Diario della terra - Interviewing archaeologist Valentina Porcheddu
Updated: May 10, 2021
by Stefano Serusi.
This feature originally appeared in Cerchio Magazine.
Translated from Italian by Yannis Zaras
Valentina, on the occasion of your decision to spend some time in Greece and, given the rather simplistic approach of the Italian media on the current situation in Greece, I would like to pose a few questions that will help shed some light on the situation. Before we continue though, I would like to know a few things about you, your background, your current ventures as well as the experiences that had the greatest impact on you over the last few years.
I am a classical archeologist but I would prefer to use the term humanistic archeologist to describe myself. Nowadays the European people have forgotten the fundamental spirit of humanism, and deviated from its principles. But we must think beyond instrumentalist values; in fact it is impossible to understand contemporary issues without humanities research. A 21st century archeologist is called upon to bridge the past and future; the local and the global. As per the experiences that have marked me so far, I cannot help but mention the international cultural exchange projects in Tunisia, teaching at the University of Mohammedia, excavating in the Rif mountain range, exploring Algeria. The ruins of Northern Africa have a great visual and emotional impact – yet these glorious remnants of the past are often accompanied by poverty and underdevelopment – one realizes how pointless it can be to focus only in research and pay no attention to current events. It takes much more than a good article on a scientific magazine for one to be considered a good archeologist. Maybe the most important task of an archeologist is to help save the collective memories that gradually cease to exist; to understand the notion of composite identity; to evaluate ancient heritage and to integrate it well into modern society.
In your profession the journey, both in time and in space, has an identifiable value. I would like to know to what extent you have affected peoples’ everyday lives in the countries you have travelled. I would also like to know if in any of these places the maintenance of the past has played a crucial role in shaping identities.
I have visited many countries and I have been blown away on more than one occasion by the beauty of each place that I have visited and come to love. However, the Maghreb countries had definitely left a mark on me. The current events in these countries are deeply associated with national feelings and cultural heritage. Tunisia’s riots back in 2011 were initially inspired by the strife for a better working environment, yet the final fall of Ben Ali brought the issue of identity in the spotlight as a decisive factor towards the nation’s democratization process. We should always keep in mind the fact that the Tunisian cities used to be pulsing cosmopolitan centers; even today when strolling around Medina one sees traces of the city’s cosmopolitan past. Living proof of that is the local idiom, a mix of Arabic, French, and Berber dotted with many Italian, Spanish, Maltese and Hebrew words. It is more than obvious that this cultural wealth is currently in danger by the rising political and religious extremism; the goal being to adhere to Islamic values amongst modern Tunisian society. Another great example is Algeria where not only the Roman past is intentionally disregarded but also the heritage of the Berbers and the Tuaregs, two ethic groups that are identified as alien to the “Arab purity”, is often subject to acts of vandalism.
This may seem an overly simplistic question but how did you find Greece?
I believe that the artworks of Stefanos Tsivopoulos offer an image of the current situation in Greece. Tsivopoulos’s installation History Zero is on view at the Cycladic Art Museum for the first time since its debut at the 2013 Venice Biennale. History Zero is a three-channel video installation that tackles the theme of money and currency value giving it an ironic twist: an elderly art collector suffering from Alzheimer’s disease spends her time folding Euro bills into origami flowers and eventually tosses them away; a young African immigrant collects scrap metal with a shopping cart, while an artist randomly walks around Athens taking pictures on his iPad. Searching through bins the young immigrant finds the art collector’s origami flowers, while the artist’s inspiration comes out of the shopping cart full of scrap that the young man left behind. History Zero explores the role of money in the formation of human relationships and I think Tsivopoulos’s work is key to understanding the situation in Greece today. In the midst of sustained economic downturn, ordinary citizens fight for all it’s worth to keep moving without losing their dignity, something that is generally overlooked by the rest of Europe. Nevertheless responses to the crisis vary; not long ago a cottage industry has sprung up in “crisis tourism”. Trying to capitalize on public fascination with the Greek Crisis souvenir shops in old town Athens are now selling T-shirts with sarcastic sayings about austerity measures.
History Zero by Stefanos Tsivopoulos at the Museum of Cycladic Art.
People tend to identify Greece with archaeological sites and museums while at the same time they ignore every other aspect of the country’s cultural heritage. Although the modern Greek state was undeniably founded on an assumption of continuity with ancient Greece, do modern Greeks drag up old stories to bring forward new ideas?
Here in Athens I met a classical philologist, who had decided to leave the sterile world of academia and apply Aristotle’s philosophical thought onto the real economy- even though he was Croatian. I also met Yannis Zaras, who actually is Greek, and about a year ago has set up Big Olive, a company offering scholar-led walking tours that focus on aspects of lesser known history as well as gastronomy, modern architecture, and literature. Last January, again at the museum of Cycladic art, I visited an exhibition that juxtaposed poems of Constantine Cavafy with excerpts of ancient literature; it was a great way to bridge classical philology with modern Greek literature. Finally, last June I experienced the thrill of watching ancient drama at the ancient theater of Epidaurus; the play performed was Sophocles’ Philoctetes. The play makes the spectator question what morality means to each man. Furthermore, the play poses one question about the struggle between what is right for the individual versus what is right for the group. Sitting in the ancient marble seats the Greek spectators see and hear on the stage conflicting reactions to this question that mirror and echo their own reality.
Cavafy’s poem Κρυμμένα (“Krymmena”, Hidden Things) painted on a building in Leiden, Netherlands. Image Wikimedia Commons.
One final, more personal question, but still related to my previous one: do you see the study of historical figures as key to understanding history, and if yes which personality do you find yourself relating the most to?
I feel totally captivated by historical figures! I recently got carried away by the story of Gian Giacomo Porro, an archeologist active in the 1900s who died in his early thirties on the outbreak of the Great War and whose correspondence I happened to discover at the archives of the Italian Archeological School at Athens. Reading the letters I was struck by the brilliance and the genuine humaneness of this true pioneer in archeology. I spotted myself in both his enthusiasm and capacity to overcome – sometimes in anger, sometimes in irony- the difficulties of a profession paved with uncertainties and obstacles. Admittedly the scarcity of funds did put a heavy strain on young Porro, but in the end all that mattered were the simple pleasures of everyday life.
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