American archaeologist Stephen Miller 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 became the individual who single-handedly unearthed a vital part of ancient Greek history.
Stephen Miller, who served as professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, easily claimed the title of the Hoosier who became a philhellene. For almost five decades, Nemea was home to the American archaeologist, and the revival of the Nemean Games can be traced directly to him.
The 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 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.
While the Olympic Games are likely the most well-known revival of these ancient Greek games, Miller also brought life to the Nemean Games. He spearheaded a movement to recreate the games and to follow ancient tradition as much as possible.
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.
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 as 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 in some way, somehow, even if there is no blood or DNA,” the American archaeologist of Nemea told 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 read Plato’s original words. The Mycenaean 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 Mistaken by Locals as Farmer
Crossing the country from rural Indiana, he was hired to teach at Berkeley. Berkeley gave him the opportunity to tap and develop grants to travel to Nemea. He arrived in Greece in 1973 where local villagers initially mistook him for a farmer.
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 relied on family donkeys.
The scholar 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,” Miller admitted, adding that “the people who had always been the hired hands of these families all of a sudden had other work.” Excavations lasted four or five months a year and so people 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 recalled people saying and added that “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 the time of Alexander the Great knew how to build the arch and vault. He attributed 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, athletes would 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.
Miller leaves behind a legacy of knowledge and appreciation for ancient Greece
Miller officially retired from academic duties in California in 2004 but served on the board of the Revival of the Nemean Games Society until his death in the summer of 2021. He and his wife, Effie, who is a Greek-American raised in Utah, built a home in Nemea. They divided their time between Greece and the States, and when Miller was in Nemea, he was at the site daily.
In spring of 2021, Miller participated in the filming of a documentary about his work in Nemea which was televised in September by ERT, the Greek public broadcasting channel.
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.
He tragically passed away after having a hemodialysis procedure. He was 79 years old. After his death, prominent figures in Greece and around the world expressed their sorrow at his loss.
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 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).”
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.