Week 2 of Greece at a Crossroads: History, Landscape, and Material Culture

15 April 2024

By Ellie Simon ’26

Week 2 in Greece was brimming with visits to sites—the Athenian Agora, the archaeological sites of Dimini, Thermopylae, Dimitrias, and the Castle of Lamia—and museums—the Athenian Agora, the modern city of Volos, the archaeological museum of Volos—which were complimented well by our formal and informal discussions as a class.

Temple of Hephaestus

John Papadopoulos, Director of Excavations at the Athenian Agora, led us around the site and museum. To be candid, my preconceptions of the Agora led me to assume that much more of it remained than actually did. The stark contrast between the relatively intact Temple of Hephaestus compared to the scant remains of the other houses, temples, monuments, and stoa piqued my interest: why do certain archaeological features survive better than others? As I thought about this, I realized that there are both natural and manmade forces that affect the outcome of archaeological features, even within a site.

For example, I think the natural elevation of the building on its position on the Agoraios Kolonos hill—as opposed to the other features in the site at a lower elevation, and the lowest drainage point of central Athens—likely prevents damage to the building from water. On the other hand, the continuous human use and occupation of the temple throughout time—a temple in Classical times, a Christian church in Byzantine through Ottoman times, and as a burial place for philhellenes—makes me wonder if the space’s religious and cultural significance made it more likely to be preserved and taken care of than other features that merely had cult significance in ancient times.

Nevertheless, our tour of the Agora was inspiring, not only because of the direct glimpse we were allowed into the material lives of Greeks from the past, but also because of Dr. Papadopoulos’ extensive knowledge of the site and ancient Greek history.

Agoraios Kolonos Hill, crowned with the Temple of Hephaestus

To tie in memory, one of our main themes of the course, one of my greatest takeaways from the visit to the Athenian Agora is the way in which we—whether it be Classical scholars, college students, or the general public—associate deeply diachronic sites such as the Agora with specific moments in a culture’s history. It seems to me that our association with the Agora—and even the modern nation-state of Greece at large—with the Classical period comes from a shared sense of awe and nostalgia for the lasting philosophical, political, literary, and cultural achievements of the era.

As we continue with the OCS program, I will be interested to see if this focus on the Classical period is as prevalent at the other sites and museums we visit throughout Greece, and to pinpoint more specifically why that is.

Athenian Agora

Little did I know that our three-day trip to Volos would include some of the most breathtaking views and memorable experiences of my life (and, of course, incredibly fascinating archaeology and history). Over the course of the weekend, we visited the archaeological sites of Thermopylae, Dimini, Dimitrias, and Lamia.

One thing that was apparent to me is how the topography and geography of all the sites we have visited directly affect their positions as strategic military and travel routes. For example, Demetrias not only was able to control the land passage of Thessaly, but also the naval areas of the Pagasitic Gulf. Similarly, Thermopylae’s position near mountains and sea made it extremely defendable, which affected the Persian’s ability to overtake Leonidas and the Spartans in in 480 BC.

On Thursday in class before we left for the trip, we learned about the significant landscape change that has engulfed the region. Especially in regards to the recession of the gulf, the affect of landscape change on archaeological sites and excavation was one of the most perplexing and fascinating things to me.

Landscape of Thermopylae

Our focus so far on the archaeology of landscape—how the people of the past maximized their use of the environment around them and adapted to changing conditions—has shown me that there is a deep connection between material culture, human alteration of the landscape, and the natural environment. I think one of my favorite parts of the whole weekend was when Alex read poetry aloud—in both Greek and English. Combined with the beauty of the landscape and our newfound knowledge of the events that had taken place at each site, it was wonderful to hear it all tied together with one of my favorite literary forms.

Horses at the archaeological site of Demetrias

We visited two museums in Volos: the archaeological museum, and the historical museum of the modern city of Volos, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. One of the classes I am taking on this trip focuses on modern Greek anthropology and history, so to visit a modern museum and see the mediums of presentation of Greek (or Volos) history through primary material sources was thought-provoking when compared with the information that has been distilled by the refinery of academia. I thought it was interesting, even in this relatively small city museum, how there was an undertone of Greek resistance to the “other” (e.g. the Ottomans and Germans), and the resilience displayed by the citizens of Volos throughout industrialization and urbanization.

Greek port city of Volos

The archaeological museum at Volos was one of my favorite visits of the weekend. Visiting all of the archaeological sites and hearing about items recovered from the sites, and then going to see what they looked like in the flesh was, to put it crassly, super cool. I thought that the diachronic setup of the museum was incredibly effective and that it flowed very nicely.

Starting with prehistoric finds, progressing through the Classical and Hellenistic sections, and finishing with later periods helped me visualize the change over time in art, religion, and culture (and more broadly, the use of materials) that took place in the region. Some of my favorite pieces included the fertility figurines of the Late Bronze Age period, and the grave steles with paint from the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, especially the one with the complete inscription.

Late Bronze Age figurines at the Archaeological Museum of Volos

Although I did not think our first week in Athens could possibly be improved upon, our second week was incredibly special to me. I think one of the main reasons I am so grateful to be on this trip—other than the complementary hotel spas and delicious τσιπουραδικα—is that I am able to reflect on and challenge my own assumptions about life in ancient Greece by reading about them and then peering into the material lives of the ancients by visiting archaeological sites and museums, and learning from some of the premier scholars in the field. Also, I am very thankful for the group that we have on the program: seeing everyone enjoy and hearing everyone reflect on their experiences has been extremely fulfilling and awe-inspiring. I cannot wait to experience the rest of Greece with everyone, and to build on our themes of identity, empire, and memory.

Castle of Lamia

Read this piece on the Spring 2024 Blog for Greece at a Crossroads: History, Landscape, and Material Culture!