A Response to The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece (2007) by Yannis Hamilakis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

by Elissa Z. Faro (Dartmouth College)
January 20, 2009. On this historic day, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America, the issues that Hamilakis considers in this book – the relationship between the modern nation-state and its historical and material past – resonate anew.
Hamilakis’ book aims to address a number of themes that, although discussed in terms of Greece and Greek antiquities, are current issues that concern the larger archaeological and anthropological world. He aims to explore, problematize, and re-examine the concept of archaeology as the practice of producing meanings out of material traces of the past; the concept of national imagination and its relationship with the concept of modernity. For me, as an archaeologist who primarily works in Greece, this book struck a special chord for my own research and fieldwork. At the same time, it triggered many thoughts, responses, and reflections about my own and other’s work in different periods, different regions, and in different developing nations of the world. Below, I will discuss how Hamilakis approaches the complex network of relationships between archaeologists, citizens, politicians, and the larger global world.
Hamilakis’ over-arching framework is based on his view of nationalism, which he sees as a cultural system, an ideology, an ontology, and even the social dreams of a people. In the introductory chapter, he states explicitly that “the book explores the key position of the ancient Greek (mostly Classical) heritage and its material manifestations in the lives, imagination, experiences, anxieties, and hopes of people in Greece” (7). Employing a primarily anthropological methodology – a “multi-sited historical and archaeological ethnography” (cf. Marcus 1995, 1998) – this book tackles issues such as stakeholdership in the past, colonialism, consumerism, and national identity.

Drawing upon his previous and extensive research into similar and related subjects (2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 for some examples), Hamilakis clearly situates himself within a number of current debates in archaeology and anthropology, while at the same time engaging his readers with thoughtful and compelling “case studies” drawn from many different types of deployment of the material culture of the Hellenic past. These studies range from rehabilitation camps on Makronisos during the Greek Civil War (Ch. 6), to Greece’s most famous archaeologist Manolis Andronikos (Ch. 4), to a fresh perspective on the long-debated and hotly-contested issue of the Parthenon (or “Elgin”) marbles (Ch. 7).
In his first substantive chapter (Ch. 2), entitled “The ‘Soldiers,’ ‘the Priests,’ and the ‘Hospitals for Contagious Diseases’: the Producers of Archaeological Matter-realities”, Hamilakis sets the stage for the following discussion by giving the reader a brief but thorough overview of the development of archaeology as a discipline, Greek laws and procedures that deal with archaeological remains, the various institutions – both national and foreign – that are responsible for the work of archaeology, and how the birth of the Greek nation-state was intimately bound-up with its acceptance of the mantle of its classical past.
In the following chapter, “From Western to Indigenous Hellenism: Antiquity, Archaeology, and the Invention of Modern Greece” (Ch. 3), Hamilakis addresses this issue more explicitly. By tracing the development of the notion of “Hellenism” from the time when Greece was not an independent nation-state, through the ideological trends such as the glorification of Hellenic classical antiquity by the European middle class (76), to the late 18th/early 19th centuries when Greece auctioned off major excavation sites to world powers for financial and political returns (109-111), he examines the contested access to the cultural resource of antiquity. The four major foci of this chapter (as Hamilakis lays out) are: 1) the changes and transformations in attitudes towards antiquities; 2) the power of antiquities in the national memory and imagination; 3) the construction of the monumental topography of the nation; and 4) the tensions, ambiguities, clashes, and reconciliations that characterized these processes of monumental topographic production (58).
While all of the topics touched upon under the broad heading of “Antiquity, Archaeology, and the Invention of Modern Greece” are important and deserve the attention paid to them in the text, one issue in particular resonates with me as an American Classical archaeologist working in Greece. That is the role that the major world powers played in the development of the concept of Hellenism, the archaeological repercussions of that role, and the legacy that has been left behind. In comparison to the discussion of indigenous Hellenism (112-119), which focuses primarily on the role of Christianity, the European and Western ideology of Hellenism is more resonant from my point-of-view. The examples are brief, and Hamilakis himself recognizes that this topic requires more attention. However, as a foreign archaeologist working in Greece today, bound by the restrictive permit regulations of the Greek government, this discussion provides insight into how and why the situation with foreign schools and permits developed. For example, when and how the French School received the Delphi permit, and how the Americans obtained the right to excavated the Athenian Agora (110). This historical underpinning helps to frame the current situation that is frustrating for Greek and foreigner archaeologists alike.
Hamilakis’ discussion of the life and work of Manolis Andronikos in Chapter 4, “The Archaeologist as Shaman: the Sensory National Archaeology of Manolis Andronikos”, presents the first in-depth ethnographic case study of the book. He chronicles Andronikos’ career, and specifically, his excavation at Vergina of the tomb he claimed as that of Philip II of Macedon, with the result that it has become one of the most famous and often visited sites in Greece today. Andronikos serves as a paradigm for the “key role of the archaeologist in the process of production, in the materialization and objectification of national discourse” (165). The crucial concept here is archaeology as a process that actively produces the past, by “discovering” the material remains of that past and presenting to the public (compare Shanks and Tilley 1992; also Shanks’ Archaeological Manifesto http://documents.stanford.edu/michaelshanks/112).
Chapters 5 & 6, which present additional case studies — of the Metaxas dictatorship (1936-1941) and the concentration camp at Makronisos (1946-1949), respectively —further explore issues introduced in earlier chapters, such as the deployment of the ideology of Hellenism by governments (here, in both cases, specifically the Greek government) and the purification, regeneration, demarcation, and exhibition of the classical past. In particular, the case of the island of Makronisos used as a concentration and re-education facility during the Greek Civil War in the middle of the 20th century is a fascinating study in its own right. The residents of the facilities on Makronisos were re-educated to become “patriotic” by the study and re-creation of the classical past: staging ancient Greek plays, memorizing ancient Greek poetry, and building scale models of the Parthenon, for example. “Antiquity, with its discursive and material manifestations, acted here as an allochronic mechanism [cf. Fabian 1983]; Greece was portrayed as living in the monumentalized temporality structured by classical antiquity, not in the temporality structured by the political and social trajectories of the Cold War” (232). Classical antiquity is simultaneously purified and exhibited as the illustrious past and used to facilitate the purification of dissidents, in the case of Makronisos.
While the “Other Parthenon” on Makronisos is introduced in Chapter 6, the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens (and its parts elsewhere) are the topic of Chapter 7 – “Nostalgia for the Whole: the Parthenon (or Elgin) Marbles.” By looking closely at the role in the national imagination of the architectural fragments that were taken by Lord Elgin from the Acropolis (and the Parthenon itself), Hamilakis revisits a number of issues that have woven through his entire discussion: the claims of various nationalisms, the interplay between imperial/colonial and indigenous practices, the articulation of aesthetic discourses, and local-global interactions in the field of cultural economy (245). Hamilakis provides an intensely thick description, or ethnography, of the Parthenon marbles. This allows him to address the sacralization, singularization, and inalienability of a group of artifacts that have come to represent Hellenic heritage as stolen wrongfully by world powers. His description includes the personification of the Parthenon marbles as Greek exile, given voice that implores the world to return them to their rightful home. This conceptualization of the marbles is at dramatic odds with their commodification and circulation in the global cultural economy as symbolic capital (283). That is, due to the development of Hellenism as the heritage not simply of the Greeks, the entire Western world feels that it (in its various incarnations) too has a stake in the marbles.
Bipolarity/tension/ambiguity; authenticity/artificiality; singularization/commodification; original/copy; sacred/profane; alienability/inalienability – these are some of the tensions that Hamilakis draws out in his concluding Chapter 8, “The Nation in Ruins? Conclusions.” He summarizes the over-arching concepts that have structured his discussion of character of archaeology and the character of the nation. First, the concept of archaeology as the practice of producing meanings out of material traces of the past is shown in Hamilakis’ work not always to have the same trajectory. That is, his examples such as the case of Andronikos have shown that Hellenic national imagination (cf. Anderson 1991) is a hybrid of the pre-modern and modern ways of thinking, rather than as a replacement of earlier versions of imagining. Through his re-analysis, he “draw[s] attention to the multiplicity, diversity and complexity of modernity, the multivalent trajectories that different societies have followed in their incorporation into the modern world system” (295). Second, Hamilakis presents “nostalgia for the whole” as a key mode of imaging the nation, whereby the concept of the nation is threatened by the fragmentation and dispersal of antiquities, buildings, statues and national entities overall (296). Therefore, restitution and restoration of broken and fragmented antiquities symbolizes the key national fantasy of the return of all exiled entities, including territories, emigrants, etc. (296). He argues that antiquities simultaneously need to be singular/sacred/inalienable and alienable, operating as currency of symbolic capital in the cultural economy (297). His final concluding thoughts extend his analysis outward, to the rapidly changing globalized world, and how the Greek example may shed light on the relationship that other countries have with their past.
In short, A Nation and Its Ruins provides an interesting set of case-studies that are drawn together to answer questions that apply to a broad range of archaeological, political, and cultural questions, most importantly current issues of stakeholdership and the production of meaning from the past. As a result, this work will resonant not only with archaeologists who work in Greece who are intimately familiar with the context of these case studies, but to a wider audience of archaeologists and anthropologists who deal with similar issues in other countries of the world every day. In fact, those who are not archaeologists of Greek antiquities may find this work as a whole even more interesting, since many who work in this part of the world will recognize some of the chapters as re-workings of previously published work by Hamilakis (1999, 2002). However, Hamilakis’ presentation of the history of circumstances surrounding, modern usages of, exile of, return to ancient (Classical) antiquities in Greece provides a comprehensive data set to explore the theoretical questions that he seeks to answer. In addition, his discussion of the Elgin marble debate in Chapter 7 provides one of best discussions of the topic available, and I will be using it to introduce my students to some of these crucial issues.
I Obama’s inauguration speech addressed both the present and the past of the country, and how Americans must live up to the challenges posed and precedents set by our forefathers.
II Issues that he continues to work on (Hamilakis 2008).
Text of Barack Obama’s 2009 Inauguration Speech, available at: <>
Anderson, B. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso.
Hamilakis, Y. 2008. “Decolonising Greek archaeology: indigenous archaeologies, modernist archaeology, and the post-colonial critique.” In D. Damaskos and D. Plantzos (eds), A Singular Antiquity. Athens: The Benaki Museum. pp. 273-84.
2006. “The colonial, the national and the local: legacies of the ‘Minoan’ past.” In
Y. Hamilakis and N. Momigliano (eds), Archaeology and European
Modernity: Producing and Consuming the ‘Minoans’. Padova: Aldo Ausilio (Creta Antica 7), pp. 145-62.
2004. “The fragments of modernity and the archaeologies of the future.”
Modernism/Modernity 11(1): 55-9.
2003. “Lives in ruins: Antiquities and national imagination in Greece.” In S. Kane
(ed) The Politics of Archaeology and Identity in a Global Context. Boston:
Archaeological Institute of America, pp 51-78.
2002. “‘The other Parthenon’: Antiquity and national memory at Makronisos.”
Journal of Modern Greek Studies 20: 307-38.
1999. “Stories from exile: fragments from the cultural biography of the Parthenon
(or “Elgin”) marbles.” World Archaeology 31(2): 303-21.
Hamilakis, Y. and E. Yalouri. 1996. “Antiquities as symbolic capital in modern Greece.” Antiquity 70 (266): 117-29.
Marcus, G. 1995. “Ethnography in/of the world system: the emergence of multi-sites ethnography.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 95-117.
Marcus, G. 1998. Ethnography through Thick and Thin. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Shanks, M. and C. Tilley, 1992: Re-Constructing Archaeology. Second Edition. London: Routledge.

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