The next day, we packed a smaller bag with enough clothes for the next four nights, checked temporarily out of the hotel we were staying in Thessaloniki, and got on the bus of AUTh to the first field-research location: the archaeological site of Aigai and the village of Vergina.
Aigai has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996, nominated for its “outstanding universal value representing an exceptional testimony to a significant development in European civilization, at the transition from classical city-state to the imperial structure of the Hellenistic and Roman periods” (from UNESCO’s HP). Although the Palace was closed down for visitors during out stay in Vergina, our three-hour guided visit of the museum, from 11.00 to 14.00, will remain for many reasons unforgettable.
The visit started at the entrance of the museum’s compound, with Yiannis Grekos our archaeologist-guide, talking about the symbolism (between Homeric and Athenian worldviews) of the location, the historical significance of this period of Antiquity (4th century B.C.) and the extraordinary murals that were found here and which show the earliest traces of many art techniques, such as the use of (graphic) perspective. Grekos’ lecture was about the pre-historical value of myths and the importance of memory and symposium in Ancient Greece.
He also explained the concept of the museum which is housed under the biggest tumulus (12m height, 100 m width), and which is purposed to offer not information, but an experience: that of the underworld. The museum was indeed very dark, in order also to protect some of the very sensitive artifacts such as textiles and ivory. Even though the museum had become quite crowded by the time we reached the famous tomb of Philip the 2nd, the sight of it was breathtaking, and I am not probably the only one to have thought that at that moment all I wanted to do is to just look at it, in silence. (photos from inside the museum can be accessed on its website.)
After the long guided tour inside the museum, we walked through the village of Vergina to an area where an estimated 600 tombs are still expecting to be unearthed. This, we were told, will take place during an open excavation project that will target one tomb per year, “so there is still work in Aigai for many generations to come,” emphasized Grekos in his last explanations. After a brief lunch at a local restaurant, we all checked in at three different guest houses of the village, and then moved, with the bus, to the new museum building that has just been completed outside of the village, and which will open to the public next year.
At the new museum took place three talks: one by Giannis Grekos, one by the vice-mayor of Vergina, and one by Professor Papadopoulou (on Policies and Programs involving Heritage and Tourism). The talks were punctuated by long question and answer sessions that lasted until early in the evening. The vice-mayor’s speech (interpreted from Greek by Professor Papadopoulou) introduced some of the challenges that were to occupy our students’ minds for the rest of the program, and also inspired several questions addressed to both the vice-mayor and Mr Grekos, who revealed even more of these challenges: the expectations of the local residents for financial gains associated with the presence of an archaeological site, the lack of long-term master plans to develop the area by the local authorities, the gap of awareness about the value of the site between archaeologists and the local community, the lack of local initiatives, the politics on the prefectural level, the obligations imposed upon the site by UNESCO, the generation-gap issues between those who knew of the site before it became famous and the school pupils who visit it as part of their education, the zoning of land use by archaeological authorities which come into conflict with local farming activities, the disadvantages of transport and of having Thessaloniki nearby, the disinterest from the private sector to invest in the area and the lack of overnight stays, the need to advertise more and find perhaps an added value (in the form of wine-tasting, for example) to a visit of the archaeological site of Vergina, etc.
Needless to say the discussion became perhaps heated at times, but was a very good way to invite participants to consider the challenges of public archaeology directly in conversation with those implicated with these matters in their daily lives. A lot of raw information for very keen ears.
Our first day in Vergina ended in an extremely appropriate manner: a second visit to the museum and a late night concert on the museum grounds, with contemporary songs by a local archaeologist and artist, whose performance, with the great tumulus in the background and the full moon in the sky, reminded perhaps of another time and place.