From Linear B Tablets to 19th-century Antiquities Trafficking in Greece, CHS Fellow Galanakis Brings New Perspective to Aegean Archaeology

Yannis Galanakis (University of Cambridge) seeks to brings an exciting, fresh perspective to the study of Aegean archaeology.

I was really struck by the fact that we still know very little about the people who were involved in the trafficking of all these ancient objects that today adorn museums in Europe and the US. They all have amazing personal stories.” —Yannis Galanakis
We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with scholar, curator, and CHS Fellow Yannis Galanakis. This rising star shared some thoughts about his work on 19th-century antiquities trafficking in Greece, the digitization of Linear B tablets, and the effort to virtually reconstruct Sir Arthur Evans’s Knossos excavations.
CHS: Yannis, thank you for taking the time to speak with us about your diverse and exciting research projects!
Galanakis: It’s my pleasure Claudia.
CHS: You are just finishing up a semester as Fellow here at the Center for Hellenic Studies. During your time you focused your research on 19th-century antiquities trafficking in Greece. How did you first become interested in this topic?
Galanakis: My interest developed from my work as curator of the Aegean antiquities and the Sir Arthur Evans archive at the Ashmolean Museum in the University of Oxford. Surrounded by all these objects I became increasingly interested in learning more about their provenance. But progressively this interest shifted from the ancient biographies of these objects and their modern collectors to the people who were actually involved in their trafficking: the tomb robbers, art dealers and foreigners residing in Athens that participated in the antiquities trade. I decided to give voice to the main protagonists and to bring to light the local element. In order to do so I went back to the original material – museum registers and archives (most importantly the correspondence with dealers) that still hold a lot of information about this period. I am currently writing a monograph on the history of the antiquities trade in Greece between 1834 and 1899 – that is the period of the first antiquities law of Greece. I’m focusing on this particular time frame since I’m interested in exploring in detail the emergence of cultural legislation in Europe in this highly volatile period for international political affairs that also witnessed the formation of a “cultural heritage” notion (at least as we understand it today).
CHS: Can you share some highlights of what you’ve learned?
Galanakis: When I first started my research a few years ago, I was really struck by the fact that we still know very little about the people who were involved in the trafficking of all these ancient objects that today adorn museums in Europe and the US. They all have amazing personal stories. More importantly, their lives and actions shed light on a hitherto little known episode of Greek archaeology in the 19th century that shaped, paved and still influences the way we conduct archaeology and interpret its findings. This is a more “private” one (and to some extent, but not always, “unauthorized”) episode in the history of archaeology. It’s also the nuances and different approaches on what constitutes “cultural heritage” as well as the “ownership” of the past that struck me – the picture that emerges from the study of the archival records is, so far, more complicated and fascinating than I’ve ever imagined. The diverse motives behind the trafficking, the fluctuating prices attached to ancient objects, the heated debates over their conservation and presentation as well as the infestation of the market with forgeries are some of the themes that I’ve learned a lot more about through my research. And although the financial motive was a common denominator for most, if not all, of the individuals involved in the sourcing and trafficking of antiquities, we should not forget that a number of those participating in the trade, whether robbers or dealers or the foreign agents, developed real interests in the advancement of knowledge and the more systematic exploration of the past making the distinction between “looter” and “archaeologist” in the second half of the 19th century as much semantic as anything else.
CHS: What was it like working here at the Center for Hellenic Studies? Does a particular memory stand out for you?
Galanakis: The Center and its surroundings are simply wonderful! It’s difficult to isolate a particular memory as the period we were here included some very memorable moments: from the US presidential elections to storm Sandy! And our term as Fellows coincided with the CHS’s 50th anniversary and Greg’s 70th birthday. On top of that, DC was a true surprise for me as it is a great city with a wonderful and vibrant life, colourful neighbourhoods, Rock Creek’s and Potomac’s natural beauties, a strong cultural life and numerous attractions. But at the end it will have to be the people and the available resources at the Center that make a fellow’s experience here unique. I made new friends and I was able to uninterruptedly focus on my research. Those two aspects alone would make for a quite memorable experience at the Center.
CHS: Prior to coming to CHS you worked at the Ashmolean Museum of the University of Oxford. As part of your job there you were responsible for preparing a number of exhibitions, including the permanent gallery of the “Aegean World”. Most recently, you launched a new website called the “Sir Arthur Evans Archive” – could you tell us a bit more about it?
Galanakis: As part of the Ashmolean’s continuous efforts to digitize its impressive object-based and archival collections, I was fortunate enough to prepare the first overview catalogue of the Sir Arthur Evans Archive. This archive is the most diverse and comprehensive resource of its kind from the early era of archaeological exploration in the East Mediterranean and contains the original documentation of Evans’s extensive Knossos excavations. The aim is to create in the future a platform, provisionally entitled Digital Knossos, that will bring together material that is now dispersed (e.g. in the “sister institutions”, such as the British Museum and the British School at Athens) and virtually reconstruct Evans’s Knossos excavations – some sort of an epistemological tool that will explore the history of archaeology as a discipline and do archaeology in reverse, if you like, by publishing online and reconstructing for the first time digitally Evans’s work at the site (including his famous, and highly controversial, reconstructions at Knossos). A first, and necessarily very small, step towards Digital Knossos, is the “Sir Arthur Evans Archive” ( which is largely based on the overview catalogue.
CHS: Under your direction, and as part of the online “Sir Arthur Evans Archive”, the museum recently launched an innovative, online digital archive of Linear B tablets. Can you give some more information about this exciting project? Why is it so critical to make these objects freely available?
Galanakis: We are most definitely excited about this innovation in the field of Linear B studies that involves the digitization of the museum’s small, but representative, collection of tablets from Knossos ( not least because it coincided with the 60th anniversary of the script’s decipherment by Michael Ventris. In collaboration with Oxford’s RTI team (Dr Jacob Dahl, Klaus Wagensonner and Nicholas Reid), we decided to digitize the museum’s Linear B tablets using the Reflectance Transformation Imaging technology (RTI) that allows for the best possible reading of these tablets online as it were under a completely new light ( Using this technology we try to escape the limitations of traditional photography by creating a computer model of the object with a dynamic light source virtually simulating the different light conditions that a researcher would normally only get when viewing the object under a fixed light source, say a lamp. Using RTI-technology we are able to capture multiple images of the Linear B tablets with different light sources. To achieve this result we used a Plexiglas dome developed by the University of Southampton. A Nikon D3X 24.5MP camera is mounted on the dome looking directly downwards. On the dome’s interior there are 76 LEDs that go on and off guaranteeing all possible lighting angles. The 76 images are then merged to create one large PTM file (Polynomial Texture Mapping – developed by the Hewlett-Packard Labs). Using a freeware (PTMViewer) anybody can view and study these objects in unparalleled detail. The images can be enlarged to magnificent effect and the lighting changed to make readings clearer and to see fingerprints and erasures. This resource should prove extremely useful for teaching and this form of visualization may pave the way for future research in the field, especially if combined with 3D-scanning. Similar to CDLI (the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative), it would be wonderful to have online and freely available one day the complete corpus of Linear B tablets – it would speed up and enhance research immensely.
CHS: You’ve also authored and edited a book related to your work at the museum: The Aegean World: A Companion Guide to the Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean Collections at the Ashmolean Museum. When will this be available? What makes this collection so special? What was the most challenging aspect of writing this guide?
Galanakis: Yes, the book will be available early in 2013. We are now in the final stages of design. The book is designed and published by Kapon Editions ( in collaboration with the Ashmolean Museum. It’s a beautifully and richly illustrated book throughout with more than 200 colour images accompanied by maps, drawings and graphics. What makes the Ashmolean’s collection so special is that it’s the largest and finest of Aegean antiquities outside Greece. Comprising around 10,000 objects, the Ashmolean holds a remarkable collection of Neolithic and Cycladic antiquities, the best Minoan collection outside Crete, and a representative corpus of Mycenaean antiquities. The guide follows the strategy developed specifically for the Aegean World gallery at the Ashmolean: ‘how do we know what we know?’ about Aegean prehistory, and the role of archaeologists as filters through whom knowledge of the past is diluted and shaped. An introduction to the Aegean collections and the “Aegean World” gallery is followed by essays on the life and works of Arthur Evans; the early Cyclades; Minoan Crete; Mycenaean Greece; the Aegean Scripts; and on the Ashmolean’s seals and rings – true monuments in miniature art. The brief essays are written by top scholars in the field and take a chronological as well as thematic approach to the study of the Ashmolean’s collections providing readers with an excellent introduction to Aegean archaeology. Like with any art and archaeology book, the difficulty is to bring together in a coherent and visually pleasing way images and text so that they work seamlessly together for the facilitation and enhancement of a visitor’s and reader’s experience – in brief, to keep the book’s audience happy!
CHS: Thank you very much for your time Yannis. I wish you all the best in your new appointment as Lecturer in Classics (Greek Prehistory) in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge.
Galanakis: It was my pleasure Claudia. Hope to meet you again soon.
To learn more about Galanakis and the research being done by other CHS Fellows, be sure to visit the CHS Research Bulletin.