Excavation of Mycenean cemetery in Kaminaki, Naxos town.

Excavation in Tsikalario, Naxos.

Archaeological symposium! Tsikalario Naxos.

Fotini Zafiropoulou

Interview: Avgi Kalogianni | Photos: Nikos Zappas

The meeting with the archaeologist Fotini Zafiropoulou took place at the seat of the German Archaeological Institute, a beautiful neoclassical building by Ziller in the centre of Athens. In a few meters distance there stood in the past the Hellenic-French School of Saint Joseph at which she was pupil. Her knowledge of the French language as well as of English was the ticket for her first job as a French language teacher and also as a guide with license number five (!) during her student years.

Many times, our talk drifted away and all the stories she told me – “to give me the feeling of things” disclose a life full of difficulties and adventures, duties and dangers, tiredness but also of great joy, a life like a fairy tale. Her life, dedicated for over a half century to archaeology and particularly to the archaeological research in the Cyclades, has been indeed an exciting life.

Offspring of a Greek family from Asia Minor, she was born and studied in Athens. In 1959 she graduated from the Philosophical School of Athens University, as I read in an introduction for an event organized in her honor by the publishing house MELISSA. In 1960 she was appointed to the Archaeological Service at which she served for 35 years, 25 of which at the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades and Samos which included 35 islands as she herself told me. I read further about her numerous international distinctions and her remarkable archaeological work.
Reading the titles of the speeches by her distinguished colleagues, I stop at that of Christos Doumas: ”He who does good, does good everywhere”. Indeed, I think of her as being useful everywhere, even in what she despised the most: bureaucracy. Let’s see how she talks about this issue in her book “To Syros. Paros, Naxos, Ios, Oia- Thira” which describes, in a very humorous way, incidents of her life as an archaeologist in the Cyclades: “it was something beyond the imagination of a young archaeologist who sets out with dreams of a life full of tension and surprises to which the kind of science he chose will give a special meaning and endless joy… it was a terrible office work, time wasting since the state archeologist has administrative duties from the payroll and the personnel leaves to the finding of credits for repairs in the museum buildings, the cleaning and maintenance of the archeological sites”.

But then comes the excavation with the feeling of companionship and the human factor: ”we carried out the excavation with kotsakia (folk couplets), made up by the workers, which were very clever and humorous and described the situation with perception and accuracy. It was charming indeed. For such moments one could forget the drafting of scores of payroll documents and whatever else was demanded by the bureaucracy”.
Winding up, she says: “If in these duties you add that one should have some knowledge of drafting and photography as well as of the relevant legislation so as to deal with the numerous lawsuits against or by various individuals, then the archeologist who is a state employee must be a little mad and with a high zeal to be able to do his job and have a personal life, as well”. Indeed, one should have a great zeal at that time to be an archeologist in the Cyclades; it took then two days with fair winds to go to Paros from Mykonos with an overnight stop at Syros and four or five days when the winds were strong and sailings were not allowed.

She spent whole days aboard ships together with a typewriter to work during the trips along with Nikos Zafiropoulos, her later husband, who went from one island to another to organize even the minutest details of the archaeological museums of the Cyclades. When Zafiropoulos took over the Ephorate, there were three museums in the Cyclades, those of Thira, Mikonos and Delos, all dating from early in the century, and one at Vathi, Samos.
At those times the finds from the islands were sent to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens while most of them were piled in storehouses. Since 1960, thanks to the tireless efforts of N.Zafiropoulos and of herself, the Cyclades got their own museums. At the Museum of Mykonos, which was the seat of the Ephorate because of Delos, where the two of them worked most often, the work was done in polar temperatures with the sea, when it got rough, reaching up to the doorstep.
Journeying and digging with the yearly winds in the summer, the southern winds in winter, staying at hotels without electricity or heat, Fotini Zafiropoulou lived in the heroic era of archaeology. She fought against the waves, dug with a bottle of brandy in her pocket to resist the cold and lay awake for a whole night with a statuette and a knife under her pillow until dawn when she could take it to a safe place. Frequently when the excavation took place on uninhabited islands, the archaeologists stayed in tents and ate tinned food or lobsters they bought at very low prices from the fishermen, feeling richer than Onassis. Excavations on deserted islands offered other advantages as well: “at the period of the junta we had the privilege to sing freely, many times screaming with enthusiasm because we could sing all the prohibited songs, especially of Theodorakis, which if you were caught humming or even whistling on the street of an inhabited area, you were sent without further ado to jail. At Vathi Limenari (on the Kufonisia) only the stars and the waves could hear you”.

About the years of the junta and the archaeologist Spiros Marinatos, she will tell me during our talk: “At the time of the junta the Archaeological Service suffered heavily because of Marinatos. He may have been a great archaeologist but he also harmed badly the Archaeological Service. To start with, he didn’t like archaeologists whom he described as “communists”; he obliged us to speak in purist Greek (katharevousa) while he did not allow women to take the exams for the Archaeological Service. He broke up the Ephorate of the Cyclades; out of the four archaeologists, none was left. He sent us to all improbable posts and in fact obliged Zafiropoulos to resign”.

She first came to Paros in 1959 as a young archaeologist (with a wage of 50 drachmas!) with Nikos Zafiropoulos, being the newly appointed Ephorate head of Cyclades and after having stayed for some days at Parikia, they left for Despotiko, two women archeologists, two workers from Naxos, the Ephorate Head and the then guard of the antiquities of Paros, Mihalis Gennadopoulos. At Despotiko they stayed in tents for several days until a dreadful flurry of wind literary sent them fleeing along with their tents. All this happened “at the time when they came from Antiparos to take us with rowing boats and later with engine ones. To let them know that we needed to cross, we had to open the door at the small chapel of Ipapanti (at Punta)-that was the signal that someone wanted to get across”. Coming back from Despotiko, they will do field research in eastern Paros, on the hill of Kefalos above Marpissa where they found hundreds of fragments of statuettes and broken pottery. The purpose of this research was to stop illicit trade of antiquities, “I thought that as soon as our reports reached the Archaeological Service they would grant the necessary budget for excavations in the area. I dreamed that as soon as I was appointed archaeologist in the Cyclades, my first excavation would be on the hill above Marpissa. With time I found out that most dreams young people have, stay dreams forever”.

Since then she came to Paros many times, participating in many excavations, at Delion, Pithion-over the Asklepion- and in many rescue excavations at Parikia. However, the excavation she carried out at the Ancient Cemetery was the one that kept her to Paros and is unique not only in Paros or the Cyclades but in the whole of Greece. The cemetery dates from the 8th century B.C up to the 3rd /4th century A.D and lies in the north of Parikia at a level lower than the present town and the sea. The place is enclosed, frequently flooded and close by there is a small glass construction where some of the finds have been placed, mainly skeletons and urns.

The excavation brought to light a Polyandrion (mass grave) of the geometrical era with urns which contained the burned bones of 150 young men aged between 16/17 and 30 years who had been killed in a war conflict. It is a unique find up to date since the next polyandrion we know of, is the one from the Marathon battle in 490 B.C. Among the finds is the relief of a seated female figure of 700 B.C. considered as the most ancient funerary slab of the historical years and is now at the Archaeological Museum of Paros. There one can also admire two geometrical amphorae with scenes of war conflicts which according to prof. N. Coldstream, a specialist on geometric pottery, change our knowledge about the beginning of ancient Greek painting.

The way the cemetery was organized and the scenes on the amphorae disclose one of the earliest organized societies in Greece. Thus, when I ask her what is her dream for Paros, she rightly tells me that she wants to see the ancient cemetery as an organized archaeological site like the local museum in front of the Cathedral, Naxos town.

We talked about many more things including the fashion of holding exhibitions of the Greek civilization abroad. “The exhibitions held abroad are something good but they are organized in the wrong way. Some works which are unique should not be allowed to travel. If they want to see Hermes of Praxiteles, they should come to Olympia”.

Winding up the talk with Fotini Zafiropoulou I asked her about her present occupations and dreams. She spoke to me with juvenile enthusiasm about the Association of Archaeologist “EOS”, in which she is president, and has 95 members-archaeologists. Its aim is to promote the archaeological science and the classical studies in our country. The role of the archaeologist in the contemporary era is important because the basis of a country is its past, she says… As N. Zafiropoulos said “The archeologist is being called upon to give to the public the sensation that the ancient is not just a “stone” or a “pot” but a living part of their own past on which their present is based on”.

Summer 2016