Thursday, May 14, 2009

Interview with Pierre MacKay: Part 1

On April 3rd, I interviewed Pierre MacKay about his experience in the Regular Year program. He did the program in 1959-60, which makes it now the 50th anniversary of his year. I met Pierre at the beginning of my own Regular Year, when he came on several of the trips with us. He was full of information about the later history of Greece, such as the Frankish/Venetian/Ottoman periods. He was also great to have around because of his interest in topography, learned from Kendrick Pritchett, whom many view as one of our field’s greatest topographers.

During this interview, I learned several things. First, my voice and laugh sound ridiculous on tape. Second, I am incapable of speaking in complete sentences. I suddenly have new respect for all those people who do interviews on TV (although I still think Larry King sucks). Third, I learned that transcribing spoken words actually takes a lot of time.

So what follows is the first portion of my discussion with Pierre MacKay. If I am guessing correctly, there should be about three sections more to come, although it may turn out to be a bit longer in reality. In the first part of our talk, I tried to focus on the basics of the Regular Year experience, such as the living situation, the food, the professors, and the trips. Fortunately, Pierre is really a great story –teller and it was a total pleasure to hear about his experience.

Pierre MacKay (photo by Dan Leon).

How did you hear about the Regular Year and how did you know you wanted to do this program? I was at the University of California studying largely with Kendrick Pritchett and there was no way you could not hear about the American School if you did that. So he talked about it a lot? Oh yes. Did he require that his students come over? Kendrick wouldn’t put it quite like that, but no one would stay with Kendrick very long without developing that passion.

What was the application process like? I remember a 3 out of 4 exam application…I do recall that the interesting part was that for the first time I ran into Hellenistic Greek and Hellenistic history, which was a real eye opener that I was not adequately prepared for. Fortunately, I had taken some interest in the Hellenistic age, so I could pretend some of it.

How did people fund an entire year in Greece? There were, I don’t know how many full or large-scale maintenance fellowships, but I came on a Fulbright. It was one of the rare instances where a Fulbright could be taken associated with an institution that was an American institution. Usually the Fulbright required that you moved into a foreign institution.

When you came over, what was the trip like, where did you fly into? Fly?! I came by ship. How long did that take? I think about five days. Did everyone come by ship? No, I came by ship. I can’t even remember the name of the ship, was it the Olympia? It was one of the last transatlantic liners that Greece ran. So you came into Pireaus. Did you take the train up to Kolonaki? Well, we were met by the Fulbright Committee and there was a good deal of chaos immediately following, and an orientation in which the head of the committee effectively said, “Welcome to Greece. Don’t eat the food.”

Was it the first you’d been to the American School? Oh, absolutely. And did you live in Loring? I lived in Loring at the far end of the first floor of the annex, there’s a suite right beside the bathroom that was one over from mine. And I kept telling myself and I still want to believe that that was the same place Kevin Andrews stayed.

For that year, who was the Mellon professor? There wasn’t a Mellon professor, there was the THE Professor of Archaeology, Eugene Vanderpool. How long had he been THE Professor? Eugene had arrived sometime in the 30s, I should think. It’s not very clear, according to what I used to hear later on, what he intended to do, but he just absolutely fell for Greece, had the great good fortune to marry money, and just became a virtual Greek here, which made his position quite secure because the School didn’t have to fund very much of it. The School was not much given to funding things. [*Note: The School was in financial straits at the time.]

Did he live here all the time? The Vanderpool’s had a place in Pikermi. They kept themselves to themselves, very much outside the world of the School. I’ve never seen the place out in Pikermi, one or two special students of Vanderpool have, but basically both he and she wanted to have two separate lives and this was respected.

What was the area around the school, Kolonaki, like in 1959? Not horrendously different then it is today, but with a lot less glitz. There was a wonderful old cafĂ© call the Byzantium on the downhill corner of the present plateia. It has the distinction of being one of Melina Mecouri’s hangouts. By ‘59 were all these buildings around Loring the same? There was not much open territory surrounding the School by 1959. The pressure of the Civil War had just totally altered building space in Athens. Things were just going up all the time.

How was the year organized? This was Henry Robinson’s first year and my sense is that Henry expanded the program and its present form owes a great deal to him. We we’re still close enough to the Civil War that transportation in some areas was pretty iffy. We went up to Delos first and I guess that was tried a couple of times again, but it’s been dropped [from the program] because if the weather suddenly changes there is nothing you can do about the schedule, if the boats aren’t leaving you’ve lost the schedule for the rest of the year, so I understand exactly why they dropped Delos. Delos was rather limiting, but it was an interesting thing to have done. And then came Central Greece, and then the wonderful Northwest Greece which was with Eugene Vanderpool (one of his specialties) and Colin Edmonson, the School Secretary, both of them just loved that area, and we went around on trips so that some years ago I said that the striking thing about Henry was his over-optimism about what Greek buses could do on Greek roads in 1959.

What was the transportation issue like? It was fairly limited, not hugely luxurious tourist buses and we had our own special driver, a sardonic man who was extremely amusing and a terrific driver. So there was no riding donkeys up to Bassai or anything like that? No, the School couldn’t afford that kind of indulgence. When we ended up doing the Peloponessus we did the wall over the Lykaion Zeus, up from Bassai, over and down to meet at the bottom of the hill, and on to that Arcadian goddess’s [sanctuary].

Was it just Eugene Vanderpool leading the trips? Henry was indefatigable. Henry, in the first year I was here, Henry managed to run the school, lead a couple of trips, be the director of the school AND the director of the Corinth excavations. By the summer, that involved hair-raising trips up the old Kakiscala road in a large Landrover as he came up at the end of the week to do the schools business and roared down again to get back to Corinth. Henry was extraordinary.

What were the conditions like out in the countryside? You weren’t that far off from the Civil War, so how dangerous was it? There’s always rumours that the Regular Members had to carry guns back in the day, did you have to worry about things like that? It was too late for that. I came right up on the edge of [the Civil War] on my Spring Project, but that was because I went right up to the north-east corner of Greece and was wandering around back trails and the Civil War had only ended in ’57 there. The smell of gunpowder was still very much on that landscape. Did you have any run-ins with anybody there? No. I went through some villages where it was perfectly clear that whatever side they’d been on hadn’t won. So there was a lot of damage throughout the landscape? A lot of damaged memories – less damage then you might think, but a lot of bitter, damaged memories.

[Before your Spring report in northwestern Greece,] you did the trips in the fall – did you have site reports you had to give? Oh absolutely! What were your site reports? On Delos, I had to give a site report on the Egyptian gods which was pretty good because I knew nothing about either, but that’s what the site reports are supposed to do for you. In Central Greece, I was given Hosios Loukos; I was the token Byzantinist that year. I can’t remember what I did for – oh, I did the Arta Church for the Northwest. And for the last part, the Peloponessus, I can’t remember – but I loved that trip.

What were the site reports like then? I've heard that back in the day everyone would give three hour site reports, which included every single detail that they had come across when researching. Is that how it was for you? That was probably Bryn Mawr students who had gone through Machteld Mellink’s [the ‘mother’ of Turkish archaeology] seminars! Machteld Mellink would allow anyone to go on and on and never stop them, and afterwards say, ‘You know, you can’t use footnotes in an oral presentation.’ I probably shouldn’t confess this, but one night when Henry Robinson’s over-optimism had resulted in what we called ‘Temples by Twilight’ and it was getting pretty cold – we were at Eretria – one of the students, who wasn’t even really in the field but had enough money to come to the School, started in on a report by flashlight and we sat there listening to page after page of it, with all the footnotes and all the graphs and so forth, and I looked to the side and could see that there was a great heap of paper there, and so with a wink to the rest of the group, I slipped great chunks out of the heap of paper; he still got down through his notes and the lack of continuity didn’t faze him the least. This was more or less the attitude back then, it just went on and on.

Can you elaborate a little more on this ‘Temples by Twilight’ notion? Well, it was the inevitable result of making plans on the grounds that nothing would go wrong, pushing the Greek tourist buses and the road conditions to their absolute limit, and when something like getting mired in a dirt road halfway across the Kopaic basin slowed us down, problems arose. But we’d keep going. Henry never gave up on anything. He was a wonderful man.

What were some of the temples you saw by twilight? Well, the report that was being given at Eretria was, I think, being given about the Macedonian-style tombs at Eretria and there wasn’t a lot to see because we weren’t allowed anywhere near them. I remember Sounion was a temple by twilight. That must have been awesome. It had its moments, but it was COLD! It got really quite cold sitting on the ground with the sun down. And I can’t remember what else, but Sounion and Eretria really stick out.Would you guys get grumpy about having to see things after dark? Oh god, yes. We were the best gripers. We were terrific gripers.

What was the food situation like? That was pretty interesting. The evening food was usually up to us to find. We were staying usually in third class hotels but quite often fourth. My own feeling was that fourth class hotels were cleaner than the third class ones because the third class hotels didn’t think they had to bother. If there was enough hours of daylight (or twilight) at the end of the day, the ladies were assigned a picnic party and they would go out and buy tuna, bananas, oranges, bread and so forth, and anything that we had deigned to suggest might be a good idea. So we had a mass picnic made up of whatever Ione Shear and Theodora Stillwell had found that was worth buying. And then breakfast in the morning: tea a good deal of the time, Nescafe otherwise, eggs usually (hard-boiled), some kind of toast…fairly thin fair. It was laid on a central table – buffet breakfast rarely happened then. Occasionally we would have lunch in a hotel. My favorite was the Altis Hotel in Olympia, which was one of those old, old places that are gone now. Huge high ceilings, a great big table in the center of the room, and the lunch would be prepared for us, usually watery soup followed by watery spaghetti, full of watery beans. And just to show that they were very up on hygiene they would climb up step ladders and flit [spray] the ceiling, approximately an hour before we came in for lunch, just about the right time for the groggy, dying flies to drop off the ceiling into the soup bowls. It was an interesting experience.

What was the dress code? Was that the time when women still had to wear skirts? All too often, all too often. Yes, I don’t think I ever saw a pair of slacks. What about the guys? Was it all jeans and t-shirts or did you ever have to look fancy? Out on the trips, certainly not. But [back at the School] we had royal receptions, when the king and queen would come over for a reception on the upper floor of the School. I talked to Constantine while he was still Prince Constantine. About what? I guess about my traveling around in Macedonia and he said, ‘Oh those are rough people up there, there’s a lot of sheep stealing going on.’ And I said, ‘Many of my ancestors were hanged for the same crime.’ I don’t know if he really got it. But they were a very easy going lot. Pavlos was quite impressive. That family had NOT been made up of diplomats to any great extent, but Pavlos put the lid back on the kettle and allowed enough stability for the Karamanlis reforms, and they really were reforms, to go into effect.

Recent research has discussed artists coming through the School. Was there anything like that in your Regular Year? I think that was before WWII. I recall some people who were interested in modern art visiting briefly, but it would be a difficult environment for someone with those ideas primarily in mind. Who do you talk to? It’s not the American Academy in Rome [where people with both modern and ancient interests come together], yet it has its own strengths. It has an inherent loyalty that develops even with all the crabbing we do about it – I’m not sure any of the other Academies have anything like that. Perhaps it’s partly being forced onto the bus for three months during the Regular Year!
~ Read Part 2 of the interview here ~


Nauplion said...

Katie, it's terrific. You have got his tone so well, & you know how to ask questions.


Fantastic interview. Katie, congratulations. As far as I know, this is the first case of American School oral history publicly available on the web. So, you are a pioneer!!! Can't wait to read the next parts. Enjoy the field season in Corinth. KOSTIS

Katie said...

great interview, katie!

Robert Sutton said...

Why not post the tape, silly laugh and all?