Greek Maymester 2012: Athens and environs

Greek Maymester 2012: Athens and environs

We saved the big A till last, but we weren’t unprepared; all the way round Greece we had been seeing temples and monuments put up by Athenians, or commemorating victories over them. By the time our bus dropped us off in front of the Arch of Hadrian, and before even seeing them, we’d already complicated our view of the Acropolis and the agora one hundred fold.


The Parthenon, seen from Philopappos Hill

We were located in plum position, three minutes walk from the foot of the Acropolis and one minute from the frozen yoghurt shop. This time round we ignored the Roman levels of the city and zoomed in on the Classical: the Acropolis, the agora, and the Kerameikos. The Agora is one of those sites where some of the most important structures are easy to miss: we probably had our best view of the Stoa Pokile a couple of days later from a train window on our way to Aegina, for example, and it was only second time round that we stopped at an unobtrusive-looking reconstructed foundation which turned out to be the boundary of the Sanctuary of the Twelve Gods, the official centre of the city and the point from which Athenian distance was measured. It’s also a site with unexpected layers: a 5th century house BCE we’d discussed in one of our pre-trip sessions, which had once been beyond the boundary-stone of the Agora and in which Socrates may or may not have taught, turned out to be underneath the foundations of the 2nd century BCE Middle Stoa, well within the space of the Agora. And right in the middle of the wide open space on our plans we found not only the 1st century BCE Odeion of Agrippa but also a vast late Roman palace, not to mention the 5th century BCE temple moved stone-for-stone into the centre of the agora in Roman times….


Lead weights from the agora - a half turtle of olives, anyone?


From the Agora we headed round the corner to the Kerameikos, where the ancient potters’ quarter sits snugly inside the city wall. Outside the wall and beyond the Dipylon Gate, meanwhile, an assortment of sanctuaries and funerary monuments stretches along the road which once led out of the city – and leads now approximately in the direction of Gazi, centre of Athenian youth culture and of the city’s gay scene. The Kerameikos museum, replete with vases from Protogeometric periods on, was the perfect place for a lesson on stylistic development in Greek vase painting, filling in all sorts of gaps (the non-Corinthian 7th century, for example) that we’d missed out on elsewhere – and providing us also with a wonderful selection of pieces which looked as though they’d been made mainly for fun: a much-needed visual massage for the end of a long, hot day.


Tombstone revellers in an olive grove, at the edge of the Sacred Way by the Dipylon Gate. Charon sits in his boat to the bottom left.

A rare potter's kiln, from one of the houses in the Kerameikos district
From an 8th century BCE child's burial (now in the Kerameikos museum)

The next day was another marathon, at least for the very stout of heart and legs, who managed to take in the Benaki Museum, the Cycladic Museum and the Byzantine Museum in their “free time” before heading for an afternoon at the Acropolis Museum and an evening on the Acropolis itself. Going into the Cycladic Museum is a little like stepping into a jewellery box – everything small and clean and perfectly lit, completely perplexing as soon as one wants to think in cultural or historical terms about the Cyclades (we needed the museum on Fira and the Cycladic collections of the National Archaeological Museum for that), and covering a far earlier period than most of the things we’d seen and talked about. It was a good lesson in stylistic categorization, although my personal preference was for the museum’s weird and wonderful Cypriot collections and the incredible multimedia playthings that went with them.


Figurine of the Kilia type, from Kilia in Eastern Thrace (European Turkey), ca. 4360-3500 BCE. From the Cycladic Museum (on loan from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens)


We visited the Acropolis Museum before climbing up the rock itself, which meant that we already had an idea of the Mycenaean, Geometric and Archaic period structures and finds by the time we ran up against the Parthenon itself in all its sunset glory. Once we were finally all settled down comfortably in front of the east façade, Donna Cach led us through the political circumstances leading up to and surrounding the Periclean building program; we were then let loose to wander around the remaining structures. As ever, the scaffolding was out in force, but there were surprisingly few other tourists to contend with at that hour of the evening, and the light was almost too schmaltzy to be real.


Donna Cach on the Acropolis
You know it's a good sign when the steely glnt in your professor's eye is Parthenon-shaped...
Donna, Kim, Katie, Robert and Joe by the east front of the Parthenon


The culmination of our many museum trips was of course the National Archaeological Museum. We met on the steps of the museum at 8am for a lecture by Eleni Drakaki, and expert in Mycenaean seals and their contexts, who brought us on a fantastic whistlestop tour through the histories of the Minoan and Mycenaean periods, and then on a quick and stimulating blast through the Minoan and Mycenaean galleries when the museum opened at 9. We ordered the remainder of our visit according to individual interests. Rather than trying to make sense of the whole of Greek art and history in 5 short hours, each student came up with a research goal of her or his own and then used the museum to gather material to this end, to be reported on in class that afternoon, but primarily for use in future papers and research projects.


As a group, we saw nothing else in Athens (although the Lysikrates monument did seem to pop up around every other corner), but we did visit two important sites outside the city, Marathon and Eleusis. Marathon we had in fact stopped at in the course of our initial journey to Athens, to look at the Marathon monument and listen to an extremely enjoyable history lesson from David Carlisle on why the Athenians might, maybe, possibly, have almost had it coming in 490 BCE. Eleusis was our final pilgrimage and the site of the first half of the final exam, which took place in the museum and on site – congratulations are due to all the students, who managed not only to negotiate the (uncertain) intricacies of the Eleusinian mysteries on our initial walk through the sanctuary, but also to comment cogently on a random assortment of objects and structures, none of which they’d ever seen before.


The monument to the Athenian dead at Marathon
Robert DeBusk in the sanctuary of Pluto-Hades at Eleusis


On a rare free day right at the end of our trip, almost all of us decided to go off on a brief island-hopping excursion to Aegina, to swim one last time, top up our already overblown tans, eat pistachios and visit the 5th century BCE temple of Aphaia. We had already talked about the temple sculptures in class when thinking about the transition between Archaic and Classical period sculpture, and we had come across Aegina’s distinctive turtle coins in several museums, so it was good to be able to visit the island itself and to look back on Athens (literally; we could see the city’s coastline from the altar platform of the temple) from a new and hostile perspective. We had also been warned in advance that we were heading for the land of pistachios, which apparently thrive in Aegina’s very specific microclimate, and after our morning’s exertions (which involved a very blue sea and some battered calamares as well as the temple to Aphaia) I went for a wander on the outskirts of the main port town, where orchard upon orchard of broad-leafed pistachio trees stretched out into the countryside for as far as I could walk. There are presumably several beautiful stages in the pistachio growing cycle; at this particular point in early June, a pale red was starting to work its way through the green clusters of nut pods, starting at the tips, and the pods were at the point where the Aeginetans pick them and preserve them in sugar syrup. The whole island was immensely green and lovely, especially so after our three days of big city living.


Temple of Aphaia at Aegina
Pistachios on Aegina

The trip ended with a final farewell dinner, the last of the very many extremely enjoyable meals we shared together. I have to confess to frank astonishment at our combined ability to talk classics over the course of these meals, certainly not without deviation, hesitation, or repetition (as they say on the British radio talkshow Just A Minute), but nonetheless to a pretty impressive extent. And I think I can speak for everyone in saying what a great group this was to travel round Greece with – always interested, always alert, always questioning. Certainly on behalf of Kenny, Marina, Jeannine, David and myself: thanks guys, those were a wonderful three weeks.


There are many other people who played a major role in making possible the transition of the Maymester from paper to minibus, and I apologise to the VIPs I’m bound to leave out here. Huge thanks to everyone at the Center – and in particular to Kenny Morrell, without whose boundless reserves of energy and ideas the world would probably turn more slowly on its axis, to Lanah Koelle and Allie Marbry, who were working on all this, on the other side of the Atlantic, for months before the Maymester actually began, and of course to Marina Cheilitsi (sorry Marina, for butchering your name yet again by transliterating it into our horrid Roman alphabet!), our guardian-angel-in-chief, who made sure that we were on time, in line and extremely well looked after at every point on our trip. Many thanks also to Dimitri Cocconi and to everyone at Educational Tours and Cruises, to the many excavators and experts (Ann-Louise Schallin, Eleni Palaiologou, and Eleni Drakaki among others) who showed us round sites and museums on our way, to the institutions and municipalities (in particular at Archanes on Crete, and Kranidi in the Argolid) who made us so welcome. Στην υγειά μας, everybody, and till next time!


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