Postcards from Beazley and Other Electric Dreams: Notes from the 15th International Congress of Classical Archaeology

By Rajala, Ulla | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Postcards from Beazley and Other Electric Dreams: Notes from the 15th International Congress of Classical Archaeology


Rajala, Ulla, Antiquity


The 15th international congress of classical archaeology, run by Associazione internazionale di archeologia classica (A.I.A.C.), was organized by the University of Amsterdam in co-operation with the Allard Pierson Museum in the relaxed atmosphere of central Amsterdam. The congress was the meeting point of c. 500 archaeologists coming mainly from Europe, but also from the United States, Brazil, Canada, Israel and New Zealand. The theme was 'Classical Archaeology towards the third millennium. Reflections and perspectives'.

The organizers hoped the theme, which emphasized the beginning of a new millennium, would make their collegues address the characteristics of classical archaeology and urge them to assess its present character, and its role in the future. Unfortunately, these questions were not taken up with great enthusiasm, and most of the papers explained the results of particular research or field projects or set the goals and methods for new ones. We could have heard this at any other archaeological congress dealing with the classical world. But those few speakers who took up the theme stimulated all participants.

The famous scholar Sir John Beazley has been attacked for some time by 'various members of the "Cambridge School"' or, as the speaker, Dr John H. Oakley (Athens) called them, 'members of a group of graduate students from the University of Cambridge'. His paper on the attribution of single Greek vases to particular painters based on individual style was discussed in a manner which combined sharp, intelligent, provoking and defensive discussion. Oakley wanted to correct some misconceptions in the study of Greek painting which emerged during discussion which he called 'often ferocious, with the rhetoric sometimes becoming personal and nasty in nature'. Dr Oakley continued his reappraisal of the astonishing life-work of Sir John Beazley he presented in ANTIQUITY (1998: 209-13). He reminded us that the basics are basics, and attribution analysis gives us a chronological framework to which we can compare sherds found in surveys or vases without provenience. Stylistic analysis can help to unite fragments in different museums and it contributes to the study of the social and economical importance of painters and workshops. But to achieve the kind of accuracy and scholarly standard Beazley had is not easy. Many scholars have critized studies of attribution and pointed out other matters for study, including the importance of iconographic studies. Oakley thus presented the dialogue between different opinions and views, showing how they have contributed to the deeper understanding and definition of the old Beazley method.

Prof. Olga Palagia (Athens) also contributed provocatively to the dialogue between traditional research and fashionable paradigms. She gave a paper on misconceptions in the study of Greek sculpture which revealed the kind of embarrassing misinterpretations one can give to the meaning of a piece of art, without also giving a full account of its cultural context. She reminded us of well-researched 'factual' information and high scholarly standards; and argued that trendy post-modern interpretations, based on relativism, give scholars an excuse to promote contemporary political views and present vaguely proved theories. She called this kind of argument 'postcard' archaeology, because a little expertise gets published, and for her this line of research was a pointless exercise. I hope Palagia's idea of ideal classical archaeology allows research to go beyond traditional questions and incorporate new perspectives.

Following these first two approaches to the kind of archaeology we all think to be real classical archaeology, the Congress ventured into prehistoric archaeology and other closely related disciplines. These have changed classical archaeology from a discipline dealing with typical material, characteristic methods and a defined geographical and chronological framework. …

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Postcards from Beazley and Other Electric Dreams: Notes from the 15th International Congress of Classical Archaeology
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