How did archaeologists excavate Delphi in Greece and When?

Hovering over the steep Pleistus Valley and shielded by rugged Mount Parnassus is the ancient sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi.

Here at the crossroads of several trade routes, men of the mercantile world would meet and exchange wares. Others would come to seek the wisdom of the fabled oracle, the frenzied prophetess through whom Apollo spoke.

Today the white stone ruins gleam in the Mediterranean sun, an elegant theater lies nestled in the hillside, and on the hilltop overlooking rocky slopes and the Gulf of Corinth is a spacious stadium with gray stone seats. The site is one of Greece’s finest and most famous, but for centuries it lay buried, its extent unknown.

When the Danish archaeologist Peter Oluf Brondsted visited Delphi in 1810 he encountered a major obstacle: “The wretched little village of Kastri in many ways renders it difficult to survey the whole site, and to be able to get a satisfactory plan of Delphi one would have to begin by pulling down many of its huts.” The Greeks of this village did not find it so wretched, however, and were in no mood to raze their homes and pull out their crops in the name of scholarly research, particularly a foreigner’s, so some years went by without progress.

The French entered the scene in 1861. Backed by Napoleon III, Paul Foucart and Karl Wescher executed the first regular excavation, detecting the eastern limit of the temple precinct. But when King Otho was expelled from Greece, all work on the site was halted for nearly 20 years.

In 1880 a French scholar, Bernard Haussoullier, uncovered the Stoa of the Athenians and a segment of the processional road. Foucart, then director of the French School at Athens, applied to his government for 100,000 francs and established an agreement with the Greek government by which it would expropriate 30 houses in Kastri.

A change of government again snarled the proceedings. The new minister would keep to the plan only if the French agreed to lower the duty on Greek currants. When the French refused, the Greeks offered the opportunity of excavating to the Germans, who politely declined out of goodwill toward the French. Over the next decade the newly founded Archaeological Institute of America launched an enthusiastic campaign to raise funds and gather support so that it might do the job, but then the French concurred on the notorious currants.

In 1891 a definitive contract was signed, giving the French exclusive rights to excavate the site during the next ten years. The French government voted a grant of 500,000 francs for the endeavor, which caused one outraged Marquis in the Senate to exclaim, “On fait de nous des chercheurs de truffes!” The Greek government, supplying 60,000 drachmas, agreed to move 100 houses a short distance to the west.

Although the governments may have been conciliatory, the uprooted Kastriotes were not. When work began in 1892, the villagers attacked the workmen and seized their tools, wreaking such havoc that the Greek government was forced to call in the military. Thereafter a ring of soldiers with loaded rifles surrounded the scholars, who quietly dug, examined, analyzed, and recorded, shielded from the present in their search for the past.

For seven consecutive summers the archaeologists worked under the superb guidance of Theophile Homolle, by then director of the French school. One of the earliest finds was the Treasury of the Athenians. Homolle in great excitement cabled Paris, and the Greek authorities in Amphissa, the capital of the district, came running, but their ardor was hardly intellectual. “A slight misunderstanding arose,” explained Homolle, “and in their artless way they (the Greek government) hoped that ready money had been found in the ground, at an opportune moment, to pay off their interest due.”

By 1900 much of the 2,400-year-old site had been uncovered. Since then hordes of scholars, students, and tourists have traveled to the lofty slope each year, marveled at the spare Doric columns, stood before the Charioteer, imagined the cryptic cries of the priestess, and perhaps spent a little money in town, the sole compensation for those who once lived on the sacred place.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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