Following five decades of research and excavations, archaeologist Stephen G. Miller leaves behind a legacy to Greece and the world of the Nemean Games. Professor Miller died early Wednesday morning following a hemodialysis procedure. He was 79 years old. Recently, his all-too-large heart had been giving him some trouble.
The archaeologist, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, directed the excavations of Ancient Nemea from 1973 to 2005. Miller became an honorary Greek citizen in 2005.
The retired academic 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.
Officially retired from academic duties in California since 2004 as an archaeologist, Miller was anything but at rest. He served on the board of the Revival of the Nemean Games Society. He and his wife, Effie, a Greek-American raised in Utah, built a home in Nemea. They divided their time between Greece and the States. When Miller was in Nemea, he was at the site daily.
In May, 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.
Miller spoke with Greek Reporter in May to discuss the second cancellation of the Seventh Revival of the Nemean Games due to the pandemic. “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 added.
Ambassador Pyatt, Ministers Comment on Archaeologist Miller
Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, stated “With the loss of Stefanos Miller, archaeological research loses a great, dedicated scientist and Greece a great friend. Stefanos Miller dedicated his life and work to the discovery and promotion of the treasures of the Greek cultural heritage.”
Mendoni stated “His excavations in Nemea, his teaching work, his tenure as Director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, have always been characterized by an important vision, the parallel course of science with the developmental dimension of Culture. We say goodbye to Stephen Miller with sadness. All those who met and worked with him, we remember with respect and appreciation, his scientific brilliance, his humanity and his progressive thinking.”
Deputy Minister of Development and Investment, Christos Dimas tweeted “We say goodbye to a great Greek archaeologist Stephen Miller. He dedicated himself to Nemea, built the museum, the restoration of the temple of Zeus, Nemea, taught thousands of students, inspired millions of people and was the reference point, the ambassador of Nemea around the world.”
US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted “Very sad news about an American scholar who contributed greatly to the cultural ties between our countries (and California).”
Miller Said Greece Has Exclusive Treasure
“Greece has one exclusive treasure,” the archaeologist 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.
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 told Greek Reporter.
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.”
The American archaeologist Miller 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, archaeologist Miller designed and fundraised to create a museum positioned parallel to the site, for visitors to view the finds from the excavation.
Miller Once Thought of Studying Law, Not Archaeology
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.
Born in Goshen Indiana, archaeologist Stephen Miller 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.
Obliged to learn a foreign language for his undergraduate studies at Wabash College in central Indiana, he chose Ancient Greek so that he could so he could read Plato’s original words, according to archaeologist Miller.
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.”
Archaeologist Stephen Miller Mistaken by Locals as Farmer
Crossing the country from rural Indiana and studies at Princeton, 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.
Archaeologist 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 archaeologist 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.
Archaeologist Miller Said He Upset the Village
“I upset the village very badly,” according to American archaeologist 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.
As an archaeologist, 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.”