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Artemis Papatheodorou

Artemis Papatheodorou
Panteion University
Ordinary Ottoman Greeks on Antiquities

Dr. Artemis Papatheodorou is a cultural historian working on the history of archaeology in the Ottoman Empire. For her doctoral research at Oxford and subsequent projects, she studied the Ottoman central administration, the autonomous Principality of Samos (Sisam adası) in the Aegean, the island of Cyprus and the Hellenic Literary Society at Constantinople, which was a major Ottoman Greek institution of knowledge with an international outlook. She currently investigates the reception of antiquities by Ottoman Greeks in the final period of the Ottoman Empire. Away from studying the elites, the focus of her research is, this time, on ordinary men and, significantly, women living their lives throughout Anatolia. In doing so, Dr. Papatheodorou employs the concept of “indigenous archaeologies” as proposed by archaeologist and Brown University professor Yannis Hamilakis, that is, “local, vernacular discourses and practices involving things from another time” (2011). Hamilakis’ conceptualisation of “indigenous archaeologies” is important in that it allows for a more encompassing definition of archaeological practice. Dr. Papatheodorou has previously taught history (world history, modern Arab history, Ottoman history and modern Turkish history) at the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, and Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece.

Ordinary Ottoman Greeks on Antiquities

Artemis Papatheodorou

Have you ever wondered what kind of archaeological knowledge we gain whenever we visit archaeological museums or archaeological sites? Through the rearrangement of finds outside their natural environment in artificially lit museum halls, labels, explanatory texts, and open-air signposts, we are guided into the world of scientific archaeology, that is, the world of trained archaeologists. These specialists ask specific questions about past civilizations, and the material remains of the past can only “answer” to the frames of mind that generate these questions. Do you think, however, that antiquities “speak” only one language, the one perceptible solely by the trained eye? How many archaeological frames of mind are out there, and how many archaeological worlds can you think of?

In the academic year 2022–2023, thanks to funding by the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED), I was given the opportunity to explore what antiquities meant to ordinary Ottoman Greeks in late Ottoman Anatolia. Contrary to widespread belief, ordinary Ottomans were not necessarily more prone to destroying the treasures of the past than the educated Ottomans and Europeans. We know, for example, that the partial destruction of the Byzantine city walls in Constantinople in the early 1870s was not the work of illiterate peasants but a conscious decision made by European entrepreneurs, which the Ottoman state authorities failed to prevent.[1] Ordinary Ottoman Greek men and women engaged with antiquities in their native villages in ways that may actually surprise us.

Their archaeological worlds were more effective than political, more embodied than cognitive. For example, when the paint of an icon in the church of Hagios Ioannes Theologos in Ayasuluk peeled off, a local Greek was fascinated by the revelation of an earlier icon underneath.[2] Children in Nymphaio (Nif/Kemalpaşa) re-enacted scenes of siege in the ruins of the local castle where they also flew their kites.[3]

If, in the long nineteenth century, trained archaeologists explored ways to date ancient artifacts, historical time seemed to matter less for ordinary Ottoman Greeks. Even though, on some occasions, the latter could provide a rough periodization for an antiquity that could thus be related to this or that Byzantine emperor, on other occasions, their understanding could be strikingly atemporal. Next to a modern concept of time, fairy-tale-like narrations could be employed to explain the presence of a ruined castle. The one in Nymphaio, for example, was thought to have been built as part of a most dramatic story that grandparents told their grandchildren and that was also shared by the local Turks. The princess of Sardis, we learn, was on her way to Ionia to marry the local prince, when she received the news of his death. Then, she decided to stay on that very spot, where her father built a palace—the palace in question—for her to live with her retinue.[4]

These and other examples that survive in the archive show how different the archaeological worlds of ordinary people could be to those of professional archaeologists. Yet this is no ground to invalidate them. It is high time we encompassed these “indigenous archaeologies” as alternative archaeologies for what they may reveal about the relationship of ordinary people with antiquities.[5] A predilection on the part of professional archaeologists may relate to their elite standing in society, their virtual monopoly of communication vehicles on archaeology, and a modern bias in favor of science instead of the vernacular. However, before the advent of the trained archaeologist, people had lived surrounded by ruins for thousands of years. It is worth trying to find out what such non-specialists may have to say on antiquities.

Then, the question arises: where can we find recorded the antiquities-related voice of such ordinary people? It is true that there is a dearth of primary sources that could help us grasp their understanding of the world. At best, we make recourse to travelogues, which are, however, mediated ways to capture their voice. In these, the Western gaze, oftentimes orientalist in nature, casts a heavy shadow on what we can learn about the locals. It has been suggested that practices of spoliation demonstrate ordinary understandings of antiquities. They surely do, but, at the same time, they are rather limited in what they reveal.

My research has been based on an early oral history archive that is largely ethnographic in content. This is no other than the Oral Tradition Archive of the Centre for Asia Minor Studies that is made up of thousands of oral testimonies by Greek refugees from Ottoman Anatolia and Eastern Thrace. These were collected between 1930 and the mid-1970s and aimed at rescuing knowledge of life in Anatolia and eastern Thrace before 1922.

As all archives, the Oral Tradition Archive is a locus of power and, thus, political ideology. The mere inclusion of antiquities among the topics under investigation points to an attempt by the Centre to document the traces of Hellenism outside of Greece. I argue, however, that this is not the most dominant element that permeates the testimonies of the refugees. In oral history, no matter how structured the interview, the narrator has a lot of leeway to project his/her own understanding of things, even his/her own agenda, if any. In the case of our refugees, it is their trauma of losing their homeland and of living in a forced exile that sets the tone.

When I first started working on this archive, I could not have imagined that I would have to work on trauma. I was aware of the trauma of the Asia Minor refugees more broadly, and of its inter-generational features. Being a descendant of Asia Minor and Pontic Greeks myself, I had experienced it first-hand in my family. But that I would be invited to study trauma in depth while investigating the history of archaeology was quite unexpected. And yet, as I was to discover, refugee testimonies on antiquities are highly mediated by trauma in unconscious ways. When thinking of this, my mind often goes to this testimony by a man from Lithri (Ildır), which I would like to share by way of example:

We had a plot of land in Alivorno. One day, as our workers were digging, they found a statue [sic] that was 3 m. high and 1 ½ meters wide. It depicted a carriage with 12 girls, over a chariot with curved wheels. It was 50 centimeters deep, looked like a pyramid, like a pediment. It was a one-block piece of marble.

The villagers took it up and placed it on the side, they couldn’t take it to the village, it stood by the side of our wall. The village was two hours away.

In the first persecution [1914] that we left and came here to Kalavryta [a place in Greece], we left the statue [sic] ok.

But in 1919 when we returned we found it broken.

The Turks had thought that the statue [sic] could hide something dangerous for them, and thus they broke it to make sure.

We all cried for it, the statue [sic] was our pride. The pride of our village. We were always talking about it at home, about the statue [sic] and I remembered it too though I was little.[6]


I contend that there are two levels for reading this incident. The one is the actual finding and subsequent destruction of the ancient artifact. The second one relies on a metaphor: the destruction of the antiquity and the subsequent lamentation for its loss is a way for this refugee to actually talk about his pain at the loss of his homeland.

Overall, engaging with the history of archaeology in early twentieth-century Anatolia at the vernacular level is a fascinating field of inquiry. It lets you explore archaeological worlds little discussed but immensely rich in human experience!


[1] Α. Γ. Πασπάτης, “Περί των εν Κωνσταντινουπόλει Ανασκαφών.” Εν Κωνσταντινουπόλει Ελληνικός Φιλολογικός Σύλλογος, Σύγγραμμα Περιοδικόν. τόμος ΣΤ’, 1871–72, εκ του Τυπογραφείου Α. Κορομηλά, εν Κωνσταντινουπόλει, 1873, 46–48. Εν Κωνσταντινουπόλει Ελληνικός Φιλολογικός Σύλλογος, Σύγγραμμα Περιοδικόν. τόμος Δ’, Τυπογρ. Ι. Α. Βρετού, εν Κωνσταντινουπόλει, 1871, minutes of the meeting convened on 10 Feb 1872, 252.

[2] CAMS, Oral Tradition Archive, Ayasolouk, 62–63 (29.5.1965).

[3] CAMS, Oral Tradition Archive, Nymphaio, 123–24 (13.2.1962).

[4] CAMS, Oral Tradition Archive, Nymphaio, 19 (24.3.1961).

[5] Yannis Hamilakis, “Indigenous Archaeologies in Ottoman Greece,” in Scramble for the Past, ed. Zainab Bahrani et. al (Istanbul: SALT, 2011), 49–69.

[6] CAMS, Oral Tradition Archive, Lithri, 141–42 (September 1955).