BMCR 2024.04.06

Reclaiming the past: Argos and its archaeological heritage in the modern era

, Reclaiming the past: Argos and its archaeological heritage in the modern era. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021. Pp. 261. ISBN 9781501760532.



Offering a carefully researched history of Argos and its “archaeological heritage in the Modern Era,” Reclaiming the Past delivers the kind of sophisticated and theoretically aware treatment for which Jonathan Hall is well known. Through a comprehensive portrait of a modern community coming to terms with what has become of its past, this book negotiates uneasy tensions between living up to the Arcadian dreams of Classical bibliophiles and local aspiration. Even though Hall is neither a contemporary historian nor a sociologist—he claims no competence in the methods of ethnography, survey questionnaires, or field research—BMCR readers may rest assured that he has put in the work (in the archives and on the streets), learning about the shifting tensions concerning the Argive material past, and struggling for a multivalent accounting of the town’s heritage. Throughout, Hall displays a deep sensitivity to the issue of voice, and because he takes quite seriously perspectives from both inside and outside, readers witness epichoric, Argive observations concerning their own heritage—something all too rarely encountered in English. And if such intellectual fruits were not enough, then we may note how the book is superbly packaged as an attractive volume, down to the selective varnish over the cover image of John Fulleylove’s watercolor and gouache of Argos and the Larissa (undated), which gives the book jacket the shimmer of marble.[1]

Reclaiming the Past takes form in two parts sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion. Addressing issues that stem from the variable meanings of objects deemed heritage, the introduction asks a fraught question that provides the subtext for the chapter: “Who Owns the Past?” Hall opens with an historical controversy from the 1970s and 1980s concerning the old Kapodistrian barracks—should they be kept or cleared away? This example serves as an illustration of what Hall holds to be the core issues of the book:

the often irresolvable tension between conservation and development; the clash between perspectives focused on the past and those oriented toward the future; the potential symbolic—and sometimes economic—capital that accrues to physical remnants of the past; and the involvement of outsiders and foreigners who undeniably demonstrate a commitment to the past, but often to a past that is quite different from that envisioned by local residents (p. 6).

Hall, given such concerns, appropriately raises a question: how does one approach a town like Argos? Should it be considered as an urban palimpsest, in the way of Gérard Genette or Maridina Kardarakou?[2] Or, as a heterotopia, in the way of Michel Foucault?[3] Both notions, Hall suggests, have their advantages and drawbacks. Hall’s book, by contrast, aims for an account of “the differential way in which the town’s physical vestiges and archaeological heritage were experienced by locals, nonepichoric Greeks, and foreigners” (15). From here, readers will encounter a changing heterochronic Argos configured along the armature of narrative history.

Following a more or less linear trajectory from antiquity to the Greek Revolution, Part One is ordered into three chapters. The first, in summarizing the deep pasts of Argos, draws its title from the subtext of the well-known book Argos: Une ville grecque de 6000 ans (1996).[4] When Marcel Piérart and Gilles Touchais wrote, they were inclined to contrast Argos’s preeminence in myth with its mediocrity in history as “une ville d’importance moyenne.” Hall, however, is content to emphasize the town’s fabled antiquity; its standing as a regional center in the Middle Helladic; its heyday in the eighth century; its struggles with Sparta; its presidency over the Nemean games; its affluence when Pausanias visited. Deterritorialized by Christianity and population displacements, ravaged by invasions, earthquakes, and pandemic, ancient Argos may fall from greatness, but its storied past still retains much of its potency. Here, readers gain a sense of what may be reclaimed, and find affirmation of why they should care to read on. Chapter 2, “The Rediscovery of Argos,” moves through the litany of North European travelers and antiquarians seeking to connect what was described in ancient texts with what remained on the ground. Encumbered by expectations conceived in distant libraries, the extant ruins often elicited profound disappointment for foreign visitors. Given the centrality of Pausanias’s Description of Greece as a guide, the chapter rounds to a discussion of the work, its author, and its Argos. Chapter 3, “Devastation and Reconstruction,” recounts events in and around Argos during the Greek War of Independence, turning from Turkish aggression to internal factionalism to the rise of Kapodistrias as governor. In the wake of Kapodistrias’s assassination, Argos entered a low point with civil war on the streets of Argos and the Market Square Massacre of 1833, when more than 250 Argive residents were slaughtered by French troops stationed in the town. Drawing upon various travel accounts from the 1830s, Hall leads readers building by building through the remaking of an Argos that had been left in ruin.

One of the great contributions of Reclaiming the Past is its balanced attention to insider and outsider perspectives (outsiders, we should note, included Greeks of non-Argive origin). Hall may be frustrated by the disappearance of municipal records from the early nineteenth century, or the paucity of historical detail concerning local associations with objects suggestive of Argive antiquity, but he forges on by reading “against the grain” Western accounts—some of the most inadequate sources for ethnology—as we all must do. With an eye to what Northern European travelers wrote concerning local perspectives, Hall attempts to reconstruct epichoric discourse using the observations of observers who in true asymmetrical fashion tended to elude counter-observation themselves. Where local knowledge was largely mediated by corporal proximity and naively given correlations, knowledge at a distance was conditioned by ancient texts and the Classical imagination. These concerns develop around the reuse of the Hellenistic theater in accommodating the fourth of the proto-parliamentary national assemblies (July-August 1829) charged with drafting the constitutions and forming the government for a newly liberated Greece and the local circulation of the legend of Telesilla during the Greek War of Independence. A relief sculpture incorporated into the entrance of the house belonging to the Argive captain Dimitrios Tsokris offers an image interpreted by foreigners and possibly locals as the protectress poetess of Argive legend, and constitutes what Hall takes to be one of the “earliest mediating elements between the material and nonmaterial worlds” (p. 92). Chapter 3 concludes with how urban plans drawn up under Kapodistrias for the modernization of Argos, but never implemented, largely ignore ancient remains thereby suggesting the secondary importance of cultural heritage for Kapodistrias, who was focused on reconstruction.[5]

Part Two, “Reclaiming the Past,” explores diverse relations with the Argive past in two chapters: “Safeguarding Heritage” and “A New Age of Archaeological Heritage.” Plotting a course through the late nineteenth century, Chapter 4 delves into travelers’ descriptions to paint a picture of an expanding Argos under Otto and George and a new attitude towards Argos’s archaeological heritage and history. Sections dealing with the curation of antiquities with the earliest museums in modern Argos and Argive perspectives on Schliemann’s excavations at Tiryns published in the newspaper Danaos make for fascinating reads. Hall introduces us to local champions of the Argive past, including Ioannis Kofiniotis, the author of A History of Argos, followed by a discussion of Argive societies signaling the rise of a local intelligentsia. It was Kofiniotis who in melding the birthplace of Christianity with that of Hellenism referred to Argos as the “Bethlehem of Hellas,” the original working title for Reclaiming the Past. This title may have drawn fewer readers, but it is truer to the spirit of the book, which reveals a national, sacralization of antiquity through the fusion of Hellenic and Romaic models of antiquity. Where the former monumentalized Classical Antiquity as the grounds for Greek nationalism, the latter recognized the heterogeneous populations of modern Greece “as the inheritors of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and as co-nationals with all those who professed the Orthodox religion” (p. 126).

Entering the twentieth century with the arrival of (Carl) Wilhelm Vollgraff, Chapter 5 chronicles the Dutch archaeologist’s seven field campaigns (between 1902 and 1930). Revisiting Vollgraff’s journals, Hall details the workings of archaeology and its diverse and heterogeneous linkages: from the soils covering the Larisa, Aspis, and agora to Pausanias, financial backers, and the École Française d’Athènes to local laborers, landowners, and officials followed by war, political factionalism, and economic recession. Hall also riffles through the pages of Argive newspapers for articles offering local perspectives on Vollgraff’s excavations and reckons with his legacy in the study of Argive history and archaeology.

The conclusion, “preservation or progress?” charts the explosive growth and transformation of the town from WWII to the present. Unrelenting development spurred by the influx of refugees from Anatolia and southern Russia and populations from surrounding villages, as Hall relates, strained the Greek Archaeological Service, whose personnel struggled to keep pace through rescue excavations and expropriation. Tensions inevitably flare between residents and archaeologists—cast, yet again, as insiders versus outsiders—shaping attitudes towards Argive heritage. Despite all the initiatives, proposals, and resolutions related to town planning and tourism, heritage management, as Hall contends, fails to express why the public should care about “history” (p. 179). For Hall, the problem is one of translation: that is, how to transmute national pride in Greek history into the practical experiences of old things encountered in everyday life. Hall champions a practical notion of archaeological heritage recast following Herzfeld, as filial inheritance, in the form of a national dowry, and ends with a coda on the power of archaeological objects as prompts to historical accounts in the way of Pausanias.

How the Argive material past comes to be specified as common “heritage” is precisely what Reclaiming the Past attempts to explain in striking detail. Yet for all Hall’s positive emphasis on things seen as ruins, remnants, and relics, one comes away with the impression that the initiative in the definition of archeological heritage always seemed to come from the human side of the equation. We as readers ascertain a great deal about the meanings that different people draw from a sculptural relief, but scarcely anything about a carved-stone figure’s ability to spark wonder. We learn a lot about community attitudes toward the Kapodistrian barracks, but little about how an erstwhile building is capable of simultaneously accommodating and obstructing different aspirations. We contemplate the ways a partially excavated ancient theatre was “imbued with an air of historical significance,” but read nothing about the unique qualities it offered to a National Assembly by organizing a crowd, broadcasting authority, and amplifying speech.[6] To specify a relationship to old things as an act of reclamation seems appropriate from the vantage point of a present where the living believe themselves to have definitively broken with the past, thereby recovering that which was lost. However, by their very existence in subsequent Argive presents, a block of carved stone, a standing building, and a ruined theatre break free from any original aspirations. And if what lies “well hidden under the earth” is, as Vollgraff stated, “not lost” (p. 159), then archaeologists do not so much reclaim, as reactivate what lingers in its chthonic domain.[7] So any assertion that the strongest aspect of an archaeological object’s identity belongs exclusively to the circumscribed “time” of its making and specified use misses an opportunity to contemplate how by its persistence as a stubborn eccentric it outlasts its previous conditions, exceeding its history, to offer its qualities to new situations, including other relationships with the Argive material past. Hall’s book challenges us to contemplate what becomes of antiquity and to consider the involvement of these old things in the co-creation of pasts otherwise.



[1] John Fulleylove (1845-1908) was an English landscape artist and illustrator.

[2] See Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Translated by C. Newman and C. Doubinsky. (1997) Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; Maridina Kardarakou, Ανάγνωση της πόλης ως υπερβατικό κείμενο — παλίμψηστο: Άργος. (2012) Chania: Polytechnic of Crete.

[3] See Michel Foucault, Of other spaces. Translated by J. Miskowiec, diacritics, 16(1), (1986) pp. 22-27.

[4] See Jonathan M. Hall, Review of Argos. Une ville grecque de 6000 ans, JHS 119 (1999) pp. 216–17.

[5] Hall, relying exclusively on ekphrasis, provides no image of Borroczün’s plan, which may be seen here:  Vassilis Dorovinis, Capodistrias et la planification d’Argos (1828-1832). Bulletin de correspondance hellénique. Supplément 6 (1980) pp. 501-545.

[6] See Witmore, C. Old Lands: A chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese. (London: Routledge, 2020), 230–44 for a more symmetrical consideration of the theatre and the Fourth National Assembly.

[7] Olivier, L. 2011. The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and memory. (Lanham, MA: AltaMira, 2011), 60.