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Salonica at the British Museum and the British Museum in Thessaloniki

2012 is a celebratory year for the city of Thessaloniki, marking the centenary of its liberation and incorporation into the Greek State. In a series of initiatives and projects, Thessaloniki unfolds its long history and diverse tradition, while promoting its contemporary image. As part of the events, a special exhibition is being planned by the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki in collaboration with the British Museum. The archaeological links between the two sides date back to 1915-16.  

Bronze helmet of the “Chalkidian” type excavated from Mikro Bay Cemetery [Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum Department: Greek & Roman Antiquities]
In October 1915, the Army of the Orient was despatched to Thessaloniki, as an allied presence in the Macedonian theatre during WWI. The French general Maurice Sarrail occupies the fortress of Karabournou. The mounds around Thessaloniki turn into military camps and, subsequently, they get excavated on an occasional or systematic basis until 1919. The British sub-lieutenant E. Gardner (professor of archaeology at the University of London) is in charge of the finds, which are kept temporarily in the White Tower

The Greek Ephors (G. Economides and E. Pelekides) inspect the progress of the excavations. At first, the material was supposed to be consigned to the Greek State. Later on it was suggested that part of the finds should be granted to the excavators.  Finally, in January 1919, after an alleged offer by the Greek Government,  the antiquities get packed and shipped to London “collected by the British Salonica Force and presented by them with the sanction of the Greek Government” (source: The British Museum). Part of it ends up to Scotland, as well as in the Louvre and a small number of objects remain in Thessaloniki. 

The material comes from excavated sites in the wider region of Thessaloniki, most of them known and noted already before WWI (Chauchitza, Kalamaria, Galliko, Sedes, Langavuk, Zangliveri, Baltza, Gnoina, Sarach, Yenikeui, Platanaki and more). In addition to a number of objects outreaching two hundreds, there are about two thousand sherds. The diversity is vast, while dating varies from prehistoric to Roman and Byzantine. Fragmented pieces of sculpture, vessels, lamps, tools and implements, weaponry, jewellery (rings, armlets, necklaces, beads, pins, fibulae) are part of the collection. 

Globular pottery cup with a flat base and a round loop handle; the rim is broken. Signs of burning inside, so probably used as a lamp [Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum Department: Greek & Roman Antiquities]
One of the earliest finds is an Early Bronze Age (3200BC-2200BC) globular pottery cup, probably used as a lamp. The tomb of Mikro Bay Cemetery was the findspot of a Classical Greek burial treasure, at present on display in Gallery 19 of the BM. Among the offerings that obviously belonged to a warrior, there is a bronze helmet of the “Chalkidian” type (shown above), a glass aryballos, two bronze knucklebones, a gold leaf and probably a bronze strigil and an iron spear-head. A Roman sepulchral stele (most likely marble) is also of the same Macedonian origin. 

Apart from these impressive finds, the Macedonian material includes important information for the researcher of Greek antiquity. The ample number of pottery sherds could be studied as a database on Macedonian wares. Most of them appear to consist of the local, micaceous clay and they follow the regional development of ceramic technique and style, extending chronologically from Neolithic to Mycenean, Geometric, Archaic and Classical Greek. 

Roman era sepulchral stele excavated from Mikro Bay Cemetery [Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum Department: Greek & Roman Antiquities]
Until now the British Salonica Force material has only been partly published. There are a few papers from the first half of the 20th century that discuss the finds and their Macedonian context, providing a few maps and photographs as well. Some of the objects had been registered when they were first collected in the White Tower. The Greek Ephore E. Pelekides had compiled two catalogues with precious information and accurate descriptions, which were brought to the BM together with the antiquities. Until very recently, only part of the material kept in the storerooms of the BM was fully archived. Fortunately, during 2011, the Department of Greece and Rome and the Bronze Age Aegean curator Andrew Shapland, published photos and short descriptions of almost all objects and sherds on the online collection database of the BM, making them openly accessible. 

After a fruitful contact between the BM and the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki it is more than possible that selected items from the British Salonica Force material will be brought back to Greece on a pertinent loan after almost one century.  

  • Casson, S. 1920/1921. Excavations in Macedonia, The Annual of the British school at Athens 24, 1-33. 
  • Dakin, D. 1972. The Unification of Greece 1770-1923, Ernest Benn Limited, London. 
  • Picard, Ch., E.A. Gardner, F.N. Pryce, W. Cooksey, A.M. Woodward, S. Casson, F.B Welch and Marcus N. Tod. 1918/1919. Macedonia. The Annual of the British school at Athens 23, 1-103. 
  • Wace, A.J.B. 1913/1914. The Mounds of Macedonia, The Annual of the British school at Athens 20, 123-132. 
  • Vokotopoulou, I. 1986. Τα Πρώτα 50 Χρόνια της Εφορείας Κλασσικών Αρχαιοτήτων Θεσσαλονίκης. In Actes de Colloque “Thessalonique apres 1912”, Thessalonique 1-3 Novembre 1985, Municipalite de Thessalonique centre d’ etudes historiques de la ville editions hors-serie no 2, 1-67. 
  •  Related article: Εκατό αρχαίοι θησαυροί, Ethnos News [January 12, 2012]
Note: to get further access to the objects follow the link, then click Research< Search the collection database, then type “British Salonica Force” or any other keyword. 

Author: Aikaterini Kanatselou | The Archaeology News Network [January 22, 2012]

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