Names and Emblems: Greek Archaeology, Regional Identities and National Narratives at the Turn of the 20th Century

By Alexandri, Alexandra | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Names and Emblems: Greek Archaeology, Regional Identities and National Narratives at the Turn of the 20th Century


Alexandri, Alexandra, Antiquity


Introduction

As a discipline concerned with the past, and especially the remote past, archaeology is in a unique position to contribute to the growing discussion on nationalism and the formation of collective identities. Although research in these areas is not new, the steadily increasing body of archaeological literature is shaped both by recent theoretical trends within the discipline itself and by widespread concerns over contemporary redefinitions of boundaries and identities (e.g. Atkinson et al. 1996; Jones 1997; Graves-Brown et al. 1996; Diaz-Andreu & Champion 1996; Kohl & Fawcett 1995).

These developments have also provided the impetus for a critical re-examination of the history of archaeology in Greece and its role in the formation of collective identities. The dual status of classical antiquity -- as forming part of a shared European heritage and of a specifically Greek past (e.g. Herzfeld 1982; 1987; Lowenthal 1988) -- has resulted in two different, if ultimately complementary, approaches. On the one hand, the role of classical antiquity in the formation of nationalist ideology in many European countries is being reassessed (e.g. Gran-Aymerich 1998; Marchand 1996). Within this framework, the development of archaeology in Greece is seen as an international intellectual enterprise, which helped to establish further a common basis for a European identity (e.g. Morris 1994). In these accounts of cooperation and competition, the role of the Greek state and the input of Greek scholarship are mostly marginalized (but see Kalpaxis 1990; 1993; 1996).

The role of archaeology in Greece itself is subject to different analytical approaches, and it is also often cited as a salient example of the nationalist use of the past (e.g. Friedman 1992; Lowenthal 1990). Emphasis is placed primarily on the relationship between the state and the discipline, where archaeology is often perceived as auxiliary, simply providing the necessary raw materials that the state then transforms into the foundations of a collective identity. In this scheme, access to the past is controlled and mediated by the state, and popular perceptions of the past are usually inferred rather than directly examined. As a result, what is being described in most cases is the perceived effect rather than the process, often resulting in a homogeneous and atemporal picture, which inadvertently reproduces the narrative structures of nationalism, the very object under study (e.g. Hamilakis & Yalouri 1996; 1999).

These broad analytical schemes obviously have their interpretative merit. Yet, in order to understand the relationship between archaeology and nationalism, it is important to chart the various routes through which the past is incorporated into the present. The spread and duration of archaeological activity in Greece and the direct involvement of the discipline within particular regions also offer the opportunity to explore a more elusive topic, namely the ways in which the relationship between the past and the present is made concrete and articulated at a local level.

Research conducted within the framework of the AREA project has offered the opportunity to approach these issues from another perspective. The Historic Archive of the Archaeological Service, housed in the Archive of Monuments of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, holds a number of documents pertaining to the renaming of villages, towns and municipalities and the approval of municipal emblems. These requests are usually regional initiatives rather than instances of a general re-naming programme by the state; however, geographic names and emblems on official seals had to be approved by the General Ephor of Antiquities on `archaeological grounds'. Some 60 such `cases', represented by 165 documents spanning the period from 1885 to 1909, form the focus of this study.

Names and emblems represent a `distillation' of the salient features of local, and by extension national, identity.

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