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The Nation and Its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece

July 2009 (113.3)

Book Review

The Nation and Its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece

By Yannis Hamilakis. Pp. xxii + 352, figs. 51. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2007. £60. ISBN 978-0-19-923038-9 (cloth).

Reviewed by

National identity and ideology have lately received much attention. In national rhetoric, meanings and roles are ascribed to material culture in national museums or in tales of heroic national endeavors and thus tend to become infected topics, especially in nations and for groups that have been victims of colonialism. In this volume, Hamilakis argues that nationalism is an everyday ideology, and that nationalistic imagination is constantly constructed, both from the top and from the bottom of society. This is not a negative process, he suggests, since it opens the possibility for interesting and fruitful dialogue and debate into which he places himself and his own discussion. In this dialogue, the presentation of antiquity in museums and through ancient monuments becomes especially important.

This approach means that nationalism and national identity do not belong just to the architectural expressions of an ancient hegemonic state power. Material culture as a national project is not static but, as the author argues convincingly, constantly produced and reproduced in an ongoing negotiation between different agents, groups, and interests. It is an innovative and fruitful view that leads to a more complex analysis of the processes involved. It also becomes a useful tool when discussing a wide range of related topics such as how classical antiquities and archaeology became significant when the ideology of the Greek national state was shaped in the 19th century.

Perhaps even more interesting, at least for this reviewer, is the discussion of how the national imagination has shaped classical antiquities and archaeological practice since the 19th century. The importance of antiquity in modern Greek society is seen from the relatively high status of archaeologists and foreign archaeological schools and institutes in Greece, and chapter 2 treats the role of archaeologists in the production and discussion of the national imagination. The author divides this role into two parts: the first is the “religious specialist,” who mediates and makes visible the sacred remains of the Greek nation; the second is the “soldier,” who defends the veracity of the national past and produces landmarks that define its territory. The two metaphors are striking but give a somewhat simplistic base for a discussion that undoubtedly could be further developed.

Chapter 3 concerns the relationship between nationalism and colonialism in what Hamilakis calls the “Western Hellenism” of archaeology and antiquity, as formed by western academies during the construction of Greek national identity. This became a foundation for the creation of a native Greek national imagination when it was adapted to an indigenous Hellenism in order to establish a direct ancestral line from antiquity to modernity. It therefore incorporated Byzantine culture, Christianity, and monarchy to establish a nation comparable to other European states of the time. Hamilakis rightly brings forward the sacral qualities ascribed to antiquity (i.e., how its remains and artifacts became ancestral inheritance). The ideal Greek past was not a creation of purely Greek national imagination; instead, many scholars and other agents outside Greece, not least those in western universities, saw themselves as the true inheritors of this admired past. Hamilakis’ discussion is a good and useful overview of the process. It is important to note that the aim of the author is neither to erase the value system common to the national project nor to expose the myth tying Greece to the birth of western civilization. Instead, he strives to clarify the mechanisms of the national project and to understand dreams of the past and future as something positive and constructive on an individual level.

The case study of Manolis Andronikos and the Vergina finds in the famous rich burial ascribed to Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, is a story of human feelings of pride. The traditional research strategy to “look for things” resulted in a joy of discovery that at the same time established and reconfirmed stereotypes. The story is set against an account of the dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the early 1990s, which gives the reader necessary historical background. The finds, which in the Greek national imagination could be interpreted as evidence of the Hellenicity of Macedonia, fired national imagination and pride at a time when the threat to Greece and its borders was seen as immediate. Therefore, the author argues, the finds and their interpretation also found immediate recognition by the general Greek community: ordinary men and women, the political community, archaeologists, and, not least, Andronikos himself. Hamilakis suggests that this timing was the main reason the Vergina finds and Andronikos became the center of national attention. Undoubtedly this played an important role, but the spectacular finds would certainly have been included in a nationalistic or perhaps ethnic project at other times. In any case, the excavations did strengthen the connection between archaeology and politics.

Two turbulent periods during the 20th century are treated in chapters 5 and 6: the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas (1936–1941) and the Greek Civil War (1944–1945 and 1946–1949), with a focus on their use of images and narratives from antiquity. The reader also gets a good background here on the historical context and governing ideology of each period. One of the most interesting parts of the book is how the nationalistic Metaxas regime attempted to instill new ideological and cultural attitudes through collective sacrifices in order to create a new Hellenic civilization that could surpass the previous classical and Byzantine ones. The regime shared features with other European dictatorships of the time: glorification of the leader, the state as supreme authority, and the suppression of linguistic diversity and minorities. The idealization and veneration of selected parts of the past—the militarism and austerity of Sparta, the military supremacy of Macedonia, and the Christian Byzantine culture—offer scope for an interesting and well-argued analysis of how archaeology was inscribed in the national ideological framework.

Hamilakis has treated the Civil War camps on Makronisos in earlier articles; it was to the island of Makronisos that communists were sent to be rehabilitated, reeducated, and purified from their deviant ideas through exposure to the glorious national past, its monuments, and the ideology of Hellenism. Apparently this project had widespread support. Especially interesting is Hamilakis’ discussion of how the propagandistic value of the project came to fruition, when former “redeemed inmates” testified to their conversion to true patriotic views and Hellenic nationalism (whether they were convinced or forced to do so is often uncertain). One is reminded of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims identify with their jailers. As in the previous case, nationalistic rhetoric selected certain ideas and neglected others.

In both the Metaxas and Civil War cases, the state and its victims employ many of the same myths; this reinforces the author’s basic argument that nationalism is as much a bottom-up as a top-down phenomenon, and that it is constantly renegotiated by groups of people in the process of defining themselves. This phenomenon, and what he terms its “legacy in social memory” (212), is well worth further study; it is hoped that Hamilakis will continue this approach.

The Parthenon and the Elgin marbles, and their importance for national identity, receive a thoughtful discussion in the final chapter, where the author discusses the sacralization of artifacts and the status of the Parthenon as a symbol of Hellenism. He convincingly argues that their removal actually increased their importance as symbols and created the need to reestablish the “whole,” aptly named “nostalgia for the whole” in the chapter title. The question is not repatriation of dispersed cultural property. Instead, Hamilakis focuses on how the artifacts have been, and still are, used in both nationalistic and colonialistic discourse in the creation of a Greek national identity, from antiquity through the formation of the modern state to the present time, as well as in the symbolic imagination of the British empire and the sometimes neocolonialistic tendencies of our own time.

It would be interesting to see Hamilakis ponder his views of nationalism in a wider perspective: against the modernity of the “global village,” the growth of large political regions, such as the European Union, that stress global and intraregional connections and identities and the revitalization of languages and group identities (ethnic or other) within nations and across national borders. On the whole, however, this is a stimulating book with thought-provoking discussions and well-argued ideas. The illustrations are also well chosen and well integrated with the text; unfortunately, they are not well reproduced. A good bibliography and index are of great help to the reader.

The Nation and Its Ruins treats the Greek case, but the questions Hamilakis raises about the function and ethics of archaeologists, the codependence of nationalism and past colonialism (as well as the neocolonial present), the production of national imaginative ideology, the problems of restitution for material objects, and the relationship between modernity and antiquity are topics that concern us all.

Gullög Nordquist
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History
Uppsala University
751 26 Uppsala

Book Review of The Nation and Its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece, by Yannis Hamilakis

Reviewed by Gullög Nordquist

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 3 (July 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1133.Nordquist

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