A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Lord Byron holds a special place in the hearts of Greeks, philhellenes, and most archaeologists who have worked in Greece. His early poetry, especially Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with its stirring evocations of Greece's glorious past, moved many Europeans to rally to the cause of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s.
Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth!
Byron came to know the country itself, so that his poetic imagery was more powerful, more immediate than that of others who wrote about Greece, but never walked the land. Terence Spencer, a lecturer in English literature at the University of London, wrote of Byron's poetry that "the Greece of the imagination and the Greece of observation were one." Byron himself even came prepared to fight alongside the Greeks, dying in 1824 during the siege of Missolonghi. The inspirational power of his poetry was well noted by Eugène Delacroix, whose painting, The Massacre of Scio, itself a masterpiece of dramatic passion, was first exhibited in Paris in that same year; in the month following Byron's death, Delacroix wrote in his diary, as advice to himself, "Rappelle-toi, pour t'enflammer éternellement, certains passages de Byron" ("Recall, to enflame yourself forever, certain passages of Byron").
The Greek landscape, both ancient and modern, figures prominently in the poetry of twentieth-century Greeks, some of whom have given verse to their sense of the burden of the past as well as its glory. Their poetic allusions to archaeology can be intensely personal and spiritual, as in one of my favorite poems by George Seferis, who manages in "Mycenae" to evoke not only the citadel of Agamemnon, with its massive stone walls embraced by twin peaks, looking across the plain to Argos, but also the personal burden of knowledge of the past.
I have seen in the night
Sinks whoever raises the great stones:
Archaeologists are concerned with landscape because they study its interaction with the people who inhabited it over time, but love of landscape is an emotion that runs deep in many archaeologists, especially in Greece, and fellow travelers over the same landscape develop a kind of bond that extends across time. One of the great archaeologists of Greece, Oscar Broneer, was one such traveler; he knew the by ways of Greece as well as anyone in this century. Elizabeth R. Gebhard, one of his former students, observed in the American Journal of Archaeology following his death in 1992 at age 97, "A large and energetic man with long legs, Broneer loved to walk over the Greek countryside," and "had no patience with stay-at-homes." As he enjoyed reminding us in his later years, he climbed Acrocorinth twice a day when he was excavating the western city wall of Corinth.
Broneer, in some sense the teacher of every scholar who worked in the Corinthia over the past three-quarters of a century, was also a lover of poetry, including Greek poetry of all periods, and was particularly fond of reciting for friends Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells" in his native Swedish, delighting in the alliteration. Broneer wrote poetry himself, including the only poem ever published in the Journal of Field Archaeology. I had invited him in the late 1970s to write a retrospective about the changes he had observed over five decades in the practice of archaeology in Greece. He declined--worrying, he said, that it might further disputes between younger and older archaeologists--but offered instead a poem, titled "Archaeologists, Now and Later." It begins,
Like Truffle-hunters, nose to ground,
The poem continues in a light-hearted way, teasing the young archaeologist, now and in some future time:
For students, fresh from school and dutiful,
But it is not treasure that scholars seek:
And yet I must not fail to state
After conceding that in archaeology "some will always disagree" and "write articles of refutation," he closes with optimistic observations, again light-hearted, on how we might view "ugliness and beauty" and the old among us. Touching notes from a humanistic archaeologist. Rhys Carpenter, director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens from 1927 to 1932 and a renowned professor at Bryn Mawr, was also deeply moved by the Greek landscape. In 1912, he published The Tragedy of Etarre, a play in verse about a knight of the Round Table. Much of his poetry, however, was based on the history, mythology, and countryside of Greece and other eastern Mediterranean lands. One, "The Olive," which, like Broneer's poem, concerns the nature of being old:
Outside of Athens in the plain
Such are true men. With aged brain
Some of my favorite poems are by Loren Eiseley, a more occasional visitor to the Mediterranean. A professor of anthropology and paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania, with penetrating insight into the evolution of life that the earth has witnessed, he wrote a particularly memorable poem about life and death in the ancient Aegean. In "Knossus," he follows the theory, then current, that the palace of Minos and the Kefti (Cretans) were destroyed when the volcano on Thera erupted.
"The Kefti come no more.
They died in one night, the pillars of the palace buckling,
Civilizations die as men die, by
Eiseley, however, drew most often on his experiences and impressions in the western hemisphere, where most of his research was centered. In "Men Have Their Time," he begins,
Why did the ruins fall so happily, the plaster scale, the carven jaguar
And from another poem, "The Little Treasures," this:
I know now what impulse created the Olmec heads
But his concern was all humanity. In "The Little Treasures," he muses over a polished flint he found among pebbles washed down from a glacial fan and wonders of the hand that made it: "Where is the hand now? In what language is the flint remembered?" In the end he leaves "a shaped stone in the gravel" that "will lie there when no one interprets these words."
My stone will stretch the shadow of the last evening.
Loren Eiseley died in 1977. For some of us he is the archaeologists' poet.
James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY. The author thanks Al B. Wesolowsky for innumerable conversations about poems and archaeology.