Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Treasure Room

One Sunday morning in the Peloponnese I checked out of my hotel and set off driving toward the center of the island.  I had picked some name on my map as my nominal goal but was in fact just out to see the countryside.  I saw a farmer’s field planted with some low, radish-looking crop that swept over the ground in neat rows, parting to flow around a large, ancient Corinthian capital sitting in solitary splendor in the middle.  I wondered what vanished building could have been there with columns that called for so large a capital, and then I wondered why the farmer had left it there.  Perhaps he had no need for it, as he had done his home in Doric or Ionian.  In a pile of brush cut to clear an ancient theater I found a perfect walking stick and I had a long lunch on the hillside terrace of a country restaurant, the old-fashioned kind where they don’t have a menu but invite you back into the kitchen to pick out what you want.

Then, driving along the highway, I saw a sign pointing down an unpaved road: it said there were ruins.  There was nothing on my map, and the road looked unpromising, but the sign said it was only ten kilometers.  And the fact that it wasn’t on my map could be a good thing, so I turned off the highway and went looking for it.

The road first descended, then began a long, slow climb up the side of a mountain.  The tires fell into deep ruts and the bottom of the car scraped the dirt road, but an earlier foray up a mountain road had taken off my muffler so I assumed there was nothing else of importance likely to be knocked off.  The hillside was covered with low brush and stunted trees and there were few houses.  I saw only one person, a lady who waved at me as I passed.  I assumed I was her day’s excitement. 

I was concerned about the heat, not for myself but for the car, so when I found a shaded cut in the road I left the car there and walked the last kilometer or so to the site.

The stunted trees I has passed below here gave way to pine forest around an open pasture where horses were grazing around the foundation and fallen columns of an ancient temple.  I climbed through the barbed wire fence and wandered through the ruins.  The horses sent one of their number to investigate me, but after a few sniffs he found me uninteresting and wandered back to his companions.

It was a hot, bright summer afternoon, with patches of yellow wildflowers and bees droning in the dry, dusty air and now and then the flicker of a lizard across white stone and horses grazing among the fallen ruins of the temple and I was completely alone.

I took some photographs, as much of the horses as the ruins, as the two seemed to go so well together.  Then I climbed back out through the barbed wire fence to walk back to my car when the lady appeared.

She was, I realized, the lady at the farm who had waved at me as I drove past and when she asked if I would like to see the museum I realized she was probably the caretaker for the site and, as I had no idea there was a museum, I of course said ‘yes’.

She led me across the road into a pine woods, to a building I hadn’t noticed, and unlatched a padlock and let me into the museum.

It wasn’t, I saw, an actual museum, but a large building with work tables and rows of metal shelving containing statues and pottery and shelf after shelf and box after box of artifacts.  It was the storeroom of the material excavated from the site.  The lady told me she was going back home and that I should lock the door when I left.  And there I was, alone in a treasure room.

I love ancient things.  I might as well have been in Ali Baba’s cave.

I wandered around, bemused.  Nothing was labeled, except for some cryptic numbers, which I assumed to correspond to an inventory or perhaps the field notes of the excavators who, if the layers of dust were any measure, had left long ago.  There were fragments of a colossal statue of the goddess, much loved in her own time, and shelf after shelf of what I took to be votive offerings.

There was a huge amount of pottery, both whole and broken.  Archæologists love pottery, even when it is broken.  When a pot is broken the people who used it consider it valueless and the pieces are left where they fall: archæologists like that.  The ancients were in many ways estimable, but today we have better glue.

There was a large box of Roman coins.  Some of the coins still had dirt on them and I thought, as I do in these situations, how the last but one or two who had handled these coins had come to this temple to perform rites to the goddess because he thought it an important thing to do, a civic as much as a religious duty, a way of maintaining the health of the community and the right order of the world, and one can only imagine what he thought of those impious Christians who refused to do so simple a thing.  One may believe whatever one wants, of course, but one still ought to perform the rituals. Roman coins are usually easy to date by the wording of their inscription and it would be simple enough to do with a handbook, but they all looked to be 3rd or 4th Century: the less-interesting emperors.

I wandered through the treasure room, picking up ancient things and examining them through a magnifying glass and feeling their heft in my hand and imagined what they were and what they might once have meant.  And then in the end I had enough wonder and left the treasure room and locked the door behind me and walked back to my car and returned down the hill to the highway.  The lady wasn’t out when I passed her house, but I honked to let her know I had left.

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