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The Big Dig: Reflecting On A Summer Of Archaeological Discovery

August 15, 2011 by Special To The ...

The Big Dig: Reflecting On A Summer Of Archaeological Discovery

I'm back home now. The traveler's homecoming is always bittersweet, wavering between the throbbing, insistent pulse of things undone, places unseen and the sweet, soothing rhythms of home. It is a time well made for reflection and remembering. It is impossible to contain all of a summer within a thousand words- or even ten thousand- but at least a modicum of closure and summary is appropriate.
Archaeology cannot be separated from its environment. Literally, the artifacts are buried in the physical environment and, metaphorically, the modern social and political structures, the modern incarnation of society; these are bound to affect the way archaeology is approached and regarded.
What is archaeology in Greece?
Greece is a strange country, as anyone who has paid attention to the news over the past few months is doubtless aware. Intensely proud, intensely stubborn, chronically suffering from a kind of selective blindness, it is rife with antiquity. You can barely turn around without tripping over something ancient. Many of its greatest archaeological treasures aren't even buried, they just dot the landscape like toy blocks left out on the carpet by a careless child. And the Greek people are, in my experience, universally proud of this. They boast of the antiquity of their culture. They claim the the invention of everything from democracy to theater to justice and civic responsibility. They always warm up to archaeologists and will sometimes discourse at length about how great and ancient their culture is.
And yet their democracy is malfunctioning. Their sense of civic responsibility extends as far as a brick may be thrown. The politicians sit with one finger tipping the scale of justice. Their theater is still pretty good.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, the people living in Greece laid the foundations for Western civilization as we know it. Ask any high schooler. They wore psychological grooves that defined thought and art and spirituality for millenia. And then?
The reasons for the decline of Greek civilization are immaterial. The history of that corner of Europe until the modern era is interesting enough, but ultimately unimportant. What are important are those material remains. After a few thousand years, some cultural transformations and the all the abrasions of time, all that we have left of ancient Greece are these walls, these artifacts. The ideas that were born there have percolated and could, without pretension, be called the best legacy of that culture.
But a legacy of ideas is not really the most compelling legacy, as that same high schooler will tell you. Those ideas were rooted in a place. They had a physicality. They were real. Archaeology in Greece is the study of the reality behind those ideas. Eventually, it becomes the study of the people behind those ideas, the society behind them.
That's one answer. But there's an even bigger question.
Why study archeology?
In the past six weeks I have saved no lives. I have not improved the quality of life of the poor or hungry. I have not defended freedom. I have not planted a tree or built a bridge. As Dr. Maggidis likes to say, “Archaeology is a science of destruction.” It is, inevitably, only capable of destruction. We tear down layers of earth that have been carefully laid down by nature over 3,000 years in such a way that no-one who comes after will be able to put them back. We remove artifacts and remains that have lain untouched for millenia. And for what? What does archaeology do?
It seems that archaeologists get this question a lot. What good does it do? These people, these societies lived more than 3,000 years ago, how can it possibly mean anything to me what they wore, or how they prayed, or who they bowed to?
And, in a sense, it isn't important, it doesn't mean anything. You could go your entire life not knowing that all the Greek gods except Aphrodite and Apollo had antecedents in Mycenaean cults. You hardly need to know about the way Minoan youths would leap over bulls on festival days. The ancient Egyptian perspective on what happened to the soul after death probably will not decide whether or not you make it through work tomorrow.
Archaeology isn't about you. Archaeology isn't about me. Archaeology is wonderfully impersonal; it is about us (here's when pretension kicks in). For more than 10,000 years mankind has been thinking and moving, changing himself and changing his environment. But what makes us who we are? A lot of individuals ask this question of their heritage and look back a few generations to learn something about their ancestors. Maybe they had an Italian grandfather. Maybe their great-grandmother was an English aristocrat. Maybe their great-great grandfather immigrated from Poland with holes in his pockets. We ask these questions because knowing something about those who came before us can tell us something about ourselves.
It's the same with archaeology. No-one is tracing their family line back to Plato, but as a species, as a society, we look at our ancestors to learn something about ourselves. It's not just true of Greek archaeology, it's true of all archaeology, in every part of the world.
And what have we learned about ourselves?

Francis Cressotti was born and raised in Cheshire. He attended Dickinson College, where he studied archaeology under Dr. Maggidis and graduated with a degree in that field in 2010. This is his third summer in Greece, where he can often be found climbing mountains. This was Cressotti's last installment of The Big Dig.

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