Many readers will have read with sadness of the passing of one of Greece’s most renowned archaeologists – Professor Petros Themelis. He died recently while in the care of Kalamata hospital. He was aged 87. It was my privilege to have met him and to have seen some of his archaeological work in Greece.
Born in 1936, Petros began his academic studies at the University of Thessaloniki from which he received his bachelor degree in history and archaeology. This was followed by his gaining his PhD from Munich University’s Archaeological Institute, his thesis being subsequently published. He was appointed head of the Ephorate of Paleoanthropology and Speleology between 1980 and 1984, and subsequently appointed Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Crete, a position he held until 2004.
While he carried out archaeological excavations in various locations across Greece, Professor Themelis is well known for his work at the site of Ancient Messene as head of restorations for the Archaeological Society of Athens, a position he held from 1986 until his death. The author of numerous articles on Ancient Messene, Petros was awarded the golden Commander of the Order of Phoenix in 2005 for his teaching, scientific and excavation work.
He was a lifelong member of the Archaeological Society of Athens, an Associate Member of the Institute of Archaeology of the United States, the German Archaeological Institute, the Austrian Archaeological Institute and most significantly Vice President of the Acropolis Monuments Preservation Committee.
Themelis & Ancient Messene
Petros worked for nearly forty years on the excavation and restoration of one of the most important archaeological sites in southern Greece – Ancient Messene, the classical capital of Messinia region in the Peloponnese. It was my privilege to view Professor Themelis’ work during a visit to the site in 2016.
This site is breathtaking to behold. I had been persuaded to visit Ancient Messene by my good friend George Iliopoulos. You must go, he said, it is one of the wonders of Ancient Greece.
The site is a short drive north-west of Kalamata, barely 30 kilometres, but as you approach its entrance you are immediately impressed by its towering walls stretching up the side of Mount Ithome and its massive gates. These walls were famed throughout the Ancient world; the Greek 2nd Century AD travel writer Pausanias compared them favourably to those of Byzantion (the name of the original Greek settlement at the future Constantinople) and Rhodes. The classicist Andrew Burn called them “the great walls of liberated Messene”, the finest example of Greek fortification and a monument to the liberator of Messinia from Spartan rule, the Theban general Epameinondas. Think of Mycenae’s Lion Gate and you will get some impression of the immensity of the structure.
Entering the main site by foot you are immediately impressed by the size of the excavations. The whole complex stretches before you, from the sheltering hills across the valley before you and off towards the distant mountains beyond. On a sunny summer’s day it is a beauty to behold.
The site is a complex of structures encompassing an agora, temples, amphitheatres, stadiums and market places. Founded in the 4th century BC as the capital of Messinia, the city flourished into the Roman era. Walk the city accompanied by the Roman-era writer Pausanias’ guide and you will be able to envisage the living city as it once was.
Pausanias writes of the fountains, many temples and statues that were features of the city, many of the statues created by the famous Messenian sculptor Damophon. You can see the column dedicated to the sculptor, upon which once stood a bronze sculpture of the artist. Pausanias writes that most of these statues stood in the Sanctuary of Asklepios, with excavations confirming that some 140 were once on display here. People would come here for healing.
The amphitheatre of the city was one of the largest in antiquity, erected in the Hellenistic period and expanded during the Roman era. Only a portion of the structure had been excavated, with more to be exposed and restored.
One of the most striking features is its great stadium, stretching maybe half a kilometer from the seating at its rounded head to the mausoleum erected at the end of the stadium. As Professor Themelis said during his presentation at Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum, the number of columns that surround the stadium for much of its length rivals the great colonnaded space that until recently stood at Palmyra in Syria.
For me – and no doubt for many visitors to the site – the most impressive structure is the Mausoleum of the Saithidae Family that stands at the end of the stadium. Erected by one of Ancient Messene’s prominent families and benefactors, the mausoleum was a funerary monument. Formerly a collection of broken stones, one can only be impressed with the results of Petros and his teams careful restoration over many years.
This is the most amazing aspect about the whole complex of structures. One needs to realize that barely forty years ago hardly any of these existed beyond a few exposed stones and rocks. It is thanks to the work of Professor Themelis and his team that we have this wonder to enjoy and appreciate.
Themelis in Melbourne
Along with all who met him, it was also my privilege to meet Petros during his last visit to Melbourne in mid-2016. Professor Themelis was accompanied on his short visit to Australia by Panagiotis Bazigos, Secretary-General of Messiniaki Amfiktyonia, the cultural association connecting Messinia with its diaspora across the world. They arrived in Melbourne from Adelaide where they had met with representatives of the Messinian community there, who along with Melbourne’s Pammessinian Brothergood Papaflessas had assisted in their visit to Australia. His visit encompassed addresses at the Hellenic Museum and the Papaflessas Social Club as well as formal visits to the Victorian Parliament and a tour of some of Melbourne’s classically inspired architecture.
During his presentation at the Hellenic Museum, Petros revealed the extent of his work. From his early photographs of the site, with only parts of broken columns and a few footings exposed, he revealed how he had slowly started the painstaking work of excavation and finally the work of restoring these amazing structures. The assembly was mesmerised by his presentation and his dedication to restoring this important part of Greece’s ancient past.
With the encouragement of both Papaflessas and Melbourne’s Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee, it was took Professor Themelis on a tour of some of Melbourne’s commemorative and classically-inspired buildings and structures – from the Lemnos Gallipoli Memorial in Albert Park where the sculptor Peter Corlett included many classical references such as the face of the huntress Artemis, to the Shrine of Remembrance whose architects had been inspired by the ancient Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and our own Parliament building, with its many references to Greek and Roman architecture, as well as the new Hellenic Anzac Memorial plaque erected in its gardens.
The words I selected for this plaque drawn from Thucydides’ Funeral Ode of Perikles are particularly relevant to Professor Themelis’ work. For Petros has not only created a monument to the past but also one in the hearts of all who treasure the classical origins of western civilization. It was also my pleasure to present Petros with some publications on the architecture of Melbourne and how our city had developed.
One of the aims of Petros’ visit to Melbourne was to attract support for the excavations at Ancient Messinia. The current economic climate in Greece obviously affects even important archaeological work and so financial and other forms of support are needed to continue the works. Apart from donations, they also welcome the participation of university and school students in their archaeological work at Ancient Messene. To date there have been none from Australia but this should be rectified. Given Melbourne’s large Hellenic background population, it seems a shame that our own local community does not yet have a regular program of assistance in place. Hopefully this will be rectified in the future in recognition of the late Professor’s work and connection to Australia.
Next time you visit Greece, take the time to stay on the mainland a bit longer, and make your way down to Ancient Messene and wonder at the work of these great craftspeople, and the loving work of the late Professor Themelis in overseeing the restoration some of its ancient grandeur. Make sure you take a copy of Pausania’s second volume of his Guide to Greece, dealing with Messinia and Southern Greece, published by Penguin.
Find out more about at Ancient Messene at: www.ancientmessene.gr
Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer and published author. His latest publication is From Imbros Over The Sea: Imbros & Gallipoli Revealed which will be formally launched soon. He is Secretary of Melbourne’s Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org