Mystical Encounter: Order, Power, and Anarchy in Arkadia

30 July 2021

N. Bucky Stanton

Nearly 5000 feet in the mountains above the Greek province of Arkadia, the Lower Sanctuary of the Mt. Lykaion Survey and Excavation Project hums with activity —the director scans the site with binoculars from a scrubby hill far off, trench supervisors scribble in their notebooks, and trench assistants and local laborers sweat trying to meet the relentless pace of the dwindling excavation season.[1] The archaeological machine works by cutting into the land; carefully hoarding the ceramics and artifacts found within; bringing them to the lab space in the village below; and processing them through a series of instruments, sorting sheets, and other evidentiary practices. Some materials end up in storage while others are analyzed and returned to site for disposal. The archaeological machine whorls, extracting archaeological materials and producing organized data to be converted into papers and presentations in the off-season. All is in order today.

Map of Ancient Pelonnese, Jkan997, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Author photo from survey point N showing (from left to right) the access road, lower sanctuary, corridor, upper sanctuary, and hippodrome.

Part of the machine is me — I am working as part of the topographical survey team for my dissertation research. Now in my second summer, my narrow investigation of the tools and procedures of archaeology has transformed into a far deeper engagement with not only the practices, but the social and cultural politics of historical knowledge. The excavation does not only contribute to the accumulation of material artifacts but also represents and enacts collective desires of what is legitimate evidence and valuable knowledge of the past. Yet, for many, including some archaeologists, it is as simple as digging old stuff up. As an anthropologist, however, the social and historical dynamics of the many practices, discourses, and sociotechnical systems which create the Greek past, and future, inspire a different appreciation. For me, archaeology creates, dismantles, and moves through many worlds of meaning. The critical questions are who gets to shape these worlds, and why?

As I watch my supervisor walk the shadeless path to survey point N, a local workman walking by with a wheelbarrow full of dirt shouts “poli zesti!” (very hot!) at me. On this sweltering July day, the topographical survey team is performing our third ‘resection’ of the young workday. As surveyors, we use the Total Station, an optical measurement device, and reflectors on rods to simultaneously map and archive the excavation. Through mapping the location of artifacts, new trench levels, and architectural features, the survey team produces an archive from messy stratigraphy and excavation practices, inscribing the expert logics, “archaeological matter-realities,” onto the earth, so that it can be made interpretable and transmuted into proper knowledge.[2]

The excavation does not only contribute to the accumulation of material artifacts but also represents and enacts collective desires of what is legitimate evidence and valuable knowledge of the past.

Like any elaborate socio-technical dance which produces representations, surveying requires that the total station be regularly, and laboriously, recalibrated. The temperature change since the morning has caused the ground beneath the tripod of the total station to shift, requiring we perform a “resection.” If we do not maintain the reliability of our measurements, the representational order of the site will unspool.

View through the viewfinder of the Total Station while attempting a resection. Photo by author.

Still waiting for my supervisor to reach the far away point on the other side of the site, and safe from the heat beneath my sun cap, I scan the site through the eye piece of the total station. Things appear normal until I turn to the side facing the valley where an unknown car is parked above the site. The trench workers nearby appear distracted from their normal operation. Soon, I see two ambiguous figures walking around. One figure, the measurer, holds a strange box reminiscent of the EMF (Electric and magnetic fields) sensors ghost hunters and other paranormal investigators use. The sensor is bigger and wider than a radio, yet still handheld, and has a fragile looking set of antennae sticking out of the top of its matte steel-gray chassis. The other figure, the talker, holds no instruments but is equipped with passionate gesticulations. As they walk deeper into the Lower sanctuary, and their boisterous conversation in Greek echoes around the sanctuary, more parts of the archaeological machine cease operating in reaction to this unexpected visitation.[3] The measurer walks about the periphery of the site fiddling with the device’s buttons and antennae. They appear to be tuning it, reminding me of the resection, now stalled, we were performing.

My supervisor, having reached the point for the resection, is ringing me on the walkie-talkie – I silence it, thinking that I will explain later. I look down the viewfinder to see the talker arriving at the trench in the corridor. Here, athletes long ago sacredly strode out of to enter the hippodrome of the ancient Lykaion Games; a ritual athletic contest which preceded the famed Olympic Games. Later in the sanctuary’s history, after the tradition of the Lykaion games ceased, the corridor was used as a rubbish pit. As result, the structure is crammed with valuable archaeological materials and is investigated by a fairly large team of excavators.

Wall of administration building showing interlocking blocks, from Kourouniotis 1909 review.
Ancient hippodrome seating nearby the athletic corridor. Photo by author.

The excavation team at the corridor greets the talker in English, who then begins to converse with them. The exchange begins congenially, the talker asking questions about how long the assistants have been digging at the corridor, what they have found, and how they feel about their work. The excavators share their complaints about excavating endless ceramic fragments, describe the many cow, pig, and boar bones found, and share the latest unique finding like a bit of iron slag. Following this, the talker’s content and tone turns nearly argumentative, as if the talker has something to prove to the excavators. In this rhetorical mode, the talker speculates and argues for ideas incompatible with the disciplinary tradition of the trench assistants— as if each party were from two completely different worlds.

First, the talker returns to the length of time that the excavators have been working on the site, claiming that working in the corridor for a summer will extend their lives significantly due to how the ‘energy’ of the mountain is channeled through the corridor and then their bodies. Importantly, the talker notes that their colleague is measuring this very energy and that their findings could change how archaeology is practiced and the ancients understood. Then, the talker comments on the fittings of the stone blocks which constitute the corridor, noting that rather than being cemented or bound together with fittings, they are cut in an interlocking fashion. The talker says that the ancient Greeks could not have possibly moved such blocks into place, nor could they have been cut or fitted so precisely with the techniques Classical archaeology describes the ancients as possessing. The enthusiastic commentary concludes with the suggestion that the blocks were cut and put into place through some sort of sound manipulation, finishing with the talker elaborating that the music often cited in ancient texts is actually a reference to some technological or scientific musical practice capable of cutting, fitting, and placing these architectural blocks through resonance waves.

Taken aback by these statements, the excavators are unsure of how to reply. Unwilling to stay in the awkward silence or take the conversation further, the talker unceremoniously walks away. Moving deeper into the site and gaining the attentions of other trench teams, the talker continues describing the evidence for this mysterious telekinetic power by pointing out blocks larger than the corridors. The measurer, now meeting the talker in the midst of the sanctuary, remains occupied with the measuring device. After a brief and notably quiet conversation, they then walk around the perimeter of the site and amble through one more time, paying closer attention to the measuring device. Eventually, the duo walks back to their car and drives towards the Upper sanctuary, ostensibly to carry out a similar operation there. Curious excavators and puzzled trench supervisors eventually return the machine back to order, but the encounter is the talk of the day.

Later that afternoon, in the lab area where excavated materials are processed, the reflections on the encounter with the mystics are wide ranging. Careful classicists attuned to the minutiae of Greek and Latin texts try to analyze the talker’s claim of other-worldly music but find little basis. Lab assistants try to understand how the evidentiary schema of Classical archaeology could be rejected so easily by such an unsystematic and assumption-laden approach. Puzzled architects and surveyors discuss the measurer and the data their device was gathering, puzzled by the supposed ‘energy’ and its value. Excavators  point out the inadequate material evidence for the talkers claims. While each field of expertise tries to figure out the mystics through their own logic, the judgement is mostly the same. Overall, the claims of the talker and the validity of the energy measurement are dismissed across the teams as the interesting, but invalid ramblings of crypto-historians using a framework about as sound as the shockingly popular History Channel series Ancient Aliens. By the next day, the encounter is all but forgotten.

The activity of these mystical researchers is not without precedent. On the Upper sanctuary, traces of other neopagan or new age mystical activity have been found –modern-made statuettes of the pagan gods and various crystals associated with new age type practices. Why would this site be significant for such practitioners? Mt. Lykaion was well-known in antiquity as the birthplace of Zeus, dread father of the ancient polytheistic pantheon. The mountain and region of ancient Arkadia that surrounds it were further associated with Pelasgus, the leader of the mythical first peoples of Greece who ushered in the worship and age of the Zeus Pantheon. The area is also associated with other mythical firsts in the ancient tradition such as the supposed first city of Lycosura. Today, ancient and contemporary practices readily combine in this symbolic landscape, like in 2018 with the “Dream and Sleep Performance” at the nearby Temple of Apollo at Bassae.

View of the Western end of the Lykaio Range outside of the Temple of Apollo at Bassae in 2018. Photo by author.

While this wasn’t explicitly a neopagan event, it featured an evocative dance and ambient musical performance, followed by an overnight ‘incubation’ in which participants slept outside near the temple, then shared and interpreted their dreams in the morning. This is a modern continuation of the ancient healing practice of sleeping overnight at the temple of the healing hero-god Asclepius. Evidently, the area offers great potential for reconstructed neopagan meaning making. In this context of contemporary religious reconstruction and mystical exploration, the question remains of how best to interpret the encounter with the researchers.

The most salient aspect of the encounter with the mystics was the interruption of the production of knowledge, demonstrating a challenge, however minor, to the power of the archaeological order. To what power of the past could these mystics possibly be constructing their alter-pasts, and how is the archaeological activity at Mt. Lykaion connected?

Between the 19th and 20th centuries, Greece’s modernization and resistance to Western imperialism, ensnared it in a “crypto-colonial” relationship defined by relative political independence but massive economic and cultural extraction, represented “in the iconic guise of an aggressively national culture fashioned to suit foreign models.”[4] This national culture was quite literally mined from archaeological sites, artifacts, ancient texts, and architecture. The Greek nation, institutions, and elites, in the service of the Western historical imaginary, would exploit these resources to co-construct an ancient and modern Greece that were chronologically continuous and culturally co-extensive. Through this process, Greek archaeology developed a dependence on elite foreign benefactors and institutions (like universities, historical societies, philanthropic organizations, etc.) that had objectified and appropriated Greece yet provided legitimacy. With this past constituting one of, if not the, most important resources for the nation, elite manipulation of classical tropes transformed into a system of bureaucratic state governance. The Greek Ministry of Culture would blossom into a nationwide bureaucracy concerned with the management of cultural production and maintenance in Greece. The fraught and simultaneous negotiation of both modern and ancient Greece shaped the material and ideological basis of archaeology in ways that remain relevant today.

The Mt. Lykaion project is certified as a legitimate excavation through its participation in the discipline of Classical archaeology and the systems which make it possible. The Greek state authorizes the excavation through a system of artificially scarce five-year permits and in turn excavations must perform to acquire and maintain this authorization. The project is a ‘synergasia’ (‘working-together’) through the local Arkadian Ephorate of Antiquities, a type of partnership in which Greek and American archaeologists work together. The North Americans, including anthropologist interlopers like myself, bring financial support and the foreign university prestige necessary to produce influential archaeological knowledge. In permitting the excavation, the Arkadian Ephorate, and by extension the Greek state, allows the occupation, objectification, and appropriation of Greek archaeological resources by foreign archaeologists and other cultural professionals. In return, the Ephorate controls certain aspects such as the right to publish, and takes advantage of the foreign attention and resources to develop the region’s cultural resource infrastructure  to attract tourists from more popular sites. In summary, in order for the archaeological machine to construct legitimate knowledge from Greek earth, an order must be negotiated through the historical and present formations of power which define Greece’s “crypto-colonial” status.

The North Americans, including anthropologist interlopers like myself, bring financial support and the foreign university prestige necessary to produce influential archaeological knowledge. In permitting the excavation, the Arkadian Ephorate, and by extension the Greek state, allows the occupation, objectification, and appropriation of Greek archaeological resources by foreign archaeologists and other cultural professionals.

But how should the encounter between the mystics, archaeologists, and me be viewed? Considering the historical and present realities of archaeology in Greece, the general reaction from the excavation personnel was overly dismissive and precluded understanding. Archaeologists often have an almost naively realist perspective inoculated by both a commitment to material evidence and a need to rhetorically defend archaeology as scientistic. More thoughtful participants, like the careful classicists, stray philosophers and the topography and architecture teams tried to understand the encounter through their respective discipline’s abstract viewpoint. Applying the abstract logics of archaeology (or surveying, textual analysis, philosophy, anthropology, etc.) without the context of its historical and political accumulation creates an order removed from the power which makes and maintains that order, incapable of producing a meaningful translation of the standpoint of the mystics otherwise. So, perhaps it is best to shed the constraining order of expertise and instead try a perspective which dissolves any inherent power of those expertises: anarchism.

Epistemological anarchism, the notion that there is no universal or unequivocal methodology for identifying and producing valid knowledge,[5] suggests taking the mystical researchers’ claims seriously as genuine contributions to understanding the past (and present). In this view, whether or not their claims are well founded, the mystical researchers are not inherently traitors to legitimate knowledge to be exiled but equal participants in its continual construction. Going even further, David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology would argue for addressing the formations of power that buttress the interaction with the mystics at Mt. Lykaion, interpreting it as an act of imaginative resistance to modernity’s exploitation of the Greek past.

Graeber’s anarchical conception of “imaginary counterpower,” the non-violent rejection of social domination and state authority through intervention on the imaginative “battlegrounds” of important social and cultural institutions, presents the mystical researchers not as traitors, but as heroic saboteurs of an order convened by the history and present of unequal power relations.[6] With their instruments and unrestrained theorization, the mystical guests violate the order established by the powers at be through their heretical knowledge production. The implication of the measuring device which identifies a force (‘energy’) overlooked by the archaeological machine deeply challenges the physicalist basis of archaeology. It imagines a world where archeology is flagrantly fallible and ignorant of crucial data — a torpedo to its legitimacy. And claims about the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks, the fitting of the stonework in the corridor, and the shaping or movement of the blocks through some lost sonic ability or technology, clearly reject the interpretative, causal, and conceptual frameworks which underly archaeological practice. In imagining a new basis for explaining Mt. Lykaion, the mystical researchers radically reject, whether consciously or not, the fundamental inequity and alienation of the Greek past enacted by both foreign and domestic state power.

An excavation is often viewed through the character stories and tropes attached to the esoteric operation of the archaeological machine — the aged director searching for answers to a career’s worth of questions in the minutiae of topography, stratigraphy, and statistical analysis; the intrepid trench supervisor eyeing the micro-geomorphic changes of their slice of the site for clues of what square foot should be probed next; the trench assistant yearning for a break from the labor of earth-moving and fine-detailing detritus pits; or the local laborer seeking fair recompense for the appropriation of their alienated ancient heritage. The encounter with the mystical researchers, however marginal compared to these more typical roles, highlights the formations of power which enable the archaeological machine to function. On that scorching July day, the fine machinery of legitimate past-making was boldly interrupted, and the mystical researchers imagined a different order to the worlds, however strange, free from the historical and contemporary inequity suffused into the material and ideological basis of Classical archaeology.

Topographical Survey map of the Mt. Lykaion site from nearly a decade ago. Photo by author.


[1] For the latest scholarship on the site: Romano and Voyatzis, “Sanctuaries of Zeus: Mt. Lykaion and Olympia in the Early Iron Age,” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 90, no. 1 (2021): 1,; for the oldest: K Kourounitis, “Excavation at Mt. Lykaion,” Praktika, 1906.

[2] Yannis Hamilakis, The Nation and Its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece, Classical Presences (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), 35.

[3] Evidently, the site was purposefully designed to amplify and distribute conversation from key points, surely as part of its ritual function; Pamela Jordan, “Site Sound: Using Acoustics to Analyse Mount Lykaion’s Ancient Sanctuary to Zeus,” TMA – Tijdschrift Voor Mediterrane Archeologie 61 (2019, n.d.), 45.

[4] M. Herzfeld, “The Absent Presence: Discourses of Crypto-Colonialism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 4 (October 1, 2002): 900–901,

[5] Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 4th ed (London ; New York: Verso, 2010), 9–13.

[6] David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Paradigm 14 (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press : Distributed by University of Chicago Press, 2004), 24–26.

N. Bucky Stanton is a PhD Candidate in the department of Science & Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His dissertation investigates natural and cultural resource extraction in the Peloponnese, exploring the history and politics of archaeology, energy and modernity in Greece.

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