Don’t Mention the Army

This was during the last phase of excavation, in May 2008. It already had been a scorching, humid spring. I was giving a hand at the excavation, hoping to engage the workers in conversation about the sanctuary, the findings, archaeology in general. I was posted at a very large and very poor trench with one of the fastest diggers in the team, Mr. M., a younger bloke, C., and Lovisa, the trench supervisor. The trench was on the south to southeast of the Temple perivolos (courtyard). Digging was constant and difficult, but no joy. Many shreds of roof-tiles, some potsherds of minor interest, a spearhead, and two walls that seemed to meet nowhere in particular. Mr. M., besides being very fast and concentrated when he digs, is also one of the most talkative people in the group. Armed with acidic humour, he delivers a string of one-liners that often have the group in stitches. But as the dig progressed, he was increasingly quiet, and introspective, discouraged at not finding anything “worth its while”. The heat and humidity added to the tediousness of the dig, which came up mostly with small stones, dust, and wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of soil. We had to take more frequent breaks, exposed as we were to the sun, which resulted in the other workers aiming well-intended comments at Mr. M., who seemed momentarily unperturbed, but increasingly saturnine. The other trenches were very ‘productive’, bringing up column drums, inscriptions and interesting stuff. The directors, having considered for a moment to move Mr. M. to another trench, decided against it, in order to proceed faster in this one.

One day, I was standing over the edge of the trench, looking absentmindedly at the next one, waiting for the wheelbarrow to get filled. Mr. M. was digging at his usual rhythm with his pickaxe. At some point, he stopped, stooped to the ground, and from it he produced something small and green. “Oh, look, a statue!” he exclaimed and passed it to Arto, the co-director of the excavation. He and Lovisa looked at the discovery with puzzlement. Then, suddenly, they laughed and handed it back to him. He then showed it to me. “A statue of a soldier! He said. Wasn’t Poseidon himself one?” I looked at the plastic toy soldier with interest. I thought it was accidentally misplaced by the youngsters of the family that lived and used the area of the sanctuary before it was appropriated by the archaeological service. We are collecting material remains of the very recent habitation, and this would be very telling sitting next to the wooden boat described in a previous post. It transpired that Mr. M. had borrowed it from his son that same morning, brought it to the dig, and pretended to discover it in the trench. He said so much himself. He wanted, as he said jokingly, to boost our morale with a ‘discovery’.

The discovery of a statue, as a joke, reminded me another occasion when a test dig was being carried out at Askeli, a popular summer resort at the south of the island. The dig was done because the owner of the field wanted to build some apartments there, and the area had recently been turned into an archaeologically protected area, due to the discovery of a Byzantine pottery nearby. The owner characteristically commented that “this wasn’t even ancient!” During the dig, the archaeological service guard called Arto, the Kalaureia Project co-director, to tell him that they had discovered a marble figurine, and he should come and check it out. Of course, there was no such thing there, only the guard and the owner, ready to roll around in laughter at the arrival of the archaeologist.

It is perhaps too facile to discovery ‘meaning’ in popular interpretations of what is considered a ‘find’. When locals refer to the sanctuary, they usually claim that there is ‘nothing found’ there, ‘only stones’. The something at the antipodes of this ‘nothing’ is usually an anthropomorphic object. Statues remain at the top of a potential list of publicly valued items at an archaeological dig, perhaps competing with human remains for the first place. Even the importance of the inscription discovered this year by the team waned in popular imagination in view of the fact that it had once been a base for statues which are now irretrievably lost.

But with this (mediocre) photo, I tried to give the soldier my own meaning. I posed it on an umbrella stand that combines cement, rust and chipped paint, which to my imagination are indissolubly connected with remote guardhouses and endless shifts at remote sentry-boxes during my military service at the Greek War Navy. The contrasting camo trousers of the sitting workman, C. serve as (unintended) counterpoint, which, I guess, shows how strongly military paraphernalia focus the material universe of Greeks, especially males. I wanted to show how this focusing channels and redirects ideas that may be completely irrelevant to it, just by exerting its “aesthetic” influence on them. This mundane aesthetic may be the key to understand one of the arenas in which the large-scale – exalted forms an analogy linked to the personal – intimate.

Thanks to fotisif for reworking the pic!

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3 Responses to “Don’t Mention the Army”

  1. http://visualizing-neolithic.blogspot.com/2008/08/stray-head.html

    One of the many surface finds at the Neolithic lakeside settlement of Dispilio, a plastic toy. One of the uses of the site was and still is to some extend a place for local feasts, ‘panigiri’.

  2. British archaeologists often wear army surplus gear, too – or ex-Communist countries’ old stuff.

  3. I think it’s to do with it being cheap and tough, it not being ruined by getting dirty or damaged, etc.

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