Archaeology for the multicultural (Athenian) society: towards an intercultural approach?
Elena Vomvila, archaeologist

Introduction  - Archaeology as a vehicle of addressing otherness - The European context: some policies and cross-cultural initiatives - The Greek context and the Municipality of Athens: Facts to be considered -Conclusions

Archaeology towards an intercultural approach: a paradox of our time? Since its institutionalisation in the nineteenth century archaeology has been widely used for emphasising cultural distinctiveness and legitimising nationalistic claims of ethnic “purity” and continuity. Addressing otherness may sound too “idealistic” for a discipline which has provided nation states the raw material of constructing their national identities by ‘depriving whole peoples of any legitimate past’.

This paper investigates how the archaeological past can promote otherness by using the theoretical background as a starting point and subsequently looking at the European and more specifically, the Greek context. Particular emphasis is laid on the Municipality of Athens as it hosts the vast majority of migrant communities.

Archaeology as a vehicle of addressing otherness
The use of the past as a vehicle to address otherness and enhance cultural diversity has not been widely explored within the archaeological enquiry. Little has been said on how the discipline ought to respond to the spatial diffusion of identities and the cultural hybridity inflicted by globalisation and mass migration.

Appadurai claims that the politics of the past are ‘deepening and stretching…as more people become bi-national, multi-national or diasporic’. The resurgence of cultural and religious fundamentalism and xenophobia in a number of states suggests that the intersection of nationalism and archaeology seems certain to continue and even expand in the future. However, in a time when images and information travel rapidly around the world and ‘people, identities and cultures are not “tied” to their place of origin’ archaeology has a major role to play; that of promoting otherness and inclusiveness.

The treatment of archaeology as the study of “otherness par excellence”, which reveals us more about our non-identity, has been embraced both by anthropologists and archaeologists. From the 1960s onwards, the former have managed to deconstruct the essentialist view of the state by questioning the perception of cultural groups as immutable and homogenous ‘natural’ entities. The definition of ethnic groups in the past based on material evidence has also come under attack by archaeologists, who have stressed the ambiguous nature of the archaeological record. It is exactly that defragmentation of the archaeological evidence, which gives the scholarship the potential to challenge ethnic, cultural and linguistic boundaries and encourages us to think that ‘there are just Others, that we ourselves are an “other” among Others’.

The European context: some policies and cross-cultural initiatives
On a policy level, addressing diversity through heritage has become the central pledge in UNESCO Conventions and EU cultural initiatives. In 2005 the UNESCO Convention on the Promotion and Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions aimed to ‘foster interculturality’, which was defined as the ‘equitable interaction of diverse cultures and the possibility of generating shared cultural expressions through dialogue’. One year later, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union designated 2008 as the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue (EYID) (fig. 1) in order to provide Europeans the means to ‘deal with…the coexistence of different cultural identities’.

In studies conducted for the EU within the context of EYID, it was suggested that ‘intercultural dialogue’ ought to be perceived as a ‘bi-directional process’ whereby native and migrant populations interact in such way that goes ‘beyond the occasional encounter between “dominant” and “minority” culture’. Therefore, the intercultural approach entails that heritage can be ‘renegotiated…[and] reconstructed in a common space of social interaction’ between people from different cultural backgrounds.

In practice, these “unity in diversity” trends have been translated around Europe through a number of cross-cultural projects aiming at producing a more inclusive image of the past, which reflects the values of multicultural societies. For instance, in 2004, English Heritage developed a national Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail at key sites around the UK. Similarly, under the umbrella of the 2005 ‘Language, Culture and Identity’ initiative, five Nordic museums launched a series of projects to make their collections ‘engaging sources of knowledge’ for people from different backgrounds than the traditional Nordic.

The Greek context and the Municipality of Athens: Facts to be considered
Greece makes an interesting case study for using the past to address otherness. The fundamental role of antiquities in the construction of the country’s national identity along with the precarious status of immigrants and their perception/treatment by the Greek society are considered to have an impact on the intercultural approach to heritage.

The contribution of antiquities in the formation of the Greek national identity traces back its roots to the nineteenth century. At that time the ideas of classicism were fully embraced by the ‘Hellenised’ social class of merchants who sought to dominate politically and economically in the Greek peninsula. The classical past secured the involvement of the Great Powers in the War of Independence and classical antiquities became the unifying power of the ethnically and religiously diverse population of the newly established state. The contribution of Byzantine antiquities in national identity building came during the late nineteenth century with the incorporation of Byzantium in the national narrative.

These nineteenth century notions have determined the development of Greek archaeology and the role of antiquities in the contemporary Greek society. Until the present day the material remains of the past, are treated as the tangible proof for legitimising the homogeneity and uninterrupted continuity of the Greek nation.

The monolithic message of the past produced by archaeological sites and museums across Greece may explain why, according to a 2003 EUMC Eurobarometer and Social European Survey, Greece holds the highest score in Europe for resisting to multicultural society and perceiving immigrants as ‘collective ethnic threat’ to the country. These trends were confirmed by a 2008 Greek survey, which indicated that almost fifty per cent of the natives regard immigrants rather responsible for the “dilution” of their national identity.

The unwillingness of the Greek state to cater for the social integration of migrants is revealed in its legislation regarding the acquisition citizenship. Greece has one of the lengthiest residency requirements for regularisation in Europe with prospective Greek citizens having to pay more than 1000 Euros for the application. The precarious employment conditions of immigrants along with their uncertain residency status have kept them at the margin of the Greek society unable to collectively claim their identity and rights from the Greek state.

In this context, cross-cultural initiatives that bring natives and immigrants closer remain limited in the Municipality of Athens. The provisions of the Greek strategy on the EYID introducing migrants to the Athenian past through visits in archaeological sites and museums are yet to be implemented while the Department of Intercultural Affairs has only catered for Pontic Greeks immigrants. The Department of Educational Programmes and Communication appears to be the most active vis-à-vis intercultural projects. Its initiatives have been mainly aimed at the Muslim community of Athens, at a large number of young immigrant students and a rather smaller number of adult immigrants.
A small number of intercultural projects come from the museum sector. Representative examples involve the National Archaeological Museum (figures 2, 3) and the Byzantine and Christian Museum, both of whom have catered for immigrant schoolchildren.

Inspiring and encouraging as they may be, the European cross-cultural initiatives are neither consistent nor well-developed. In their vast majority these projects come as a result of motivated professionals who have secured funding for a finite period. The nationalism-archaeology nexus is a very real one and there is a long way to go until the promotion of otherness is embedded into the archaeological practice. More research needs to be conducted in order for these initiatives to develop more consistently and for archaeologists to start revealing the ‘hidden histories’ of the past. Particularly in the case of Greece, negotiating difference through heritage remains limited while people that have lived for years in Greece and even their children, who are born in Greece, are still regarded as immigrants.

  1. According to the latest 2001 Census there are currently some 132.000 immigrants residing in the Municipality of Athens representing 17% of its local population
  2. Applicants for Greek citizenship need to have lived in the country for more than ten years in the last twelve.
  3. Pers. comm. E. Karanikola
  4. Pers. comm. E. Pinni


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European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008