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Insight: The Muse Within Us Volume 52 Number 1, January/February 1999
by James Wiseman

(Illustration by Ray Bartkus)

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!
Immortal, though no more;
though fallen, great!
Who now shall lead thy scattered
children forth,
And long-accustomed bondage uncreate?

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
the sharp peak of the mountain,
seen the plain beyond flooded
with the light of an invisible moon,
seen, turning my head, black
stones huddled
and my life taut as a chord
beginning and end
the final moment;
my hands.
Sinks whoever raises the great stones:
I've raised these stones as long as I was able
I've loved these stones as long as I was able
these stones, my fate.
Wounded by my own soil
tortured by my own shirt
condemned by my own gods,
these 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.

[image] Left to right, Corinth's chief guard George Kachros, author James Wiseman, and archaeologist-poet Oscar Broneer (Lucy Wiseman, 1967) [LARGER IMAGE]

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,
They search and dig until they've found
Some bits of bronze, some sherds of clay,
Which ancient man had thrown away,
As having neither use nor beauty.

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,
Find all things ancient truly beautiful.

But it is not treasure that scholars seek:

And yet I must not fail to state
That what we're after is a date,
For every object, large and small,
A date acceptable to all.

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
There stands an olive.
Shepherds' fire
Has burned it, sun and drought of rain
Have gnarled its trunk, the
winter's ire
Has eaten through.--For every ill,
Black olives all its branches fill.
Such are true men. With aged brain
They stand, though unfulfilled desire
Has burned them, thought and
project vain
Have gnarled them, foes and
fortune dire
Have eaten through.--For every ill,
They bear their ancient harvest still.

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 bear us no more the oils
and the cedars for coffins.
Their sails are lost." This was their epitaph
along with the recorded black sky
and the ashfall.
Then Egypt forgot the gracious isle
of the olives
and the palaces of the seven kings
where athletes somersaulted
over the spread horns of bulls.
They died in one night, the pillars of the palace buckling,
great stones cast down, the galleys
beached on the shore, ruin and ashes
assailing men from the sky.
Thera, the burst throat of the world, coughing fire and brimstone
there to the north, its voice like the
bellowing of a loosed god
long propitiated to no purpose.
We have known it in our own lives--
the fear of the moving atoms, but
these people
endured the actual megaton explosion, and their
faded from history, while the timeless, practical
regretted a small loss of trade.
Civilizations die as men die, by
accident then.
I have seen on an old maple stump
a sapling attempt to grow.
The Kefti come no more,
but here the excavated amphorae
stand by the palace walls waiting
and the beautiful art
is known in the books of the world.
Something lingers in the air as though it would speak.
The waters are bright blue.
I, whose people were horned barbarians,
admire what was done here. I do not think
in the rain of the fire to come, we will leave anything
so precious.
Who will bother to scratch after us upon stone the
regretful words,
"They come no more."

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
recede beneath a covering of green leaves,
why are the date-stones toppled, pavements plunged
into the bitter lake, not to emerge?
Why did great pyramids revert to hills
their steps all covered by the creeping vine?
Why do the thousands go, the toilers there
fade into centuries without a name?

And from another poem, "The Little Treasures," this:

I know now what impulse created the Olmec heads
Mayan stelae and Machu Picchu.

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.
For what else have stones been shaped
but to prolong the human presence and to say
soundlessly in lost tongues:
We loved the earth
but could not stay?
We it was and not the immortals
who shaped the stones.

Loren Eiseley died in 1977. For some of us he is the archaeologists' poet.

* See also "Shall I Compare Thee to a Backfill Pile?"

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY. The author thanks Al B. Wesolowsky for innumerable conversations about poems and archaeology.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America