EPILOGUE: Unearthing Delphi

Ten years of discussion over negotiations to excavate Delphi gave way in 1892 to almost ten years of excavation. The “Trojan War” for Delphi, as the French like to label their long-lasting negotiations, now was to become an epic Odyssey for its discovery. “La Grande Fouille,” the “Big Dig,” lasted from 1892 to 1901 and would play a major part in a key era of discovery about the ancient world. The French excavators wrote down the day-to-day records of their quest in a journal that can be consulted today (and now online) and that provides incredible insight not only into the highs and lows of the excavations, nor simply into the careful ways in which the original excavators pieced fragments of finds together as they were discovered sometimes days and weeks apart, but also into how, thanks to copious notes in the margins, subsequent generations of researchers have added to this compendium, continually improving and refining our understanding of the site.1

The first task had been to move the village of Castri, which was spread over much of the Apollo sanctuary and further up the mountainside toward the stadium (see fig. 12.3). Théophile Homolle, director of excavations and director of the French School in Athens, calculated there were one thousand building plots with three hundred owners, all of whom had to be moved to new homes on a site chosen about a kilometer to the west (see fig. 0.2). It must have been an odd sight as, on each side of the rocky crag of the Parnassian mountains that stretches out on Delphi’s west side hiding it from the world, simultaneously one community was constructed and another demolished. Some inhabitants cried as they left the homes their parents and grandparents had lived and died in; others were surely happy at their good fortune—to be paid for their old homes and gifted the value of their new ones as well. But those initial years were not easy for the local inhabitants. The new village school was delayed, and so the children were taught by the local priests using the church that oversaw the village graveyard as a school.2


Figure 13.1. A photo of the excavation in full progress, with the train tracks and wagons in use as the entrance to the Apollo sanctuary is cleared (© EFA [La redécouverte de Delphes fig. 77])

And the task of excavation was enormous. Homolle was assisted by a small team of archaeologists; by the most competent of work managers, Henri Convert; and by over two hundred workmen. Eighteen hundred meters of train track were laid crisscrossing the site on which fifty-seven wagons took the earth away as it was excavated (fig. 13.1). The tracks were laid at such a gradient that, when full of earth, a single workmen could use gravity to push them easily by hand away from the excavation toward the dumping area, and then packs of mules were used to pull them empty back up to the excavation area. In 1895 alone, 160,000 wagonloads of earth were excavated (see fig. 13.2).3


Figure 13.2. An early photo of the excavation in progress with the Athenian stoa and temple terracing wall emerging from underneath the modern village of Castri (© EFA [La redécouverte de Delphes fig. 66])

The initial finds were impressive, even compared to some of the famous sculptures that had already come to light in earlier trial excavations (like the sarcophagus of Meleager discovered in 1842 or the Naxian Sphinx discovered in 1861). In the first two months of excavation, crucial inscriptions had come to light. In the first full season of 1893, the altar of the Chians; the rock of the Sibyl; and the treasury of the Athenians with its carved metopes, inscriptions, and recorded musical notation for the ancient hymns to Apollo were found. In 1894 the beautiful statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s onetime lover and treasured companion, Antinous (see fig. 11.1), was uncovered, as were the treasuries of the Cnidians and Sicyonians. These discoveries were headline news in a world hungry for more from the ancient world. The hymns from the Athenian treasury were played for the Greek king and queen on 15 March 1894, at the Odeon in St. Petersburg on 11 May, as far as Johannesburg later that year, and even at the conference organized by Pierre de Coubertin in 1894 at which it was decided to restage the ancient Olympic games. Plaster casts of finds such as the Naxian Sphinx and the statue of Antinous quickly made their way to exhibitions in Paris, engendering continued amazement at the quality, skill, and sheer beauty of ancient sculpture. Such reactions were further fueled by the discovery, on 28 April 1896, of the famous bronze Charioteer that is now the centerpiece of the modern Delphi museum (see plate 6).4

But not every day produced such finds. In 1895, despite moving 160,000 wagons of earth, nothing major was found. Nor did conditions at the site make excavation easy. Heavy rain frequently interrupted excavation, and considerable time at the end of each season had to be dedicated to constructing strong barriers to protect the site from rain, mud, and rockfalls. Winds so strong that they created dust storms could also blow up. The Greco-Turkish War interrupted excavation almost entirely in 1897. The journal bears witness also to a degree of exasperation among the French archaeologists that the local workmen claimed so many religious festivals as holidays, and the French correspondence shows ongoing difficulties in agreeing with members of the Greek Archaeological service present at the site about what constituted important finds and what could be ignored. The increasing number of VIP visits did not help the progress of the excavation, nor did the continued criticisms levied by journalists and other archaeologists, particularly the German archaeologist Hans Pomtow. Pomtow had already published his own book on Delphi following his early trial excavations during the ten-year-long negotiations for the site. Now he continued to doubt French ability to undertake the task; criticized Homolle’s hands-on style; and when, despite all this, the French team published a significant number of results in 1898, his review in the Berliner Philologische Wochenschrift indicated that scholars should forgive Homolle his inaccuracies given the mass of work he was attempting to cover.5

By 1901, however, the main areas of the site had been uncovered. The wagons were shipped off to other French excavations on Delos in the Cyclades, and subsequently Thasos in the northern Aegean (although two can still be seen at Delphi today). The museum at the site that housed the finds, paid for by a Madame Iphigeneia Syngros, was inaugurated on

2 May 1903, and a big party was held to celebrate the end of the excavations. Five warships, three French and two Greek, were present in the harbor below; ten thousand locals were present in the area around the stadium; and a plethora of diplomats bore witness to the event in as fine an array of fashion as could be seen on the Champs Élysées. Homolle subsequently left, elevated to the position of director of the Louvre in France, and the dig house fell silent. Only the opening of the grand hotel “Apollo Pythia” in the new nearby village by 1906 gave an indication of the transformations still to come.6

When Homolle and his team left the dig site, their plan was to prepare its “definitive” publication in five volumes along the lines already established for Olympia (Olympia: History, Architecture, Inscriptions, Statues, Small Objects).7 On the one hand, their excavation had been an incredible success: an extremely difficult dig that had returned to light the remains of one of the most important sanctuaries in the ancient world and produced some extraordinarily fine pieces of ancient sculpture alongside important architectural discoveries and endless inscriptions. Yet, on the other hand, there was a lingering feel of disappointment, which was in part inevitable. The excavation had been conducted with ancient literary descriptions of the site literally in hand, and its progression had intentionally mirrored that of Pausanias’s second-century AD tour-guide visit to the sanctuary to ensure the highest probability of identifying all the monuments he mentioned. When all the wondrous objects Pausanias alluded to—particularly the temple sculpture and, even more disappointingly, the apparatus of the oracle (also the subject of other authors like Plutarch and Diodorus)—were not uncovered, naturally there was disappointment, and not only among the excavators.8 As one critic grumbled in response to the 1901 Delphi display at the Universal Exhibition, “the impression is sad, the reality a long way from any concept of beauty, and there is nothing to do but rely on one’s imagination.”9

The disappointment felt at the lackluster state of the physical site of Delphi at the end of the big dig prompted its director, Théophile Homolle, to attempt the reconstruction of one of its most famous monuments: the treasury of the Athenians. Almost all the original pieces of the building had been found early on in the first full year of the excavations, and the inscriptions that covered its walls—particularly the hymns to Apollo, the earliest musical notation in Mediterranean history—quickly became world famous. In July 1902 Homolle wrote to the mayor of Athens, “For the Athenians of today, it would be a noble satisfaction to write their name alongside those who fought at Marathon and to inscribe, under the eloquent dedication which recalls one of the great events in Greek—and human—history, a new inscription which will, for future generations, be a memorial to their unwavering faith towards the great accomplishments, glory and courage of their ancestors.”10

The municipal council of Athens immediately voted to give 20,000 drachmas for the project and made Homolle a citizen of the city. In 1903 Joseph Replat, a skilled architect, was tasked with the reconstruction, which he completed not only thanks to his architectural knowledge of how the ancient stones fitted together, but also, perhaps more importantly, thanks to the piecing together of the different inscriptions covering large numbers of blocks in the treasury’s walls, and thus dictating the relationship of those blocks to the building’s architecture. The story goes that Replat was so dedicated to his work at Delphi that, at the end of his active life, all he chose to exclaim was simply, “Delphi, adieu!”11 The treasury was completed on 26 September 1906 and has remained one of the sanctuary’s most impressive sights ever since (see fig. 5.4)

Yet much of the rest of the site was in chaos, with large depots of stones from the excavations piled helter-skelter. The museum, opened only in 1903, was leaking badly by 1906, and parts of the site were declared unsafe, not least thanks to the continued rockfalls from the Parnassian mountains above. In 1905 a series of massive rocks fell into the Athena sanctuary, and one of them—too big to move—still sits in the middle of it today, a continuing testament to the dynamic geology of the area (see plate 8). All these problems were the headache of the Greek Archaeological Service, which had taken over the running of the site, particularly the scholarly and diligent Antonios Keramopoullos and Alexandros Kondoleon. Keramopoullos published the first guide book to the site in 1912, and Kondoleon is remembered affectionately in the archives for his unique and unswerving dedication to Delphi, its preservation and study, which meant everything from chasing after soldiers who helped themselves to small museum exhibits, to subjecting new French scholars arriving at the site to a frosty reception until their skill and love for Delphi could be proven to Kondoleon’s satisfaction.12 But the French were not the only ones there: the German Hans Pomtow, active at Delphi before the dig big, and so critical of French efforts during it, returned on several occasions to conduct small excavations and publish finds and inscriptions (strictly in contravention of the French/Greek convention on the site).13

World War I brought a halt to work at Delphi, and despite its not being on a front line, made it once again a rather unsafe place thanks to increased local sectarian violence: one French scholar of the time recalled seeing three severed heads on display in the local town square. The 1920s saw the emergence of a new generation of French scholars at Delphi: Robert Demangel; George Daux; and Pierre de la Coste-Messelière, under the direction of Charles Picard as director of the French School, and guided by Emilie Bourguet, one of the surviving figures of the big dig after Homolle’s death in 1925. When I first visited the library of the French dig house at Delphi in 2006, I was intrigued to find an old colonial pith helmet propped on top of the bookshelves, which, I learned, belonged to one of the most colorful Delphic scholars of the 1920s generation: Pierre de la Coste Messelière, who was never seen without it while working on the site. De la Coste-Messelière was a marquis, descended from the family of Charles VII, and had fought in World War I as a mounted cavalry officer, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Following the war, he stumbled into the university lectures of Emilie Bourguet and become hooked on Delphi. Always immaculately dressed, pipe clenched in his teeth, he developed a love and sensitivity toward ancient sculpture that resulted in a number of crucial Delphic publications; he took to the battlefield again in World War II, was again awarded the Croix de Guerre, and later returned to work once again on the site (fig. 13.3).14

The 1920s also saw the reconstruction of a second Delphic monument: the altar of the Chians (see plate 2, fig. 1.3). Just as the treasury of the Athenians had been reconstructed with money put forward by modern Athens, so too the modern-day islanders of Chios paid for the reconstruction of the altar. On 12 March 1920 the Greek minister of public education informed the director of the French School, Charles Picard, that 10,000 drachmas had been collected and deposited in a bank account, at his disposal for the rebuilding of the altar, and reconstruction began the next month.15Greek cities of the modern world had begun to stake their claim once again on ancient Delphi, ensuring their monuments would once again receive the respect they’d garnered so many centuries before. In the same vein, in May 1927 the Greek lyric poet and playwright Angelos Sikélianos and his wife, the American Eva Palmer, launched the first modern Delphic festival, which sought to re-create the ancient Pythian games with gymnastic contests and the performance of tragedy (in that year, Aeschylus’s Prometheus Unbound), bringing the world once again to Delphi.16 But we should not underestimate the ongoing difficulties in getting to and living at Delphi at this time. The road from Arachova was not yet dreamt of, the road up from the port of Itea was still only in rough condition (see fig. 0.1). To get there from Athens in 1933 meant a slow boat from Athens to Itea that arrived at three or four in the morning, then waiting till later in the day for one of the few taxis that made the journey up to Delphi. And upon arrival at the dig house or the site, there was no electricity, and locals were still found washing their clothing in the oracular Castalian spring.17


Figure 13.3. Pierre de la Coste-Messelière, smoking his pipe, examining sculpture from the tholos in the sanctuary of Athena at Delphi (© EFA [La redécouverte de Delphes fig. 124])

The scale of operations at Delphi increased dramatically in 1935, through design and necessity. During the year, plans were made to plant 6,500 pine trees around the site to make it more picturesque, although eyebrows were raised at introducing non-native vegetation to the area (see fig. 0.2). A new cycle of excavations had also just begun under an incoming generation of scholars who would become central figures in Delphic folklore: Pierre Amandry, Jean Bousquet, Jean Marcadé, Lucien Lerat, and Jean Pouilloux. But then, in December 1935, tragedy struck. A massive storm caused a rock-and mudslide that covered large sections of the site. In one stroke of nature’s power, the big dig was partially wiped out. Delphi was, once again, hidden from view.18

The authorities were quick to act. In 1936 the French government made new resources available to dig Delphi out again. Back came the wagons from the original excavation; the train tracks—still visible today in places at Delphi—were oiled into operation, the wooden slides were reconstructed to help ferry material down toward the wagons, and work began. But this time the excavators dug deeper than the original ones had, focusing this time on uncovering Delphi’s earliest history, whereas the earlier one had sought to uncover what Pausanias had seen in the second century AD. It was during these campaigns that Delphi began to give up more of its most closely guarded secrets: buried caches of ancient sculpture (including some from the early temple) and particularly the rare ivory and bronze sculptures that are now on display in the site’s museum (see plate 5, fig. 4.2).19

The late 1930s were a busy time at Delphi. A new road from Arachova was built to the site in 1935, the road from Itea was improved, and excavations at the ancient port site were undertaken between 1936 and 1938. A new museum to house the expanding collection of finds opened in 1938. The French constructed a new dig house to cope with the larger number of people working on a regular basis, and it was inaugurated in April 1937 and promptly put to good use when a snowstorm kept everyone inside for five days. Work continued also on reconstructing other parts of the sanctuaries. Several of the columns of the round tholos structure in the Athena sanctuary were reconstructed, creating one of the most iconic (and yet, ironically, least understood) images of ancient Greece in the modern tourist literature (see plate 3). In 1938 work began on rebuilding several columns of the Apollo temple,20 though not all offers of help were accepted. For instance, in the 1930s a rich American woman offered to pay for the rebuilding of the Naxian Sphinx upon its high column and was refused in large part because the lady wished to see a large elephant carved onto the Sphinx’s supporting column, apparently the symbol of her favorite political party.21

World War II did not halt work at Delphi as completely as had World War I. Following the French armistice, some scholars were able to return, and even while Greece was involved in the fighting, work could still, just about, continue. The looming war clouds in 1938–39 meant that work on reconstructing the temple was postponed, and that the focus was changed to protecting the site and its contents. Some finds were dispatched for safe-keeping in Athens, but many were simply buried in the Delphi landscape. An excavated Roman underground tomb was put to use as a safety vault and hidden from public view. Massive holes were dug into the ground on the hillside, into which sculptures were lovingly placed covered in sheets and wrapping to protect them from the earth (fig. 13.4). A careful ledger was made of the exact position and contents of each underground deposit, so that, like squirrels with their food, the scholars could find them again when the time was right. The sad truth was that most were not exhumed again till long after the Greek civil war in 1952 (fig. 13.5). Delphi’s treasures were once again consigned underground, this time for over a decade.22


Figure 13.4. Delphic statues are hidden underground in preparation for World War II (BCH 1944–45, vol. 68–69, pp. 1–4 fig. 5)


Figure 13.5. The excavators rejoice as Delphic sculptures are finally returned to the light in the early 1950s (© EFA/J. Bousquet [La redécouverte de Delphes fig. 150])

During the war, hunger was the biggest problem for the local population and archaeologists. Parts of the site were given over to agricultural cultivation of foodstuffs, and chickens were kept around the French dig house. Inflation was rampant (in 1944 the government had issued a note for 100,000,000,000 drachma), and money, as a result, was pretty much disbanded as a viable system of exchange. Yet many scholars made Herculean efforts to return each season, taking trains, vans, bicycles, donkeys, and even walking on foot to reach their goal. To some, surely, returning to Delphi offered a sense of continuity in a world turned upside down, and without doubt a chance to escape the depressing reality of world events. But sometimes those events came to Delphi. In 1942 the Italian Black Shirts camped nearby, used the Castalian spring as their water source, and the stadium as an arena for target practice. The French scholar Pierre Amandry, often resident at Delphi during the war, later scoffed that their aim must have been very poor, as not many of the ancient stones were harmed (fig. 13.6). On Easter 1943, the role of ancient Delphi as a reunion place of nations was reenacted when British forces met with Greek partisans to plan their resistance. A month later, however, the Italians were back, this time conducting “archaeology” while looking for weapons caches the British may have left behind.23

But Delphi’s closest encounter with the brutal face of war, an experience with which it was not unfamiliar given the four Sacred Wars fought over it—not to mention its having been the focus of Persian and Gaulish invasions in the ancient world—occurred in September 1943. Following the Italian surrender, German forces moved in to take control and were immediately attacked by Greek partisan forces hiding among the rocks in the area of Delphi. The German response was immediate, with a full battle taking place in and around the Delphic gymnasium and sanctuary of Athena. Pierre Amandry, resident at Delphi at the time, recounts that one hundred bodies were left among the olive groves surrounding the site as a result of the fighting (see fig. 0.2). That night he and the Greek site overseers, along with the local villagers, evacuated the site and withdrew up into the mountains, as centuries earlier, in 480 BC, ancient Delphians had done when the Persians attacked Delphi. In the mountains, they met with the partisan fighters, many of whom had been workmen on the excavation site before the war. The Greeks continued to resist German advances at the narrow pass of Delphi for two days, until the Germans retreated. Amandry and the locals came back down from the mountains, and, despite some ongoing shelling from German gunboats down by the port and several aerial bombardments, the Greek flag was raised at the ancient sanctuary and the church bells rung. Delphi had once again defeated its invaders.24 Yet even Delphi could not withstand a ferocious renewed invasion the following year in the final phases of the war. Nor could it be unaffected by the bitter civil war that occupied Greece in 1947–49, which made travel to the site even more difficult since, once outside the zones patrolled by the government, travelers were at the mercy of the fighters asking first and shooting later or vice versa.25


Figure 13.6. Pierre Amandry (with pipe in mouth), while excavating at Delphi, joins a group of Greek resistance fighters for a photo (© EFA [La redécouverte de Delphes fig. 147])

On 10 July 1952, the many statues that had been hidden out of sight at the outset of the World War II were dug up and put back on display (see fig. 13.5). Following a decade of on-off conflict, there was much work to be done to put the site back in order, including everything from clearing the agricultural crops planted during the war and the general overgrown vegetation, to the recollating of site information following the theft and destruction of much of its archives, and the organization of the physical remains of the site to make it manageable and accessible once again to tourism.

But still Delphi retained a wonderful air of nonchalance. There were no barriers round the site, no tourist fee to enter: Delphi was still intrinsically part of the local community. Villagers on donkeys would use part of the sacred way to crisscross the mountainside; and at night the local lads would use the theater as a place to hang out, drink, sing and dance, including, according to one scholar’s memoirs, “George the local hairdresser with his guitar,” who could be found there on many occasions.26

All this changed in 1956 when electricity finally arrived at the museum, the road leading to the site was widened, and the site itself was enclosed, its access regulated. Tourism numbers began to increase substantially over the coming decades. Between Cyriac of Ancona in 1436 and the first excavations in 1892, just over two hundred people are recorded as having come to Delphi.27 In July 1936 alone, there were 165. In July 1990, there were 77,900.28 Delphi now welcomes over two million visitors a year. It is not surprising how much of the work at the site itself has been focused on preparing and maintaining it for such an onslaught, most recently, in 2004, with a new museum opening to chime in with the Olympic Games in Athens (see figs 0.1, 0.2).29 It is a job never complete. Concern continues over how to protect the site from its increasing use; how to protect the tourists from the continuing rockfalls (the Kerna fountain was destroyed by a rockfall in 1980 and the stadium was closed to visitors in 2010 because of a serious rockfall in that area); and how to protect the area from the damage caused by the vibrations from the large number of buses each day that travel the road just outside the sanctuary and the damage caused by their petrol emissions to the ancient stones (a problem compounded by the acid produced by the local conifer trees).30

At the same time, excavation has continued, reflecting the changing priorities of archaeologists. There has been particular emphasis on the wider environment of the site; the importance of all types of finds rather than just star pieces of sculpture; and the full spectrum of Delphic history rather than simply its classical period heyday. In the 1970s, for example, the excavation of the Corycian cave was finally undertaken, with startling results, including the uncovering of fifty thousand figurine pieces (see fig. 1.2).31 The quarries used to provide material for the sanctuary were also investigated, and in 1983, more systematic work began on the Christian-era village around the sanctuary. In the 1990s, during the last major excavation to take place inside the sanctuary, the ground underneath the Rhodian chariot on the temple terrace was investigated, solving lingering problems about Delphi’s earliest development, and turning up a lion bone from a sixth century BC context—thought perhaps to be from one of the last lions in Greece.32 And, of course, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the question of how the Pythian priestess was inspired was opened up again through the publication of research by geologists Hale and de Boer about Delphi’s geological foundations.

People often ask me when I say I study the ancient world whether there is anything left to find. As well, on hearing that Delphi has been studied for over a hundred years, they ask whether there is anything more to say. The answer to both questions is yes. Not only because our techniques of investigation keep improving, allowing us to understand the material record in more depth and different ways, but also because age-old Delphic “enigmas” still need further study, and, perhaps most importantly, because our interests in Delphi continue to evolve motivating scholars to focus on new arenas and themes of investigation.33 At Delphi, over the next decades, that interest, I think, will be in four main areas. First, the very early and very late eras of the site’s occupation.34 Second, the changing nature, systems, interests, and personalities of the city of Delphi itself, a city whose particular position as home to, and co-manager of such a famous sanctuary has not yet been fully understood.35 Third, the relationship of the city of Delphi and its sanctuary with its immediate territorial neighbors as we seek to understand these relationships as well as the similarities and differences in the nature and experience of the different territories.36 Lastly, the question—not only for Delphi but particularly for an archaeological site with so many stories to tell—of how best to display Delphi’s rich history to the visitor and protect the site at the same time.37 As such, it seems to me not only inevitable, but also welcome and important that Delphi continues to occupy, inspire, and surprise us for generations to come.

“ Tell me, Euthydemus, have you ever been to Delphi?”

“ Yes—certainly; twice.”

“ Then did you notice somewhere on the temple the inscription
  ‘know thyself’?”

“ I did.”

“ And did you pay no heed to the inscription, or did you attend
  to it and try to consider who you were?”

—Xenophon Memorabilia 4.2.24–25

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