Abandoned medical center, Thebes, Greece.

Abandoned medical center in Thebes, Greece

The European refugee crisis highlights an archaeological vacuum in the study of migration in Greece. Beginning in 2016, the Greek government built 50 refugee camps in the countryside to house 60,000 migrants who were trapped along their journey to northern Europe. The camps were built on sites that had been variously used in earlier moments in history, but whose earlier material history had been erased, forgotten, or superseded. The juxtaposition between old and new sites of trauma highlights a great scholarly lacuna to be filled by archaeologists, anthropologists, and heritage specialists.

Since its foundation as a nation-state, Greece has experienced continuous episodes of both inward and outward migration. The countryside is covered with forgotten sites of displacement that have received little documentation, commemoration, and certainly no excavation. From its beginnings in 1821, the nation state has deployed archaeology to exonerate antiquity and provide a convenient disguise to the unresolved traumas of modernity. An idealized golden age of white marbles has obfuscated ethnic cleansing, civil wars, mass executions, economic collapse, famine, and depopulation. Consider the period of 1893-1924, when one in every four working-age males migrated to the United States contributing to a third of the national GDP through remittances; or the 1923 Greek-Turkish exchange of population, when 1.2 million refugees from Asia Minor were resettled in 2,089 settlements newly built by the League of Nations; or the period after World War II, when one in every four Greek villages was destroyed rendering 18% of the population homeless. Arguably, migration is one of the most stable aspects of Modern Greek history.

The photograph above intentionally deflects attention away from the archaeology of contemporary refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Held in hot spots on the Aegean island or dispersed in camps on the mainland, the recent migration wave is creating a new landscape of displacement with unique challenges of materiality, preservation, luting, commemoration, and violence. Rather than studying those new sites in a temporal vacuum, however, we propose a diachronic archaeology of the recent past. This archaeology includes sites like the medical center in Thebes built in 1950 to serve the needs of an internally displaced population ravaged by the Nazi occupation during World War II and the ensuing Civil War. It was built by a Greek diaspora who had migrated to the U.S. a generation earlier during the last crisis. Finding themselves on the side of a superpower that had recently liberated their homeland from the Nazis but also supported a Civil War, the Greek diaspora became inadvertent participants in the theater of America’s Cold War and the politics of the Marshall Plan. The medical center in Thebes was the second of twelve regional centers funded by Greeks in the U.S. through AHEPA. The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association was founded in Atlanta in 1922 to battle the violence the Ku Klux Klan exerted against Greeks during the rise of nativism that had marked Greeks and other immigrants as non-white outsiders. AHEPA’s mission was to create a progressive assimilated Greek America while also supporting greater causes in Greece (beyond the remittances sent by individual families). One of the organization’s earliest campaigns was to send relief to the 1928 Corinth earthquake. During World War II, AHEPA and other diaspora organizations like the Greek War Relief Association displayed their patriotism to both Greece and America by intensive fundraising.

The building stands on the ancient acropolis of King Oedipus and across the street from a spectacular archaeological museum displaying the ancient and medieval splendor of Thebes (including a Crusader tower that was used as a prison in the 19th century). Unlike the Thebes Archaeological Museum, the building pictured above is unmarked; its dedication has been removed. Within the first three months of its opening in 1950, it served 6,648 patients. The facilities were incorporated into the national health system, but the center was decommissioned around 2002. Some rooms in the building are used by community organizations and local preservationists commissioned a feasibility study to convert the building into a cultural center. Attracting state or private funding has not been successful.

As a ruin of humanitarianism, the medical center highlights a number of additional spatial alignments. Just below the archaeological museum lay the remains of an earlier episode of humanitarianism, a neighborhood built by the League of Nations in 1927-1931, the “Synoikismos” that housed refugees from the destruction of Smyrna (Izmir). Traces of the small houses (originally numbering 300) from the 1920s are still visible among the renovations of its inhabitants. A cultural organization of refugee survivors actively maintains the traditions and memories of the displacement and links to the homeland in Turkey.

In March 2017, the city of Thebes opened a refugee camp for 700 undocumented migrants from Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani, and elsewhere who had crossed the sea in rubber boats into Lesbos. The camp was installed within an abandoned knitting factory, 5 km south of the city center. This new installation was funded by the European Union and included early medical supervision by Doctors Without Borders. Heralded as a model refugee camp with prefabricated containers and accommodations for minors, the camp is now plagued with the common difficulties that many of such impermanent installations phase once made permanent.

I have intentionally chosen a photograph from the abandonment of the 1950’s medical building to exemplify the archaeological dimensions of migration in Greece. The absentee diaspora that once paid for the construction of the building has disappeared (although the AHEPA made significant medical donations to the current refugee crisis). The centrality of the building on Oedipus’ acropolis makes sense within a horizontal overview of the city’s topography from antiquity to the present. During 2011-2016, Stephanie Larson and Kevin Daly of Bucknell University lead an excavation at the Ismenion Hill cemetery in Thebes. Focusing on antiquity (with significant discoveries from the medieval period), their work has already added to the displays at the Thebes Archaeological Museum. At the same time, the excavation has played a promising role in coordinating modern and contemporary voices with the archaeological experience. In Athens, Larson co-directed food provisions for the 5th School Squat, where 500 new migrant families occupied the abandoned building. Academics, intellectuals, and expats fundraised and delivered the food supplies while also incorporating the project into community-based-learning curriculum of Arcadia University’s program in Greece. In September 2019, the Greek police evacuated the 5th School Squat and relocated its inhabitants to the military base in Corinth. Paradoxically, the ancient site of Corinth—like Thebes—is excavated by American archaeologists. Jan Sanders, director of the Arcadia University program, continues to coordinate food support to the residents of the Corinth camp, who had previously lived in the 5th School Squat. The camp is located across the street from the forgotten site where Americans operated an orphanage for 2,700 children displaced by the Armenian genocide in 1915 and again in 1923. And yet a hundred years earlier, there was the 1829 site of Washingtonia, the earliest documented refugee camp in Greece built by the American medical doctor Samuel Howe in Ancient Corinth. By 1896, when American archaeologists inaugurated the Corinth excavations, Washingtonia had ceased to exist. Its location remains conjectural (and a subject of a recent study to locate it). Like the AHEPA medical center of 1950, the Near East Relief orphanage of 1923, or Washingtonia of 1829, the sites of Greece’s humanitarian relief need to be archaeologically recovered and incorporated into the materialities of memory, the curriculum, the national narrative, museums, tourism, truth-and-reconciliation.

Working on the margins of official archaeology (along with Larson, Sander, and others), we must imagine an archaeology of care focusing on humanitarian relief across the ages. The reluctance to study modern migration’s stratigraphic layers leads to the illusion that the recent arrival of refugees is unprecedented or that it constitutes a crisis. The archaeology of the contemporary world in Greece promises the possibility of an interesting alliance on the fringes of Classical Studies that has dominated the archaeology of Greece both nationally and internationally. There are no illusions that the documentation of a 1950s Greek-American medical center, a 1920s orphanage, or even an 1820s settlement bearing George Washington’s name will ever garner the same cultural capital as the famous city of Oedipus. The layers of modern suffering and relief hidden within the Greek countryside offer opportunities to decolonize the old syllabus and, at the same time, naturalize the current crisis into a new dialogue about history and human rights.


Kostis Kourelis is an Associate Professor of Art History at Franklin & Marshall College.