October 7, 2009
When the state of Greece was founded in 1830, after the War of Independence, the first government was faced with the great problems of the economy, public administration, and education. The last of these also included the question of the country’s ancient treasures, which had been looted and destroyed over the centuries. However, the official Antiquities Service was undermanned and incapable of taking proper care of the ancient remains, and so on January 6, 1837, on the initiative of a wealthy merchant named Constantinos Belios, a group of scholars and politicians founded the Archaeological Society at Athens with the goals of locating, reerecting, and restoring the antiquities of Greece. The Presidents and Secretaries of the Society in its early days were politicians and diplomats, whose enthusiasm was great despite the shortage of funds—the Society was financed entirely by members’ subscriptions and voluntary donations, and received no assistance whatsoever from the State. They carried out a number of ambitious projects, such as the excavation of the Acropolis, the restoration of the Parthenon, and excavations of the Theater of Dionysos, the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, and the Tower of the Winds, all in Athens.
Until 1859 the Society was in such a precarious financial position that it was constantly on the verge of collapse. That year, the distinguished scholar and epigraphist Stephanos Kumanudes became its Secretary, and he held the position until 1894. With his expertise, methodical mind, and energy, he breathed new life into the Society, and on his initiative large-scale excavations were carried out in Athens (Kerameikos, the Acropolis, Hadrian’s Library, the Stoa of Attalos, the Theater of Dionysos, and the Roman Agora), elsewhere in Attica (Rhamnous, Thorikos, Marathon, Eleusis, the Amphiaraeion, and Piraeus), and in Boeotia (Chaironeia, Tanagra, and Thespiai), the Peloponnese (Mycenae, Epidaurus, and Lakonia), and the Cyclades. Meanwhile, the Society founded several large museums in Athens, which were later amalgamated to form the National Archaeological Museum.
Kumanudes was succeeded by Panayiotis Kavvadias, the General Inspector of Antiquities (1895–1909, 1912–1920), who carried on his predecessor’s work with undiminished energy and presided over excavations in other parts of Greece, including Thessaly, Epirus, Macedonia, and the islands (Euboea, Corfu, Kefallinia, Lesbos, Samos, and the Cyclades), as well as the opening of numerous museums in provincial towns.
Kavvadias was succeeded by three university professors, George Oikonomos (1924–1951), Anastasios Orlandos (1951–1979), and George Mylonas (1979–1988). Under them, the Society kept up its archaeological activities despite the difficulties caused by World War II and its aftermath, which hampered its work for a considerable amount of time.
As an independent learned society, the Archaeological Society is in a position to assist the State in its work of protecting, improving, and studying Greek antiquities. Whenever necessary, it undertakes the management and execution of large projects: this has happened with excavations in Macedonia and Thrace in recent years and with the large-scale restoration projects in the past.
An important part of the Society’s work is its publishing. It produces three annual titles: Praktika tes Archaiologikes Hetairias (Proceedings of the Archaeological Society), since 1837, containing detailed reports on the excavations and research carried out in all parts of Greece; Archaiologike Ephemeris, since 1837, containing papers on subjects to do with Greek antiquities, including excavation reports; and Ergon tes Archaiologikes Hetairias (The Work of the Archaeological Society), since 1955, published every May, with brief reports on its excavations. Mentor is a quarterly consisting mainly of short articles on ancient Greece and the history of Greek archaeology, as well as of news on the Society’s activities. Besides the periodicals, there is the series of books with the general title The Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens, which are monographs on archaeological subjects and reports on excavations, mostly those carried out by the Society.