Oxford’s new Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art advocates for history by other means.

Bert Smith calls for scholars with broader interests who publish their material.


R.R.R. (Bert) Smith has succeeded Professor Sir John Boardman in the Lincoln Chair of Classical Archaeology and Art at Oxford University this April. His appointment at the age of forty-one was a surprise to those who assume that distinction goes with age, but is entirely in keeping with the aims of the three-strong department of Classical Art and Archaeology, which for some time has been generating projects that keep it at the forefront of communications and database technology (the Ashmolean Museum Cast Gallery has a site on the World Wide Web) and now has the range to teach from the Bronze Age to the Dark Ages.

Two months into his new post, Professor Smith talked to The Art Newspaper.

You were an undergraduate here in Oxford and studied ancient history and classical literature. You then did post-graduate studies in your present department. What was it that made you want to become an archaeologist?

Professor Smith. Travelling in Greece and Italy, which I did a lot of before I came to Oxford, and listening to lectures once I was here.

Do you think that it is important that teachers of archaeology are also practising archaeologists?

No, I don’t think it’s vital. Plenty of people who call themselves classical archaeologists don’t conduct excavations. Excavation is only the means to getting the material, it is not an end in itself.

In 1986 you went to the United States to teach at New York University. What struck you then as the difference in archaeology teaching in the States as compared to Oxford?

The basic difference is that the American courses lay more emphasis on formal teaching of graduates, which is structured much more around the individual interests of the teaching professors. Here there is a much wider range of options within the archaeology course. The composition of the courses is similar, however.

Do you think enough is being done to give financial backing to British archaeological expeditions abroad?

Compared to State funding of archaeological expeditions in Germany or France the British are very mean. American excavations are funded by universities but also by private money and foundations, some of them government-supported. We have a large three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work at Aphrodisias for example. British archaeologists might do more to get private backing. Other countries (Germany for example) have historically seen archaeology as a political priority, which the British government does not.

On returning to Oxford now do you see a change in the way archaeology is taught? Is there such a thing as a “new archaeology” as there is a “new art history”, which has moved away from objects and towards theory?

There is a very vigorous school of new archaeology which has been around for twenty years or so. It has been practised a lot and very successfully in Cambridge. It swung away from looking at major events, major monuments, and major artefacts, towards the archaeology of the lower strata of society: of agriculture and life in the fields. It came out of a desire to get away from elite oriented cultures and to ask other questions. Much of this new archaeology is surface survey, looking at very broad changes over very long periods. It is very different information to that from a site like Olympia or Delphi where you find big monuments recorded by classical authors, which is classical archaeology par excellence. Here you are getting broad patterns—changes between the ancient world and the medieval world for instance. This new information is still being digested.

Will you make any changes to the way archaeology is taught in Oxford?

Yes, there will be more emphasis on images and representations, and on later periods. Oxford, and British archaeology in general, have been very successful in the early periods, especially the Bronze Age and the Dark Ages. I am more interested in the later classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods. I would like to see the breaking down of this idea that one is either a Hellenist or a Romanist and studies only one or the other. The visual language of antiquity stretches right across from the archaic period to later antiquity and I would like to see students studying this as one cultural entity.

You have been involved in the late Hellenistic and Roman site of Aphrodisias in Turkey (first century BC to the sixth century AD) since 1985. Can you explain which theories you are putting to the test?

I was invited to Aphrodisias in 1985 by Professor Kenan Erim to come and publish some of the sculpture and that was how I got involved. This was my role until he died in 1990, when I was asked by New York University to take over the directorship. This was something of an accident, since I just happened to be on the faculty of the same university. [Aphrodisias is a New York University site.]

We are doing two things their at the moment. First, we have to take care of the extraordinary quantity of material found in the last thirty years, so we are doing a lot of consolidation work: basic documentation of old trenches; documentation of the finds, recording, studying, photographing and above all publishing. There is a lot of very important material that our colleagues would like to see and know about so we have to get this out in the proper scholarly format.

Second, we are moving forward with the archaeological investigation of the site—principally its urban plan and infrastructure—but avoiding large scale, new excavation.

What is important about Aphrodisias is not that it was a major centre in antiquity but rather that it seems to have been a typical medium-sized town which just happens to be extraordinarily well preserved.

How would you justify archaeology as a vital discipline to a non-archaeologist?

I would say that it is history by other means. I would invite him, if he doubted its value, to imagine a history of modern culture that told you nothing about its physical environment—its towns, its buildings, its cars, its visual images, its artworks. Try and think of writing a full account of modern culture that was solely derived from the written word. It is difficult to appreciate how much our view of our own culture, and Greek and Roman and Egyptian culture, is conditioned by images. Much of the texture of an ancient culture is given by its images and its buildings. The job of an archaeologist is not only finding those things but interpreting them and reconstructing or deconstructing their visual agenda, not simply taking them as a window onto that world.

Over the past few years there has been increasing debate over the problem of looting of sites in antiquities-rich countries and of the illegal trade in these objects, now wrenched from their context. What measures do you think source countries could take to protect their heritage?

I think they are already doing a lot. On the most important sites in Turkey they have police stations. At Aphrodisias there is a gendarme post and a fully-staffed museum. However, guarding sites is never going to be enough to stop the determined thief and it is going to be impossible with any amount of money to provide protection to all the sites in countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey. So to say that source countries should simply look after their antiquities better, while obviously desirable is not really realistic.

As part of the same debate there has been criticism of some museums in the States who buy, are given, or display on long-term loan, antiquities with no provenance. It has been suggested that one way out of this bind is for the antiquity-rich countries to cooperate in loaning items from their stores to American museums. Do you think that this is a feasible solution?

Yes, I think it is a very good idea. It has already been done. For example, Maxwell Anderson at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Atlanta, organised a very successful exhibition of Roman portraits from the storerooms in the Terme Museum in Rome. This is certainly a way to go, but unlikely to have an effect on the desire of private collectors to own objects. In the present political climate in Turkey, museums would be unlikely to lend abroad without some guarantee of improvements in the way the antiquities trade is dealt with.

Another idea is to try and shame collectors into ceasing to buy. Do you think that would work?

Maybe. But I don’t think this should be a question of shame or moral pressure and it shouldn’t be up to people like you and me to bring moral pressure on buyers; it should simply be like everything else that society feels strongly about—it should be a matter of law. Moral pressure is not the appropriate way to go about it. The legal system is. The laws in the source countries are crystal clear. It is the laws in the receiver countries which can be ambivalent and this makes it unclear to some buyers of antiquities what their legal position is. At the moment the legal system in Europe and the US seems to favour possession and it makes it very difficult for source countries to get things back.

What can your particular field of research into images and ancient art history add to our understanding of the ancient world?

Archaeology needs to start taking ancient art history more seriously in this country. It is something which is accepted in Germany and America whereas in Britain there has been a rather unhelpful and divisive opposition between people who define themselves as art historians and people who define themselves as archaeologists. They should be seen as part of the same project operating in different areas.

I am personally very interested in the historical interpretation of sculpture and paintings which occupied in the ancient world a much more important position in the scheme of things than they do today. To section them off as art, in the way art is neatly compartmentalised in our own society, is to play it down. Art in classical times was connected with all facets of public and private life. Statues articulated a lot of concerns for which today we have other media. They should be seen as something embedded within that social and political life, and images should be seen as active players in that world, not as detached commentaries on it but defining and shaping key concerns and ideas.

Images don’t simply illustrate things which we know about from other sources; they are another strand of representation which we have to interpret. They give us insights into how people saw themselves, how they saw their gods, how they saw their leaders, how they saw their heroes, what ceremonies, events, rituals, were most important to them. There is a very wide range of questions we can ask.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘History by other means'