Antiquities as Symbolic Capital in Modern Greek Society

By Hamilakis, Yannis; Yalouri, Eleana | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Antiquities as Symbolic Capital in Modern Greek Society

Hamilakis, Yannis, Yalouri, Eleana, Antiquity

The Great Powers - starting with ancient Imperial Rome and running up to the present - have valued Classical Greek culture as embodying the founding spirit of their own, our own western world. So where does the modern state of Greece stand? It is, more than most nations, encouraged or required to share what might be its particular heritage with a wider world.


The use of archaeology and antiquities for political purposes by different interest groups is not a new subject for discussion. As early as 1939, when dramatic social and political developments were taking place in Europe, Grahame Clark in his Archaeology and society (1939) dedicated a chapter to this subject with particular emphasis upon the question of antiquity and nationalism. Glyn Daniel's The idea of prehistory set out issues such as the Kossina phenomenon in a chapter called 'The idea of prehistory in the study of language and race and in politics'. The New Archaeology with its 'neutral scientificism' and positivism, did not address these matters; it was in the 1980s that the political implications of the discipline regained much interest with the advent of 'post-processual archaeology' (e.g. Shanks & Tilley 1987a: 186-208; 1987b: 46-67; Trigger 1984; Kristiansen 1992; Gathercole & Lowenthal 1990; Bond & Gilliam 1994; Kohl 1993; Fowler 1987; Arnold 1990; Dietler 1994). This movement, reconsidering archaeology's ontological and epistemological principles, declared the loss of its 'political innocence' in the same way as New Archaeology had meant the loss of the discipline's scientific innocence (Kristiansen 1992: 3).

Discussion of the politics of the past in Greece has increased over the last 10 years (e.g. Andreadis 1989; Brown 1994; Friedman 1992; Herzfeld 1991; Kalpaxis 1990; 1993; Karakasidou 1994: 41-4; Kotsakis 1991; Lowenthal 1988; 1990; MacConnel 1989; MacNeal 1991; Skopetea 1984; Politis 1993; Morris 1994) following those theoretical developments within western archaeology and in response to recent social and political conditions. Interest has focused on the uses/abuses of the past in constructing national identity and the 'imagined community' of the nation (Anderson 1991), as a consequence of the new climate of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere. Most of these studies have illustrated a feature common in most societies, the use of the past to legitimize a community's existence (cf. Kristiansen 1992: 19). To recall Grahame Clark again, 'human societies exist in the last resort because their members are aware of belonging to them, and a major factor in this is a consciousness of sharing a common past' (1957: 255).

Other issues need equally thorough investigation: the active role of the past in everyday life, in the negotiation of power among different social groups, in the attempts of authorities to legitimize their existence and in the counter-attempts of ordinary people to resist dominant groups; and the responsibilities of archaeologists and archaeological work in this process. Moreover, the nationalistic uses of the past should be examined in more depth and in all their aspects. For example, the particularities of individual nationalisms should be taken into consideration whenever uses of archaeology and the past in general are discussed; Greek nationalism is a telling example (cf. Mouzelis 1993 where Greek nationalism, described as 'reactive nationalism', is seen as distinct from north European nationalism). Furthermore, the specific social conditions and historical framework within which the past is used or abused should be analysed, a procedure which has been adopted only by a few studies.

Archaeology and past in modern Greek society

It is well known that aspects of antiquity dominate Greek daily life. This domination, evident in many facets of material culture, is present both in official concerns and in the domain of ordinary citizens; ancient features in architectural arrangement and decoration very frequently appear both in shop-fronts [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], and in the external decoration of private residences [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. …

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