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Archaeologist’s historical study sifts the soil of Greece

Dr David Gill, Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology at Swansea University, has published a history of the British School at Athens, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.


The book, entitled Sifting the soil of Greece: the early years of the British School at Athens (1886-1919), is published by the Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Dr Gill, from Tycoch in Swansea, who is based within the Swansea University’s Department of History and Classics, said: “This wide-ranging study pays tribute in the School’s 125th anniversary year to the many gifted men and women who laid firm foundations for the scholars of today.

“The research draws on material from the archives of the British School at Athens as well as university and school collections across the United Kingdom.”

The British School at Athens was established in 1886 as a response to German influence in Greece through the excavation of Olympia, home of the Olympic Games.

William Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister, was enthusiastic about the venture, and the Prince of Wales – the future Edward VII – took an active interest. Another key supporter was George Macmillan, a member of the publishing house that bore his name.

The students were normally admitted to the School immediately after graduation. Approximately 130 took part in the School’s archaeological activities in the period up to the outbreak of the First World War.

Among their achievements were the museum catalogues for Sparta and the Athenian Acropolis. Several pioneering women students went out to Greece and some were involved with the excavations on the island of Melos, though these initiatives attracted criticism from their male colleagues.

The School established a major programme of fieldwork with excavations on Cyprus, Melos and Crete, as well as a series of excavations around Sparta. Several students assisted the influential work of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos on Crete.

British School students were also involved with extensive tours through Greece and the Ottoman Empire, recording inscriptions and other archaeological remains.

The British School served as an important international training ground for archaeologists. Former students took a lead in the archaeological services for Egypt, India, the Sudan, and Transjordan.

Members of the School helped to establish an interest in Greek archaeology at the former University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire at Cardiff (now Cardiff University), and the former University College of North Wales at Bangor (now Bangor University).

Robert Carr Bosanquet, a former student and director of the British School, as well as professor at the University of Liverpool, was one of the first commissioners for the Royal Commission of Ancient Monument of Wales and Monmouthshire.

Bosanquet encouraged the excavation of a number of Roman sites across Wales including Caerleon and Caersws.

Many of the School’s students were recruited for intelligence work during the First World War. David G Hogarth, another former student and director, was a key figure in the Arab Bureau in Cairo; one of his team was T E Lawrence – better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Harry Pirie-Gordon, whose family lived at Gwernvale, just outside Crickhowell, played a key part in the attack on Alexandretta as an alternative to the Gallipoli campaign.

And Ernest Gardner, the first student to be admitted to the School in 1886, helped to organise the archaeological material discovered during the campaigns in Macedonia.

Sifting the soil of Greece: the early years of the British School at Athens (1886-1919), by Dr David Gill, priced £38, is published by the Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. ISBN 978-1-905670-32-1.

For more information about the book visit http://bsahistory.blogspot.com/2011/04/sifting-soil-of-greece.html or email: icls.publications@sas.ac.uk, and about Swansea University’s Department of Classics, Ancient History, and Egyptology visit http://www.swansea.ac.uk/classics/.

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