More Dreams, Religion, and Archaeology

One key element to my study of Dream Archaeology is emphasizing its relationship to the discipline of scientific archaeology as it developed in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Episodes of Dream Archaeology predictably found little place in mainstream discussions of archaeological methods, it did, however, attract the attention of ethnographers and students of folklore both in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.  Ethnography (or laography)  in Greece shared a focus with archaeology in that it sought to “excavate” contemporary folk traditions for ancient artifacts that linked contemporary Greeks with their ancient ancestors.  This complemented the work of archaeology by validating the historical basis for the existence of the nation and the fundamental continuity between ancient and modern Greeks. 

Outside of Greece, the nationalistic aims of studying folklore were muted considerably, but scholars such as John Cuthebert Lawson (following in the footsteps of scholars like E.B. Tylor), in his Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion (Cambridge 1910) relied upon the work of Greek laographers/ethnographers particularly Nikolaos Politis (M. Herzfeld, Ours Once More; Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece (Austin 1982), 103-104).  Politis carefully documented Greek folklore and deployed it to demonstrate historical continuity among the Greeks.  Among the myriad stories and types recorded by Politism, he notes numerous stories, some quite complex, related to dreams and excavation often of buried treasures. 

Lawson’s assessment of such stories, in part drawn from his own experiences doing research in Greece at the end of the 19th century, views tales of Dream Archaeology with a typically modern and skeptical eye:

“One of the pieces of information most frequently imparted to men in dreams is the situation of some buried treasure.  The precautions necessary for unearthing it, namely complete reticence as to the dream, and the sacrifice of a cock, have already been mentioned.  This kind of dream has been utilized by the Greek Church.  There is no article of ecclesiastical property of more value than a venerable icon; to any church or monastery which aspires to become a great religious centre an ancient and reputable icon, competent to work miracles, is indispensable.  Now the most obvious way of obtaining such pictures is, it seems, to dig them up.  A few weeks underground will have give the right tone to the crudest copy of crude Byzantine art, and all that is required, in order to determine the spot for excavation, is a dream on the part of some person privy to the interment.  It was on this system that the miracle-working icon of Tenos can to be unearthed on the very day that the standard of revolt from Turkey was raised, thus making the island the home of patriotism as well as of religion.  And this is no solitary example; the number of icons exhumed in obedience to dreams is immense; wherever the traveler goes in Greece, he is wearied with the same reiterated story, and if the picture in question happens to be of the Panagia, there is often an appendix to the effect that the painter of it was St Luke – an attribution which can only have been based on clerical criticism of the style.” (Lawson, 301-302)

Despite the skepticism, the link between these stories and the goals of the modern state is already obvious.  Thus, not only has the modern, scientific discipline of archaeology developed to support the national narrative, but so has at least some traditional “folk” understanding of the archaeological process.  It seems likely that the parallels between longstanding views of archaeology as preserved in hagiography, in particular, and the emerging modern discipline facilitated the transfer of meaning from the local and religious sphere to the national sphere.  The place of Dream Archaeology in the folk tales recorded (no matter how cynically) by Lawson and especially Politis further validate the significance of such stories in the national narrative.

For more on Dream Archaeology see here, here, here, and here .

  1. October 25, 2008 at 8:15 am

    For more on Lawson and other students at the BSA working in this area prior to 1914 see:

  2. October 25, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Thanks for the this link. I checked out your blog before I wrote the post and then forgot to make the link.

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