How archeology became a true scientific discipline

For a long time, archeology was the business of enlightened soldiers (Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt), scholarly diplomats, and billionaire patrons. Often with two goals: to reveal to the world the civilizations of the past and (less admirably) to return rich and striking vestiges to Western countries. “Archeology as a scientific discipline really began in the middle of the 19th century in Greece with the creation of the French School of Athens,” explains Jean-Luc Martinez, honorary president and director of the Louvre Museum, originally from the Paris-Athens exhibition. Birth of modern Greece (1675-1919), which opens its doors on September 30. This year marks, in fact, the bicentennial of the beginning of the War of Independence (March 25, 1821) of what was then a “small country” seeking to emerge from the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. “We have to wait a good decade before a new state is created (1833), thanks to the intervention of the European powers, recalls Eve Gran-Aymerich, historian, author of Investigators of the Past, 1798-1945 (CNRS editions). this period develops a philohellenism that will lead the young government to create a Greek Archaeological Society destined to promote and explore the ancient heritage. “Very quickly, the latter sought to protect the country’s treasures and prohibited the export of the discoveries made on its soil. radical decision (unlike that of other Middle Eastern countries) tinged with nationalism that truncated any inclination to send to collect and trade antiquities.

Ambitious missions

“The foundation of the French School of Athens proceeds, therefore, from a purely scientific and educational approach. It consists of ‘giving ground to the sources’, that is, allowing agrégés de philologie to carry out stays. Extended to deepen their literary knowledge “, details Alexandre Farnoux, professor of archeology and history of Greek art (Paris-Sorbonne University), who was its director. This unpublished creation – this school is the first, before those of Rome and Cairo or the House of Velásquez (Madrid) -, also responds to ulterior diplomatic reasons: the young Greek State, still fragile, is concocted by the great powers, trying to extend their influence through a kind of “cultural diplomacy.” The French institution first led expeditions to discover famous sites of ancient literature, such as Crete. These are often dangerous trips, especially for young students, over long distances, over several months, in relative comfort and changing weather and political conditions. “There was a break around 1850, when the School, under the tutelage of the Academy of Inscriptions and Fine Letters, received missions more ambitious than simple descriptions”, specifies Jean-Charles Moretti of the Institute. Research on ancient architecture (CNRS / Universities of Lyon). A turning point that coincides with the desire of the Greek authorities to carry out systematic excavations of the most important sites to rediscover their past. If the Acropolis work is awarded – privately funded – some of it is awarded to friendly nations. Germany obtains that of Olympia, while France excavates Chios (1854), Samos (1856), Dion (1856), but especially Delphi (1892-1902) and Délos (1873-1913).

Gigantic media

“It was during this period that archeology became truly scientific, developing a methodology and using technologies that unified from one site to another,” explains Alexandre Farnoux. The most emblematic of these technologies is photography on glass plates, which is becoming widespread. We also use plaster molds, which allow us to have replicas of disappeared statues, and we improve the processes of conservation of artifacts (thanks to the creation of museums) and restoration of monuments. “New researchers, geologists, but also architects are arriving at the excavation sites, producing ultra-precise stratigraphic surveys and maps. For the first time, we are interested not only in the remains, but also in the terrain, that is to say, in the context of the objects ”, continues Jean-Luc Martinez. The sites benefit from giant media. In Delphi, funded by Parliament, archaeologists clear the sanctuary of Apollo by moving the modern town that occupied the original site, create the Decauville tracks, a 1,800-meter-long railway network destined to the evacuation of thousands of cubic meters of rubble , and employ up to 200 workers. “Germany continues to be the most advanced nation, however, putting in place the greatest amount of resources”, relativizes Eve Gran-Aymerich. But scientists are constantly exchanging, in great solidarity, and a true ‘Europe of scientists’ is emerging. ”

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In total, from 1848 to 1921 more than 150 young researchers remained at the French School of Athens, producing an unpublished corpus of memoirs, articles, monographs, architectural studies, and catalogs of coins, vases, inscriptions, and sculptures. “A colossal work that has had multiple repercussions for the general public”, emphasizes Jean-Charles Moretti. The charioteer of Delphi, the discovery of the score of the hymn of Delphi by Apollo or the Beulé gate of the Propylaea on the Acropolis made headlines. Archeology entered modernity fully, and French researchers forged lasting links with Athens; those of today still excavate the cradle of western Europe.

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Frédéric Filloux is a columnist for L'Express and editor of Monday Note.Frédéric Filloux


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