involving as it does some similar tensions between academic and popular culture, invites comparison with the German case analyzed here. In ten rich chapters, Marchand surveys the “rise and fall” (xviii) of German philhellenism from Winckelmann through the emergence in our own time of a new consensus of the mission of archaeology in which the classical tradition no longer claims dominance.

The introduction sets out the aims of the volume and its basic arguments. Marchand, a specialist in German intellectual history (x), has chosen to approach “[p]hilhellenism as an institutionally generated and preserved cultural trope, rather than as a personal passion” (xix). Her project combines social, intellectual, and institutional history in an attempt to expose the nature and impact of “the elitist culture of academic neoclassicism” (xix).

The first four chapters cover Winckelmann’s career, the cosmopolitan philhellenism of the Romantic generation, their patronage and promotion of the organized pursuit of archaeological activities, the rise through the nineteenth century of highly specialized professional scholarship undertaken within the structure of state-sponsored institutions, the internal conflicts within this academic juggernaut, and the growth of competitive museums, universities, and learned societies. Chapters 5 and 6 treat the development of German prehistory and Near Eastern studies, troubled and troubling partners to the classical establishment. The pressures placed on the institutions by World War I, the social changes during the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Hitler are treated in chapters 7 through 9. The final chapter carries the story of German archaeology through the postwar era up to the early 1970s. The emphasis throughout is not on the internal intellectual development of the field but instead on the social, cultural, and institutional terrain that determined its form and content.

Marchand’s deliberately tight focus on German practice is sensible; given its unquestionable dominance in setting agendas and standards for the discipline as a whole, the German enterprise is a sufficiently large task. The author does, however, indicate significant points of intersection of the German Sonderweg with the paths of other national traditions, notably the cosmopolitan antiquarianism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and later imperialist rivalries.

While the overall frame of Marchand’s study is thus intentionally narrow, her approach is exactly the opposite, and the range of subjects and material she brings to bear on the project of explaining the social context of the German phenomenon is immense. The positive results of locating archaeology within a wide picture of social activities and structures are clear. For example, her discussion of Gustaf Kossinna’s racially based prehistory (180-187) is far more enlightening than that offered by Bruce Trigger ( A History of Archaeological Thought, Cambridge 1989, 163-167), drawing as it does on a different body of research. Indeed, one of the most stimulating features of Marchand’s book is the range of references beyond the familiar archaeological bibliography.

Marchand approaches the discipline from the outside, a perspective that puts familiar materials in a new light. She has drawn on the various genres of self-representation arising from within the field, such as biographies, disciplinary histories, and institutional histories intended primarily for a “family” audience. Especially valuable are the extensive archival materials she presents. These documents, ranging from memoranda detailing the machinations of cunning museum officials to private letters of scholars mourning the catastrophes of war, supply the How that illuminates the What of intellectual history.

The volume is clearly written and carefully produced. There are some minor slips: Eliza Marian Butler is neither Eliza May (xviii) nor Edith May (379); Winckelmann is called a “Saxon pauper” (7) and “Saxon aesthete” (43), although he was born of a Silesian father and a Prussian mother in Stendal in the Altmark, under Prussian rule, an area not reconstituted as the “Provinz Sachsen” until 1816; Hiller’s excavation, beginning in 1895, of the Cycladic island of Thera, which became part of independent Greece in 1821, is misplaced in a discussion of German projects in Asia Minor (193). The book is well designed and easy to consult; the footnotes are at the bottom of the page, which makes the rich documentation accessible. The illustrations are well chosen, and I would wish only that they were more fully identified to facilitate further study.

Marchand’s account of German philhellenism is explicitly a story of rise and fall (xviii), and there is much to justify such a view, certainly in terms of prestige, and even, for some eras, of intellectual value. The trajectory she traces is not unfamiliar to scholars in these disciplines. Many who have wrestled with German scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been struck by the contrast between the eager, almost recklessly adventurous investigations of the earlier generations and the often deadly later works and have recognized the rise of a comprehensively oppressive institutional system as the primary cause of the Wende of furor to torpor teutonicus. Marchand may underestimate the extent to which the field has been able to look objectively at its own situation. For example, Kurt Bittel, director of the DAI from 1960 to 1972, published in 1980 a brief article, “The German Perspective and the German Archaeological Institute” ( American Journal of Archaeology 84, 1980, 271-277), in which he addresses many of the essential points: Romantic humanism and its institutions, the deformation of the humanist-classicist project by nationalism, the growth of large-scale excavation (including the instructive comparison of Schliemann’s Troy to Curtius’ Olympia), the uneasy relationship of classical archaeology to prehistory and anthropology, the secondary position of the study of Europe and Western Asia, the malign effects of chauvinism and ideology, and the rise of a more inclusive vision of archaeology. Bittel’s essay could have been cited as a case in which the view of the field in the mirror is not much different from the view from outside; it certainly suggests that the discipline will be receptive to the kind of institutional study in depth that Marchand offers.

Inevitably, there are dangers in attempting a synthetic view of a field that one does not know from the inside, and not every specialist will agree completely with every aspect of Marchand’s analysis. For example, while she rightly emphasizes the importance of the methodological debates over the relative importance of texts and monuments as the basis for understanding Greek art, she accepts (as do others) the claims of Brunn and Furtwaengler to have shifted analysis away from literary sources and toward the direct observation of the monuments (110; 144-146). In practice, however, the ancient texts continued (and do so to this day) to determine how the works were perceived, described, and interpreted. There is no way for anyone who has not worked through specific problems in any given field of scholarship to avoid such pitfalls, and in the case of such a highly synthetic work, the most important question is the value of the overall picture, which can be supplemented as needed. For example, in discussing the foundation in the 1820s of the Hyperboreisch-römische Gesellschaft, Marchand says only: “Apparently, these German dilettanti were particularly intrigued by ancient cults of Apollo, and thus took on the title in honor of the mythical northern Hyperboreans among whom Apollo supposedly dwelled during the winter” (54). The emphasis should rather be on their strong self-identification with the Hyperboreans; to this day, the symbol of the DAI is the griffin of the Hyperborean myths, recalling a vignette designed for the society by Stackelberg in 1825 (E. Spitzbart-Maier, “Joseph Berckmueller: Apoll und die Hyperboreer,”Architectura 22, 1992, 193-211). The location of the Hyperborean homeland was much disputed. As early as 1824, F. G. Welcker had become interested in linking the ancient amber route from the Baltic (where archaeological evidence for Greek contact was beginning to emerge) with certain classical myths, among which he cited a “Celtic” story related by Apollonius (4.611) in which Apollo, while among the Hyperboreans, wept amber ( Die Aeschylische Trilogie, Darmstadt, 1824, 567 n. 879); he subsequently argued that the story of the Hyperborean gifts had its basis in the trade of Baltic amber from the Samland peninsula in East Prussia ( Griechische Götterlehre II, Göttingen, 1859, 353-357).

The subject of Hyperborean/Prussian amber serves to illustrate (all too well) the peculiar concerns of German archaeological Wissenschaft and its continuing influence. One of the major achievements of Marchand’s book is to force some basic questions to the foreground. Is archaeology after all only an artifact of the German search for identity? Was interest in the classical world sustained only, as in England, by corporal punishment, or, as in Germany, through the tyranny and chicanery of Kafkaesque institutions? Can the discipline hope to escape intellectual and moral bankruptcy, or is it unavoidably compromised by expedience? Recent studies and critiques of collecting and museums have underlined the abuses that arise from what Marchand neatly calls “proceeding from words to things” (192); it was the demand for acquisition that drew archaeology into the corruptions of imperialism, and it is ever clearer that our handsare not yet clean.

Marchand has given us a detailed and valuable study that will promote discussion among archaeologists and open channels to historians outside the field. One of the most difficult questions facing us is how to come to terms with the history of the discipline. In Marchand’s account of rise and decline, the negative aspects of the fully developed professionalization and institutionalization of the classical are also extended to intellectual content; the happy days of the Hyperboreans are frequently contrasted to the deadly reign of the specialist. This criticism is in line with other other current condemnations of positivist scholarship. Yet any sustained attempt to work with the body of older scholarship is likely to make it clear that there are advantages in having a usable documentary basis for classical studies. It is easy to ridicule the focus on collecting, organizing, and publishing the surviving texts and objects, but without the fundamental tools provided by those studies, what kind of scholarship would be possible today? As we attempt to free ourselves from the intellectual limitations of the positivist legacy, we need also to ask how many of us would really care to dispense with it entirely.