Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A pivotal foreign institution

Excavators with drive. The American School of Classical Studies began excavations at the Ancient Agora in Athens in 1931. This is a photo of the west side of the Agora at the start of excavations. It is taken from the north toward the hill of Kolonos Agoraios and the Hephaesteion.

By Alexandra Koroxenidis - Kathimerini English Edition

When the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) was founded 125 years ago, it had only seven members and 12 collaborating universities and its location was a small building on Amalias Street. Today, the school accepts the most distinguished students in archaeology and classical studies from its 168 affiliated universities in North America and is a vital part of cultural life in Greece, both through the important excavations that it conducts on ancient sites, its specialized publications and the Gennadius Library.

Recently, ASCSA which is also known as the American Archaeological School, organized a symposium to celebrate its 125th and the 75th anniversary of the Athens Agora excavations. On that occasion, Stephen V. Tracy, a professor of classical studies (he has taught at Berkeley, Brown, Harvard and the State University of Ohio, among others) and the school's director for the past four years (he will hold the post until June 2007), spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the school's aims, its excavations and its contribution to the diffusion of classical studies and archaeology at the universities of North America.

«I think that when compared with other foreign institutions in Greece, what we are unusual in doing is that we are a school in the true sense of the word, we have a teaching program year-round which is open to students that are doing PhD research or entering an academic career. There is not a program of ancient Greek studies in North America that does not have at least one alumnus of the school on its faculty. We do not want to train only archaeologists but also people studying art history, Greek literature, Greek history, Ancient Greek and philosophy to come here and learn about the country's culture and visit the archaeological sites,» Professor Tracy said. «We are a school, and Greece is our classroom.»

But how great is the demand for archaeology as a field of study at US universities?

«Many of my colleagues in the US, or other parts of the world, worry that fewer people are studying Greek or Latin than before. But the fact is that I see a healthy continuation to which I feel that the American School of Classical Studies contributes greatly. Greek and Latin and any serious study of the ancient world is never going to be something that appeals to the masses but only to a small group of pretty smart people,» Tracy said.

Besides the ancient world, the curriculum of the school also extends to the Byzantine era; the Gennadius Library provides access to the study of modern Greek history, literature and civilization. Its unique collection includes the archives of George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis.

«I think that interest in the Byzantine and medieval periods are growing in the States. To be honest, I think that Modern Greek appeals more to people of Greek descent,» said Tracy.

Besides its contribution to education, the ASCSA conducts important work in the field of archaeology. The excavations at the Agora, which began in 1931, and the excavations at Ancient Corinth, which began in 1896 and are the oldest continuing excavations by the school, are among the most important.

«At Corinth, I think we have done something unique. Of course, we wanted to find the classical city and we have not found it but what we have discovered is the Roman city and the Roman remains and we have some Hellenistic finds. In the past two decades, Professor Charles Williams, former director of the excavation, has been working on the Frankish period and the current director, Dr Guy Sanders, has been working on late Roman and Byzantine and early modern, so this is the one site in Greece where people have been showing for the first time serious attention to those periods, and have done so for quite a long time. We are now in a position to write a history of Corinth from 146 BC to the early modern period,» Tracy said. «In the Agora, we have unearthed some 500,000 finds, among them 7,000 inscriptions through the study of which we are in a position to know exactly how the civic center of Athens, the most important city in the ancient world, operated.»

Back in the mid-60s, when Professor Tracy was a student at ASCSA, he conducted major research on the Greek inscriptions of the Agora. A PhD student at the time (he is an alumnus of Harvard), he came up with a method of dating Attic inscriptions by studying the lettering on them as a style of handwriting. His method enabled him to piece together fragments and revise the dating of several inscriptions.

Besides the continuing Agora excavations, excavations by ASCSA in recent years include William McDonald's work in Messenia and John Cherry and Jack Davis's work in Pylos.

The school

The man who envisioned ASCSA was Charles Eliot Norton, professor of art history at Harvard and the first president, in 1879, of the Archaeological Institute of America of which ASCSA was intended as a branch.

Designed as a non-governmental institution, the school was a cooperative effort between different American universities which in the school's early days included Brown, Amherst, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Virginia, Wesleyan, California, the College of the City of New York and Johns Hopkins.

The school was founded in 1882 and immediately began excavating in the area of the Pnyx. Excavations of the ancient theaters of Thorikos, Sikyon, Icaria and Eretria followed a few years later. At the same time, the ASCSA conducted important studies on the monuments of the Acropolis which were then being excavated by the Greek Archaeological Service and Panayiotis Kavvadias. In 1922, Ioannis Gennadius donated an important collection of 24,000 volumes to the school. A library was built with funding by the Carnegie Foundation. Today the Gennadius owns more than 120,000 volumes that cover the entire range of Greek history and civilization.

In 1931, private institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation funded the excavations at the Athens Agora. After the war, the ASCSA reconstructed the Stoa of Attalos and turned it to a museum of the finds discovered in the Agora. It also restored the Church of the Holy Apostles that is on the same site.

«Agora: Excavations 1931-2006,» by Craig A. Mauzy, has been published on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Agora excavations. Two separate publications on «Marble-Workers in the Athenian Agora» and «Women in the Athenian Agora» were also published recently.

An exhibition that includes photographs from the Agora excavations from 1931 to the present is being held at the Stoa of Attalos through September 15.

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