BMCR 2004.02.14

Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscapes, Monuments, and Memories. The W.B. Stanford Memorial Lectures

, Archaeologies of the Greek past : landscape, monuments, and memories. W.B. Stanford memorial lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xiv, 222 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0521813557. $60.00.

Archaeologies of the Greek Past by Susan E. Alcock (hereafter A) is a stimulating, even evangelistic, critical exploration of the “spirit of place” (to borrow from Lawrence Durrell1) as perceived in, and treasured by, human memory. Her examples are from Greece before and under Roman rule; but this important book, whose open-minded approach eschews glib labels and thus gives plenty of space for the imaginative interpretations essential to the theme, is relevant for cultural and political history (including its prehistory subgroup) anywhere and at any time. Whether Ireland, Iraq or Palestine/Israel, or the Stone of Scone, the Parthenon Marbles or the bridge at Mostar, or encasing the Shaft Graves in a special circle inside the citadel wall at Mycenae, the memorial power of places, landscapes and monuments is indisputable, as is the way that perceptions of them affect lives and politics.

This is the rich theme that A explores, primarily through archaeological evidence. She also uses classical texts and some ethnographic comparanda, as well as modern memory theory; but probably her most powerful tool is her sensitivity, apparent throughout the book, to the land — any land — wherever it may be, and its modifications in the built environment, and equally to the diverse ways that people view and value landscape and buildings over long periods of time. Here lies the special importance of her book for all the rest of us as we try to explain archaeological phenomena, and hope to discern memory — and memory management/manipulation — as vital causes in human behaviour. It is not easy, but A gives excellent pointers to possible ways of perception. Wherever she can, she rejects fixation on reductive explanations — single-minded determinist views that this way or that way is how the people of Messenia had to behave, for instance. Why? Because it is simplistic just to think of ‘the Messenians’, rather than of the groups that made up the Messenians and can still (just) be identified archaeologically and historically. Instead, she stresses hybridity, the ever-present variable mix of attitudes and perceptions. It is a concept as important for 21st century AD political debate as for explaining, say, the emergence of the so-called Minoan “palaces” around the 21st century BC.

Fittingly for the topic, A’s book began as memorial lectures, for W. B. Stanford (at Trinity College, Dublin), who had a good sense of the power of place in understanding Homer (although A does not cite anything by him), and for Ian Sanders (at Sheffield), a pioneer of modern studies of Roman and Hellenistic Crete (who is cited). I found it easy, when reading the first chapter on “Archaeologies of memory”, to imagine the original lecture, with its entertaining and instructive parade of vignettes and parallels: including the 19th century stripping of the Acropolis to retrieve the original purity of that holy rock; the problem of where Emmaus was; or male amnesia in Kalymnos about the women’s violent demonstrations against the Italians in 1935. It is a sound introduction, stressing the importance of the physical setting which may work with, or equally against, the frequent mobility of memory, and the need always to ask what people chose to remember or to forget, and why.

A then takes three case studies — the Roman province of Achaia (Greece), Hellenistic and Roman Crete (but including some Minoan bequests), and Messenia — in the next three chapters, and rounds her quest off in a short fifth chapter of conclusions. The long second chapter on “Old Greece within the empire” reviews, archaeologically, how the Romans exploited the past and the monuments of that venerable country — home, however, also of the Graeculi — that they found themselves ruling. It was an ambivalent encounter, as their transplanting three old temples from Attica into the Athenian Agora reveals. This could be seen as respect for the glorious inheritance of Athens, in effect by memorialising the Agora to integrate the classical past into the new order, and introducing that view to a large number of people. On the other hand, the more bolshie among them must have seen this as an act of ruthless civil engineering — to which dictatorial regimes are often prone — that reflected the changed realities of political power and the subordination of the old poleis to the emperor — quite apart from being a slap in the face to the demes that had lost their temples, the foci of their own, local memory lanes. In this and other processes (e.g., at Ephesus or the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias) of creating new contexts and new displays of the Hellenic past, A detects hybridity in the Romans’ skilful brand management: ‘something novel was created that lay between the domains of “Greek” and “Roman”‘ (96). This is a helpful approach, not least for prehistorians in trying to explain such phenomena as the erection of a monumental tumulus in Early Helladic III over the remains of the equally monumental House of the Tiles of Early Helladic II at Lerna in the Argolid.

The Cretan chapter starts with a somewhat harsh critique of John Pendlebury (99-100), whose remarks in The Archaeology of Crete on the prosperity of Roman Crete as being comparable to that of Late Minoan I2 are not so off-beam as A might suggest. If one thinks in terms of the inhabitation of the low country that is vulnerable to attack, three periods only stand out in general in the long history of Crete — LM I, Roman and the 20th century (running into the 21st) — although there are of course occasional instances at other times of such inhabitation. There follows a succinct review of Crete’s Hellenistic territorial squabbles (which various frontier shrines document), and the resulting decline in the number of independent poleis. This leads to a fascinating discussion of the memory-treatment of places, especially shrines and cemeteries, in Hellenistic and Roman times.

The task of reclaiming the past for the present could mean, for instance, inserting Hellenistic graves into Bronze Age and Early Iron Age cemeteries. Or, in the Roman era, it could involve re-asserting links with the old Crete of Minos, Meriones, Idomeneus and Zeus, through re -dedicating older votives in the Idaian Cave sanctuary, or emphasising the sanctuary of Zeus’s mother Rhea at Knossos. This probably lay over the ruins of the Minoan palace, while on the next hill to the south were remnants of a Late Minoan ashlar building at the sanctuary of her daughter Demeter. (Add to A’s references Nicolas Coldstream’s comprehensive article,3 which is highly relevant for her discussion of Knossos and enlarges the picture.)

As for the renewed attention to Myrtos-Pyrgos (111-12), where a Hellenistic shrine of Hermes and Aphrodite was built on the summit over parts of the grand Late Minoan I country house, it is worth considering whether this shrine, if small and “rural”, might not have had some frontier function as well as being a way both to reclaim the past and to link Pyrgos to the long-lived shrine of these deities at Symi, in the mountains above the old main route from Ierapytna and eastern Crete to Knossos and the Mesara. This route comes down off the Lasithi Mountains at Myrtos to cross the Myrtos river and run eastwards through the foothills towards Ierapytna, while the large Myrtos valley is both a natural land division (as it was in Venetian times for the province of Siteia, staying so until the last [20th century] redrawing of the boundaries of local government) and an important route up into the Lasithi Mountains. It is not difficult to see the Minoan house as placed there partly to control these routes, while its Hellenistic shrine successor could equally have marked the western frontier of the territory of Ierapytna. (For the phenomenon of reclaiming Bronze Age buildings for cult use centuries later, Cyprus has interesting parallels.4)

The chapter on Messenia is perspicacious, reflecting A’s deep and empathetic knowledge of the province and, clearly, hours and hours of trying to make flexible sense of the archaeological and historical data. She highlights the differences both between “Spartan” Messenia and liberated, post-Epaminondas Messenia and between the different groups of Messenians, and diaspora Messenians, to emphasise that there is never any comprehensive explanation, but always diversity — which may be as hard to discern in ancient writers’ use of “the Messenians” as in modern writers’ use of “the Minoans”. Note here too how tomb cult took off after liberation, transforming the ritual landscape, and inserting new tombs in the old (Bronze Age) cemeteries, and the strong cult/propaganda element in the creation of Messene.

The final chapter sums up A’s stories of Roman memory management, Crete’s links with its Minoan past (which in this context may be the past of its Bronze Age, or the past of its myths, or quite possibly a past that amalgamated both), and the successful way that the bad memories of Spartan enslavement could be dropped in the new Messenia.

A writes with confidence and authority to suggest new and diverse ways to approach what was surely an important part of the ancient world. I enjoyed the book, if regretting the space she gives to long quotations from modern authors: the sceptical will always wonder whether a paraphrase would not be better, and find it hard to believe that the long excerpt is really so golden. The CUP has produced an attractive book, which, despite its having been printed and published in England, is resolutely American in its English and its orthography. The reviewer regretted not seeing a word of Greek in the text: even the citations have been transliterated, and the (often long) quotations are in translation. But that may reflect his sentimental (?) memoryscape.5


1. L. Durrell, Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel, A. G. Thomas, ed., New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971.

2. J. D. S. Pendlebury, The Archaeology of Crete: an Introduction, London: Methuen, 1939, p. 365.

3. J. N. Coldstream, Evans’s Greek finds: the early Greek town of Knossos, and its encroachment on the borders of the Minoan palace, Annual of the British School at Athens 95, 2000, 259-99. See also, as a counterpoint at the other end of the long life of palatial Knossos: P. M. Day and D. E. Wilson, Landscapes of memory, craft and power in Prepalatial and Protopalatial Knossos, in Y. Hamilakis, ed., Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking ‘Minoan’ Archaeology, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2002, 143-66.

4. For instance, G. Cadogan, Maroni, in V. Karageorghis, ed., Archaeology in Cyprus 1960-1985, Nicosia: A. G. Leventis Foundation, 1985, 195-97; J. du Plat Taylor, Myrtou-Pigadhes: a Late Bronze Age Sanctuary in Cyprus, Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1957; S. M. S. Al-Radi, Phlamoudhi Vounari: a Sanctuary Site in Cyprus, Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology 65, Göteborg: P. Aström, 1983.

5. I apologise for the delay over the review, while noting that the book was in fact published in February 2003.