Assos and Early AIA Excavations - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Assos and Early AIA Excavations December 1, 2006

In 1968, the Archaeological Institute of America contemplated a resumption of fieldwork. An article titled "Return to Assos" in the April issue of ARCHAEOLOGY that year summarized the history of early AIA excavations, the reasons they were discontinued, and the benefits of digging again. Assos was considered an ideal site for new investigations, both because of the Institute's earlier involvement and the fact that, at the time, no work had been carried out there since the AIA excavations. Ultimately, plans to return to Assos did not come to fruition and the site has been excavated instead by a Turkish expedition beginning in 1981. The 1968 "Return to Assos" article is republished below.


Excavation of the large ornamented sarcophagus at Assos
during the AIA campaigns in the early 1880s

Return to Assos

Barely eighteen months after its foundation in 1879, the Archaeological Institute of America was actively engaged in excavation. One of its first official acts had been the allocation of funds to Joseph Thacher Clarke of Boston to enable him to study the monuments and ruins of Doric architecture in Greek lands, and the first Annual Report of the new organization (1879-1880) carried an article entitled "Archaeological Notes on Greek Shores" in which Clarke devoted nearly twenty pages to a description of Assos in Turkey, ending with the plea that the site be explored: "The writer recommends the site to the attention of the American Archaeological Institute with assurance, aware that his favorable opinion concerning it is shared by eminent European authorities, who have had opportunity of examining its acropolis and widespread fields of ruins or are acquainted with its present condition from trustworthy reports. A comprehensive and thorough publication of the remains of antiquity at Assos would supply a decided want."

The Institute's reaction was prompt. Its second report described the organization of the Assos Expedition under the direction of Clarke and Francis H. Bacon, and the beginning of field work in November of 1880. Subsequent bulletins related progress: the clearance of the remarkable Doric temple and the establishment of its plan, the uncovering of many other buildings in the area of the acropolis and the discovery of noteworthy art treasures, some of them now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

By May of 1884, when excavation ended, about $19,000 had been spent on the project. Publication of its results began in 1881 with a preliminary report by Clarke, but it was not until 1922 that Bacon brought out the last of the folio volumes of Assos plans, drawings and photographs. For its time Assos had been a model excavation, and the Institute can justly be proud of the foresight and courage of its "founding fathers" who realized the importance of the undertaking and did not hesitate to commit the resources of their fledging organization to a major excavating program.

Other Early AIA Digs

In the years that followed other excavations were sponsored, notably the large-scale campaigns at Cyrene under the direction of Richard Norton, pioneering explorations of the Maya center of Quirigua in Guatemala, and investigations in Crete, the Southwestern United States and Yucatan. Financial support was provided for the work done at the Heraion of Argos and at Tarsus in Cilicia. At the same time the Archaeological Institute was emphasizing its concern with the future as well as the past by founding schools of archaeology here and abroad, designed to serve as training centers for young American scholars in "honorable rivalry" of similar schools then being established by various European countries. Between 1885 and 1940 it allotted from its meager budgets a total of $176,692 for the building programs, excavations, publications and fellowships of these daughter institutions: $59,252 to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens; $15,210 to the American Academy in Rome; $19,196 to the Schools of Oriental Research at Jerusalem and Baghdad; and $83,034 to the School of American Research at Santa Fe. As the Schools flourished and engaged in successful excavating enterprises in their respective areas, the Institute withdrew from the field to concentrate its efforts on fostering an interest in archaeology in the United States. Through its scholarly and popular periodicals and its lecture program, currently [1968] embracing 72 local societies in all parts of the country, professional archaeologists and interested laymen have been brought into closer touch, to their mutual benefit.

Unfinished Business


Restoration drawing of a circular exedra and sarcophagus

This educational service is the Institute's unique contribution and must remain its major objective, but it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that it would be strengthened rather than impaired by a return to the field on the Institute's part. To a greater degree than ever before, lay members represent an integral part of our program and their interest in field archaeology is strong. There is probably nothing which would do more to confirm their commitment to the Archaeological Institute than an excavation with which they could feel personally identified. With this in mind the Council of the Institute, at its meeting in Boston on December 28, accepted the recommendation of the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees and approved in principle an AIA sponsored excavation at Assos.

Of all possible excavation sites, Assos seems the ideal choice. In a very real sense it represents "unfinished business" of the Institute. The excavations of the 1880's were chiefly concerned with the architectural remains, and hence with the major public buildings. Little was done in the city proper and practically nothing around the harbor which, because of its importance in ancient times, holds promise of underwater discoveries. Even in areas previously excavated, more can undoubtedly be learned by the application of techniques and skills unknown in the days of Clarke and Bacon. No work has been done at Assos since 1884, and no other site in that region is now being explored; resumption of digging should serve the dual purpose of increasing knowledge of ancient Anatolia and aiding the Turkish economy by attracting students and tourists to a region seldom visited in Turkey.

If the Institute does return to Assos, it will be going back to a superb site. Located on the shore of the Gulf of Edremit just across from the northern tip of Lesbos, the city was for centuries one of the great natural strongholds of the southern Troad. In a memorable passage Clarke describes its rugged setting: "Above it (the small modern village of Behram Kale) rises the volcanic acropolis, dry as the dryest deme of Attica, and with as beautiful and majestic an outline as that of the treeless mountains which bound the Athenian plain. It is now entirely deserted; blinking owls sit in the clefts of its dark grey ruins and the unwonted sound of the visitor's footstep disturbs the whirring partridge, the shy bird rising from the midst of one of the most populous of ancient cities."

The rough, stony terrain, apparent in the illustrations, will not be the only difficulty to be surmounted before the Assos project becomes a reality. A thoroughly qualified field archaeologist must be found to direct the program, and funds adequate for the undertaking must be obtained from sources outside the Institute's budget. Some progress has been made. Mobil International has agreed to provide $10,000 in Turkish liras for an archaeological survey of the site and one of the Institute's trustees, Edward Glassmeyer, has secured firm pledges of at least $15,000 toward the expenses of the project. These are only the early pages of the story, but if the omens continue to be auspicious, the solitude of the blinking owls and the whirring partridges will again be disturbed by American excavators on the citadel of Assos.

"Return to Assos" is republished from the April 1968 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America