I arrived in Athens last night and after dropping the bags into the Irish Institute myself and a few recently reacquainted colleagues from the Priniatikos Pyrgos Project headed out for something to eat and drink before retiring for the night. Most of the archaeologists who work in Greece seem to have the same ritual when they first arrive back to Greece after a hiatus: the first pita gyros experience. The gyros isn’t the healthiest of foods – in fact most nutritionists would probably tell you to maintain a wide berth of it – but it is filling and cheap and that for most archaeologists who tend to operate on shoestring budgets is the perfect combination of ingredients.
We conducted this annual ritual in the central square of Exarchia, an area that up to a few years ago had been run almost completely by the local anarchist groups. The police are still rarely seen within the quarter, preferring to cluster in small nervous groups on its fringes. I noticed one such group on the way to the Institute. They seemed quite edgy, all smoking and eyeing any passersby with the same suspicious glances.
Back in the square, nothing much had changed since my last trip. An almost complete lack of street lamps bathes the entire area in a sort of semi darkness. The only light comes from the surrounding bars and fast food joints that spill out on to the open space. So far then I had seen none of the advanced state of societal degradation that the news media back in Ireland and elsewhere had been peddling for the best part of 2 or 3 years.
As we sat eating our gyros and watching the crowd, a fight broke out which according to one of our group involved at least one knife. But it seemed to be melodramatic enough – more a sort of dance than anything else – and this sort of scene has been common in Exarchia since as long as I have been going there.
It is in the media’s interest to bulk up their stories, to focus on the negatives, the spectacular. A year ago I had just returned from Syria, having been digging in the north at Tell Brak. We had experienced the same sense of calm and normality there while our friends and family back home sent on worried messages enquiring about our wellbeing. The news can produce moments that approach the actual story from within but more often than not they present a micro-facetted view that ignores the overwhelming normality of life. I am not denying that both Greece and Syria are suffering – hugely in the case of the latter – but it is also true to say that people continue to bring their children to school, to go out for meals and to visit the sea for a swim. Collapses tend to be slow, patchy and complex. There is a lesson there for all students of ancient societal change.
Tonight the Priniatikos Pyrgos conference kicks off at the British School. It will be great to meet up with the old faces of Aegean archaeology again. There will be food after but the true celebration will have to wait until tomorrow evening when the papers have all been given.
Congratulations on arriving in Athens. Observations of cultural rituals are a key ritual of the travelling academic. Watch out for the barbarians at the gate!
(Henry, 02/06/2012 10:07:42)