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GreekReporter.comAncient GreeceAmerican Archaeologist Devotes Life to Reviving Ancient Nemean Games

American Archaeologist Devotes Life to Reviving Ancient Nemean Games

American Archaeologist Nemea
Archaeologist Stephen Miller at the site of the ancient Greek Nemean Games. Credit: Greek Reporter

An American archaeologist in Nemea has devoted his entire professional life to uncovering the secrets of Nemea and reviving ancient Greece’s Nemean Games.

You may well ask exactly how a young boy, growing up in the 50s in a small farming town in Indiana, becomes the individual who single-handedly unearthed a vital part of ancient Greek history.

Stephen Miller, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, can easily claim the title of the Hoosier who became a Philhellene. For almost five decades, Nemea has been home to the American archaeologist — and the revival of the Nemean Games can be traced directly to him.

As Greece celebrates its Bicentennial this year, there has been a great deal of acknowledgement for Philhellenes long departed, who supported, worked for, and sometimes died in, the Greek revolution of 1821.

Today, in a quiet village of the Peloponnese, there is a retired academic who has recovered and preserved a vital part of ancient Greek history, and his efforts are nearly as impressive as those same ancients.

It all would have been lost if not for Miller. His life’s work attests to his complete dedication to the country and its glorious past as a contemporary Philhellene.

American Archaeologist of Nemea once thought of studying Law

At one time Miller had considered studies in law. Instead, he became an agent of the Greek state, buying farmland in the Peloponnese to vouchsafe one of the precursors of today’s modern Olympic games.

Athletic competition was born in four sites of ancient Greece: Isthmia, Nemea, Delphi and Olympia. These games were the forerunners to the Olympic spectacle that will open in Tokyo this July.

The Tokyo games were postponed last year to 2021, as the entire world readjusted plans of travel and activities because of the coronavirus.

The pandemic has also claimed the Seventh Revival of the Nemean Games as its most recent victim this summer. The games will once again be postponed for an additional year.

The American archaeologist said it was simply not possible to hold the revived games with all the preparations necessary and the safety protocols required by the government. They have been rescheduled for 2022, according to a statement posted by the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games.

It was at Nemea that the Ancient Greeks celebrated athletic and religious festivals. They were part of the cycle of games at Delphi, Isthmia, and Olympia. The ancient stadium that Miller discovered at Nemea in 1974 is an important monument in the history of classical sport.

Nemea is about 70 miles southwest of Athens, just an 80 minute journey by car.

Nemea Stadium
The Stadium of Nemea was constructed according to the whole reconstruction program of the wider area of Nemea, conceived by Macedonian king Phillip II and his successors. Credit: Carole Raddato Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
“For more than a quarter century I have had the personal thrill of seeing the ancient Nemean stadium, that I discovered, return to life,” Miller told Greek Reporter.
“To see people of all ages from every corner of the planet put their bare toes in the ancient starting blocks, to see puffs of dust on the ancient track, to hear the stadium echo with the cheers of hundreds of modern voices, and to see ‘ancient’ runners crowned with wild celery has been gratifying,” said the American Archaeologist.
“It has made my efforts since 1973 assume a value that I did not predict then,” the American archaeologist of Nemea adds.
The Society’s board of directors chose to postpone the games at their May meeting. The board voted to reschedule for the public’s safety and because safety restrictions set  through the winter lockdown did not allow for the preparations required for the games to take place properly. The plenary will make a final decision to set a new date for the Seventh revival.

Miller Originally Wanted to go to Ithaca, Not Nemea

According to Miller, he never planned to go to Nemea, where his name would become synonymous to archaeologists and students of ancient history with the site. His original desire was to travel to Ithaca and recover the ancient palace of Odysseus, referred to in Homer’s “Iliad and Odyssey.”

To most folks, the word “Nemea” conjures up three things: a lion, wine and games, in that order.

Hercules is known for his many adventures, which took him to the far reaches of the ancient world. The Twelve Labors of Hercules are 12 events that tested his power and strength that ultimately proved he was half man and half god.

The first labor was slaying the Nemean Lion. A vicious monster in Greek mythology, it lived in Nemea. The beast could not be killed using the weapons of mortals because its golden fur was impervious to attack. Its claws were sharper than mortal swords and could cut through any armor. Hercules defeated the monster, demonstrating his immortal stature.

Following a close second in name recognition is wine. Vineyards stretch across the plain to the base of Mount Killinio. The region is dominated by the Agioritiko grape and produces a plethora of red Nemean wines. Dry, red Nemean wine has had a protected designation of origin classification, often referred to as PDO, since 1971.

The games probably rank third in terms of recognition. Miller made headlines worldwide for his work uncovering the ancient athletic site where the Panhellenic games were held. He also revived the games, as international footraces, open to all, held at the ancient site every four years.

“All of us are Greek someway, somehow, even if there is no blood or DNA,” the American archaeologist of Nemea tells Greek Reporter.

He started college with the notion of becoming a politician, focusing his studies on law.  At some point, he realized that law was not the same concept as justice.

He was obliged to learn a foreign language for his undergraduate studies at Wabash College in central Indiana — so he chose Ancient Greek so that he could so he could read Plato’s original words. The Mycenaen archaeologist Giorgos Milonas was a guest lecturer for two days at Wabash.

After hearing Milonas speak, Miller said, “I changed my mind about law and became an archaeologist.”

Temple of Zeus at Nemea
The Temple of Nemean Zeus, protector of shepherds. Credit: Zde Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Archaeologist Mistaken by Locals as Farmer

Crossing the country from rural Indiana, he was hired to teach at Berkeley. The university gave him the opportunity to tap and develop grants to travel to Nemea. He arrived in Greece in 1973, with the local villagers thinking he was a farmer at first.

Miller, upon arrival to Nemea, bought land around the site of the Temple of Zeus from locals. The purpose was to secure any finds for the Greek government and protect the intellectual property rights Berkeley was investing in the excavation. Locals assumed he was going to create a huge farming operation because of the land purchases.

Miller said, “I know the project had an impact in one major way, and that was social. When I arrived, there were 300 people in the village, and they were divided into two groups: the rich and the poor.” There was one phone and one car in the community. The basic mode of transportation was by family donkey.

The retired professor said, “The rich were the big landowners, and the poor worked for the rich at their beck and call. There were two families who ruled the roost. There was no external law enforcement, just these families who were the arbiters.

“I upset the village very badly,” according to Miller.  “The people who had always been the hired hands of these families all of a sudden had other work.” They were digging for the excavation four or five months a year. They had more income, which meant that they were independent. “You’d hear things in the coffeehouse like, ‘There’s that old shepherd who’s sending his daughter off to nursing school. Who does he think he is? It’s Miller’s fault,” he added.  Working for the excavation had given the have-nots airs.”

According to Miller, the Zeus of Nemea was a sort of shepherd god, not the firebolt throwing god of Olympus. This deity was a sort of calm protector. Nemea was a swamp that flooded in winter but dried out in summer. It was never inhabited in ancient times, but used exclusively for the games. Nemea etymology dates to the ancient Greek word “nemo” meaning grazing, so it was a place to graze sheep, Miller added.

Miller said of his discoveries, “It’s a surprise every time a crummy potsherd comes out of the ground. Do you know what it means to be the first person in 2,000 years to touch something your ancestors have made, to touch that coin or that stone and know that some ancient mason worked on it, smoothed it down, carved the relief that’s seen there? That thrill never leaves.”

Two Most Exciting Moments as an American Archaeologist

Miller described two moments as his most exciting in Nemea. “The first came in 1978, when we discovered the tunnel leading into the stadium,” he said. That proved that the Greeks, of Alexander the Great, knew how to build the arch and vault. He attributes the structures as part of development across the ancient world of Phillip and Alexander of Macedonia.

“The next day, we found graffiti, scrawled by ancient athletes, on the walls of the tunnel and began to get real insight into the human side of Greek athletics. And that thrill hasn’t worn off. Every time I walk through that tunnel I get goosebumps,” he added.

The second most exciting moment in his career came in 1996, “standing on the track during the first revival of the Nemean Games, when I heard the runners’ footsteps on the track surface that I had uncovered. I saw people running down the track and heard people shouting, and the place came to life,” Miller said.

According to Miller, more than 5,000 individuals have participated in the game revivals, from ages 6 to 97, representing 122 nations. Wearing kitones, a sort of short white tunic, the athletes shed their shoes, walk to the entry of the ancient tunnel leading to the track and take the oath administered by the judges: “To not bring dishonor to themselves, their families or to the Nemean Games. You become a part of Ancient Greece,” said Miller, as his eyes watered and his voice broke.

The archaeologist said funding was always his biggest challenge. “Money. And then there was money. And there was money.”

He stated, “I suppose in academia we are always complaining about money, but the fact is I’ve raised almost every penny that has gone into Nemea from private donors, and that’s taken a lot of time and a lot of energy. But the donors over the years have become devotees of Nemea, which means they’ve become my students and part of my extended classroom.”

Following initial excavation, Miller designed and fundraised to create a museum positioned parallel to the site, for visitors to view the finds from the excavation.

Contemporary Philhellene Retired but Never at Rest

Officially retired from academic duties in California since 2004, Miller is anything but at rest. He still serves on the board of the Revival of the Nemean Games Society. He and his wife, Effie, who is a Greek-American raised in Utah, built a home in Nemea. They have divided their time between Greece and the States. And when Miller is in Nemea, he is at the site daily.

This month, Miller participated in the filming of a documentary about his work in Nemea to be televised in September by ERT, the Greek public broadcasting channel.

Recently he found himself in a grammar school classroom talking to students about what they wanted to become.

Miller told Greek Reporter  “One student raised his hand and said he wanted to be an ‘archaekopoulos’.”  The teacher immediately corrected him and said, perhaps you mean an archaeologist. “No, an archaekopelos, because that’s where the money is,” Miller recounted.  An “archaekopelos” is someone who loots antiquities for personal profit, according to Miller.

“Greece has one exclusive treasure,” Miller told Greek Reporter. “Other places have beautiful seas and beaches. But no place else in the world are there Greek antiquities. The Greek state does not exploit archaeology for its own good,” he added. “But the current government, has been better at providing funding. They have provided for winter staff so that visitors to Nemea throughout the entire year can have access to the site as well as the museum,” he added.

The society for the Revival of the Nemean Games has 900 members currently enrolled. The roster shows individuals from 24 different countries. “Currently enrolled” means paying the annual membership fee of about $18.

“Even if the virus were to disappear tomorrow, there is not enough time for the necessary preparations which require about six months of intensive work,” stated the American Archaeologist.  Thus the Society for the Revival of the Nemean games has been forced to plan for 2022.
“Meanwhile, there are now sufficient guards at the site, and a few visits are beginning,” he added. “The next games in 2022 thus seem a real possibility.  Indeed, it seems that Nemea, even without the games, is becoming fashionable.”
Miller noted that along with other Greek ancient monuments, it is rumored, but unconfirmed, that the French Fashion giant, Christian Dior is considering Nemea as one of the sites for its June fashion shoot in Greece, alongside the Acropolis in Athens.

Greek Reporter visited with Professor Miller in 2018 for a live interview and a tour of the sites of the Temple of Zeus and the Stadium as well as the museum at Nemea. Watch the video here.

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