ElAnt v7n1 - Reviews - The Archaeology of Athens

February 2003 Volume 7, Number 1

The Archaeology of Athens , by John M. Camp, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. Pp. xii + 340. ISBN 0-300-08197-9. $39.95 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Tyler Jo Smith
University of Virginia, USA

Even the most casual visitor to Athens is struck by its impressive and confusing mixture of ancient and modern monuments. Indeed the challenge of disentangling the city's many layers, both historical and architectural, is intensified by an ever-changing and growing archaeological picture. In addition to on-going fieldwork in areas such as the Agora and Kerameikos, conducted for decades under the auspices of the American School and the German Institute respectively, scholar and tourist alike must now take into account the recent excavations by the Greek Archaeological Service held in conjunction with the expansion of the underground metro. While the archaeology of the city has been written several times before, here we are told that "like time, archaeological investigation marches on (x)" with each new season of discovery. The task of presenting it anew is bound to overwhelm even as experienced a scholar-excavator as John Camp, author of the subject's latest effort and current director of the Agora excavations. How best to tackle "the city of Greece most renowned for stately edifices, for the genius of its inhabitants, and for the culture of every art", as put by Stuart in the late 18th century (J. Stuart and N. Revett, The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. I [London, 1789] p. ii)?

Camp's approach to the subject is both topographical and chronological. The book is divided into two major parts: "The Monuments of Athens" and "Site Summaries". Part I is a descriptive narrative of the monuments in their historical context, following a general Prehistoric through Late Roman timeline. By contrast, the site summaries of Athens and Attica in Part II are presented topographically. While there is an avoidable amount of overlap between the parts, this does allow for each to be consulted independently. The author draws generously on ancient literature and inscriptions, provided in English translation and fundamental to any archaeological account of the historical periods in particular. Illustrations are generous and of high quality, and special mention should be made of Peter Connolly's charming watercolors dispersed throughout the text. In addition to the obvious lessons about architecture and art, the reader is instructed on many facets of Classical civilization, among them myth and religion, drama and daily life. The result is part source book, part guidebook, part textbook. The relaxed and even tone reveals a writer at utter ease with his subject, unwearied by years of experience in the field. The perspective is that of an Athenian, not an outsider. At times, one has the feeling of being directly in the presence of the author himself, lovingly guided from site to site - a service he has no doubt provided dozens of students, colleagues, and visitors to Athens over the years. Part I, entitled "The Monuments of Athens", comprises the bulk of the book (pp. 3-244). A brief introductory section deals with the physical setting of the ancient city. The use of terms such as demes and ekklesia , the inclusion of a 5th century inscription, along with a lengthy quotation from Plato's Critias - all woven into an account of the landscape of Athens - unearth Camp's personal style and method. The subsequent sections follow a similar pattern. Framed by chronological periods (Prehistoric, Early and Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Late Roman), the author combines archaeological evidence with historical, literary, epigraphical, and to a lesser extent artistic evidence in an attempt to bring the old place back to life. The broad chronological categories are further divided, where necessary; thus the chapter on Prehistoric Athens begins with the Paleolithic and ends with the Late Bronze Age. Other chapters, however, are not quite as straightforward. Discussions of the Archaic and Classical are divided into sub-sections according to century, historical figures (i.e. Solon, Perikles), events (i.e. Persian Wars), themes (i.e. 'The Rise of Democracy'), or monuments (i.e. Parthenon, Propylaia). A separate section concerned with Attica is sandwiched between 'The Lower City' and the Peloponnesian War in the chapter on Classical Athens. The logic of these divisions seems erratic and will no doubt confuse some readers. The addition of a detailed table of important dates, events, people, monuments, etc., such as one found at the back of The Oxford History of the Classical World , would have clarified cultural and historical developments for beginners, while not offending the sensibilities of a more learned audience.

With each new chapter the archaeological excitement builds as bigger and greater discoveries are made and recounted. Although Camp seems a fan of Classical Athens, about which he has the most to say, it is actually the chapter on the Roman city that may peak the most interest. Many of the modern city's premier ancient icons, such as Hadrian's arch and Philopappos' monument, receive adequate attention here. Happily, we are spared tiresome scholarly debates about the iconography of the Parthenon frieze or the identity of kouros statues. That being said, all is not rosy in Camp's Athens, Classical or otherwise, and there is a healthy amount of drought and plague, seige and ostracism in his narrative. Later historical periods are treated less thoroughly than earlier ones, though Byzantine, Frankish, and Ottoman Athens, and the impact of each on the city's antiquities, are the subject of the Epilogue concluding Part I (pp. 239-244). The thornier issues of modern archaeology in Athens, while not addressed directly, are remarked upon from time to time. In this regard, Lord Elgin and the British Museum do not escape judgement.

The site summaries of Part II are divided into the three sections of Athens, Attica, and Border Areas (pp. 247-327). Most entries have a "description, history, and significance" of the site or monument, details of its excavation history, and a select bibliography. Aiming to be inclusive rather than comprehensive, the bibliographies are in English, German, French, and Modern Greek. Travlos, for example, is brought up to date, yet Camp furnishes many standard references from the late 19th century onwards wherever he feels the need. The sections on Attica and the so-called Border Areas (Eleutherai, Oropos, Salamis) are particularly welcome, if a bit selective. Sites such as Brauron and Marathon, worthy of the extensive treatment they are granted, have much to teach us about religious practices and burial customs in several time periods, as well as the history of Classical Archaeology as a discipline (e.g. Marathon was excavated by Schliemann, S. Marinatos, and Vanderpool). Other sites merit little or no attention at all, such as Kynosarges and Agrileza, both excavated by the British School at different times in that institution's history. Regardless, the site summaries should serve as a quick reference or starting point for further study of the places and their remains. As well, they might prove useful to have on hand while visiting Athens or touring the countryside. Only passing mention is made of the past decade's metro excavations, and it remains to be seen how these substantial discoveries will enhance the existing picture.

Among the latest spate of books on Athenian archaeology and art, this one will surely find its niche. Recent studies of the Acropolis (i.e. Hurwit, Schneider), its monuments (i.e. Korres) and architectural sculpture (i.e. Neils, Palagia, Jenkins) are given no more pride of place by Camp than those involving Mycenaean tombs at Thorikos or the fort at Eleutherai. Such an informed approach is bound to open the eyes of anyone coming to this subject from outside the trench or apotheke. At the same time, Camp's definition of "archaeology" as "the study of the past using physical evidence: buildings, monuments, grave sites" (p. ix) seems rather traditional. Such an attitude privileges famous historical figures and large-scale structures, while openly ignoring the latest developments in field archaeology both within and without the Classical sphere. The author is sadly dismissive of field survey as a valid pursuit, undeniably important for exploring the rural landscape. Other branches and stages of archaeological research are ignored altogether. Thus an uninformed reader might remain unaware that Thermoluminescence dating, CAD reconstructions, and basic artifact analysis are critical to the current investigation of one of antiquity's hottest spots. Without question the book is more about big sites and major monuments than about and material culture and museums.

A few minor problems should be noted. The author of The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is N.J. Richardson (p. 288), and of Pausanias' Description of Greece J.G. Frazer (p. 298). The catalogue of antiquities from the Metropolitan Railway excavations, Athens: the City Beneath the City , is now available in English (p. 247). Some references to ancient sources are lacking proper citations, such as the Iliad 's "catalogue of ships" - a phrase potentially meaningless to readers not trained in Classical literature - and mentioned without further details in relation to Salamis (pp. 324-325). The bibliography is weak on iconographic matters; a significant amount has been written on the intriguing subject of the Eleusinian Mysteries, to cite an obvious example. Museum, inventory number, and find spot are not given for illustrated works (e.g. sculpture, vases, coins, etc.), and a few more pretty pictures might have appealed to some. Finally, the rest of Greece, and indeed the outside ancient world, are barely noted at all. The emergence of certain non-native cults, such as that of MĂȘn at Peiraieus, might have been placed into the wider context of Greco-Roman religion (cf. S. Mitchell and M. Waelkans, Pisidian Antioch [London, 1998] pp. 37-90).

These points aside, this is an important and enduring book. Perhaps its greatest asset will be in an ability to meet the teaching challenges of two groups separated by miles. The first are the instructors and professors who offer up antiquity as a distance learning experience, in the faraway classrooms of the English-speaking world. The second are those who confront the monuments and museums of Athens and Attica face to face, as on-site guides, in an atmosphere pervaded by nephos and geckoes. Both will applaud the existence of a single book suitable for specialists and non-specialists, informative on the archaeology of the region as well as its immediate historical and cultural backdrop.