BMCR 2007.02.41

Agora Excavations 1931-2006: A Pictorial History. With contributions by John McK. Camp II

, , , Agora excavations, 1931-2006 : a pictorial history. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2006. 128 pages : illustrations (some color), maps (some color), portraits (some color) ; 30 cm. ISBN 0876619103. $15.00.

The history of the Athenian Agora in the 20th century is inversely analogous to that of the surrounding city and its suffocating growth. Since 1931, generations of American archaeologists have painstakingly investigated the core of Ancient Athens and its adjacent residential areas. Already by the early fifties, excavations under the aegis of the American School of Classical Studies had removed an entire city quarter of some 360 residences in order to create an extensive open area of several acres that contained numerous important monuments of Athenian history. It was precisely at this moment that the surrounding city started falling victim to an orgy of uncontrolled urban development propelled by the combination of a demographic avalanche and the petty (albeit politically important) interests of a handful of developers. Both processes were the result of a systematic investment of large amounts of American money in Greece. The country, ravaged as it was in the wake of more than ten years of occupation and civil strife, got the lion’s share of what was provisioned under the Marshall Plan. At the same time, private American sponsorship had already invested heavily in an archaeological project of tremendous symbolic importance, especially for those who found themselves opposed to the ideological premises of the enemy across the iron curtain after the Second World War. In the end, it is a great irony that the destructive (by its nature) work of the archaeologists turned out to be much more constructive than the millions of dollars and the wrongly construed euphoria that contributed to the concrete urban monster that is contemporary Athens.

Considered from the vantage point of the early 21st century, the results of the Agora excavations are truly impressive in number, extent, detail, quality, and overarching significance. Equally prestigious is the record of publications of these results. Quite humbly, C. Mauzy’s book tucks this record only at the very end (pp. 120-21), with only a brief mention of the 400 articles that have been published in Hesperia since 1931. Perhaps it would have been proper to place this list, which also is worthy of celebration and introspection in the pages of this book, at the very beginning. Such a gesture would have been commensurate to the book’s stated purpose to celebrate “key events and notable people in the project’s history” (p. 4). Craig Mauzy (hereafter M.), Assistant Director of the Athenian Agora excavations and the project’s chief photograher, has pursued this goal drawing very carefully from the Agora Excavation’s rich archive of photos, slides, and other materials. In doing so, he has added one more important contribution to a relatively recent—and as yet unstable in form and pretensions—genre of book. One thinks, for example, of the exquisite publication by the École Française on the occasion of the centenary of excavations at Delphi (R. Etienne ed. L’espace grec: 150 ans de fouilles de l’École Française d’Athènes, Fayard: Paris 1996), or the equally competent Corinthian Scrapbook: One Hundred Years of American Excavations in Ancient Corinth by Elizabeth Langridge-Noti (Lycabettus Press, Athens 1996). In publications like these various doses of genuinely felt nostalgia and admiration, reverence and undisguised curiosity, marvel and documentary spirit, knowledge and humor, combine together in order to conjure up the conceit of an unstoppable, ever-lasting retina capturing the continuum of wondrous human action. The tone of the end result may be verging on the epic or, inversely, it may be replete with the coziness and understated warmth of a family scrapbook. It may be dry and unmediated by the aid of words, or it may include a feast of mind-boggling graphs, charts and the like. It may read like a self-congratulatory manifesto or an introspective scrutiny of res gestae. It may even aim to compensate for the unavoidable absence of the human element in the archaeological record, sites, and publications. The truth is that the genre to which M.’s book belongs has not yet formulated any constraining conventions. As a result, each contribution is bound to be conditioned by the nature and context of the project, the quality and quantity of the material at hand, the “micro-culture” of the historiated project, the aspirations of the publisher, the targeted audience, and the sensitivities and sensibilities of the author(s).

However this may be, this does not mean that this unstable genre (“scholarship or coffee-table?” “History” or “a history?”) should be taken lightly or dismissed with a condescending nod as “parergon” or poor relative of the established archaeological publication. This is so, if only because by its nature a pictorial or photographic “history,” like M.’s, tends to interests, stances, and attitudes that exceed those generated by the archaeological material alone. To name just a few, it is an index to the evolving nature of the photographic medium and its perceived power to “freeze” time or capture a record as close to reality as possible. As a source containing “sources,” it selects and makes manifest materials that, for various reasons, cannot be accommodated easily in other contexts. It is a contribution as much to various histories of archaeology as to the history of the environment (urban, physical, social) affected by the archaeological work. This list could be expanded infinitely but it is sufficient, I hope, to emphasize the importance of this at once introspective and retrospective genre of pictorial “history.” To this genre, M.’s book is a valuable contribution.

Aided by John McK. Camp II, Director of the Agora Excavations, M. made selections from a myriad of archival photographs and other documentary materials (M. refers to the staggering number of 300,000 images!). The end result is an economical arrangement that serves the set goals of the book without compromising the quality of illustration or the documentary value of the included materials. How does one condense the history of research as mental energy with the history of a site and of the people involved in its recovery? M. has organized his material around five thematic chapters that combine in varying degrees photographic materials with simple texts or captions. The quality of the photographs and other materials and their reproduction in print are to be lauded. It is a marvel that in this day and age of mega-pixilated digital miracles, one can have recourse to black-and-white large format photographs (18×24 cm glass negatives), which as M. himself emphasizes (p. 14), have captured a wealth of detailed information. Equally sparkling and fresh are the pictures in color, some of them dating back to the late ’40s (some of them undoubtedly from Kodakchrome slides but this is left unspecified in the book), which have been used generously throughout. Text and captions are lucid and informative. They often contain quotations from archival materials, such as letters or excavation records. In certain cases texts are formal documents (e.g. pp. 32-36, 94), which accompany illustrations more or less in the same way as they did when they were used originally to promote various projects at the Agora.

Chapter One (“The Agora and the Excavations”) provides essential background information about the site, its significance, its history of research, the basic processes of archaeological recording and practice, the necessary tools, the workmen, and the excavation house. The visual materials enable glimpses to otherwise inaccessible records. One has, for example, at her disposal a detailed reproduction of a catalogue card of a piece of sculpture (p. 19), which illustrates the original form of documentation of archaeological artifacts. The accompanying photographs (figs. 29-31) capture other phases of the recovery and visual documentation of the same piece of sculpture, so that one has an informative picture of essential aspects of archaeological methodology. Other visual materials record the transformation of a busy residential quarter of Athens to a fast expanding trench. As tranquil residences and neighborhoods gave way to the archaeologist’s axe, a rapid urban metamorphosis took place that resulted in the expansive archaeological park of the Athenian Agora. There is a lot of history here which is wonderfully told but there is also a lot only hinted at or untold and one is left desiring for more visual documentation of this rare phenomenon. The pre-excavation survey drawing of the house lots (fig. 13), paired with an aerial view of the main Agora area (fig. 11) tellingly suggests the effect of the Agora project on a good number of residents. What happened to these residents? Did they leave their houses happily? Was there any protest or were they content to relocate with a sufficient sum of expropriation? I do not know whether such records exist, and, if yes, to what extent they could have been usable in this book. However this may be, it is startling to see the unassuming but gleaming presence of the post-Byzantine church of Panagia Vlassarou looming over the actuality of archaeological work in Section E on July 1931, at 5 p.m (fig. 26, see also fig. 36 and the picture on the front cover). Today Vlassarou is forgotten along with numerous microcosms of a humble and quaint urbanity that also included the famous giants, formerly the “dragons of Vlassarou” in local parlance.

The second chapter duly narrows the focus on the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos (1953-56), according to a plan conceived and brought to completion by the supervising genius of Homer Thompson. The remains of the Hellenistic building had already been recovered by excavations conducted by the Greek Archaeological Society in the 19th century.1 The idea of reconstruction made possible an extensive study of the building from the foundations up. Further insights into the nature of the building as a conceptual and practical project were gained during construction. The reader is thus informed on all stages of the reconstruction with the textual sources telling the story in admirable concert with the photographic documentation of all phases of the construction. There are many surprises here for the interested reader, layman or specialist alike. The photographic lens takes us to the quarries of Mt Penteli or the Piraeus coast only to witness John Travlos and Homer Thompson scrutinizing veins of marble (fig. 83) or poros limestone aktitis lithos or supervising all stages of the extraction of stones that later on we see being chiselled into the familiar architectural forms of the Stoa’s orders (figs. 89-99). Here the selection of photos is sensitive and pays homage to the numerous workers of the marble-working shop of Theodoros Mastoris. The captioning is equally discriminating as to methods and insights gained during construction: “Air-driven tools were tried but the stone cutters preferred working the stone as their ancient predecessors had” (caption to fig. 98), or “An Ionic capital…took 45 work-days to complete. An Ionic column (base, shaft, and capital) was estimated to cost $700 for materials and labor” (caption to fig. 92). Further on, the documentation of the actual construction of the Stoa takes us to the grim area of reinforced concrete. The images here are all too familiar for those who, like the author of this review, witnessed the daily “concretization” of Athens in the ’60s and ’70s. One wonders whether far-reaching projects like the reconstruction of the Stoa had any effect on the total surrender of the city to Athenian contractors (ergolavoi) a few years after the completion of the Stoa. The chapter closes with a brief overview of the museum at the Stoa, which also functions as the main hub of all research operations related to the study, curation, and publication of the Athenian Agora finds.

The next chapter evolves around one of the most important landmarks in the history of the Agora excavations. Here concrete is also an inevitable protagonist but the focus of intervention is a medieval monument, the church of Holy Apostles “tou Solaki”, as it was locally known, the preservation and restoration of which was incorporated into the Agora project in the mid ’50s. This process enabled a thorough study of this live, functioning building, which resulted in a paradigmatic publication by Alison Frantz (Agora XX: The Church of the Holy Apostles) in 1971.2 The photographic coverage of the pre-history and history of this project is detailed and well-paced as it follows the progress of the work step-by-step. The chapter opens with a full set of plans and elevations by William B. Dinsmoor Jr (Architect of the Agora Excavations 1967-1988), and then goes on to historiate the partial dismantling, excavation at foundation level (inside and outside), consolidation, preservation, and partial reconstruction of the building. All these stages receive due attention whereas pride of place is offered to two meticulous watercolor reproductions of Byzantine frescoes (panels with Sts Spyridon and Antonios) by Piet de Jong.3 The originals were relocated from the Church of St. Spyridon, which was demolished in the ’30s, to the restored interior of the Holy Apostles.

All of us take the current landscape of the Agora for granted nowadays but in the 1940s and ’50s the site looked bleak and skeletal. Up until now, the focus of M.’s book has been on structures and artifacts, discovery and reconstruction. In contrast to this, the fourth chapter surveys the conception and implementation of an original, thoughtful and wide-ranging program of converting the Agora from an incoherent and mostly two-dimensional assortment of ruins to a lush and welcoming parkland. “This is a pioneer undertaking” states Ralph E. Griswold, the landscape architect in charge, in the Preliminary Report for the Landscape Development of the Agora, which is quoted extensively and duly so (p. 94). His careful research and design resulted in a variegated landscape of planes, poplars, oaks, judas trees, strawberry trees, wild olives, pomegranates, almond trees, cypresses, germandes, rosemaries, myrtles, oleanders, tree heathers, acanthus, lentisk, mock orange, and yellow jasmines. Seasonal wildflowers and all kinds of bushes complete this refreshing picture with the Hephaisteion garden having come to life with a myrtle hedge and pomegranate bushes. Here the visual materials cleverly illustrate not only the floral development of the Agora but also the landscape architect’s methods of working. Vertical triptychs have been arranged juxtaposing post-excavation views of the Agora (figs. 206, 209, 212, 215) with Griswold’s research in the form of watercolor paintings superimposed on these very same views (figs. 207, 210, 213, 216), and the same views once again documenting the actual state of the Agora as recently as April 2006 (figs. 214, 217, 214, 217). This method of illustration is as didactic as it is inspirational, especially if one takes into account the increasing (but not universal) awareness of excavators regarding the insights offered by the systematic application of methods such as archaeobotany and palaeoethnobotany. There is a lot to be learned from the Agora experience regarding the environmental configuration of archaeological sites or parks and this volume makes a straightforward point of this.

M.’s photographic essay is rounded up with two appendixes: one is a portrait gallery of protagonists, especially those of the “First Generation” of archaeologists (pp. 110-119, figs. 240-265), who are thus aptly commemorated for their lifetime contributions and achievements. There are numerous shots of workmen and crews, including one of “jack of all trades” Spyros Spyropoulos with an impressive, injured owl, which looks as if it has materialized out of a Classical Athenian coin. The second appendix includes a bibliographical list whereas an extensive list of names of individuals (staff, student volunteers, interns etc) and supporting academic institutions pays appropriate tribute to participants and brings closure to the volume. It is at this closing moment that one wishes that the volume had included aspects of the more recent work north of Adrianou St. and perhaps some hints about the future of research at the Agora or the site’s role as a critical juncture in the recently implemented integration of archaeological sites from the Panathenaic stadium all the way to the Kerameikos. Moreover, at this point a list of credits for the pictures (where possible) of the book would have been useful. Staff photographers, such as Hermann Wagner, Alison Frantz, Jim Heyle, Eugene Vanderpool Jr., Robert Vincent Jr., are mentioned in the preface. Others, such as T. Leslie Shear (referred to as “an accomplished photographer” in the caption to fig. 29), occur in the narrative. Therefore, it would have been appropriate, if the readers had been given some clues as to each photographer’s individual authorship or style.

Agora Excavations 1931-2006: A Pictorial History is bound to become an indispensable source when it comes to teaching and studying the Athenian Agora and the surrounding city of Athens. It has been very carefully conceptualized, researched, and produced. Its principal value, to my view, lies not only in its documentary function but also in its role as an index to the practice of archaeology and to the difficult role of conciliating past and present in a continuously changing context.4


1. The excavations were conducted in the early 1860s by Stephanos Koumanoudes, who also discovered Attalos’ dedicatory inscription in 1862.

2. This volume still enjoys the privilege of being the only fully-fledged monographic book on an Athenian church of the Byzantine period.

3. Piet de Jong’s work and contributions to Greek Archaeology form the subject of a current exhibit and publication by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

4. The book is also published in modern Greek (ISBN 960-7067-03-7).