Saturday, December 19, 2009

No snow down South

I missed out on this snowball fight in DC today. It's not quite the magnitude of Virginia Tech's annual Civilian vs. Core snowball battle, but it still looks like fun. Even if a DC detective did show up with a gun.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Once and Future King

I was just doing some research about the First Cemetery in Athens as part of a pseudo-project to collect/document the graves of archaeologists in Greece. I was utterly dumbfounded to realize that T.H. White is buried there in Athens' enormous graveyard.

T.H. White is considered one of the most influential and important fantasy writers of all time. While his name might not sound familiar, everyone knows his story. If you've ever seen Disney's The Sword and the Stone, then you can thank T.H. White.

The Sword and the Stone is part of T.H. White's larger story, The Once and Future King, which is consistently cited as one of the greatest fantasy stories, ever.

It is the 20th century's retelling of the tale of King Arthur. White's story has impacted countless readers and SF authors, from Tolkien onward. Wikipedia notes, "J.K. Rowling has said that T. H. White's writing strongly influenced the Harry Potter books; several critics have compared Rowling's character Albus Dumbledore to White's absent-minded Merlyn, and Rowling herself has described White's Wart as 'Harry's spiritual ancestor.'"

The fact that White is buried in the First Cemetery, it seems, is complete happenstance. Apparently, he was on board a ship in the Piraeus harbor when he died of a 'heart ailment.' He never made it home to England.

I'll have to get a photo next year, unless some of the Athens peeps feel like sending one along sooner.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Graves of Archaeologists

I was just looking over Troels Myrup's blog Iconoclasm and noticed a post he did a few months back entitled 'Staying Behind.' It featured the gravestone of G.L. Harding and reflected on the fact that many foreign archaeologists end up being buried in the land where they dug, rather than the one in which they were born.

While I was on the Regular Program, I tried to document all the graves of archaeologists that we came across. Some are buried on the very site they excavated:

Ekrem Akurgal, one of the most important experts on Turkish archaeology, is buried at the site of Old Smyrna (in the modern city of Izmir). Check him out in this video.

Humfrey Payne is buried just down the hill from Mycenae. He was the director of the British School from 1929 until 1936 when he died of blood poisoning. His wife was Dilys Powell, a journalist who also wrote the pithy Villa Ariadne, a lively view of the archaeologists who worked at Knossos. Humfrey Payne also excavated the Sanctuary of Hera at Perachora where I gave a site report.

The gravestones of many archaeologists reference the ancient world or the work they did in life:

Carl and Elizabeth Blegen, whom I have discussed numerous times on this site, are buried beneath a headstone that mimics the grave stelae from Mycenae.

The grave of Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy and Mycenae is of course the most recognizable example of this. His tomb, in the shape of a temple, is decorated with scenes from the mythic Greek past and also with scenes of excavation. Ancient and modern heroics.

An extraordinary number of famous names are buried together in the First Cemetery in Athens. Because the cemetery is Orthodox, the burials of the non-Orthodox (foreigners) are separated off by a fence. Walking through that collection of graves is an exceedingly strange experience. Headstone after headstone bears a familiar name. Famous archaeologists from the earlier days of the discipline lie beside others who have made a more recent impact.

William Bell Dinsmoor, for example, is famous for his architectural studies. His son (also named William Dinsmoor) followed in his footsteps, and I always have to do a double take when I see their names, just to make sure I'm looking at Sr. or Jr. Whenever I hear them mentioned, I will always think of Margie Miles saying 'Dinsmoor' while pointing up to some architectural oddity.

Adolf Furtwangler is a total legend. His impact on the study of the ancient world was enormous. John Boardman remarked that he was "probably the greatest classical archaeologist of all time."

Eugene Vanderpoole was the Mellon Professor (the Professor of Archaeology) at the School exactly 50 years ago. It was he who dragged Pierre McKay all over Greece. As Kostis Kourelis has pointed out, his house was considered something of an architectural superstar in Athens. I most frequently heard about Vanderpool in reference to life at the School during WWII. He was placed in a concentration camp and survived, but his health was never the same after. Whereas Furtwangler was a legend for his scholarship, in the many tales that I heard, Vanderpool was an altogether different sort, a giant, much beloved, a war hero. His presence and heroism still hang over the School, especially in the tender words of those who remember him.

And then there is Bert Hodge Hill and his wife Ida Thallon Hill. Ida has always been of great interest to me because of her pioneering role as one of the first women to ever excavate on the Greek mainland. The physical presence (books, furniture, etc.) that the Hills and Blegens left at the American School is of endless fascination to me. But most importantly of all, the Hills paid for me to attend the Regular Year Program by generously endowing a fellowship. Thank you, Bert Hodge Hill!

While at the American School, the monumental personages buried there at the First Cemetery became much more than names to me. They suddenly became the teachers and mentors of friends and of my own teachers and mentors. They became the topics of stories, reminiscences and School myth. They stopped being just recognizable names on book covers and beneath article titles. They're no longer just bibliography.

The First Cemetery is extraordinary for the simple fact that it preserves and also recreates a community. Granted, most of the people in that fenced-off section were of the same social class, almost all were foreigners, and all were non-Orthodox (mostly Protestant and Catholic) - they were already bound to run in the same circles. But a large percentage were part of an intellectual family tree, a community with connections across nationalities and zig-zagging relationships down through decade after decade. They're all there together under the shady pine trees. Young archaeologists can visit the First Cemetery and literally see their social and academic ancestry there before them. Name after name is instantly recognizable and meaningful. It occurs to me that nowhere else in the world will I ever know so many names of the dead in one place, in one cemetery. Nowhere else will I have so many connections to so many headstones.

What an odd and uncanny thing!