BMCR 2016.01.13

Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives

, , , Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives. Atlanta: Lockwood Press, 2015. xii, 240. ISBN 9781937040222. $34.95.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This slim, attractive volume explores personal and professional aspects of the life of American archaeologist, Carl W. Blegen, a prehistorian who excavated in Greece and Turkey. It is the first to do so. Thus, the editors have rendered a service for those interested in Blegen and the history of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). The authors marshal evidence from primary sources: diaries, letters, excavation notebooks, and memoirs, in addition to coverage of archaeological discoveries in the popular press. Much archival material from the University of Cincinnati and the ASCSA, well-known to some, has now been published and is widely available. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

The ten essays collected here were delivered at a symposium dedicated to Blegen and held in Athens in 2013. As might be expected in such a work, there is a significant amount of repetition; even quotes are requoted. Still there is much new information. The editors stage the book as a “non-traditional biography” (jacket, pp.2-3), however, it remains a conference volume with all the concomitant redundancies. Certain ground remains unexplored while elsewhere furrows are repeatedly plowed.

Vogeikoff-Brogan treats Blegen as the hero of a bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel replete with loss (of, among other things, his right arm as a teenager in a hunting accident), journey, and flowering in his fourth decade. This “novel” approach requires more contextualization, and errors creep into her account of Blegen’s war work when he followed Benjamin Meritt as chief political analyst on Greece for the Foreign Nationalities Branch of the OSS in WW II (p.28). Though undiscussed, Blegen served in a similar capacity while Cultural Relations Attaché in Athens where his former student led the Athens Station or “US Economic Research Unit” and lived at Blegen’s house.1

Examining Blegen’s growth as an archaeologist and his impact on Corinth, Tzonou-Herbst mines Blegen’s excavation notebooks from 1911 to 1928 for his excavation techniques, stratigraphic concepts, and ceramic chronology. She focuses on his interactions with male colleagues, but omits mentioning women working there, such as Alice Walker. Before addressing his legacy, she verges on hagiography and ancestor-worship, invoking apotheosis and asking “How can we not heroize him?” (p.51).

French, daughter of English archaeologist A. J. B. Wace, contributes a uniquely intimate glimpse of the Wace-Blegen friendship in the 1930s. She eulogizes “Sherryfield”, the Wace homestead in Cambridge, so-named for quantities of sherry and Chesterfields consumed therein, and shares her father’s 60th birthday lunch in the Treasury of Atreus. Through personal experience and her family’s archive, French evokes the warm relationship of scholars united and separated by war.

Fappas examines Blegen’s personal and professional relationship with Wace through their correspondence and publications from 1921 to 1957. Together they developed the stratigraphically-based prehistoric Early, Middle, and Late Helladic ceramic sequence for mainland Greece. Unfortunately, they never published their major work, “Helladica,” a synthesis affectionately known as the “Great Bilge.” (pp. 77-78)

To address Blegen and Wace’s disagreements with Arthur Evans on a Minoan invasion of mainland Greece and the primacy of Minoan civilization, Galanakis plumbs the Evans Archive at the Ashmolean Museum. Despite the 1952 decipherment of Linear B tablets (the mortal blow to Evan’s theory), this debate continues with the 2015 discovery at Pylos of a sensational shaft grave predating the Mycenaean palace and full of culturally Minoan objects.2 Pounder tackles Blegen’s personal and professional relationship with former director of the ASCSA, Bert Hodge Hill, Elizabeth Pierce, and Ida Thallon. He regales his readers with the courtships, prenups, and marriages of their ménage à quatre, self-identified as the “quartet”. Though former ASCSA archivist Carol Zerner, first uncovered this relationship, Pounder is the first to publish it.3

Assembling photographs, watercolors, and correspondence from the ASCSA archives, Florou builds a biography of the “the Hills Blegens’” neo-classical residence at 9 Ploutarchou in Athens. She reconstructs its role in facilitating relations between Americans and Athenian bourgeoisie and situates the mansion’s interior decoration squarely within the cultural milieu of the Arts and Crafts movement in 1930s Greece.

Rose examines Blegen’s excavations at Troy and his own indebtedness to Blegen’s organization and methodology which bequeathed a solid stratigraphical foundation to subsequent excavators. He stresses continuities in approach between Blegen and the subsequent German-American excavations co-directed by himself and the late Manfred Korfmann without shying away from their differing chronological conclusions.

Discussing archaeologists’ exploitation of the popular press to publicize their ideas, Karadimas singles out Heinrich Schliemann, Arthur Evans, and Spyridon Marinatos as particularly adept and analyses Blegen’s use of the press (omitting his unusual access to the press during the Troy excavations). He acknowledges the modest coverage in the Greek press of Blegen’s announcement of the discovery of the palace on April 13, 1939 as due to Hitler’s birthday festivities (p. 179) whereas surely Mussolini’s invasion of Albania and King Zog’s abdication and flight to Greece less than a week after the beginning of the excavations better accounts for this. Karadimas concludes that press clippings yield a human history of the excavations.

Examining Blegen’s long-delayed excavations at Pylos from the point of conception in the 1920s to their inception in 1939, Davis reveals Blegen’s maneuverings to excavate in Greece independent of the ASCSA, then controlled by his opponent, Edward Capps, until 1931 when Cincinnati chose to excavate Troy instead. But after 1936, military restrictions prevented exploration beyond the site of Troy itself and, by 1937, shadows of war loomed. In 1938 Blegen corresponded with Konstantinos Kourouniotis about excavating Pylos, while Blegen’s department chair and benefactor, William Semple, suggested he consider the site of Gordion (unmentioned by Davis).4 As Davis shows, it was Capps’s retirement in 1939 that opened the way for Blegen to return to Greece and excavate Pylos which he began with his Greek colleague, setting a precedent for the first synergasia (p. 217).

The editors interviewed several individuals who knew the Blegens. To these, another may be added. In the twilight of his career, Blegen worked with Nicholas Yalouris, ephor of antiquities responsible for the museum at Pylos. Peter S. Allen, professor emeritus of anthropology at Rhode Island College who worked with both in 1965 (along with Vitelli and Jones [p.11]), recalls tension between Blegen and Yalouris. “Blegen resented Yalouris’ oversight of his work…setting up the museum… Blegen was very proprietary about the excavation and the objects….his stubbornness and single-mindedness brought him into conflict with Yalouris because they had differing interpretations of the site.”5

Davis asks “How exceptional was Blegen?” (p. 221) Certainly wriggling on his back in the dark through the constricted channels of the Peirene Fountain while pulling out weeds must have been nearly impossible for a one armed- archaeologist (p. 41). Yet nowhere does anyone discuss how Blegen compensated for his physical handicap, how it impacted his career, or the lengths to which it was kept quiet, much like Franklin Roosevelt’s disability.

Several authors remark on Blegen’s confidence and independence from the ASCSA. More could have been made of Blegen’s uninterrupted private revenue stream after marrying Elizabeth Pierce in 1924 which allowed him financial security independent of the ASCSA. Equally important was professional funding that flowed from Louise Taft Semple and the Classics Department at the University of Cincinnati after Blegen was hired to teach there in 1927. Moreover, through Semple’s cousin, publisher of the Cincinnati Times-Star, Blegen secured ready access to the press and a news room dedicated to the Troy excavations, assuring him a steady stream of publicity.

The editors aim at “historical contextualizing” within a “broad social and academic context” (p. 2). Yet this book provides a relatively ungendered narrative. The editors repeat Blegen’s describing field archaeology as a “fickle mistress…” in his 1965 Gold Medal acceptance speech without scrutinizing his sexualized language. (p.10) Blegen relied heavily on women throughout his professional life. Yet, beyond Marion Rawson, female colleagues are rarely mentioned, although Blegen’s first season at Corinth was also the first year women were allowed to dig there. The editors suggest that in 1915 every American archaeologist in Greece was digging at Classical Corinth (p.4), although American Alice Walker was already digging Neolithic material there.6 Pounder provides the exception, albeit treating Ida Thallon Hill’s and Elizabeth Pierce Blegen’s relationship more thoroughly than their scholarly achievements. (pp. 85-96)

In building up Blegen, the editors ignore contributions of certain of his forebears, in particular, the groundbreaking work of his precursor in Aegean prehistory, American archaeologist Harriet Boyd who engaged in philhellenic relief work, socialized with Greek high society, excavated independently from ASCSA jurisdiction, pioneered a regional approach, initiated co-ed digs, used the press deftly, and created the model for collaborative and prompt publication before Blegen set foot in Greece. The editors stress Blegen’s philhellenism, co-ed digs, independence from the ASCSA, collaboration with Greeks, and timely “interdisciplinary” publication (p.8). Yet all of these characterized the work of Harriet Boyd. Davis claims that “Blegen’s excavations paved the way for an American archaeology in Greece that was more collaborative than that of its predecessors.” (p.209) Karadimas suggests that “Until WWI, American archaeology in Greece focused on the excavation of Classical sites….Blegen turned American archaeology toward Greece’s prehistoric past.” (p.193) Yet the true pioneer in Aegean prehistory was Harriet Boyd; Blegen followed in her footsteps.

Perhaps Blegen’s greatest failure was his lack of objectivity regarding Hill; his role as Hill’s apologist is insufficiently examined here. Equally problematic is the volume’s rosy depiction of Hill the archaeologist, a man who directed excavations at the Erechtheum, Corinth, and Nemea and published little. After Hill’s forced departure from the directorship of the ASCSA, Blegen recommended Hill to the University of Pennsylvania to the detriment of the sites of Lapithos and Kourion, which he never published. The Cyprus Museum Committee threatened to cancel Hill’s excavation permit for not publishing.7 Echoing Blegen’s excuse of Hill’s abysmal record of publication because he was a “perfectionist” (p.96) seems irresponsible. Blegen’s prolific publication record may have constituted subconscious atonement.

Despite its many positive aspects, this volume is somewhat marred by chauvinism. The editors claim that “Carl William Blegen…, archaeologist and professor of Classics at the University of Cincinnati…., is arguably, after Heinrich Schliemann, the most famous foreign archaeologist ever to work in Greece.” (p.1) This premise is doubtful if not flawed. That honor should go to Arthur Evans, who remains the most enduring superstar after Schliemann and whose name still registers in the mind of the average person. Blegen was not in fact even the most famous American archaeologist, for that title would go to Schliemann, a naturalized US citizen when he excavated Mycenae, Tiryns, and Orchomenos. That being said, Blegen, the first archaeologist to be awarded the Archaeological Institute of America’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement, is undoubtedly the most respected American professional prehistoric archaeologist ever to work in Greece, and who left a legacy of excavations, publications, students, and their protégés.

Table of Contents

“On His Feet and Ready to Dig”: Carl William Blegen (Jack L. Davis and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan)
The Life of Carl W. Blegen from a Grass Roots Perspective (Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan)
From the Mud of Peirene to Mastering Stratigraphy: Carl Blegen in the Corinthia and Argolid (Ioulia Tzonou-Herbst)
The “Govs” of Mycenaean Archaeology: The Friendship and Collaboration of Carl W. Blegen and Alan J. B. Wace as Seen through Their Correspondence (Yannis Fappas)
The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair (Robert L. Pounder)
“Islanders vs. Mainlanders,” “The Mycenae Wars,” and Other Short Stories: An Archival Visit to an Old Debate (Yannis Galanakis)
The House at 9 Ploutarchou Street: A Grape Arbor and a Dense Shadow of Beautiful Meetings (Vasiliki Florou)
Και εἰς ἀνώτερα: The Govs in the 1930s (Elizabeth W. French)
Carl Blegen and Troy (Brian Rose)
“His Eyes Took on a Far Away Look When He Spoke of Pylos”: Carl Blegen and the Excavations at the Palace of Nestor as Seen in the Greek and Foreign Press (Nektarios Karadimas)
Blegen and the Palace of Nestor: What Took So Long? (Jack L. Davis)


1. S.H. Allen, 2011 Classical Spies: American Archaeologists with the OSS in World War II Greece. Ann Arbor: University Michigan Press. 236-7, 267-70, 276-9, 281-2.

2. “Grave of ‘Griffin Warrior’ at Pylos Could be a Gateway to Civilizations”, New York Times, October 26, 2015.

3. Zerner exhibited Blegen correspondence at the Gennadius Library exhibition connected with the international conference, “Wace and Blegen : pottery as evidence for trade in the Aegean Bronze Age, 1939-1989,” held at the ASCSA, December 2-3, 1989.

4. Semple to Blegen June 1, 1938 University of Cincinnati, University Archives.

5. Interview with S.H. Allen on May 6, 2015.

6. “Alice Leslie Walker (1885-1954)” by John C. Lavezzi.

7. J.F. Daniel to Hill January 17, 1935 and Hill to H. Jayne, University Museum Director, January 25, 1935, Penn Museum Archives.