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From Development Grant to Book Chapter: In Search of a World Beyond Capitalism

By Solange Manche, PhD Candidate in French at the University of Cambridge

I arrived at the NIA in September 2016. I’d been awarded a development grant enabling aspiring academics to carry out a three-week research project. This summer, I was very honoured to see a chapter based on my findings in Athens published in an open access volume edited by Barnita Bagchi, Urban Utopias: Memory, Rights, and Speculation. As I am rereading my application for my stay at the NIA, I realise how much my initial project and thinking about the subject changed. Academic research can be a long, and sometimes frustrating, process. From grant to book chapter, my experience at the NIA and the publication that followed taught me how research evolves, takes shape, and above all that it needs the time it does.

My undergraduate studies had been punctuated by budget cuts in the arts and higher education, followed by protests, occupations, and various other acts of resistance. It was within the context of the Dutch student movement against the general marketisation of the university—the New University—that I got interested in political activism and people’s ambitions, current and past, to actively defend their social gains and to build a better future. As a student of the Humanities Honours Programme at Utrecht University, I was part of a research collective interested in the question of Utopia, as a literary, cultural, and political phenomenon.

Exploring the philosophical debates surrounding utopianism, the history of the term as a means to discredit political opponents, and its recent comeback in popular discourse, I stumbled upon a documentary by Yannis Youlantas Ne vivons plus comme des esclaves (2013)(Let’s not live like slaves). Showing how people in Greece were resisting austerity by self-organising and creating new networks of solidarity, the film equally follows many of Exarcheia’s inhabitants, an anarchist neighbourhood historically associated with the Polytechnic Uprising against the military Junta in 1973. I’d been following other communal projects before, such as Rojava, (Kurdistan) Free and Real, (Greece) and the communist municipality of Marinaleda (Spain), among others. But what distinguishes Exarcheia from other autonomous communities is its placement within the heart of a capital city.

Although ideologically clearly anti-capitalist, what I wanted to find out is to what extent Exarcheia could in fact detach itself from the capital that runs the capital. The question of the possibility of building parallel subsistence economies was my main focus. I think that this inquiry remains an important one today, as unemployment, underemployment, and precarity are not simply caused by austerity policies or economic crises but also by the fact that, on a global scale, an increasing number of people became exclusively dependent on wages.[1] Based at the NIA, I quickly found out that Exarcheia was by far able to be self-sufficient, the problem starting with rent. Telling from the interviews I conducted, there was also no reliable and consistent provision of food. Apart from the barter of clothing, books, and other durables, there was no way out of wage labour or the ultimate reliance upon someone’s, or some form, of earnings. The structural inability to completely retreat from capitalism should not be a reason to discredit the tremendous efforts of the inhabitants of Exarcheia to create another way of living, to oppose social injustice, and anti-immigration policies. But there was another form of political strength that I noticed and that was located somewhere else, in what I consider to be its Utopian quality.

In the book chapter, I explore this comparison by re-considering Utopia as a literary genre in spatial and temporal terms. Building on the example of Thomas More’s Utopia, (1516) I focus on how the narrative captures the telling of a story, technically called a framed narrative, about a place visited by the narrator’s (named Thomas More) interlocutor Hythloday. The account of Utopia is thus never a direct account. It has travelled from a society that radically distinguishes itself from the world in which its account is being presented. This same movement between the discovery of an unknown place and its mediated dissemination in the larger world is mirrored within the reading process itself. The reader, once having finished the book, finds themselves in the same position as that of the narrator: they’ve just been transmitted the story of a place that is profoundly different from their own day-to-day experience.

In the last part of Utopia, More recounts the discussion about Utopia that follows from Hythloday’s tale and finishes with the enigmatic closing lines: “while I can hardly agree with everything he said […], yet I freely confess that in the Utopian commonwealth there are very many features that in our own societies I would wish rather than expect to see” (107). So, Utopias are perhaps not really about the feasibility to realise an ideal society, but rather function as a disruption of the everyday that triggers imagining a better future. This is what I recognised in Youlantas’ film, in Exarcheia itself, and how accounts of it travel and do not only nourish the imagination of the Left, but are equally fascinating to a much broader segment of the population who’s well-aware that there needs to be an alternative to austerity.[2]

Reading Utopia can be a disenchanting experience, a cold and static description of the laws and customs in a (non)place. In comparison to Hythloday, who did not seem to have made many friends on the way, my research journey was more successful. I would like to thank my interviewees, all the people in Exarcheia who helped me find my way, and in particular Grigoris whose knowledge about the neighbourhood has been invaluable. I am very grateful to the NIA for their interest in my project and having welcomed me at the institute. The ultimate publication of my findings wouldn’t have been possible without the superb publishing competences of Jadavpur University. I am very happy that the book is an Open Access publication and can be freely accessed on their website. It couldn’t have been more appropriate to write about Exarcheia than as part of this project that prizes Global North-South collaboration at its heart.

About Urban Utopias: Memory, Rights, and Speculation:

The social dreaming of Utopia is the object of both fantasy and quotidian reality in the world of today. The concept of utopia has travelled across boundaries of time and space, and manifests strongly in cities, which function as sites of hope and desire. With the rise of technocratic and neoliberal agendas across the world, global imaginations of the urban future have often excluded the more urgent questions of justice and human rights. This volume, the fruit of a first collaboration between Utrecht University and Jadavpur University, comprises ten essays by scholars based in, or with roots in, the Netherlands and India which foreground issues of rights, memory and justice in the speculative imaginaries of urban utopias in South and South-East Asia, and Europe. Embedded in literary and historical studies, this book enters into a lively engagement with questions such as: How do memory and utopia intersect in the urban? What debates and contestations emerge in the framing of the city as a place of hope, desire, and future-making? In sharp and studied contrast to speculations of the capitalist kind at the heart of urban real estate development and planning, this volume examines and uncovers new speculative insights on alternative imaginations of the city.

An interview with Abhijit Gupta about the collection will soon appear on the website of Jadavpur University Press. Abhijit Gupta is Professor in English at Jadavpur University and director of Jadavpur UP.

Solange Manche is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her work looks into the recent resurgence of the critique of political economy in contemporary French philosophy. Working on post-crash individuation, financialisation and new forms of labour, she focusses on the thought of Catherine Malabou, Frédéric Lordon, and Bernard Stiegler. Other aspects of her research include: social movements, French cinema activism, and the reception of Hegel and Marx in France.

[1] Aaron Benanav, ‘Automation and The Future of Work — I’,  The New Left Review, no. 119 (October 2019): 36-7.

[2] In the Netherlands, a documentary featuring Exarcheia was broadcasted on national television (Tegenlicht) and numerous accounts about the neighbourhood’s efforts to house and help refugees were published in the international press.

First Month Experience in Pandemic Restricted Greece

By David Brown

My experience so far has been delightful and productive. Coming here on a three-month study grant to collect data and finish of my research masters has proven to be successful. Despite the turmoil at the beginning of the calendar year when I was first applying for this grant to come to Greece for my research masters, I can say that I am glad to be here studying and working away.

My research master’s thesis uses   geometric morphometrics on the bronze swords of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, in an attempt to update and clarify the current 90 years old typology on these swords. After co-ordinating with the National Archaeological Museum, during the first Monday and Tuesday I was able to take scaled photographs of 48 of the swords housed at the museum for my analysis. There were 28 Type A and 20 Type B swords. This process went very smoothly and progressed at a rate that both me and the museum staff were surprised at the rate that we managed to achieve this task. The staff did look after me very well and were very kind and friendly. Hopefully in the future I will be able to work with them again on a PhD or other project.

Now, Athens.  This is a city that is still lovely and vibrant despite Covid19 and the restrictions that exist around the world. Here in Greece I feel safer than I did back in the Netherlands. People are following the rules, masks are being worn in and out of buildings, as well as their being regular cleaning of handrails, stairs, public transport, streets etc. Here I feel comfortable to travel around on public transport, using the buses or the metro. Even running here has not been a problem, although running at night with the hot temperature has produced a rather good work out.

The NIA itself has also been better than I expected in terms of my feeling safe.  There is regular cleaning here as well. I feel relaxed and clam despite the overall situation of Covid19.  I am enjoying my experience here, such as studying in the library or in my room, relaxing in the common area and even cooking. With the supermarket around the corner, I have been cooking regularly for myself. Although I do wish there were an oven here, but that might just be the British thing in me wanting to cook roasts, hunter chicken and good old oven fries.

It can be lonely here at times, but the staff at the NIA are very friendly and willing to talk, so I do not feel as alone as I could be. I am in regular contact with my family, my partner as well as my friends. I have also joined up with a local rugby team here (Yes even in Greece rugby is still played). They are a very welcoming and friendly bunch that have so far welcomed me with open arms. Subsequently as I stay here longer and longer, I am sure I will be involved in activities involving them.

So, all in all, my expectations when coming here, was that it would difficult because of lockdown, with limited travel outside the NIA and National Archaeological Museum. Yet this is not the case, with the following of the rules by the people, and a pro-active government in implementing the rules. This appear to have allowed a safer feeling in traveling than I did in the Netherlands. Plus, with the progress on my Research Masters, what more could you ask for

David Brown, Research Masters at the University of Groningen.

The Hand Wave

Five years ago I wrote this short text. I was reminded of it today and felt like sharing it with you, since I believe it is still relevant…

The Balcony

It’s the light on the fourth floor of the apartment building to the left of us. Or on the second floor. Or on the third. Often it is hard to separate the floors of Athenian apartment buildings. Sometimes there are four people inside. Sometimes dozens. I’ve seen elderly people, young men, couples. I hear children and infants. Laughing, crying. They are our new refugee-neighbors. And every couple of days there are new ones.

The reception of cellular phones always is a problem when you’re living in an apartment building, looking at the inner courtyard. So you better go out on the balcony if you want to make a phone call. Just before I made this picture, a couple was sitting on the floor of the balcony. A young man. And a young woman, wearing a beautiful blue scarf. They were making a phone call. Informing the people back home? Inquiring about what the situation is at the next border? Inquiring about the situation at all borders standing between them and their final destination?

The tenants of the apartment (I wonder how much rent they are requested to pay) do have electricity. And water, since washed clothes are hanging to dry. A blue sweater. A pair of trousers. Or baby clothes. I suspect they probably lack a lot. Like toys for the children, maybe. Or an Internet connection. I suspect they lack a lot, but I’m sure they definitely miss even more. Like home. Like friends and relatives. Like the shady tree on the corner of their street, or the sweet smell of a summer evening. Like decent human interest. Like a smile.

All of a sudden I feel guilty. I don’t know anything about them. Not about them. Not about the previous ones I heard discussing yesterday. Not about the ones staying there before them. And probably not about the ones arriving tomorrow. I feel guilty for my ignorance. And for my busy, always busy, always too busy daily life. I know it is stupid, but all of a sudden I feel the urge to wave at them. For no other reason as to let them know that they’re not invisible. That I see them. That I want to see them and let them know that I do so. It was an awkward wave. At least as awkward as the way I felt.

After two seconds the young woman with the beautiful scarf waved back. And I think I saw her smiling. Or I want to think so.
Godspeed! Be safe and take care! And thank you for reminding me the basics.

Willem Ledeboer is deputy director and liaison officer of the NIA. He has been working at the institute since 1996. His interests include modern Greek history and the history of the Jewish Communities of Greece.

Easing the lockdown in Greece

by Winfred van de Put, director

The staff of the NIA  has been working from home the last couple of weeks, as best we can; I have a three year old toddler who wants to be entertained (just too young to be playing by himself for longer periods), so my time is unfortunately somewhat limited and frequently interrupted. We connect through Facebook chat, now moving to Viber, and Zoom. Working from home works quite well for some of us, so I’m sure we will keep on doing this in the future, even if everything has truly returned to normal (if this will ever happen). The isolation has broken with a very tough tradition in office work: that it is physical presence that counts, not the actual work done. One of the few benefits we may learn and gain from this otherwise miserable episode…

The measures in Greece have been largely successful (although one hates to think of the consequences for all the small tavernas, businesses, freelancers, but also for the most vulnerable group of all, the refugees). From next week,  there will be relaxation of some measu-


The gate to the NIA auli seems more closed than ever…

res, under constant surveillance of the behavior of both people and virus.  With education, Kindergarten and academia come last, and within schools all sorts of safety measures are in place. It is vital for the Greek economy that the tourist season is not lost, so from June onward there may also be some relaxation in travel restrictions, but this is all very unsure and it can be changed any minute. 


But what does it all mean for the institute? We can go and work there more easily, for which we will make a schedule to avoid rush hours and only incidentally working together at the same place. Working from home still remains important during this normalizat

ion period (official policy). But what is most important: in the foreseeable future we cannot receive guests (hotels and guest-facilities only gradually will start to reopen from June onward), and we cannot organize courses or lectures/conferences. Our activities, such as courses and conferences that can be rescheduled and research by students who have received a grant, must all take place from September onward, provided there is not an autumnal second wave of infections. Everything’s unsure, this is hard enough to deal with as individuals, but it is also very frustrating for an institute that exists to be a home to students and researchers abroad.

We are thinking of ways to be visible during this period, for instance by means of this blog, putting recorded lectures online, or even organizing online lectures. There’s quite a lot of work at the institute that would be hard to do with the presence of guests (reorganizing the library for instance). But it is still a bleak shade of what the institute would be without the virus..

This said, the most important thing is to stay safe and come through this period unscathed. For us, staff of the NIA, and for you, dear friend of the Institute. Stay safe!

Creating Connections

I was provided the opportunity to study in Athens for the past month because of the Goekoop scholarship offered by the NIA and friends (VVNIA). The purpose of my stay was to write the proposal for my MA thesis, for which I am planning to look into the political geography of Bronze Age Laconia; a topic which was still largely unfamiliar to me not too long ago. For this reason, and because this was actually the first time I would be abroad on my own for a prolonged period of time, I was fairly nervous when I arrived.

As I write this blog on my last day in Athens, I remember well how quickly it became apparent that this nervosity was completely misplaced. When I walked into the living room of the Dutch Institute on my first day, I met one of the other residents whom I knew already from an earlier visit and she told me I had come at exactly the right time. The weather in Athens had not been very nice in the previous month, she told me, but this had drastically changed now and summer was finally upon us. To top it off, this is the time in Athens when all the International Schools host their annual parties, which is ideal if you want to meet new people. So we went.

First one on the agenda: the annual party of the Australian Institute with drinks afterwards on the roof terrace of the Swedish Institute (fig 1). As I happily followed my acquaintance around I was introduced to the art of introducing new people at parties where everybody is unacquainted and quickly made some new friends. With these newly made friends I went on to a lovely concert somewhere in Athens on the same night and to many other places since then. One of the beautiful things about Athens is that there are so many lovely places to visit during the weekends so close by. With other students I have explored the archaeological sites on lovely Aegina (and also the beach) on one weekend, the sites of ancient Ramnous (the best preserved deme of Athens; fig. 2) and Marathon (and also the beach) on another, and finally also the Island of Euboea (and the beach).


Fig 1: The views from the roof terraces of the different Institutes are quite enjoyable. This photo was shot from the Italian School.  

The annual parties do not only offer the opportunity for socialising, however. There was also ample room for accounts on the activities undertaken by the institutes in the past year and interesting lectures on funny topics. For example, at the Australian Annual Party, Professor Julia Kindt presented an interesting approach to research on animals in Ancient Greece and introduced me to the concept of the Socratic Gadfly. You know, the concept of a thing that is a bit annoying and constantly stinging your mind, but at the same time supposedly needed and a positive influence on your life. That does make me think of something.. Oh yeah, my thesis.


Fig 2: Ancient Ramnous is the best preserved deme of Attica. The site is so well preserved it feels like you are walking through a little city. Across the water Euboea can be seen.

Apart from playing the tourist and the exchange student, there was also time dedicated to actual studying. As mentioned before, I was not extremely familiar with research into political geographies before I started working on my thesis. Luckily for me, I had been able to acquire a seat as a backbencher on the workshop ‘Political Geographies of the Bronze Age Aegean’ which was organised by the NIA and the EBSA, and which very conveniently took place during my stay in Athens (fig. 3). To me, these two long days of lectures, on which all the experts of this field presented their latest research, served as a sort of crash course which taught me exactly what I needed to know. I penned as fast as I could to note down all the possibilities and pitfalls of this kind of research. What I found particularly interesting was the notion that when discussing politics in the Bronze Age Aegean, we should perhaps speak a little bit less of territorial domination by palaces, and a little bit more about mutual beneficial connections between different people, factions and settlements in a political landscape that is dynamic and not predetermined. To what extent this notion can be explored in Laconia remains to be seen. But I will fly home tomorrow with a good feeling about my thesis and a lot of fine memories about the connections I made myself.

Youp van den Beld


Fig. 3: I was very lucky to be able to attend this very informative workshop. 

A Grand Tour of Greece

When thinking about ancient Greek death practices, what first comes to mind are the golden death mask of Agamemnon, the serene scenes on Classical funerary reliefs from the Kerameikos, and perhaps the white ground lekythoi – all prominently on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Of course, funerary culture in the Greek world constituted much more. This fall, we travelled the Greek mainland to explore the regional differences in funerary practices of ancient Greece, with grants from the Philologisch Studiefonds and the NIA. We plan to use our newly gained insights for a PhD- and postdoc proposals, respectively. In this post, we will tell you a bit about our travels, and share some of highlights, thoughts and photographs.

Our ‘Grand Tour’ began and ended with a short stay at the NIA, in between which we travelled through mainland Greece for four weeks. We started our journey in the northern Peloponnese, travelling along the west coast, going inland from Igoumenitsa to Ioannina, and then driving all the way up to Florina. From there, we explored Macedonia, Chalkidiki and Thrace, and via the coastal regions of eastern Greece and the island of Euboea we eventually found our way back to Athens. In total, we drove over 4500 km, visited more than 80 sites and museums, took 8815 photographs, and replaced one flat tyre.

Most of the sites we visited were chosen because of their funerary character: necropoleis, tombs, or museums with themed displays about mortuary behaviour and/or extensive collections of tombstones and grave goods (fig. 1). Other sites were added to the list because of their relevance for the ongoing work on the Hellenistic houses of New Halos, while others were simply too beautiful or famous to pass by. Among the latter category are Orraon (fig. 2), where stone-built houses are preserved up to a height of over three meters, Kylindri near Karystos, where over a dozen of huge monolithic columns were left behind after this Imperial marble quarry was abandoned (fig. 3), and of course Dodona and Delphi (figs. 4 and 5).

As far as the funerary material was concerned, we saw an enormous variation in burial customs across Greece, among regions, sites, but also among different individuals within one and the same community. We noted significant differentiation in the space of the dead (the locations of the cemeteries vis-à-vis the town), in tomb types used, in the types and decorations of burial markers, the content of epitaphs, and the grave goods provided to the dead. To give a few examples: in Thessaly we hiked to a burial site near the modern village of Vrynaina, where the necropolis of a Hellenistic fortified settlement was located on narrow plateaus below the steep hill on which the acropolis and town were located (fig. 6). In Arta, the Archaic-Hellenistic cemetery had developed along a so-called Gräberstrasse (fig. 7), similar to what can be seen in the Kerameikos, while near Hellenistic Abdera burial took place in tumuli, which were spread around the chora inland of the town. In Chaironeia we pondered the Theban war dead while admiring the enormous stone lion (over 5 m in height) that marked the site of their demise and final resting place (fig. 8). Nearby lay the tumulus covering the cremated remains of the Macedonians fallen in the same battle. At Kassopi we entered a Macedonian-type burial chamber that was located within the city walls (a rarity!, fig. 9); the tumulus-museum of Aigai displayed the jaw-dropping remnants of the funeral of Philip II, and the recently hyped tomb at Amphipolis we only saw from a distance.

Amidst all the fantastic experiences, there were also some disappointments. Several sites were fenced off or ill maintained, some museums were unexpectedly closed, some were desperately in need of renovations, and one museum was open but completely empty (leaving us flabbergasted as to the reason why a guard followed us closely while we scoured the building looking for the stuff that was advertised as being here on a big sign near the entrance). Particularly disappointing was our visit to the Underworld at the Nekromanteion of Acheron. According to Homer and Herodotus there was a place somewhere near the Acheron where people could enter the world of the dead. But alas, the building identified as this Nekromanteion turned out to be a farmhouse of the Hellenistic period, and the ‘crypt’ was a large vaulted cellar where the owners of the farmhouse stored their foodstuffs (fig. 10). Our hopes of descending into the dark recesses of the earth into the realm of Hades and Persephone were thus shattered.

All in all our Grand Tour was an amazing experience. By visiting so many of the archaeological sites and museums along the way, we gained a good understanding of the variety of burial practices in Greece. The more distant museums proved very useful to get an impression of local finds and excavations. Additionally, we were able to experience the Greek landscapes, and the cultural variety and delicious cuisine of modern Greece.

We would like to thank the Philologisch Studiefonds and the NIA for their financial support, our fellow-travellers for their enthusiasm and their hospitality, and we wholeheartedly recommend our colleagues to undertake a similar trip.

Tamara & Caroline

Fig. 1 Reconstructed burial in the museum of Pella

Fig. 2 Court of a house in Orraon (Epirus) with other rooms in the background. The walls have been preserved up to the second floor

Fig. 3 View on Karystos from the 12 m monolithic columns in the Imperial marble quarry ‘Kylindri’ on Mt Ochi

Fig. 4 The theatre at Dodona

Fig. 5 Wall behind the Stoa of the Athenians/the terrace wall of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, on which numerous inscriptions have been inscribed (you can recognise the outline of the texts as flattened rectangles on the wall)

Fig. 6 The steep slope near modern Vrynaina where (looted) burials can be seen

Fig. 7 View of the Gräberstrasse in Arta, with burials from the Archaic to Hellenistic period. On the right was a polyandrion

Fig. 8 The restored lion at Chaironeia, guarding the fallen Thebans and fiercely looking towards the tumulus below which the Macedonians were buried

Fig. 9 The vaulted tomb in Kassopi, the only ‘Macedonian’ type tomb in Epirus

Fig. 10 The vaulted cellar, better known as the ‘Nekromanteion’ near Acheron

The Secrets of the Past Revealed? The Exhibition on the Eleusinian Mysteries in the Acropolis Museum

Muse, sing to me of the Two Goddesses, the Mistresses of the Earth. Sing to me of the Mysteries of Demeter and Kore, who give great blessings.

In the small town of Eleusis, only about 20 kilometres away from Athens, the great Mystery cult of Demeter and her daughter Kore (better known as Persephone) brought in visitors from all over the ancient world. This cult, open to anyone, was focused on Demeter and Kore’s connection to the Earth and the Underworld, and promised a blessed afterlife to all who were initiated into the cult. These initiates, mystes, were shown secret objects, which were so sacred that even now we don’t know what they were. Authors did reveal rituals of the sacred  procession starting in the Eleusinion in Athens and the rites that were conducted in the Telesterion, the large temple/hall in Eleusis. The real secrets however, held in the Anoktoron, the smaller construction within the Telesterion, still remain a mystery.

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Our proud author, showing off the ancient remains of the Telesterion on a cloudy day in June. 

The new exhibition in the Acropolis museum in Athens, focused on the mysteries of Eleusis, is structured like the ancient sanctuary in Eleusis. While all the artefacts from the site are placed in a large exhibition room, they hold little value until one enters the artificial temple in the middle: in here, a short film explains the ins and outs of the Eleusinian Mysteries. In other words, one walks the same route as a newly initiated would, and the truth of the Mysteries lies in the inner sanctum. While this is very poetic, it makes the exhibition slightly confusing, especially for those not fond of videos.

The mysterious objects do hold a certain magic: the statue of a fleeing maiden, her skirts billowing around her legs and her face turned to look back in fear, immediately reminds one of the myth of the Abduction of Persephone. A stone pillar resembling a torch tells of the longevity of the Mysteries: only when the Roman emperor Theodosius forbade any sort of non-Christian worship were the Mysteries abandoned. The torch shows how the remains of the cult were recycled by Christians: it now carries a large inscribed cross on its side.

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The fleeing maiden.

The absolute masterpiece of the exhibition, however, is a small object known as the Ninnion tablet: a small ceramic tablet which shows a procession ending at the two goddesses, Demeter seated on a  rock and Persephone standing next to her. The elaborate details, such as the folds of Demeter’s dress, the crowns and wreaths that are worn and the brushstrokes used for the fire of the torches that the initiates carry make this small tablet an absolute delight.

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The Ninnion tablet. The Greek reads: Ninnion dedicated (this) to the goddesses.

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A close-up of the Ninnion tablet. Demeter seated on a rock, Persephone standing next to her.

This exhibition then, reveals a past that is yet still hidden: we can only catch glimpses of one of the largest cults of the Greek world, and its past can only be partly seen by the things left behind.

Muse, sing to me of the Two Goddesses, and the secrets they revealed to mankind, sing to me of glorious afterlife and a distant past.

Shattered: Death on Pottery


Geometric krater with prothesis of the deceased and mourners.

Anno 2018, people do not particularly identify themselves with their eating and drinking utensils. Leaving my personal attachment to the wine glass and its use in contemporary -regular- drinking rituals out of this discussion, the vessels we use today are rarely more reflective of identity than whether or not their user shops at Ikea. Maybe this is part of the reason that the vases collection of the National Archaeological Museum at Athens seems like a quiet oasis compared to the other museum wings. The collection, located on the second floor, mainly attracts those people with a particular fanaticism in regards of pottery or those who are kindly -yet firmly- directed this way during a school trip, or, as in my own case, Death in the Greek World course.

That this admittedly slightly negative, “not-my-cup (of tea)”-attitude towards pottery is unnecessary, becomes clear as soon as the museum guard turns on the light of the Geometric-period (900-700 BC) exhibition and we come face to face with several giant jars. The vessels, in which we could easily hide some of the smaller members of our group, are decorated with beautiful geometric patterns and what for many of the casual visitors will look like a polonaise of stick figures. But these vases, as well as the vessels of the following centuries, actually have a much deeper story to tell, namely one of life and death.

The impressive large geometric vases for instance, were originally used as funerary markers. In the decoration this use in emphasized, however, at the same time a subtler message regarding the specific roles of men and women was expressed. In a central scene, the first part of the burial process, the prothesis or “laying out of the body” can be found. Around the body the simple figures show a remarkably emotional scene: female mourners grab their heads and even seem to pull out their hair in grief, while the men are more restraint and merely greet the deceased with their swords at their hips.


White-ground lekythos with man remembering the deceased at a grave monument.

While in the following centuries the themes on funerary vases were expanded, the special role of women in mourning and burial is one that persists throughout antiquity. Because of the biological mysteries of birth and menstruation, women were regarded as ‘polluted’.  Although it would be extremely unwise to mention this concept to any woman alive today, the “polluted nature” of women was then considered incredibly useful when dealing with another difficult transition: death.  Women prepared the body for burial and openly mourned. Later they were concerned with making offerings to the deceased and maintaining the grave.

By the 5th century BC the raw emotion had disappeared from the funerary depictions on the funerary vessel of the time: the white-ground Lekythos. It seems however unlikely that this reflects a sense of indifference to death. While the vessels show serene scenes of people tending the graves and remembering the deceased, their abundance and professionalism shows that mortuary ritual was booming business. Despite appearances, death was still a “shattering” experience to the living.


Woman carrying offerings to a funerary monument ( on white-ground lekythos)

Iris Rom, 03-04-2018

Some rituals never change: the First Cemetery of Athens


Walking around Athens you cannot avoid dealing with death somehow, in the names of mains streets, in the busts in little squares and in the famous museums and sites. The celebration of important personalities that have literally made Greek history is entangled to monuments that aim to preserve their memory. However, what happens when we approach death not as mere memory but as reality? Have you ever considering how it must have been like walking through the Kerameikos cemetery recognizing people buried along the streets? They were parents, sons, friends, not just ancient figures on beautiful grave stones. On this idea, in 1837, after the Greek war of independence, not too far away from the Panathenaic Stadium and the Olympieion, the First Cemetery of Athens was built. Placed in the World Monuments Fund (WMF) in 2012, this monumental cemetery is nowadays open to everybody. Here national benefactors, such as Georgios Averoff, mayors and politicians, such as Melína Merkoúri, are celebrated in the same way as the ancient Herodes Atticus was. Archbishops are remembered as the first Christian communities’ clergy members were. The so-called monument of “the Sleeping Girl” in memory of Sofia Afentaki, died at the age of eighteen of tuberculosis in the 19th century, remembers the stelai of those beautiful and wealthy Greek woman died too young and displayed at the National Museum. Famous artists, such as the Greek modern sculptor Yannoulis Chalepas and the poet Giórgos Seféris, are inhumed here.


The sleeping girl

The Sleeping Girl monument

As the images carved on ancient funerary monuments do not reflect real society but the idea of wealthy, fierce and immortal beauty that people wanted to transmit to posterity, the same happened in modern times. The monument of the German archaeologist Henrich Schliemann, well known for his excavation of what is considered by many as the city of Troy, is a clear example of this. His majestic Doric style mausoleum, designed by himself, dominates the main area of the cemetery.  It consists of an exuberant celebration of his career’s achievements with four friezes that alternated scenes from the Iliad, Odyssey and scenes from his personal life. This decoration creates an unforgettable connection between him and Greek heroes as Greek kings and Roman Emperors used to do to reinforce their role. The inscription “For the Hero, Schliemann” corroborates this aim.


Schliemann mausoleum


Detail of one of the friezes on the mausoleum of Schliemann


As it happened in the past, the multi-ethnic Greek society has always provided space within its sacral areas to different cultural groups. Distant from the main streets of the cemetery, quieter areas housed the modest Orthodox tombs of foreign people and the little Jewish cemetery.

Greeks seem to not have lost their traditions over time. Visitors can experience how citizens still deal with death, how they share their grief with family and friends keeping alive the memory of their deceased.



Death in the … museum

When entering the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, you will stand face to face with one of the most famous objects of the museum: the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. This golden death mask was found in Mycenae and opens the museum exhibitions, leading into the prehistoric collection. Apart from the prehistoric objects, most of the exhibition rooms focus on sculpture and vases. The museum houses archaeological finds from ancient Greece, from prehistory until late antiquity.


An example of the rich grave goods found in a Mycenaean grave.

Even though I did not think that a prehistoric exhibition would be full with golden objects like death masks, drinking cups and jewellery, this is the largest part of the exhibition. The NAM is proud of their Mycenaean collection and puts in the centre of attention. However, will the many many tourist that stare at the large amounts of gold understand the context of the objects? Will they know, fighting for a spot in front of the showcase, where the objects came from? When it is too crowded to read the information signs, when tourists are not able to read Greek or English, or simply do not want to, the simple display of the objects will not tell them were they are looking at: death.


A grave marker – a krater with the depiction of burial rituals on it – starts the sculpture exhibition, kouroi can be seen in the background.

A large part of the objects on display, not only in the Prehistoric collection, but also in the other parts as the sculpture collection, have been found in/by/on top of/surrounding graves. One might even say that the collection of the museum is determined by death. The rich grave goods have often been preserved, together with the architecture of the tomb and the sculptures and reliefs that were placed as grave markers. On the other hand, cities, palaces and settlements have been destroyed, reused or looted and when preserved the objects are often in a lesser state than the ones found in graves. Therefore, it is death that will guide you through the NAM and through the history of ancient Greece. The grave markers will show you the development of ancient Greek art, from static kouroi to the dynamics of the Hellenistic era. While there are many objects on display that have not been found in a grave context, it is death that is most prominent in the objects, but not in the type of museum display and certainly not in the minds of the tourists. Will they realize that they are looking at objects connected to extremely strong emotions, of dramatic changes in peoples in lives? That these objects were made because of the loss of a loved one?


A grave monument for a woman, 350-325 BC, found in Athens.