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Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives

Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives

Edited by Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, Jack L. Davis, and Vasiliki Florou. Pp. xii + 240. Lockwood Press, Atlanta 2015. $34.95. ISBN 978-1-937040-22-2 (cloth).

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This book brilliantly shows how archival research can enhance the histories of people we thought we knew. In the opening essay, “On His Feet and Ready to Dig: Carl William Blegen,” Davis and Vogeikoff-Brogan point out that Carl Blegen (1887–1971), the towering figure of American archaeology in Greece, has had no biographical treatment. This is surprising, for Blegen served in Macedonia with the American Red Cross (1918), assisted refugees after the destruction of Smyrna (1922), and worked with the Office of Strategic Services after WWII. He excavated at Corinth (1911), Korakou (1915), Troy (1932–1938), and Pylos (1939, 1952–1969). He established ceramic sequences for the Greek Bronze Age that would remain fundamental. The morning of the first day at Pylos he discovered a huge cache of Linear B tablets. It is not surprising that Blegen was awarded the first Gold Medal by the AIA (1965). Few archaeologists after his time have had the same impact.

Major sources for this book are the personal papers of Blegen and his “family” in the archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati, where he was professor of classics (1927–1957). The essays here were presented at the symposium “Carl and Elizabeth Blegen Remembered, Ploutarchou 9 Celebrated,” sponsored by the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, which is based at 9 Ploutarchou in Athens, formerly the Blegens’ and Hills’ house.

Vogeikoff-Brogan, in “The Life of Carl W. Blegen from a Grass Roots Perspective,” emphasizes the importance on his character of his Norwegian-Lutheran Minnesota background, the loss of his right arm at age 15, and the interests of his father, who was a professor of Greek. Blegen’s organizational skills were as evident in his roles as secretary (1913–1920), assistant director (1920–1926), and director (1948–1949) of the American School as they were in his archaeological work.

In “From the Mud of Peirene to Mastering Stratigraphy: Carl Blegen in the Corinthia and Argolid,” Tzonou-Herbst details Blegen’s early excavations. The guidance of Bert Hodge Hill in stratigraphy, detailed observation, record keeping, ethics, and excavation methods and of Alan Wace in stratigraphy and pottery typology nurtured his development.

At first, Blegen did not relate strata to walls or date phases with stratigraphy. He excavated vertically, not stratigraphically, and dug along walls rather than across them, but his excavation methodologies gradually developed. Ultimately, in consultation with Wace, Blegen established chronological phases for Bronze Age Greece and put Mycenaean archaeology firmly on the map.

Fappas introduces the “Govs,” as Blegen and Wace jokingly referred to themselves, in “The ‘Govs’ of Mycenaean Archaeology: The Friendship and Collaboration of Carl W. Blegen and Alan J.B. Wace As Seen Through Their Correspondence.” Calling their writing “bilges,” they wrote frequently, criticizing Arthur Evans for his views on Minoan domination of the mainland, on Late Helladic III as a decadent period, and on Linear B. The letters reveal much about these men and their era.

Pounder, in “The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair,” describes life in the “Quartet,” or “The Family,” as the Blegens and Hills referred to themselves, and illuminates their personal relationships. Ida Thallon Hill and Elizabeth (Libby) Pierce Blegen became romantically involved when Libby was Ida’s student at Vassar. Libby Pierce went to the American School in 1922, where Carl proposed to her. Libby agreed to marry Carl, provided they could live with Ida and Bert Hill in a kind of contractual agreement. The four collaborated on projects and entertained members of the archaeological community, especially after Hill was unseated as director of the American School by Edward Capps, chairman of the managing committee.

Galanakis, in “‘Islanders vs. Mainlanders,’ ‘The Mycenae Wars,’ and Other Short Stories: An Archival Visit to an Old Debate,” addresses the controversy between Evans, who insisted that the Minoans dominated the Greek mainland, and Wace and Blegen, who disagreed vehemently. Their relationship with Evans was good, but Mackenzie called them “the young barbarians” and naive schoolboy archaeologists; to Evans they were “systematically wrong-headed.” Wace’s Mycenae excavations lowered the Treasury of Atreus’ date, and Blegen’s discovery of Linear B tablets, along with Ventris’ decipherment (1952), established the language as Greek. Thus, in 1956 Wace could write that Knossos must have been influenced or ruled by people from the mainland before its destruction in 1400 B.C.E. The “young barbarians” were transformed into key “reformers” of Aegean archaeology.

Florou, in “The House at 9 Ploutarchou Street: A Grape Arbor and a Dense Shadow of Beautiful Meetings,” considers the Blegen-Hill house. Elegant appointments included Greek painting motifs on the ceiling, Parthenon frieze figures on tablecloths, and coin designs on chocolates. Interest in Greek folklore was reflected in embroidery, ceramics, and furniture.

French, Wace’s daughter, in “Και εἰς ἀνώτερα: The Govs in the 1930s,” provides a personal perspective on the Blegen-Wace collaboration, dominated by disagreements with Evans.

Rose reviews Blegen’s goals at Troy: to reexamine the stratigraphy of the citadel mound, search for cemeteries, and excavate the walls of Troy VI and one pinnacle of earth left by Heinrich Schliemann. He established a solid ceramic chronology for the site, linked the Trojan War to level VIIa, found the Late Bronze Age cemetery, and produced final publications.

Recent campaigns of Manfred Korfmann and Rose for the Universities of Cincinnati and Tübingen had parallel goals. They confirmed Blegen’s conclusion that Troy could be associated with Homer’s Trojan War, now ca. 1180 B.C.E., after the Mycenaean palaces and Hattusa were destroyed.

Karadimas, in “His Eyes Took on a Far Away Look When He Spoke of Pylos: Carl Blegen and the Excavations at the Palace of Nestor as Seen in the Greek and Foreign Press,” describes Blegen’s generous relationship with journalists, holding weekly “open houses.” He admired the work of the journalists Joseph Alsop and Eleni Karapanagioti. With their coverage, he helped shift American archaeological research in Greece from Classical-period to Bronze Age sites.

Davis, in “Blegen and the Palace of Nestor: What Took So Long?,” highlights Blegen’s close collaboration with Greek archaeologists. Blegen regularly credited the landowner, Konstantinos Tsakonas, for informing the archaeological service of antiquities at Englianos (1926), which Blegen first visited with Konstantinos Kourouniotis (1929). An excavation permit was issued (1939) jointly to Kourouniotis, with whom Blegen had worked at Korakou. Thus, Blegen formed the first joint excavation, or “synergasia,” with a Greek archaeologist. Blegen and Hill had long fostered good relations with Greek archaeologists, and Blegen also maintained close relationships with residents of Chora and Pylos. Strong bonds of friendship and loyalty made much of his work possible.

Effectively illustrated with photographs and drawings, this book illuminates the interpersonal and professional relationships of Blegen and his associates and provides insights important for both students and scholars.

Mary C. Sturgeon
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Book Review of Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, edited by Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, Jack L. Davis, and Vasiliki Florou

Reviewed by Mary C. Sturgeon

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1214.Sturgeon

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