Greeks on Greekness: Suzanne Alcock

Greeks on Greekness Colloquium Abstract

Susan E. Alcock, University of Michigan

“Blocks of Memory: The Uses of Archaeology on the Uses of the Past.”

This paper follows a path quite different from most treatments of Greek commemorative behavior during the early empire. It is heavily archaeological in its orientation. Its attention remains firmly on the rural sphere, bypassing the more clamourously familiar urban world of the period. And finally, if our normal scholarly preoccupations lie in observing myriad imperial-era claims to Hellenic heritage, and in debating why the Greeks so embraced their past, this paper will instead consider where connections to the past seem ‘blocked’, or somehow lost.

In a nutshell, I argue that, in early Roman times (defined as the last century BC through the first two centuries AD), many manifestations of interest, awareness, or veneration for places in the Greek countryside disappear. Compared to preceding epochs, the rural landscape of Achaia became less comprehensively invested with ritual and memory; energy and activity was now targeted on fewer, select locales. This trend is visible in different categories of evidence: rural shrines, tomb cult, and cave utilization. Individual patterns of abandonment have been noted before, but putting them together for the first time creates quite an impression, and demands more general attempts at explanation. Two basic conclusions appear to emerge from consideration of this archaeological pattern. First, ritual activity in the Achaian countryside very much danced to the city’s tune. And second, the past selected for remembrance was not the parochial experience of close-lived rural memories. In the eyes of the dominant, that intimate past no longer commanded an employable authority. Locales that possessed a broadly recognizable appeal endured; the rest were ‘disremembered’. Elite priorities in remembrance, it would seem, came to hold sway across a wide spectrum of people and over the territories in which they dwelt. The remainder of the Greek population (the so-called ‘masses’) were involved in discourses about the past – but that includes the local past that they, perhaps above all, had lost.

Some general points, illustrated by this study, can be reiterated about ‘the uses of archaeology on the uses of the past’. Material culture offers certain unique perspectives on the subject, not least because it encourages a long-term perspective, and discourages unitary understandings of what we mean by ‘Greeks’, and their relationship to ‘Greekness’. Finally, archaeological analysis can sometimes circumvent past manipulations of representation and of remembrance, gainsaying textual ‘blocks’, or silences, on certain themes. By moving outside our standard sources of evidence, archaeology reminds us that the ‘past’ in early Roman Achaia need have taken no single form, and insists that it received no single treatment.