Contributions of the Halai Project to the 
Humanities

Contributions of the Halai Project to the Humanities

The scholarly benefits of our work for students and volunteers at every level of experience are multifold. During the period of the NEH grant (1990-1993) nearly three dozen people participated as trainees (obtaining six credit hours through the Cornell Summer Session), and about two dozen as volunteers. Many were made aware of the project through the Fieldwork Opportunies Bulletin of the Archaeological Institute of America and through the travel section of Archaeology magazine. Almost all participants worked energetically and effectively. In terms of numbers and dedication of the participants, the excavation phase of the Halai project has therefore made a great impact.

To give a broader picture: since 1988 at least 111 people, in addition to paid workers, have participated in the project in Greece, 79 since the NEH grant began. They include 30 graduate students, 48 trainees enrolled for academic credit, and many faculty members, students and volunteers from North America, Europe and Greece. Almost all participants were present in Greece for at least six weeks and many came back for several summer seasons. Several Ph.D. dissertations, master's theses and undergraduate honors theses have been completed or are underway as a direct result of the project (see list above). Like many other participants, I have also found the project of direct benefit in my own teaching; I am currently offering for the second time a course at Cornell in Greek cities and towns (Classics-History of Art 326) that was directly inspired by the work at Halai and the broader questions it raises about ancient city life.

Members of the public with a prior interest in Greek archaeology, are also benefitting through talks by participants to local societies of the Archaeological Institute of America and other public groups. Public awareness of our work can be expected to grow, especially as the remains at the site are made more welcoming and understandable to visitors in the years to come.

From the point of view of archaeological methods, the project has made important contributions in the development of balloon photography as a regular adjunct to excavation (see Heafitz, Appendix 3 in Coleman, 1992, a copy of which is appended to this report) and in our use of photogrammetry for architectural recording (see Computer Use above).

The following paragraphs sketch out some of the more general contributions of the work at Halai.

What are we learning from this project when we consider it from a broader perspective? For the last twenty-five years archaeological theory has been in a ferment. Terms like "processual," "post-processual," and "middle-range theory" come and go, yet the problem remains that archaeologists, while they produce many detailed facts about the cultures they study, have been able to come up with few secure interpretations and explanations of the forces that shaped and perpetuated those cultures. Classical archaeology has for the most part been in a privileged position in terms of these theoretical debates. Since the cultures we deal with are generally literate, our methods are those of "historical archaeology," in which study of the physical remains goes hand in hand with that of the documentary evidence. It is thus easier to understand, at least at a basic level, the cultural assumptions of the people whose activities were responsible for the archaeological record. A Hellenistic inscription from Halai (Goldman, 1915, no. 3; cf. Coleman, 1992, 270), for instance, gives invaluable information about the local political structure and suggests that the formation of the great Hellenistic kingdoms had little impact at the local level in Greece proper. This in turn allows us to suggest that the increase in the size and prosperity of the town in this period, as documented by the archaeological record, was the result of local enterprise, probably of a commercial nature. For us, therefore, the problem of deriving meaning from the diverse facts gathered in the field is greatly reduced.

Written sources, on the other hand, despite the invaluable role they play, often present a static or otherwise misleading picture. Archaeology can sometimes bring a better perspective on the dynamic nature of the cultures and a better understanding of some of the underlying forces. At Halai, for instance, the continuous encroachment by the sea on the arable land surely played a large role in the cycles of prosperity (peaking in the Archaic, Hellenistic, and Late Roman periods) and recession. Sites like Halai also provide a check and a corrective on the often idealized images that the written sources project of their own culture. The importance of seafood in the Greek diet, for instance, is suggested by the abundance of shells we have collected in archaeological contexts, despite the tendency in the ancient Greek sources to ignore or despise this class of food.

The project at Halai is something of a breakthrough, particularly for American archaeology in Greece, in that the Cornell expedition has been able to generate sufficient interest (and assemble sufficient resources) to focus on a typical polis ("city state"). Classical archaeology in America has generally focussed on the outstanding monuments of antiquity, particularly those of Athens and the specialized religious centers of Olympia, Delphi, Samothrace, etc. We tend to ignore the fact that by far the great majority of ancient Greeks lived in small towns like Halai, of which there were more than seven hundred in Greece and the Aegean region. Furthermore, the ancient philosophers and other ancient writers generally subscribed to the view that "small is beautiful." Aristotle, for instance, would have considered Halai almost ideal in respect of its size, since he believed that all citizens in a polis should know one another and that the city's territory should be able to be taken in at a glance (Politics, VII, 4, 5). Even at its high points of prosperity in the Archaic and Hellenistic periods Halai probably had no more than a few hundred citizens and its total population (including women of all classes, non-citizen craftsmen, traders, and slaves) would not have been more than two thousand. Plato, on the other hand, although he might have approved of the size of Halai (his ideal city in Laws, V, 757, was to have a modest 5040 citizen families), would certainly have disapproved of its location beside the sea, since he believed that ports have a corrupting influence on the citizenry. Since the philosophers, like almost all ancient writers, were biased toward land-holding and farming, they would also have heartily disapproved of the fact that sea-borne trade was probably a major item in the economy of Halai.

I don't mean to imply that there haven't been excavations in the smaller ancient towns, even if American archaeologists have not been in the forefront in such small-site archaeology in Greece. But these excavations have been largely haphazard, salvage affairs. Halai is complete enough to give a well-rounded picture of what such a town was like and our expedition is highly unusual in that we have not only assembled adequate samples of all available classes of evidence from survey and excavation but also have chosen our detailed research strategies so as to focus on the broader questions of interpretation that can be best answered at Halai.

For a more specific perspective on our work, I would like to summarize the importance of the site by the periods for which it provides significant evidence. For the Neolithic period the site is providing a more precise chronology for Central Greece, and one that, for the earlier phases at least, tends to support the pioneering work of Weinberg at Elateia. Since almost all Neolithic towns in Greece were relatively small and they were arranged in scattered distributions rather than hierarchal patterns, Halai was probably independent in most departments of life. Its position may have made it especially important for interregional communications by sea, on the other hand, as is suggested by its eclectic style of artifacts and the abundance of obsidian imported from Melos. Further study of our finds so far assembled will clarify the question of its external relationships.

The Archaic town is unusual in that it was a new foundation about 600 B.C. (after a hiatus of more than 4000 years since the time of Neolithic occupation). This is late in the period of Greek colonization abroad (for instance, in the Black Sea, Italy/Sicily, and the Western Mediterranean). We speculate that the new town, which was apparently carefully laid out from the beginning, was in effect a deliberately planned colony, albeit an "internal" one in the sense that it was situated on Greek rather than foreign territory. As in the case of other Greek colonies, the mother city (presumably Opus, on the opposite side of the bay of Atalanti) would likely have had specific needs or purposes for founding a colony. Perhaps these had to do with the rapidly developing demand for imports to Central and Southern Greece of grain, slaves and timber from the Black Sea and Thrace. That the Euboean gulf was the major sea lane at this time is well documented by the route of the Persian fleet during Xerxes invasion of 480 B.C.

Our excavations, like those of Goldman, show that the most readily identifiable artistic influences on the new town came from Corinth, although local initiative remains strong throughout the Archaic period as, for instance, in the stone sculpture from the "temple area" discovered by Goldman (1940, figs. 54-58) or the cup potted by Epopheles (Coleman, 1992, pl. 72, b).

Even though Hellenistic material is available from many sites in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, the value of Halai as a complete and accessible Hellenistic town cannot be overestimated. The fortifications were strengthened near the beginning of the period and in subsequent Hellenistic stages they were further renovated and kept in repair. If, as seems almost certain, the town was not immediately reoccupied after its sack by Sulla in 85 B.C., the extensive remains of the final Hellenistic phase may be closely dated and they provide rich evidence that Halai participated fully in the cultural developments of the day. The evidence of the terracotta sculpture from the tombs excavated by the Goldman expedition (Goldman and Jones, "Terracottas from the Necropolis of Halae," Hesperia 11, 1942, pp. 365-420) are a particularly useful complement to the work of our own expedition.

Knowledge of the flourishing town of Early Christian times (5th and 6th centuries) is a major achievement of our expedition. In Goldman's day it was customary to ignore structures of this period or, what is worse, simply to remove them in order to reach what was perceived as more important material at lower levels. Fortunately, enough survived the earlier excavations at Halai to make a significant contribution to our understanding of the relationship between town, church, and burial in Early Christian Greece. The mosaic with bird panels in the church is a particularly important discovery, especially since we have been so far unable to find a close parallel for the eagle with halo and it may be a unique representation.


John Coleman - 1993

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