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Member of the Month – Thea De Armond

July 3, 2015

It’s July! That means a new Member of the Month profile and I’m delighted to post this fascinating piece by Thea.

Autobiography is always a fraught endeavor – the more so for me because, for the past few years, in conjunction with my dissertation research, I’ve been preoccupied with life-writing. It is thanks to this preoccupation that I find myself in a state of near-paralysis when it comes to sketching out the outlines of my intellectual autobiography. I’ll begin from the present. My current research considers the history of (mostly) classical archaeology in (mostly) Czechoslovakia through the life and career of one of its practitioners, the archaeologist, philologist, and epigrapher Antonín Salač (1885-1960). The preceding caveats in defining the bounds of my research will not surprise anyone who works on disciplines “in the making” – or, indeed, anyone who works on the past from the vantage point of the present. Here, I will only write about my work on Salač, but, were I to broadly characterize my academic interests – which also include public archaeology and the (dying?) buzzword “materiality” – an explicit focus on the past in the present underlies all of them.

Why work on Czechoslovakia? The word “classical” – and, so, the body of disciplines comprising “classical studies” – implies a sort of universality. Naturally, then, outside Greece and Rome, the history of classical studies has been entangled with that of empires, whose geographical and geopolitical ambit amounts to another sort of claim to universality. This is all rather abstract. Most basically – though somewhat simplistically – if the appellation “classical” is to be believed, the stuff of Graeco-Roman antiquity is the best stuff, and empires, those great aggregators of peoples and materials, have always gravitated toward the best stuff – or, rather, it has gravitated toward them, like a meteorite to the Earth, or a planet to a black hole.

That said, the values of empires are by no means universal, nor is the valorization of classical antiquity. First Republic Czechoslovakia (1918-1938), as well as the socialist state of Czechoslovakia (to say nothing of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the Slovak Republic), saw classical studies and classical archaeology decline; prehistoric and medieval archaeologies were, instead, on the ascent. That Czechoslovakia (especially, the area of the current Czech Republic) had very little in the way of classical archaeological material has much to do with this decline; so, too, classical antiquity’s association with empire and, later, with the bourgeois. What might classical archaeology look like in a context that is so entirely unfavorable to its development? How and why might one become its devotee and practitioner? The margins have much to tell us about the center – as well as, of course, about the margins themselves (though the intrinsic value of the margins can be, unfortunately, a hard sell) – and this is why I am writing about Czechoslovakia. I ought to note, too, that my mother was born in Prague, which makes this project a little easier for me and also, undoubtedly, gives me an appreciation for these specific margins.

Antonín Salač was born in Prague in 1885, then, part of Austria-Hungary. He was educated within Austria’s recently expanded gymnasium system, an instrument of the Austrian government and a factory for bureaucrats, but also a flashpoint for Czech nationalists, for whom the right to be educated in the Czech language (rather than German) was a hard-won battle; Salač was educated in Czech. These tensions between Czech and German language and influence are a consistently important background to Salač’s life and career and to the history of archaeology in Czechoslovakia.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll spare you extended discussion of Salač’s education and early career, here, focusing only on his first trip to “the lands of classical antiquity” – Greece. In fact, this is the first time that archaeology really comes into the picture for Salač – after World War I, when Czechoslovakia has become a state. At the beginning of 1920, Salač, a newly appointed docent of classical philology at the Czech university in Prague, visited Greece for the first time. To integrate himself into the community there (of archaeologists but, also, more broadly), he availed himself of the connections of his predecessors; travel to Greece and Rome had been a regular stage in university professors’ cursus honorum since the Austrian government’s late 19th-century establishment of stipends for gymnasium professors’ travel there. Jaroslav Š˘tastný (1862-1932), a gymnasium professor whose wife Chrasikleia was Greek, was a key resource for Salač – and, especially before the establishment of a Czechoslovak embassy, for the Czechoslovak government, which enlisted the Š˘tastný family as propagandists for Czechoslovakia in Greece. Salač also distributed Czechoslovak propaganda (pamphlets about the new state) in Greece; most Greeks had never heard of Czechoslovakia.

First Republic Czechoslovakia had very close ties to France. France had supported the establishment of Czechoslovakia during and after the war, especially as a buffer to Germany. These ties – and the recommendation of the historian and advocate for Czechoslovakia Ernest Denis (1849-1921) — helped Salač insinuate himself into the French School at Athens. He became a member of its foreign section – an institution largely meant to counter German influence – and accompanied the French School on its excavations on Delos, Thasos, and in Delphi. Salač aimed to learn the basics of archaeological excavation, so that the new state of Czechoslovakia might – like France, Germany, and other world powers – conduct its own excavations in the classical world. And, in fact, alongside the French School, and later, without it, he led his own excavations in Samothrace, Turkey, and Bulgaria.

Let me offer two brief conclusions about Salač’s first visit to Greece. First, it represented a sort of convergence of “personal” and “institutional” relationships. Consider, for example, the aid of Jaroslav Št’astný’s in-laws (the Vassiliades family) in securing for Salač basic necessities in Athens. These sorts of contacts – what Suzanne Marchand has called “local enablers,” largely missing from histories of archaeology – must have been very important to First Republic Czechoslovakia’s – no Great Power – early transactions abroad. Second, Salač’s work in Greece was only made possible by the existence of the Czechoslovak state. His relationships with individuals and institutions were fundamentally “diplomatic” in character; as a member of the French School, long acknowledged to be an extension of French cultural diplomacy, Salač represented Czechoslovakia. Classical archaeology in Greece (then, as now) was negotiated between nation-states. And Salač, unlike his predecessors, sought standing in Greece’s archaeological community according to the same principles as its powerbrokers, as the representative of a nation-state.

I’ll close with an oddity: during his time in Greece, Salač was both an intermediary for the Czechoslovak government and for Czechoslovak business interests. Specifically, he appears to have facilitated a trade in glass eyes between Greek pharmacists and opticians and the Sudetenland glass factory of Heinrich Hoffman (better known for his Art Nouveau perfume bottles). The past is a foreign country, after all!

Thank you Thea for such an interesting piece. What I love most about these MoM posts is the range of knowledge shown by HARN members. I’m learning so much about all these different archaeologies and it’s all fascinating stuff! As ever, if you have anything to add or questions to be asked put them in the comment box below.

On that wonderful high note – have a great weekend


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