Dr Artemis Papatheodorou is an Early Career Fellow in Hellenic Studies 2023-2024, Harvard University. Interview with Network Coordinator Dr Amara Thornton.
AT: How would you define history of archaeology?
AP: The history of archaeology is a different kind of digging than what you do in an ancient site. Historians of archaeology are after the links between the material remains of distant pasts and population groups that lived in comparatively less distant pasts, be they nations, elites, ordinary people, excavation workers, women, trained and amateur archaeologists, etc., or even institutions, such as museums or the League of Nations. They study archival documents, publications, photographs, videos and other mostly written or audiovisual primary sources in order to decipher the reception of antiquities by such people and institutions, the meanings and values that these ascribed to ancient finds, the uses they made out of antiquities, and the purposes of such uses. It is a particularly diverse field that brings together many different sources, techniques, theoretical approaches, even disciplines.
AT: What is your area of research in the history of archaeology?
AP: I specialize in the history of archaeology, heritage and the classical reception in the Ottoman long 19th century. I look extensively into primary sources in Ottoman Turkish and Greek, and this allows me a close-up both to the Ottoman state and Ottomans writing in the official language of the state on the one hand and (Ottoman) Greeks in all their diversity on the other hand. This means that I can also read Karamanlidika, that is, Turkish written with the Greek alphabet, a linguistic hybrid used mostly by the Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox in Cappadocia. Moreover, I speak French, the lingua franca of the long 19th century, and this too opens up new vistas in my research. In my work I make sure to study mainstream actors and topics as well as lesser known aspects in the history of archaeology, such as the reception of antiquities by ordinary (i. e. non-elite) Ottoman Greeks.
AT: How did you become interested in the history of archaeology?
AP: I had questions and I couldn’t get satisfactory answers! So, I had to look for answers myself. This applies primarily to Ottoman history, which is my broader field of expertise. But then, once into Ottoman studies, I had to decide among a few topics of special interest for my PhD.
I had always been fascinated by antiquities. As a child growing up in Greece, Antiquity and its material remains formed part of my daily life. Roads were named after ancient or medieval locations, I was aware that the Athenian suburb where I lived was where Euripides had his house in ancient times, and the local newspaper covered archaeological discoveries made during the construction of houses in our area. Also, the Near and Middle East, which I hold dear in my heart, is not simply rich in antiquities. Antiquities are central to understanding important aspects of the cultures and identities formed in the region. For example, look at the Ottoman Greeks and their interest in the classical and Byzantine past. Or the Lebanese and the Phoenicians. The importance of Islamic monuments for Arabs. Or the value that Turks ascribe to prehistoric finds, among other. And at the same time, this region became a hotspot for Europeans and Americans looking for the roots of their culture. To me, the history of archaeology has been a unique gateway to understanding the Ottoman Empire in its last phase as a multi-layered crossroads of peoples, identities, ideas and practices.
AT: Are you working on anything in particular related to the history of archaeology right now?
AP: Until recently, as post-doctoral research fellow at the Research Centre for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED, Koç University), I worked on a project on the reception of antiquities by ordinary Ottoman Greeks in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia. In the history of archaeology, we still seem to privilege the educated elites over ordinary people, and for this reason this project has been of special importance to me. Moreover, as the archive I worked on is a collection of testimonies by Ottoman Greeks after they settled in Greece as refugees, trauma permeates what they convey to us. This adds some very interesting layers of analysis in the history of archaeology, and actually turns the history of archaeology into a vehicle for understanding broader questions besides the reception of antiquities stricto sensu.
In the academic year 2023-2024, I dedicate some time to the study of the reception of Byzantium by Ottoman Muslims. My starting point is a book in Ottoman Turkish on Kariye Mosque, that is, the Chora Monastery in Constantinople published in 1910. The book in question is an art historical treatise dating from a very interesting period for Byzantine monuments in the Ottoman capital. My main project however is the reception of Alexander the Great by the Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox in Cappadocia in the 19th century. This is more of a classical reception project, but the classical reception informed the interest of local people on antiquities back then. Although we know a lot about Alexander the Great in western traditions and in the persianate world, we know close to nothing about how his legend affected the Turkish-speaking but Greek Orthodox Cappadocians, a minority that by means of its language (Turkish) and religion (Greek Orthodox) stood between two worlds, the Ottoman Turkish and the Greek ones.
AT: What, from your experience, is the most meaningful thing you've come across in history of archaeology research and why?
AP: There are so many… But one of the things that I enjoy the most and in which I find meaning is the host of voices that have been developed over the years in history of archaeology research. History of archaeology is a field that invites research work not only by historians but also by experts originating in other disciplines, including archaeologists, art historians, conservators, and architects. It thus becomes a ground for extraordinary cross-fertilizations and dialogue.
AT: Do you have any favourite books (academic or popular) related to the history of archaeology? Titles and authors would be great, and a few thoughts as to why.
AP: One of my favourite books in the history of archaeology is “Scramble for the Past” (Bahrani et.al. (eds.), SALT, 2011). It brings together many aspects related to archaeology in the Ottoman domains in the long 19th century, and when it first came out it broke new ground in the way we approach Ottoman archaeological history. Even more than 10 years after its publication, it remains relevant.
AT: Is there a key object/ image/ text from an archive that inspires you or that you keep revisiting?
AP: I very much like the logo of the Imperial Museum, that is, the Ottoman archaeological museum in Constantinople. It is in Ottoman Turkish and reads as “Müze-i Hümayun” in what seems to me to be Gothic fonts. I can spend a long time just looking at its two words and trying to think of how it might have been created in the first place: the discussions about having a logo, the choice of font, any changes requested and the final approval, its first ever use. It survives as letterhead in the official correspondence of the Museum and in its period publications. Perhaps elsewhere too…
AT: Any advice for those interested in starting research on the history of archaeology?
AP: Always be aware that what you will work on is but a minuscule part of a vast area of past human activity. Be open to the new and the unexpected, and ready to challenge your very own assumptions.
AT: From your perspective, what are the key issues in the history of archaeology right now?
AP: I believe that we need to continue working on the elites, because formal archaeology was after all an elite activity, but at the same time systematically provide more space to ordinary people, women, and locals who engaged with antiquities within or without a formal archaeological context. Their views are no less valuable and consequential than the ones of those who happened to be privileged at a specific time in history.
Also, provenance research is important and can help tackle issues that go beyond the strictly academic type of inquiry. It is a bridge between the study of culture and the actual formation of culture. Provenance research can help us decide in what kind of a society we want to live, and what kind of relations we want to have we the rest of the world. This is valid not only for former colonialist powers that collected antiquities from other countries oftentimes by taking advantage of their superior might, but also for countries of origin that have largely shaped their identity as being sole guardians of heritage in their lands.
AT: How can people learn more about your research (personal blog, twitter, etc)?
AP: You can follow me on academia.edu or ResearchGate: