A short historical overview of Swedish archaeological scholarship in Greece
The Swedish Institute at Athens was founded in 1946. The inauguration ceremony took place two years later, on May 10 1948, in the Gennadeion Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and the first Institute premises were located on 29, Voukourestiou Street. The Institute thus opened its doors during the time of the Greek Civil War, which in hindsight is noteworthy. Two factors were probably decisive: Swedish archaeological fieldwork between the wars, and relief work undertaken by the Swedish Red Cross during the Second World War.
Early archaeological fieldwork by Swedish scholars in Greece
The importance of studying archaeological remains in situ in order to understand ancient cultures came to the fore in the late 1900s and early 20th century. Classical scholars began travelling to the Mediterranean and contacting the excavators there. The most important Swedish scholars to travel to Greece at the end of the 19th century were Einar Löfstedt Sr., Julius Centerwall, and Johan Bergman.
Einar Löfstedt visited Greece and Asia Minor in 1876–1877. He participated in the German excavations at Olympia and saw Heinrich Schliemann unearth the gold from the shaft graves in the Grave Circle A at Mycenae. Löfstedt was Professor of Ancient Greek at Uppsala and upon his return to Sweden lectured vividly on his experiences to his students.
Ten years later Centerwall made approximately the same journey. He was a teacher and later the headmaster of a high school at Söderhamn in central Sweden, as well as a Member of Parliament. In the controversy between Schliemann and his opponents Centerwall took no side. He made Schliemann’s discoveries known to the Swedish public, and wrote an interesting book on his travels to Greece and Asia Minor, Från Hellas och Levanten (From Hellas and the Levant), which appeared in 1888.
Johan Bergman was also a teacher and an MP. He came to Greece in the 1890s and was of the opinion that Sweden must not only contribute to the research of ancient Greek culture but also found an institute in the country.
This new interest in archaeological remains as a way to understand ancient civilization led to the first Swedish excavations in Greece. During a brief campaign in 1894, Lennart Kjellberg and Sam Wide examined the Poseidon Sanctuary at Kalaureia (in today’s Poros). Almost 30 years would pass before there was another active excavation on Greek soil, but in the meantime, in 1909, the two first chairs of Classical Archaeology were created at the universities of Lund and Uppsala. The basis for a greater Swedish archaeological involvement in Greece was thereby laid.
During the 1920s and 1930s Swedish scholars carried out several large field projects in Greece: Asine, Dendra, Midea, Berbati, Malthi, and Asea. It is noteworthy that Sweden did not yet have an archaeological institute at Athens. It did in Rome, however, since 1926. The reason for this was probably that Latin was a more important subject than Ancient Greek in Swedish high schools and it was through the Roman culture that Greek culture was transmitted to our country.
In the 1940s, a group of academics and businessmen, together with Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf, the initiator of the Asine excavations and a great admirer of Greek culture, proposed the creation of a new Swedish Institute in the Mediterranean. The Swedish Institute at Athens was thereafter constituted on 25 April 1946 at the Royal Palace in Stockholm.
The Swedish Red Cross in Greece
During the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War the International Red Cross, after some time, managed to obtain permission to distribute food to the starving Greek population. As neutral countries, Switzerland and Sweden were allowed to handle the distribution. Several of the Swedish Red Cross delegates were archaeologists who had worked for years in Greece; they knew Greek and they knew their way around the country. The most famous of them was Axel W. Persson, Uppsala University, who had led the excavations at Asine, Dendra, Midea and Berbati. He lived for two years in Tripolis in Arcadia with his wife Elsa Segerdahl, who was a doctor. Passing by Tripolis became a “must’’ for every new Swedish delegate to take up his post in Greece.
The Institute was originally housed in two apartments in 29, Voukourestiou Street. In need of more space, in 1976, the Institute moved to the neo-classical building in Mitseon 9, where it remains today. The first Director of the Institute, Erik Holmberg, was named Directeur d’Études. The Swedish government gave its first monetary contribution to the Institute in 1959 and in 1966 it was able to institute its first yearly scholarship. The position of Assistant Director was created in 1987, but did not become a regular position until ten years later.