November 27, 2010


 École Francaise d'Athénes: The Delphi Excavations, 1892-93

Human geography is innately conservative; once a location has been successfully occupied for a significant length of time, it is rarely abandoned, unless conditions change radically. Temples were often founded on the sites of primitive shrines until superseded in turn by Christian churches, while cyclopean walls, byzantine castles and crusader keeps might succeed one another upon the same commanding position. If such a site is eventually abandoned, the consecutive strata offer rich picking to archaeologists; conversely, continued occupation often poses serious practical problems, such as occur almost daily in Athens or Rome.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the site of ancient Delphi was almost entirely covered by the village of Kastri. The new Greek state, however, fully alive to the crucial role to be played in the development of national consciousness by identification with ancient Greece, showed particular interest in this historically and emotionally loaded site; the earliest tentative excavations, by the German architect Edmund Laurent, were carried out at the express order of the first head of state, John Capodistria.

Full-scale excavations were obviously out of the question until the village could be removed elsewhere; it took 68 years to complete the process of removal, beginning with a census in 1838. Among the problems to be dealt with were the excessive claims of the locals, at least according to government functionaries (“They will demand three, perhaps even four times the value of their property”, opined an inspector of finances), the already hydra-headed Greek bureaucracy, the earthquake of 1870 and a persistent plague of bandits. Confirming that nothing ever changes, a report dated 1841 informs us that some considerable time after all new construction had been forbidden, “repeated requests were submitted, demanding either that excavations be put in hand, or that construction permits be issued”.

It appeared for a moment that the earthquake might open the way to a final resolution of the problem. In a letter, the Secretary General of the Archaeological Society claimed that “the majority of inhabitants, consumed by fear of earthquakes and fearing a violent repetition, genuinely desire to remove from Delphi”. There were, of course, a few stubborn holdouts (“some few old men prefer to die in their ancestral huts”), but in general the secretary felt he could conclude “rejoicing that the Delphi earthquakes have been the occasion for this missive”.

Things were not that simple. Before the village could be moved the villagers had to be compensated, but no funds were available for the purpose. In 1879, the French Archaeological School of Athens expressed an interest in undertaking the excavation at French government expense, and a serious attempt at concluding a treaty between the two governments came close to fruition in 1881. There followed interminable negotiations between the French, the Greek government and the Kastriotes, which ended in 1891 when relevant legislation was finally passed.  As usual, however, putting it into practice proved another matter entirely. In September, according to Théophile Homolle, the School’s director, “no sooner had work began, than the whole village gathered round, and the more hot-blooded among the inhabitants attacked the workmen and took the tools from their hands, shouting that because compensation had not been paid, they would prevent work from proceeding…”.

It is to the work of the Ecole Francaise, and particularly Homolle’s interest in photography, that we owe the photographs which commemorate the unusual (and very provisional) co-existence of an extensive archaeological excavation and an occupied settlement. The Kastriotes were eventually removed to a new site, abandoning Delphi to archaeologists – and tourists. I admit to a certain satisfaction upon finding that even forty years later, the descendants of the Kastriotes were making their presence felt: in a document dated 1930, Alexander Kondoleon, Overseer of Antiquities, complains that “the women of Delphi persist in washing their clothes in the Kastalian spring”. Amen.

Adapted from John Stathatos, Archaeologies, Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, 2003. Quotations from Delphoi, Anazitontas to chameno iero [Delphi, Searching for the Lost Sanctuary], École Francaise d’Athènes & Directorate of Delphi Antiquities, Yiannikos-Kalthis, Athens 1992.


  1. this is great for my homework assignment
    i was really struggling finding a good site about the springs in Delphi