Archive for material


Posted in diachronies, material, other uses with tags , , , , on 21-04-2009 by pwork


Background: one of the most characteristic features of the sanctuary: what was once possibly a sacrificial altar, cozy underneath its protective cover. A definite winner in every tour of the site, it attracts the attention of visitors of all ages, especially children, who often reproduce it in drawings of the site. Certainly not due to its appearace: a squat rectangle of stone slabs, covered by an inglorious makeshift tin roof. Or perhaps precisely because of the mystery hidden underneath the protective cover that hides as much as it protects. Or, finally, because of the attachment of this magic word: altar (vomos in Greek), which awakes some sort of pertified life in this material relic of the past.

On the foreground, one more way of keeping time in the sanctuary. The poppies at bloom, sometime in early May. They are preceded by some sort of yellow flower, resembling the buttercup, but reaching waist level. Then, in autumn, it’s the turn of the cyclamens. People refer to the epochs of the sanctuary, by asking me: are the poppies out yet, or: the cyclamens will be out any time now. Flowers, I feel sometimes, are equally important as ruins, perhaps more. The October before last, we found a bunch of picked cyclamens neatly placed upon a flat stone of the temple perivolos. A personal offering, we thought. Or perhaps absent-mindedness of the picker. Or merely time that went by without fulfilment.


Posted in analogies, material, synchronies with tags , , , on 27-01-2009 by pwork


It is remarkable how artefacts can attract life. Attract in the straightforward sense, just like a magnet attracts pieces of iron and organises them to reflect the ways of its field of influence. I am talking about a stone, this particular stone. There are so many ways to talk about stones. I was amazed when I realized the variety of interest stones can create for archaeologists, for example. But there are also other varieties of interest. Such as the one expressed by some locals, when they dismissively say ‘there is nothing up there (the sanctuary of Poseidon)… only stones’. A dismissal, true. But this negative comment reveals a different story at closer range. For there are stones, like the Elgin marbles for example, for which any similar comments would engender ripples of indignation and protest, perhaps by the same people. Is it the material that is different? Perhaps marble is not a ‘stone’. If this is true, then there is a ladder of values for stones, an indicator, a gauge that is not purely archaeological in the disciplinary sense of the term. But it is in the larger sense, for it draws from the life of the archaeological discipline in the public domain.

So I think I should rephrase the opening comment: it is remarkable how artefacts can attract stories. How do they do it? I guess that some of them are well-placed, so to speak. They occupy crucial positions in time and in space, they are there when they are needed. The stone in the picture is as much a stone as those smaller ones that are thrown on the edges of tilled fields by their owners, and accumulate there over time. Local workers at the dig have learned to treat stones as hindrances, as litter, through working their fields, shifting soil, clearing the ground. But a stone’s being ‘matter out of place’ (cf Douglas) does not immediately categorise it as indifferent. It may conversely bring it centre-stage and make it an attractor of stories, of life.

Like this stone here. It is the tip of a larger boulder, coming out of the earth at this point, where other rectangular boulders are heaped. Once, it formed perhaps a base for an inscription and/or a statue. Now, it is adorned with a painstakingly accurate graffiti reading H.T. SWAINE, R.M., 18(?)7. I suppose the R.M. stands for Royal Marine but the exact date is unclear. Was he here before the first excavators to the site (1894), or after? The boulders were certainly part of the temple architecture. We know for a fact that the temple was dismantled to build the monastery of Hydra sometimes in the late 18th century. The orientation of these stones points to a different direction, southeast, and indicates that they were intended as part of a different building project, quite possibly the monastery of Zoodochos Pigi on Poros.

We have formed a special relationship with this stone: we have photographed it more than once, we have looked at it even more, we have talked, pondered, thought, speculated about it. It certainly drew our attention. We have shown it to visitors and collaborators, we have projected it as a slide in presentations. But we are not the only ones that felt drawn by this inanimate object. Mr. M also had a special relationship with it during the excavations last October.

It was ‘his’ stone in a way that may sound mundane: first of all, it enabled him to sit in a specific way during breaks, resting his right foot upon it, and his elbow upon his right knee, while seated at a larger stone next to this one. In a way, it ‘propped him up’. I have noted this way of sitting in many farmers or shepherds: on the one hand, it makes sense because it (surprisingly) is a very restful pose, compared with standing or squatting. In a sense, it is sitting while standing up. This ease of propping oneself upright may be part of a technique of the body (cf. Mauss) which confers masculinity, stamina and pride (of sitting ‘kamarotos’ – prideful). I think this is a good example in which mundane uses of a historical artefact with no apparent use to archaeologists is transformed through an embodied practice to significant landmark.

The excavation director complained that Mr. M extinguished his cigarettes in the crack at the middle of the stone. This prompted a series of conversations upon the stone and the inscription. I wondered aloud who were the writer of the inscription. Mr. M insisted that he was a looter (‘archeokapilos’) and that he would bring some white paint to wipe the inscription of the traveller from the face of it. He later took extra care to fish out all the cigarette butts from the hollow he had been using as an ashtray. There was a sense in which his treatment towards it was simultaneously brutal and disrespectful (it was ‘just a stone’) but also respectful and attentive. I suspect that similar mundane actions may act as ‘attractors’ of value and discursive wholes upon elements of the landscape that do not otherwise have any significance to ‘official’ valuation procedures. There is subsequently a sense in which this lived experience is ‘transvaluated’ (after Nietzche, via Tambiah) in a back-and-forth movement into more encompassing archaeologies.

But still, does that lead us to an answer to the simplest question: why? I guess not. Why this one and not any other boulder that sticks out of the ground. Perhaps because of its position, merely out of chance. I had another conversation that led my thoughts to another direction, though. I was walking around the site with a couple of pensioners from England, and we stopped in front of the stone. We discussed the fact that we might be able to locate the guy who left his name on it by looking at admiralty files in the UK. I made a remark at how perfectly executed the graffiti is, and how long it must have taken him to make it. Then the husband replied, oh, but you know, sailors back then were used to this kind of thing. They would spend their free time carving on wood and bone, sometimes producing exquisite artefacts. These were called scrimshaw. Is this scrimshaw? I asked myself. I guess it might be.

This remark made me look at this graffiti in a different light. Yes, it is a sort of signature of crypto-colonial processes (cf Herzfeld). After all, the British in the 19th century came to Greece as protectors, conquerors, patrons, and unlikely foes. So we could plainly claim that this particular officer was merely inscribing the net result of a power relationship. But it is not merely this. Considering the time it took him, possibly on his knees, to carve the hard limestone with such precision, I guess it is a manifest of the way such power relations shape and direct human productive action. The interesting element is that this crypto-colonialism somehow made him kneel and toil to leave his mark; that ideology served to produce material artefacts, it found a way to materialise through the hard labour of an individual. A sort of labour that was gratuitous: not imposed by a system, but inspired from an ideal; not dictated by need, but moved by desire. In turn, these artefacts were again recognised by another form of ideology, ours, and yet produced more material artefacts: photos, and why not, ideas and discussions; I have toiled to produce this brief commentary; Mr. M rested his leg on it and thought of it with mixed emotions. It is in this sense that it becomes scrimshaw, although it has entered a very different circuit of value than the original item.

Don’t Mention the Army

Posted in analogies, poseidon with tags , , , on 02-09-2008 by pwork

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!