It is at first sight surprising that we find a Christian writer, Claudian, during the time of the Christian Emperor Honorious in the early fifth century AD, talking with enthusiasm about Delphi and its pagan mythology, a religious sanctuary officially shut down with the outlawing of paganism. As Greece was once again menaced by northern invaders, Claudian imagines that the god Apollo must have rejoiced after his victory in the third century BC over these barbarians, a victory that assured “no barbarian [would drink] with defiled mouth the Castalian waters and the streams which have fore-knowledge of fate.” What Claudian’s dream highlights is not only the difficult times in which Greece found itself during the early fifth century AD (no Apollo to come to the rescue this time), but also that Delphi’s pagan days, like those of many other pagan sanctuaries, may not have been so abruptly cut short (as we may have initially supposed) at the time of Theodosius’s official outlawing of paganism in AD 391. Instead we see a much slower, more muddled, transition from paganism to Christianity.1

During this slow evolution over the course of the fifth and sixth centuries AD, what was Delphi like (see plate 1)? Houses, ceramic workshops, ovens, and at least two cisterns seem to have been built into and over the athletic compound. At the Athena sanctuary, for centuries having been treated as something of a readily available quarry, there was no letup in the reuse of the blocks from its temples and structures. The areas to the west and east of the Apollo sanctuary seem to incorporate expanding arenas of habitation (with the eastern side seemingly slight poorer than the western side). Immediately around the Apollo sanctuary perimeter wall, in the period up to the middle sixth century AD, a number of fairly wealthy houses and baths have been identified. Some of these had their origins in previous periods; some were new and employed reused material from monumental dedications in the Apollo sanctuary, and some were simply monumental dedications turned into houses (like the west stoa).2

Within the Apollo sanctuary itself, much of the northern half (including the Cnidian lesche) seems to have been slowly occupied by houses (see plate 2). The Chian altar in front of the temple was dismantled. Most of the still-standing treasuries around the sanctuary were turned into utilitarian buildings of one sort or another, and baths were established in the niche of Craterus to the northwest of the temple of Apollo. Over the course of the fifth and sixth centuries AD, the sanctuary of Apollo was absorbed into a seemingly prosperous urban settlement, with the Roman agora continuing to act as a busy commercial center (it was the only area not to be invaded by private buildings). And it is as part of this slow transition that Delphi offers us, once again, an important irony. Today, tourists visiting the sanctuary are guided through it by the zigzag stone pathway leading up to the temple terrace (see plate 2, fig. 0.1). Most maps of the sanctuary highlight this pathway, and it is often labeled the “sacred way.” Yet it is entirely the creation of the final phase of Delphi’s life: a pathway constructed out of reused pieces of stone from around the Apollo sanctuary to service the town that grew up in the abandoned confines of Apollo’s precinct.3 In the over one thousand years of Delphi’s history as a sanctuary, there was no single pathway that led to the temple, but instead a myriad of entrances and paths at different terraced levels. The final phase of Delphi’s ancient life has left an indelible impression on the way we see and move through the sanctuary today.

What place for the worship of Christ within this changing community, and what happened to the temple of Apollo itself? Scholarship in the early twentieth century emphasized the sheer variety of Christian-era architectural fragments found at Delphi, most of which came from the fifth centuryAD and were thought to have been part of an adaption of an already existing building. At the same time, these fragments demonstrate the continued use of well-known pagan-era motifs like the acanthus. As a result, an argument was made that the Delphians were once again doing what they did best: actively trying to attract (now Christian) pilgrims to the city as a place of now Christian worship by quickly building (or rather altering current buildings in order to create) an ornate Christian basilica.4

More recent investigation has emphasized, in conjunction with the picture outlined above for Greece’s slower movement toward a wholly Christian outlook, a more gradual and less opportunistic development of Christian worship at Delphi, beginning slowly in the town that had always surrounded the temple complex, and growing organically over time to engulf the sanctuary and temple of Apollo at its heart. We know of at least three Christian basilicas that were eventually constructed at Delphi, but none can be dated to before AD 450.5 Indeed, it seems to have been in the second half of the fifth century AD that Christian worship really took root at Delphi (see plate 1). The French archaeologist Vincent Déroche, in his study of Christian-era structures, records three basilicas at Delphi. First, a basilica “of the new village” west of the sanctuary (beyond the west necropolis of the ancient town), built mostly from recycled material circa AD 475–500, and with a well-preserved mosaic floor. Second, a newly built basilica in the gymnasium to the east of the Apollo sanctuary (later covered by the Church of the Virgin built in 1743); and third, another newly built basilica constructed inside the sanctuary itself.6 But this basilica did not occupy the temple of Apollo. Instead it was most probably constructed just to the north of the temple, on the terrace between the northern terracing wall of the temple terrace and the area of the theater (see plate 2). Built in a rich and cosmopolitan style, it appears to have been the bishop’s official basilica, following Delphi’s establishment as an episcopate, and it remained the site of a Christian church right through until its excavation in the late nineteenth century. In addition to these three certain basilicas, there may have been a fourth, dating to perhaps the end of the sixth century AD. Pieces of mosaic have been found on the roadside approaching Delphi (above the gymnasium area—see plate 1). This mosaic was found beneath a later chapel dedicated to Saint George, which was itself only removed as part of the excavations in the late nineteenth century. As such, scholars have argued that the mosaic may have belonged to a pre–Saint George chapel basilica.7

Delphi, then, was a curious mix. On the one hand, it had, by the beginning of the sixth century AD, a significant Christian community centered around three (possibly four) basilicas, compared to ancient sanctuaries like Olympia that had only one. But this community did not actively destroy the pagan sanctuary or, importantly, the temple of Apollo.8 Instead, we have to imagine a community in which the abandoned temple, still a massive and imposing structure, stood almost parallel to the new, itself rich and ornate, basilica immediately to its north, at the center of a developing urban (and increasingly Christian) community that slowly expanded to take over the rest of the Apollo sanctuary. And at the same time, while there is no sense that the inhabitants of Delphi tried to preserve any parts of the pagan sanctuary (and thus, it seems, had no interest in living off the rewards of Delphi’s long-term reputation as a place of valued history and memory), there is no evidence for any kind of organized or willful destruction of it either.9 Indeed, what is fascinating about these changes at Delphi is the way in which Christians seem to have synthesized and incorporated pagan traditions. A lamp, for example, found in the eastern baths at Delphi (those renovated at the beginning of the fourth century AD), bears an image of Christ with a serpent at his feet, merging Delphi’s snakey mythology with the worship of Christ. Moreover, the fourth basilica dating to the end sixth century AD, discovered above the gymnasium, may have been dedicated at this stage (and definitely was later in its history) to Saint George, a saint whose fight with the dragon overlaps directly with pagan Apolline and Delphic mythology.10

Apart from the possible construction of a Saint George basilica toward the end of the century, the second half of the sixth century AD likely bore witness to a downturn in the degree of opulence apparent in the structures and architecture of the fifth and early sixth century. Houses were abandoned, doors shut up, and cisterns no longer used. At the same time, the area inhabited by the citizens of Delphi significantly contracted. The countryside was abandoned and people huddled together in among poorly built houses and workshops in the central area of the old sanctuary and city. This downturn and contraction may have been the result of the plague of Justinian, but it may also have been the result of a fresh wave of uncertainty in relation to increasing territorial invasion.11 And in the early seventh century AD, Delphi’s luck finally ran out. A new series of invasions from the north by the Slavs caused huge devastation across Greece. At Delphi a hastily constructed defensive wall from this era cuts across the gymnasium, abandoning the remains of the Athena sanctuary and city around it—a final attempt to protect the core of the city (see plate 1). But it was not to be. The final layer of the city of Delphi shows signs of destruction and wholesale abandonment.12 We hear little from Delphi for over eight hundred years, apart from the occasional inference that small pocket communities were living in among the ruins during the medieval period.

The appearance of the Italian merchant Cyriac of Ancona in the Parnassian mountains of Greece for six days from 21 March AD 1436 must have caused quite a stir among the sparse local population.13 Cyriac is the first foreigner visitor we know of who went searching for Delphi after the site was abandoned in the early seventh century AD. In that time, Delphi had simply faded away. The remnants of its once proud buildings gradually crumbling; its glistening marble and local limestone either buried under, or incorporated into, a new, impoverished and ramshackle settlement known not as Delphi but as Castri; its inhabitants seemingly unaware of the remains over which they built and that, in some cases, still stood visible above the earth.14 It is one of the most humbling facts in Delphi’s long history that even with its important and glorious past it could be forgotten and lost—even by those who lived on top of it.15

What brought Cyriac here in AD 1436? His interest in the physical remains of the ancient world reflected the growth of the Humanist movement and the First Renaissance in Italy from the early fourteenth century and led by scholars such as Petrarch. Up to this point, western European interest in Greece, let alone Delphi, had been confined to the study of its surviving literary texts. The idea of actually visiting—of seeking the physical remains of classical antiquity—was distinctly unattractive. Since the church schism of AD1054, Greece, as part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, had been viewed with suspicion: a place difficult to travel to, unsafe to travel in, and with little assured reward.16

Yet by Cyriac’s time, there was increased agreement among the Humanists that the rediscovery of classical antiquity was an important step in the process of applying its lessons to the contemporary world. In the early fifteenth century, the Florentine monk Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Description of Crete (1414) and Books of the Islands of the Archipelago (1422) were best sellers. Cyriac took the search one step further with the idea that “monuments and inscriptions are more faithful witnesses of classical antiquity than are the texts of ancient writers.” His task, as one companion put it, was “to restore antiquity, or redeem it from extinction.”17

Cyriac traveled throughout the Mediterranean between 1435 and 1453. He recorded in great detail what he saw, but his notebooks were all but lost in a library fire in Pesaro in 1514. The scant remains tell of his journey to Delphi in March 1436, when he saw the stadium and its theater (which would later disappear from view entirely as generations of rock fall, earth, and habitation covered it); a round building he thought was the temple of Apollo (in fact the Argive semicircle in the southeastern corner of the Apollo sanctuary—see plate 2, fig. 6.2); several tombs and statues still intact, as well as a large selection of inscriptions.18

What would also have been clear to Cyriac as he traveled around Greece and elsewhere during those years—as was becoming increasingly clear also to the rest of Europe—was the advancing power of the Ottomans. In 1453, just seventeen years after Cyriac’s visit to Delphi, the sultan launched his final assault on Constantinople, closing the book on the Byzantine world and rendering Greece part of his dominions. It is a bizarre note in the story of the first person seeking to save the remains of the ancient world from extinction that our last glimpse of Cyriac, in May 1453, finds him standing at the sultan’s side (and reading to the sultan relevant sections from the great ancient writers) as the sultan prepares to take Constantinople.19

Cyriac’s visit to Delphi was an exception. We have no record of any one else making this journey for over two hundred years after this, until the English mathematician Francis Vernon made his way there on the 26 September 1675, by which time the village of Castri had grown, and the sanctuary of Delphi had sunk further into the ground. In the meantime, despite the difficulty of obtaining access to, and traveling in, the region, the great interest in classical antiquity had continued to grow, particularly in the French and English courts. By the late seventeenth century, the idea that there was much to see, that it was important to see it and if possible own it as well was established. The acquiring of such artifacts was particularly valuable as an instrument of international power politics between royal families and aristocrats. It was in this atmosphere that two famous travelers reached Castri a year after Vernon, on 30 January 1676: the French doctor Jacob Spon and the English naturalist George Wheler, both crucial to the history of the development of archaeology. Spon was the first to use the word “archaeology,” in the preface to his publication about the diverse monuments in Greece. At Delphi, they identified the gymnasium that lay beneath the monastery of the Panagyia (which would later keep a register of all visitors to the area), but otherwise “had to stop there and be satisfied with what we could learn from books of the former wealth and grandeur of the place: for nothing remains now but wretched poverty and all its glory has passed like a dream.”20 Jacob Spon’s thoughts continued in the epigraph to this chapter. He was overwhelmed and sobered that a place as famous and as wonderful as Delphi could disappear. For Spon, Delphi was the ultimate warning about what could occur as the result of human hubris.

Soon after their visit, in 1687, the Venetian assault against the Turks in Athens led to the igniting of the gunpowder store in the Parthenon, whereupon large sections of the building were destroyed. Yet this did nothing to slow the passion for antiquities, both as possessions for the powerful, and as important windows into the past for those interested in history. In 1734 the Society of Dilettanti was formed in London for aristocrats who had visited Italy and who had, at least according to Horace Walpole, been drunk (preferably in Italy). The discovery of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748 fanned the flames of interest. In France, there was a craze for Greek inscriptions, not only because they were considered the most useful type of evidence for illustrating history, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because they could be used as meaningful mottoes for medals struck to commemorate the exploits of Louis XIV (for which the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres had been established in 1701).21

By 1748, just as Pompeii was being uncovered, the English architects James Stuart and Nicholas Revett found willing ears to their call that “unless exact drawings can be speedily made, all [Athens’s] beauteous fabricks, temples, theatres, palaces will drop into oblivion, and Posterity will have to reproach us.” Volume I of their detailed drawings of monuments in Greece was published in 1762, and it was as part of their work that they came to Delphi in 1751. During their stay en route from Thermopylae, they were bewitched by the romantic feel of the natural landscape, but also took time to investigate in among the buildings of the haphazard village of Castri. They found part of the enormous polygonal wall covered in inscriptions that supported the temple terrace (see plate 2). The stones of the wall were so large, they lamented, that they were unable to take them away.22

Some laughed at this newfound love of all things Greek, but many would have agreed with Gavin Hamilton, a dealer in Rome, who (with great advertising aplomb) said in 1779, “Never forget that the most valuable acquisition a man of refined taste can make is a piece of Greek sculpture.” The “gusto Greco” was now in full maturity, fueled also by the crucial writings of the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann in the second half of the eighteenth century on the beauty and importance of Greek sculpture. Although Winckelmann never actually set foot in Greece, more and more travelers did make the arduous journey to Athens, and a handful made the even more difficult journey to Castri nestled in the Parnassian mountains. Some even went so far as to drink from the water of the Castalian Spring, famed in the surviving literature as the bathing place of the oracular priestess (see fig. 0.2). Richard Chandler, on an expedition sanctioned by the Society of the Dilettanti, bathed in the waters in July 1766 and, despite the summer weather, was overwhelmed by the coldness of the water to the extent that he shook so badly he was unable to walk without aid. Returning home, he wrapped himself up, drank large quantities of wine, and began to sweat profusely. Perhaps, he mused, this was what the ancients had taken for the oracular priestess’s possession by the god.23

But despite this kind of ancient amusement-park activity, what could Delphi really offer its visitors? Inscriptions were all the rage, and Delphi had many of them to offer. Late eighteenth-century visitors write with glee of finding more inscriptions than they had time to record. But the disappointment felt by Spon and Wheler at the meager remains of what had been, according to the ancient literary sources, one of the most extraordinary sites in the ancient world, continued to pervade visitors’ thoughts. As they arrived with their literary texts in hand—particularly Pausanias, who, as indicated above, had written the first tour guide of the sanctuary back in the second century AD—Delphi’s first modern tourists were continually disappointed in their inability to see the site itself. William Gell’s drawing of Castri from 1805 outlines the little that was on view (fig. 12.1). As the Swedish priest A. F. Sturtzenbecker put it following his visit in 1784: “Delphi has kept nothing of its former splendour. Everything is lost bar its name.”24

The beginning of the nineteenth century witnessed a quickening in the pulse of interest in, and travel to, Greece. For the English, this was in part because the Napoleonic Wars had made travel to Italy, the traditional destination for those interested in the ancient world, difficult. Greece was the next best alternative as part of the Grand Tour. “Epidauria” claimed the English naturalist Edward Clarke in 1801, “is a region as easily to be visited as Derbyshire.” At the same time, painting at the beginning of the nineteenth century began explicitly to take its inspiration from the classical landscape as the example of the picturesque, and Greece became a kind of idyllic Arcadia mixed with pure fantasy and occasionally accurate depictions of surviving ruins. This longing for the idealized, however, also clashed with an increasing interest in securely identifying ancient sites in the Greek landscape, spurred on by the wider availability of key texts like Pausanias (translated into English for the first time at the end of the eighteenth century). In two campaigns, 1805–1807 and 1809–10, British army officer William Martin Leake, for example, mapped the Greek landscape in meticulous detail, which led to the discovery of sites like the Temple of Bassae in 1812.25 In response, in 1813, the Society of Friends of the Muses was set up in Greece to help uncover and collect antiquities, assist students, and publish books.


Figure 12.1. A drawing of Castri/Delphi in the nineteenth century AD by William Gell (1805) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Yet such an interest in the landscape, among western Europeans, also chimed with, and indeed helped provoke, an increasing interest in owning, and exporting, its contents. From 1810, the topographers started to lose ground to the collectors, spurred on as the latter were by Elgin’s work in bringing the Parthenon marbles to England 1801–1803 and displaying them in a public exhibition in 1807 before they were bought by the British Museum in 1816. It was an act matched by the French, who, in 1833 brought the Luxor Obelisk to the Place de la Concorde in Paris, and by the Bavarian King, who bought the sculptures of the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina in 1811. The overarching feeling was that modern Europe was now worthy of ancient Greece, and thus had the right to take what remained of it.26

The village of Castri, and ancient Delphi, were not indifferent to this three-pronged European interest to idealize, record, and physically capture/walk off with ancient Greece in the first decades of the nineteenth century. William Gell’s paintings, despite his rather desolate drawings, offer Arcadian images of the Castalian fountain, and those of William Walker offer encouraging visions of the site as one in which ancient ruins complement modern structures (plate 7). George Hamilton, Earl of Aberdeen and later prime minister, engraved his name on a marble by the Monastery of the Panaghia in 1803 (in the area of the ancient gymnasium). Henry Raikes mapped the topography of the Parnassian landscape and located for the first time the Corycian cave eight hundred meters above Delphi, in 1806 (see map 3). Yet the burial of most of the site underneath the village frustrated any real attempt at excavation or removal, despite the fact that Sir William Hamilton, better known for his discovery of Greek vases in Etruria, had persuaded Lord Nelson at the end of the eighteenth century to ship to England a small altar found at Delphi (it now sits in Castle Howard in Yorkshire), persuasion successful perhaps because Hamilton’s young wife was also Nelson’s mistress.27

It is difficult to underestimate the myriad ways in which Greece impacted western Europe during the first quarter of the nineteenth century: King Ludwig of Bavaria even claimed he would rather be a citizen of ancient Greece than king of Bavaria. Crucial to understanding this impact is the fact that there was often little agreement (and not less than a pinch of hypocrisy) between its strongest advocates. The Society of Dilettanti actively tried to undermine the authenticity of Elgin and the Parthenon marbles because they were examples of the naturalistic style of sculpture, which the Society detested in comparison to its preferred “Ideal” style. The poet Lord Byron in turn sought to disgrace Elgin for his denuding of Greece (see Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; The Curse of Minerva1812), caring little for Elgin’s stated aim “to improve the arts in England,” preferring instead to honor the glory that was Greece by recreating it in poetry and action. Yet Byron also happily engraved his name on ancient stones at a number of ancient sites, including on a column from the gymnasium at Delphi (fig. 12.2).28


Figure 12.2. A copy of graffiti found on a column in the gymnasium at Delphi, including the signature of Lord Byron ([La redécouverte de Delphes fig. 28])

Despite this cultural, intellectual, and political storm of which Greece was the center—because of the difficulties of seeing the ancient site—the overwhelming feeling was nevertheless of nostalgic sadness and disappointment at the gap between the literary accounts of Delphi’s past glory and its meager present. Byron complained bitterly of having to sample a half a dozen stagnant brooks before finding the Castalian fountain, which he pronounced “ugly.” The artist Louis Dupré complained in 1819 about finding not the “superb Delphi, but the miserable village of Castri.”29

Yet a larger storm was brewing that would fundamentally affect the future of the site. In 1771, following his travels in Greece, Pierre Augustin Guys, a French merchant turned proto-anthropologist, had published his thoughts on the parallels between ancient and modern Greeks claiming not only to see much connection between them, but also that modern Greeks preserved a simplicity lamentably lost in Western Europe. Even more importantly, his work offered the idea that the modern Greeks were not without hope, that their spirits were dormant, waiting for the right moment to rise up to glory once again. His work won great acclaim with Catherine the Great in Russia, who meddled in Greek politics in the 1770s, persuading the Greeks that Russia would support them if they rose up against the Turks. The putative revolution was a disaster. But it sowed the seeds for European support for the Greek war of independence when it came in 1821. In that war, the heritage of ancient Greece was crucial both as an incitement to revolt, and as a marker for what a newly liberated Greece might achieve.30

The end of the war of independence, and the linking of Greece and Germany through the crowning of Otto, son of Ludwig of Bavaria, as king of the Hellenes in 1833, marked the beginning of a new phase both for Greek archaeology and for German scholarship in Greece. In 1829, Greek authorities had permitted a small excavation at Castri, which revealed the extraordinary sarcophagus of Meleager (now on display in front of the museum at Delphi—see fig. 11.3). In 1831 the German Friedrich Thiersch made the first complete description of the site of Castri and its visible Delphic remains. In 1834 Ludwig Ross (a German scholar who was professor at the University of Athens) brought King Otto and his wife, Queen Amelie, to Delphi. The king even made the ascent up to the Corycian cave (see figs. 0.2, 1.2). In return the local inhabitants petitioned the king for the construction of a small museum at Castri to safeguard finds that were turning up with increasing frequency. How to manage and protect the legacy of ancient Greece was an increasing concern. The first archaeological site, the acropolis in Athens, had been officially designated in 1834. The Greek Archaeological Society was formed in 1837, and the first law concerning the selling and transportation of antiquities was passed in 1836. In 1838 Delphi was included in a list of sites where it was illegal to give as a dowry any piece of land on which there were antiquities.31

Yet at Delphi, visitors’ responses to the site were simultaneously turning in three different directions. First, the by now traditional lyric wonder and nostalgic disappointment. The Greek historian Andréas Moustoxydis, visiting the site in 1834, recommended that you travel by night to experience Delphi’s mystery and then see at dawn its misery, as the site appears “in front of you, behind you, on top of you, all around you.” In September 1836 Prince Hermann von Pückler Muskau commented that “full of reverence, I hesitated to enter this sanctuary, even though all that I saw on the site of the temple was a lamentable village of wretched ruined houses.”32 The second response was to attempt excavation where possible in among the village buildings. In 1840 Carl Müller undertook a small excavation of part of the Apollo temple substructure and polygonal wall (a part of which had first been exposed by Stuart and Revett less than a hundred years before). Müller’s aim was to once again gaze on the temple sculptures, which scholars knew from the literary descriptions of Pausanias and Euripides. What the excavation produced, however, was not the hoped-for sculpture, but more and more inscriptions. Müller contented himself with recording as many of them as possible. But conditions at Delphi were harsh, particularly the summer heat. On 26 July 1840, Müller wrote to his wife:

I gambled on my ability to endure the heat and began to copy the inscriptions on an upturned stone, hanging upside down with the sun beating on my face. I paid dearly for this, however. I felt a burning in my skull, together with pain and irritation. I have reached the point where I am able to do no more at Delphi since every new attempt on my part re-awakens the pain, and I cannot even escape this incessant heat.

Just four days later, Müller died of sunstroke at the site.33


Figure 12.3. An early photo of the town of Castri above Delphi before excavations began (© EFA [La redécouverte de Delphes fig. 48])

The third response, however, was to have the most important ramifications for the local villagers and, ultimately, for Delphi as well. From 1838 there was an attempt to begin the systematic release of ruins from under the village as part of a larger policy for rebuilding following the war of independence (fig. 12.3). The plan was for a gradual transfer of houses to a new site through a stick and carrot approach. The carrot was the offer to pay the locals to undertake the move. The stick was to forbid any more repairs to their current houses. The first stage in this process was to value all the properties and agree on a price with the local community. The locals responded, now all too well aware of the gold mine they seemed to be sitting on, by trebling the value of their homes. As a result, the plan ground to a halt, leaving the local villagers in the curious, and rather unhelpful position of not being able to repair their homes, yet with no agreement over what they might be paid to move, when they would move, or even where they would move. In 1841 three separate requests were made to the authorities to either get on with the plan and excavate or let them repair their homes (see fig. 12.4). Some locals took the matter into their own hands. The flamboyant Captain Dimos Frangos, capitalizing on the fact that all excavations so far had not been left open but had been refilled, took over the land that Müller had excavated (and died studying) in 1840 and built atop it the ancillary rooms of his house.34


Figure 12.4. An early photo of conditions in the town of Castri above Delphi before the excavations began (© EFA [La redécouverte de Delphes fig. 52])

In part thanks to the lack of success of the grand plan to completely uncover the site, the predominant activity at Delphi during the 1840s and 1850s was ongoing wonder coupled with nostalgic disappointment, fueled by small excavations where possible conducted both by the Greek archaeological service and by predominantly French and German scholars. In 1843 the German scholar Ernst Curtius published his Anecdota Delphica, and in 1858 the local villagers were proud enough of the heritage of their village, not to mention increasingly savvy about its implications for their own future wealth, to change the name on the door lintel of their village school from Castri back to Delphi.35 Twelve hundred years since its abandonment in the early seventh century AD, Delphi was officially back on the map.

Yet in reality, Delphi was left out of the huge leaps forward in Greek archaeology during these decades. From the 1850s to the 1870s, significant discussions about the material culture of the ancient world were taking place in universities across Europe and transforming interest in ancient Greece from romanticism to erudition; and the poster-site for this transition was not Delphi, but Olympia. As Curtius, who had focused on Olympia since his early work on Delphi in 1843, demanded in his Berlin lecture on 10 January 1852, “When will the womb be opened again, to bring the works of the ancients to the light of day? What lies there in the dark depths is life of our life.”36 Olympia, given its famous games, had the promise to deliver examples of the ideal of Greek physical beauty and architectural excellence the modern world clamored for, and scholars of ancient Greece thought key to understanding its culture. In 1874 the German Archaeological Institute was opened, and on 25 April 1875, the first legally explicit agreement between Greece and a foreign country for the excavation of an entire ancient site—Olympia—was signed.

What was going on at Delphi during these years? Throughout the 1850s, the Greek authorities sought to keep records of objects found and the state of the site, noting with increasing concern that what was left would further disintegrate and perish if not more carefully looked after. So exasperated was Kyriakos Pittakos, the head of the Greek Archaeological Society, that he even proposed in committee that a rich Greek be found to buy the entire site for purposes of excavation; and so worried was the Society about the survival of what was left at Delphi that it took official note of his proposition. Meanwhile, small excavations continued in 1861 and 1862, particularly by French scholars who, following the establishment of the French School in Athens on 11 September 1846, had a permanent base in the country. At the same time, the Committee of Antiquaries, founded in 1862 in Greece, declared its aim to raise money for excavating Delphi, money it hoped to earn through running a regular Greek lottery game. In 1867 a commission for excavating Delphi was formed, with one member of the committee, P. Kalligas, lawyer for the National Bank of Greece, pronouncing a harrowing assessment of the pitiful conditions found in the village of Castri/Delphi, which had, according to him, the highest infant mortality rate in Greece (see figs. 12.3, 12.4). The fountain of Castri, it was pointed out, which had been cleaned out earlier in the nineteenth century, was, by the mid-1860s, once again filthy. But their efforts to prepare the ground for an excavation of Delphi to match that of Olympia also met with increasingly stiff resistance from local inhabitants who continued to demand a high price for their homes. The Committee of Antiquaries, with its grand aims, was dissolved in 1869.37

The lack of progress in the 1860s is not surprising. Greece’s focus was elsewhere, following the exile of King Otto, and the arrival of his replacement, King George I, in 1862, and the Cretan revolution in 1869. But on 20 July 1870, a wake-up call was delivered in the form of an earthquake. The village of Castri/Delphi was bombarded with rocks falling from the high cliffs of the Parnassian mountains, and thirty locals were killed. Here, amid the disaster, was an opportunity: the locals were understandably keener to move, the need to protect the ancient site clearer than ever. A new commission, this time diplomatically called “the Commission for the establishment of the inhabitants of Delphi,” was formed, with the aim of identifying a new site for the villagers to live in. The search was on to raise the money to effect the change. In 1871 the Greek Archaeological Society took the Russian ambassador to Delphi to discuss the possibilities of excavation; and, though there was no money forthcoming from that quarter, in 1872, the Greek Archaeological Society was able to offer a loan to the Greek government in the amount of 90,000 drachmas for expropriation of the village. But negotiations were stifled by arguments first over the interest rate the Society could charge, and second by the locals’ refusal to give up rights not only to their houses but also to their fields, and their demand that recompense be paid in a single sum and not in dribs and drabs.38

Once more, the plans to excavate Delphi were on the back burner, but it was not long before wider events forced further action. The decade of the 1870s was a momentous one for excavation in Greece. In 1873 Schliemann found “Priam’s treasure” at Troy (he visited Delphi in 1870). In 1875, work started at Olympia. In 1876 the French began to dig at Delos, just as Schliemann did at Mycenae, where he soon uncovered the shaft graves. Given such a spectacular rostra of discovery, the pressure was on for a place as important as Delphi to be excavated. The Greek Archaeological Society, which had been raising funds via the only legal lottery in Greece since 1876, began in 1877 to negotiate with individual locals to buy their property, thinking if they convinced a few key individuals, everyone else would follow suit. Captain Dimos Frangos was their target, and in 1878, he eventually agreed to sell his less-than-luxury house and property for the staggering sum of nine thousand drachmas.39 But even if they managed to convince all the locals to sell up (and had enough cash to pay them), who would undertake such a massive and difficult excavation?

On 28 December 1878, Paul Foucart became director of the French School in Athens. He was one of the first of what have become known simply as “Delphiens”: scholars dedicated to Delphi. Foucart had uncovered parts of the polygonal wall in 1860 and was convinced the French should secure the right to excavate the site. He was not alone: since the Germans had signed an agreement to excavate Olympia in the mid-1870s, there had been tacit promises that the French could have the same deal elsewhere. In the corridors of the Congress of Berlin in June and July 1878, while the main business at hand was stabilizing the Balkans in the wake of diminishing Ottoman power, the French prime minister made the first official request to the Greek delegation to excavate Delphi, and in 1880 the Greek Archaeological Society made a small area of land they had bought at Delphi available to the French for excavation. The results were promising, with parts of the Athenian stoa coming to light (see plate 2). Even more promising was the state of international affairs, particularly Greece’s desire for further territorial gains at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, which inclined Greece toward doing what it could to secure French goodwill in return for support in the international negotiations. In 1881 a flurry of diplomatic activity between the Greek prime minister Alexandros Koumoundouros; the French ambassador in Athens le Comte de Moüy; and Foucart, the director of the French School, resolved most of the issues in less than four months. On 13 May 1881, Koumoundouros announced his intention to the Greek Archaeological Society to give France the right to excavate Delphi, and the 13 June 1881 was set as the date for signing the agreement.40

It was not to be. In fact, the negotiations took another ten years, an amount of time, as French scholars are fond of pointing out, equal to the length of the Trojan War. The delay was not due to a lack of interest in archaeology—in fact, quite the opposite. Foreign interest continued to build: in 1882 the American School of Classical Studies was opened, and in 1885 the British School. At the same time, the Greek Archaeological Society had become better funded and more sure of itself, so much so that it objected to Koumoundouros’s plan to give the French the right to excavate Delphi, instead requesting to undertake the job itself.41 The real problem, however, was still the inability to agree on a price or a process for moving the village of Castri. In the days before the planned signing of the 1881 agreement, the Greek government realized the ridiculous sums it would have to pay (Captain Frangos, remember, had secured nine thousand drachmas for a property worth perhaps one hundred). The deal was delayed, pending the passing of a law that would force the villagers to accept a market value for their property.

In the meantime, on 2 February 1882, a convention was signed between the French and Greek governments on the terms of the excavation. On 12 March, however, Koumoundouros resigned in the wake of elections following the annexation of Thessalia and Arta as part of Greek territory. He died just under a year later. In his place, Charilos Tricoupis was asked by the king to form a new government. Tricoupis took a very different approach to the negotiations, one centered on Greek currants. Since the 1850s, the latter had been the principal export of Greece. England imported large quantities for all its rich puddings, and the French began importing larger quantities after a disease killed off many French vines in the 1870s. Production of Corinthian currants rose, as a result, from 104,000 kg in 1878 to 162,000 kg in 1888. France alone, by 1889, was importing 69,500 tons a year. Greek currants were big business, and France needed them in the 1880s. Tricoupis saw an opportunity to link business to archaeology, and inferred that it was impossible to give France the honor of Delphi until France gave Greece a cut in French import taxes on Greek currants. The standoff continued into 1883, Tricoupis, floating the notion that the French might also have to help pay the costs of moving the locals, until such a stalemate was reached that everyone stopped talking about currants and Delphi.42

We hear little more about negotiations for Delphi until June 1886, when the same positions resurfaced. However, by 6 November 1886, the French had agreed to a commercial deal on currants. On 31 December 1886, negotiations over Delphi sprang back to life, and on 4 February 1887, a new agreement about Delphi was signed, limiting Greek expense for moving the inhabitants to 60,000 drachmas. On the Greek side, the renewed enthusiasm to push for both bills made sound economic sense, and was helped by the fact that the minister for foreign affairs at the time, Stephanos Dragoumis, had visited and enjoyed Delphi a decade before. But what caused this French willingness to compromise? In part, new principal actors. Le Comte de Moüy had been replaced by le Comte de Montholon, a canny political operator. But more important, the French realized they were not the only ones interested in Delphi. In 1884 the German archaeologist Hans Pomtow had undertaken (in somewhat clandestine fashion) excavations at Delphi. A Franco-German enmity, in evidence in archaeology from the time of Winckelmann in the 1750s, and not helped by the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s, was now in full evidence regarding the honor of excavating Delphi. Nor were they the only countries interested. It was clear by 1887 that the Americans, willing to bear all the costs themselves, were also interested in Delphi.43

There was never any official link between the bill to reduce import tax on Greek currants and the convention to give the excavation of Delphi to the French, despite that both were adopted by the Greek parliament on the same day: 19 March 1887. But both bills failed to pass the last hurdle. The French Senate didn’t ratify the French Parliament’s currants bill, and, as a result, Tricoupis was “unable” to secure the Greek king’s signature on the Delphi convention before its mandate passed. In the meantime, Hans Pomtow returned to Delphi in 1887 to conduct further, likely unauthorized, excavation.

Nothing more was done until 1889, and then, once again, the goad was foreign competition. The Americans in January 1889 began to ramp up their campaign to raise money for the excavation of Delphi. On 11 May 1889, the Archaeological Institute of America set out its official call for donations (their stirring words on Delphi provide the epigraph for this book). The French immediately wrote to the American secretary of state demanding assurances that the Americans would not gazump the French “right” to excavate the site. On 19 March 1890, the American secretary of state replied in diplomatic but firm terms that the Americans would not move unless they believed the French could not afford it, and that, given so much time had already elapsed, it seemed clear they couldn’t. The race was on.44

On 28 April 1890 Tricoupis informed the French that the expropriation of the Castri village would cost 450, 000 francs, of which the Greeks would give only 60,000. On 11 June the French government made it clear they had the money. But in November 1890, Charilos Tricoupis lost power in Greek elections to Theodoros Deliyannis. At the same time, the long-suffering director of the French School in Athens, Foucart, who had spent the best part of a decade trying to secure the French excavation of Delphi, retired and was replaced by Theophile Homolle. These new players galvernized the pace of negotiations, not least because Deliyannis did not insist on linking Greek currants to Delphi since French vines had recovered and imports of Greek currants had declined substantially by 1893 to just 3,100 tons. Following some cosmetic changes to the deal (the French Parliament grumbled at paying so much to expropriate Castri and preferred to vote more money for the “excavation,” which would, in reality, be used to move the village), the bill to make money available for the excavation passed in the French Parliament by 337 votes to 61 on 16 February 1891, was ratified by the Senate (despite grumbles that it made the French little better than “truffle hunters”) on 4 March, and was signed into law on 8 March 1891. In Greece the agreement was signed by the king on 13 April and published on 6 May.45

But France’s “Trojan War” was far from over. Homolle, the director of the French School, put his finger on it when claiming “the conquest of the polygonal wall will take three times as long and will cost no fewer assaults, labourers and schemes than the conquest of the walls of Troy.”46 The first problem, as ever, was the village of Castri (see fig. 12.3). Homolle had started gathering supplies for the excavation the moment the deal was published in Greece, and even set off to Delphi to mark out the excavation area that very month, in May 1891. But the Greek government was slow to put in place a commission to agree on prices with the locals. Athenian officials—thought to be less influenced by family ties than the local Phocian officials—were brought in, but the price still pushed at the ceiling of the 450,000 francs originally voted by the French Parliament. The villagers detailed further concerns about their new homes, but these were deftly sorted with small direct-cash payments (effectively, bribes) by the French administrator sent to oversee the move. His actions were deplored officially in France, but he, very realistically, understood there was no other way to keep the wheels in motion. Then the Greek election cycle got in the way in summer 1892. Tricoupis took back power and inaugurated his new government on 22 June 1892. The change of government meant there was a further delay in the payment of the Greek share of the expropriations. When Homolle went to start excavations in September 1892, he wrote, “as soon as the workshop was opened, the villagers assembled and the most excitable threw themselves at the workmen, took their tools out of their hands, claiming that, till they were paid, no work was allowed.” A gendarme, along with eleven armed soldiers, had to be provided to protect the workmen as they established the main arterial road to the site. A continued army presence, to protect the excavators, is visible in the photographs of the initial excavations (see fig. 12.5), and today’s inscription depot at the site is still affectionately known as the “stathmos,” because it occupies the site formerly used as the soldiers’ headquarters.47


Figure 12.5. A photo of the discovery of one of the Argive twins (propped up in the background), along with excavators and a uniformed soldier for their protection in the first years of the excavation (© EFA [La redécouverte de Delphes fig. 82])

The first payment to villagers went out on 11 October 1892, four days after the inauguration of the excavation. It was a small, but solemn affair. Homolle outlined the honorable task ahead of them. A representative of the village of Castri/Delphi affirmed the village’s now positive feelings about the excavation. French and Greek flags flew over the first wagons of earth carted away from the site. “The excavation would be,” Tricoupis later wrote to Homolle, “époque making in the history of archaeology.”48 He was not wrong.

At noon, in the museum, I look again at the Charioteer…. You
try to hold on to the details. Then the analysis bothers you; you
have the impression that you are listening to a language not spoken
anymore…. We have worked like ants and like bees on these relics.
How close have we come to the soul that created them? I mean
this grace at its peak, this power, this modesty and the things that
the bodies symbolise. This vital breath that makes the inanimate
copper transcend the rules of logic and slip into another time …”

—George Seferis, Dokimes, vol. 2 (1981), trans. C. Capri-Karka

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