Antiquity, Wheeler and Classical Archaeology. (Special Section)

By Snodgrass, Anthony | Antiquity, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Antiquity, Wheeler and Classical Archaeology. (Special Section)


Snodgrass, Anthony, Antiquity


My association with ANTIQUITY is shorter than that of some of those present, but I am slightly shocked to reflect that it still covers over half the journal's life. I became a subscriber in 1961 and my first archaeological publication was an ANTIQUITY review in the following year. Closer involvement came only in the late 1970s when, soon after my move to Cambridge, Glyn Daniel wrote inviting me to become a Trustee of the Antiquity Trust--and, by the way, a Director of Antiquity Publications Ltd as well. `Thank you, Glyn', I replied, `but I don't think it should be both--one or the other'. I chose the second alternative, preferring the more practical and direct association with the journal's operations. My main feeling was, however, one of gratification that, after decades of cooling affinity and then downright estrangement between these areas of the discipline, Classical archaeology should still find a place in a journal of world archaeology. That sentiment has been reinforced under each succeeding Editor, by such signs as the first publication, in ANTIQUITY, of such a landmark of Greek discovery as `The hero of Lefkandi' (Popham et al. 1982) or of the Special Section `Classical matters' (Snodgrass & Chippindale 1988). I now want to say a few words about how ANTIQUITY, beyond generally `keeping a seat free' for Classical archaeology, actually played a central role in the development, in the British setting, of one particular branch of it.

This episode was centred on the contributions of Mortimer (or, as always in ANTIQUITY circles, Rik) Wheeler. Three times during the 1960s, Wheeler took up his pen to make deliberately provocative interventions on the issue of what Classical archaeology, or certain branches of it, should be about. I will first take separately the remarkable short paper `Size and Baalbek' (Wheeler 1962). The title covers, a shade misleadingly, a discussion not so much of size, as of the issue between interior and exterior emphasis in architecture, as represented by Roman and Greek buildings respectively. Among the more forceful passages, first place must go to Wheeler's assault on the Parthenon, one which by comparison makes Lord Elgin look like a timid conservationist. `Neither the building nor its decoration had any inner life', he wrote. This statement has to be taken strictly in context, and the key word is `inner': what Wheeler was setting out to establish was that the Parthenon had been planned solely for external viewing. This is not a wholly unreasonable claim: it can, I think, be criticized mainly for that common fault among archaeologists, of judging a monument by what happens to be preserved of it today, and forgetting what has vanished. In the Parthenon's case, we know a fair amount about what was once inside it: in particular, about the gigantic and costly statue of Athena which the Parthenon was built to house, and which accounted for its name, its fame and a good part of its entire cost. That was after all an exclusively internal feature. But Wheeler's real target, one feels, was the surviving relief sculptures of the building, and especially its frieze: `an impersonal pageant of extrovert mimes with nothing whatsoever in their heads'. Here again, one has to concede that this damning judgment has a degree of immediate plausibility. We are all aware of a kind of all-too-perfect homogeneity in this and other works of the High Classical phase. But what Wheeler was also implicitly dismissing was the generations of work in analysing the gestures and composition, and through them the true meaning and subject, of the Parthenon frieze. In that same year, he was gently taken to task for this by the then Lincoln Professor at Oxford, my own teacher Bernard Ashmole (Ashmole 1962: 213-14). Ashmole had rightly detected here an impatient rejection of some of the central concerns of Greek art historians like himself.

Along with other attitudes, such a rejection comes across more clearly in Wheeler's forays, of the same period, into Romano-British archaeology. …

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