North Dakota, Athens, and the Southwest Peloponnesus

On Monday I helped to perform the annual book inventory at the Blegen Library.  The library is a highly specialized, non circulating collection with a focus on  archaeology, classics and ancient history.  The annual inventory involved scanning the shelves to make sure that all the books catalogued were present and shelved correctly.  It was tedious work and took most of the day as teams of two fanned out across the stacks.  One person read the call numbers from the catalogue and the other read the spins of the books on the shelves. 

Two books came to my attention and reflect the far reaching, international character of contemporary scholarship.  One of the sections that I read included Walter Ellis’s Ptolemy of Egypt.  Ellis was my predecessor in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota.  Prior to his untimely death he built a loyal following of students interested in the ancient world.  This group of students formed the core of my early classes on Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, and the Middle Ages and greatly smoothed my transition to full-time teaching.  It was nice to see a sliver of home tucked away in the stacks crowded with titles on Hellenistic Egypt.

Michael Laughy brought the other book to my attention: Demetrius J. Georgacas, A historico-linguistic and synonymic inquiry into some medical and cognate terms: Greek and other terms for ‘tapeworm’ and ‘ravenous hunger’.  Georgacas taught for many years at the University of North Dakota, contributed to body of material housed in the Historical Lexicon of the Modern Greek Language (see P. Koukoules, “The Athens Modern Greek Lexicon,” JHS 53 (1933), 1-8), and generated a vast body of published works (running to over 40 entries in World Cat) related to the toponyms, etymology, and lingusitic roots of the Greek language.  Some aspect of his lexographical and linguistic work have appeared in his Modern Greek-English Dictionary

More interesting perhaps to readers of this blog is Georgacas’ interest in toponymys.  In this capacity he worked with William A. McDonald of the University of Minnesota.  McDonald is best known as one of the co-directors of the Minnesota Messinia Expedition.  McDonald and George Rapp published the seminal work, The Minnesota Messenia expedition: reconstructing a bronze age regional environment (Minneapolis 1972), which formalized many of the ideas and approaches central to the first wave of modern regional survey archaeology in Greece.

McDonald used Georgacas’ work to compile a register of place names in the Southwest Peloponnesus and together they co-published the results of this research: D. J. Georgacas and William A. McDonald, Place Names of the Southwest Peloponnesus. (Athens 1967).  It’s clear that the final product of this collaboration was mainly McDonald’s work.  The introduction, however, provides some background on McDonald’s and Georgacas’s work in the area:

“Some thirty years ago Mr. Georgacas became interesting in the collection and study of place names in the vicinity of the native town of Siderokastro, which was the seat of the former demos (municipality) of Avlon.  In the course of the next ten years he collected material from much of the area and prepared two manuscripts (Τοπωνυμικόν Μεσσηνίας (Athens 1935) and Γλωσσικόν υλικόν Μεσσηνίας καί κυρίως της επαρχίας Πυλίας συλλεγέν τό θέρος του 1937. (Athens 1937)) which are now in the archives of the Athenian Academy’s Historical Lexicon of the Greek Language.

Mr. McDonald’s involvement began in 1853 and derived from his participation in Professor Carl W. Blegen’s archaeological work in the vicinity of the Bay of Navarino.  At that time the decipherment of the Linear B script by the Late Michael Ventris had made it possible to compile a list of phonetic approximations of the names used ca. 1200 B.C. to designate the towns, villages, and districts which belonged to the kingdom of Pylos.  It therefore seemed worthwhile, concurrently with the archaeological surface exploration to make a collection of present-day place names on the chance that at least a few of them might have maintained in continuous use since the late Bronze Age.

It soon became apparent that, quite apart from any bearing they might have on the problems of the topography of the Bronze Age, the modern names merited close attention and study, for they represented a stratification in which historical and linguistic vicissitudes are reflected as unmistakably as in the successive destruction layers of archaeological sites.  Inhabitants whose language was ancient Greek, Koine Greek, Byzantine (Middle) Greek, South Slavic, Franckish (French), Venetian (Italian), Albanian, Turkish, or Neo-Greek have all left discernable traces in the local toponyms.” (p. 4)

The creation of the modern toponymy of any region is as complex a phenomenon as the creation of the archaeological landscape, but the basic act of collecting data remains central to any analysis.


  1. Kostis Kourelis
    March 20, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    NO kidding. Demetrios Georgakas taught at North Dakota? Had no idea! His work on the toponyms of the NW Peloponnese is truly great. Among other things, he wrote on Slavic toponyms as early as the 1930s. I’ve always wondered if he might be related to Dan Georgakas, the prominent scholar of Greek-American history at Queens College CUNY.

  2. March 21, 2008 at 4:11 am

    Just a minor correction Bill. The Blegen library has open stacks, that’s why you were in them and able to make the serendipitous discoveries you report here.

  3. March 22, 2008 at 1:51 am

    Thanks, Chuck! I fixed it and reposted.

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