Interview: Anna Arsenis newspaper O Kosmos, Tuesday 2nd November
AA: Tell me a few things about
JF: I’ve met a lot of new people over the last nine
months, through helping organise archaeology excavations in various sites in
Kythera and Antikythera during the Greek summer this year. The one thing that
most people comment on, is my enthusiasm.
The degree of difficulty in
organising archaeology projects in Greece is quite high. Many questioned if they
were actually possible. But others said “your enthusiasm might get you through
John”, and it did!
A phrase that sums it up is “crazy passion”. Being so
motivated and enthusiastic that almost no hurdle is too high. Crazy passion is
necessary to get some things done in Greece, particularly at a time of
difficulty, like now.
AA: How do you spend your free
JF: Every spare moment (even sneaking time out from work)
over the last nine months has gone into helping organise archaeology in
Greece. It has been really time consuming. Meeting and networking with a wide
range of people, writing proposals, attending lectures, committee meetings,
formulating budgets, talking through logistics with the archaeologists in Greece
via Skype, and so on. Then, a crazy time on the ground over there in
July/August; and after returning, sifting through over 3000 photos and 30 hours
of video that I took. Plus the reporting phase at the moment and writing stories
for the community about what happened. It’s been like a full time
job.Before I became “crazy
passionate” about archaeology, shipwreck diving was the thing that took up most
of my free time. This went past just diving, extending to equipment engineering
and maintenance - such as rebuilding compressors, boats, gas mixing and the more
technical side of deep diving.
AA: What attracts you to
JF: Curiosity. Understanding what life was like under
different civilisations and painting a mental picture of it. Trying to
understand the jigsaw puzzle, based on random pieces scattered all over the
place. Plus building up research to share with the community. Archaeology is a
bit like a form of CSI but with evidence from hundreds or thousands of years
ago. All of this is because of a bond with the island of my ancestors and
yearning to explore it.
AA: Tell me a few things about your
project held in July 2010. How it all started?
JF: After ten
years without a proper holiday, my dream was to do some exploratory diving
around Kythera last year. Laws changed in Greece in 2005, which made Scuba
diving legal around much of island. There was challenge though, no dive shop for
So I had to become totally self-sufficient. This meant
sending over a compressor and other equipment, about 800 kilograms of gear in
total. We ended up packing it in a box trailer to be portable, which itself
weighed about 200 kilograms. So adding the trailer to the dive gear, a tonne of
equipment was sent over, literally.
Kythera is located at the cross roads of
the Mediterranean so there’s over 5000 years of maritime history associated with
the island. So the big adventure last year was to go exploratory diving around
Kythera, not knowing what we might find.
A passion for diving corresponds
with a keen interest in maritime archaeology. Maybe a connection with the sea
stems from a bloodline that comes from a Greek island? A relative who knew about
my crazy passion for maritime history introduced me to the publisher of a local
Kytherian newspaper - who in turn introduced me to the resident (land)
archaeologist for Kythera, Aris Tsaravopoulos, in August last year.
met Aris in a cafe in Potamos, the village where my dad was born. We met one
Sunday morning and he mentioned that they were off to dig in a 300 BC pirate
fortress the next day. Would I like to come, Aris asked? Ummm... Silly question.
Of course I would!
So while digging with a team of volunteers in Antikythera,
I started to see how some people really love archaeology. We were with Greek
government archaeologists who took annual leave to go and dig in Antikythera
while on holidays, rather than just visiting the beach or doing something
relaxing. Students also came and roughed it, camping, without a hot shower for
weeks during the dig period.
After participating in a project where you never
know what you’ll find next, I was hooked. Without any prior experience – or need
for books, I was digging, under the supervision of experts.
So naturally I
started on Aris’ case, asking about 2010 archaeology, in Kythera.
speaking with Aris on a fortnightly basis for months in the latter part of 2009,
I learned enough to put in a proposal to the Kytherian Association of Australia
and Nicholas Anthony Aroney Trust for funding support in 2010. This was
primarily to feed a team of volunteers to help the archaeologists.
contribution wasn’t just in money though, I took full responsibility for
logistics. Where to house 25 volunteers, being responsible for over 900 meals
(excluding breakfast) during the 18 day stay, getting volunteers and visitors up
and down the mountain every day. Even buying toilet paper.
The idea behind
the whole thing!
The concept is a 360 degree approach, where the
community/Diaspora assists archaeologists by helping support volunteer manpower
and other resources, so they can go out and discover new evidence from the
The archaeologists then write reports and share the story about what
they found. Pretty much digging up enough evidence to write new chapters of
ancient history, in turn - sharing these chapters with the community. We help
them, they make new discoveries and teach us more about the history of previous
races that inhabited the land of our forefathers.
Archaeology is far from
new in Greece, but what was new, is the inclusion of the local community and
members of the Diaspora in the project, both as sponsors and beneficiaries.
Times are really tough for archaeologists in Greece at the moment. There’s a lot
of politics, funding has been axed, so support from the Diaspora can help a lot.
But it’s not a one-way street - supporting archaeology isn’t just a donation but
in fact an investment in our heritage.
Some local Greek people take their
heritage for granted, a little like the equivalent of it being like bread and
butter, just there, and in plentiful supply. We see our Greek heritage as more
of a delicacy because our parents or grandparents were transplanted over here,
thousands of kilometres away. That’s why some people in Greece don’t really
appreciate archaeology and may have a short sighted view. Paranoid about how it
may affect their farm land rather than respecting cultures that existed in that
area thousands of years prior, well before our civilisation was
Education can help change this though. Especially by being open and
sharing information, explaining the process and highlighting the value of
objects that are found. Archaeology needs to be made accessible and
Inviting local people along for a tour or to volunteer is
important and should not be neglected due to tunnel vision regarding the
academic and scientific side of things. Increasingly, due to the recession,
academic research will struggle to get funding support in Greece. But in
contrast, inspiring the community – including a large Diaspora from abroad,
which is hungry to learn more about heritage, could become the solution
This year, the majority of our permanent volunteers
were Greek university students studying archaeology, plus a few members of the
Greek-Australian Diaspora. We also had about half that number again as casual
volunteers – mostly from the Diaspora, who each volunteered for several days at
a time. In future an archaeology project could double as a youth program,
bringing together locals and members of the Diaspora from around the world,
creating a form of unity from doing something intense
AA: How did the project change you?
Change started to occur from when I volunteered on my first dig in August 2009.
Before that, I was pretty much a black sheep as far as the Greek-Australian
community was concerned, not having much to do with it for the last 15-20 years.
The problem was getting bored with gossip, fashion, cars, nightclubs, squabbles
over inheritances and what I perceived was a generally conservative tone of the
What turned me into a born-again Kytherian was exploration,
combining history with adventure. The Indiana Jones side of things – for want of
a better analogy. Being part of a group of pioneers, digging in an ancient
pirate settlement in Antikythera last year. This helped provide both intrigue
and meaning. The same may not occur for everyone but it did for several other
members of the Diaspora this year, in a similar way to what happened with me in
the summer of 2009.
Even where we stayed this year was an adventure, in a 170
year-old mountain top monastery, Agia Moni. A place where Kolokotronis was
sheltered in the early 1800’s and promised to rebuild it if the Fatherland was
freed during the Greek revolution. It was, and he did, with Agia Moni being
rebuilt in 1840.
Quite frankly, Kythera has a lot more adventure to offer me
than Australia. I’ve been a bit of an adrenaline junky in the past, particularly
with deep diving. Now I can’t think of any place in the world that can offer me
more adventure than Kythera.
The island’s approximately 30km long and 20km
across, at its widest point. There’s no way I can help find parts of a forgotten
2500+ year-old ancient city or shipwrecks from thousands of years ago within
30km of where I live in Sydney! And my right to be able to explore is afforded
by a blood line from the island on both parents sides. So it’s my island
There was also a bond with a number of people in Kythera. Especially the
Metropoliti, Bishop Seraphim. We built rapport from working on a number of tasks
together. Having him bless (conduct an Αγιασμός) one of the archaeological sites
for example. Plus collaborating on the historic reopening of Agios Kosmas, which
gave us an opportunity to get to know each other. Conducting the first service
at Agios Kosmas in well over 100 years was a really special event.
got to know Father Yiorgios who is in charge of the monastery where we stayed.
This helped build a friendship with him. Similarly, spending time with Father
Mariatos because one of the tasks was to archaeologically survey a site where he
wants to build a youth camp, which helped create a bond with him too. I’ve never
been very religious but now have close ties with three important members of the
Kytherian clergy. And a lot more empathy for what they do.
Respect for the
Metropoliti’s wishes has already stirred enthusiasm for next year - to cut
trails through agathia and thick bushes, opening access to another two currently
inaccessible churches. Why? Because it seems like a good thing to do, will bring
joy to the community and make Bishop Seraphim happy.
I’ll drum up support
from a few local farmer friends who have chainsaws, tractors and other tools.
Then find members of the Diaspora to help with labour, forming a working bee to
open up paths to the inaccessible churches in question. The reward for everyone
will be for the Metropoliti to conduct historic services in each, creating
history and bringing culture to life. How about that as a complete turn-around
for a black sheep? From steering clear of the Greek community, to helping
influence a religious calendar of events!
AA: How did it change
JF: In a similar way to me. Volunteering doesn’t
appeal to everyone, especially those who don’t want to wake up really early to
dig before it gets too hot. But those who ‘connected’ with the past became more
patriotic, and curious – wanting to learn more. They understood how much of an
adventure they were involved in, one that was unique. Heritage is also something
to share, particularly with people stemming from the same origins. People
connected with each other in two ways, through sharing an intense experience and
Members of the Kytherian Diaspora connected with others
from around the world. People who would never have met any other way. Volunteers
from Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney, the United States and all over Greece worked
side-by-side. I made friends with a group of Kytherian-Australians from Brisbane
who I wouldn’t have ever got to know if we didn’t work together on the
AA: Any other projects in the future?
There’s a very important shipwreck to excavate in relatively shallow water off
Kythera, one of world-wide significance to the Hellenic community. A project
that needs to be conducted by the Greek Underwater Archaeology Ephorate, with
support from the Diaspora, just like the land dig this year. But because of
greater engineering/equipment requirements, underwater excavations are more
Plans for this project in 2011 are progressing well, but I’d like
to know funding is available before making promises.
Overall, I see my role
as a bit of a pioneer. Paving the way for a project to then continue on a long
term basis, perhaps run by other teams. For example clearing paths to old
Churches which are no longer accessible.
Or systematic excavations where the
ancient capital of Kythera is currently buried. Who knows what might be found in
a city that thrived for a period of 500 years before Christ, which is now buried
on the side of a mountain.
Hopefully going in with crazy passion can lead to
a movement that proves the value of such projects, creating longevity in Kythera
and also sparking enthusiasm from others to spread throughout
AA: What's your greatest achievement to
JF: Helping rediscover sections of a 2500+ year old
forgotten city. Without resources from Australia, and bringing people together
from all walks of life, the project wouldn’t have taken place this
AA: Would you ever consider living in
JF: I could for set periods of time. I’ve been fortunate
to have met lots of archaeologists and could probably volunteer on digs for
about 3 months each year. But that would be labour of love rather than income
Perhaps I could take a year off if I sell my business one day and
spend that time adventuring in Greece, particularly around Kythera and
Antikythera. There’s more than a lifetime’s worth of exploring to do in that
The same career opportunities would be hard for me to find in Greece
though, so I’d have to maintain a career in Australia and visit Greece for
philanthropic causes and adventure.
AA: Describe major goals
you've set for yourself recently?
JF: Helping organise a project
that rediscovered sections of Kythera’s ancient capital was a pretty major
achievement this year. The icing on the cake was that this took place on the
Greek island of my ancestors.
Going exploratory diving in Greece was a goal
achieved last year. Things sometimes start as a dream, then morph into a goal
and if lucky, turn into reality.
AA: And Dreams?
Several. To one day organise an excavation of the Antikythera shipwreck, where
the Antikythera Mechanism was found. This dream may never come true. But who
knows, daring to dream, combined with crazy passion sometimes overcomes the
Another dream is to help discover evidence of a Phoenician presence in
Kythera, either buried on land or in the sea. We know the Phoenicians inhabited
and visited, they were the race who brought Aphrodite to the island, with
worship then spreading across the entire Hellenic world.
What’s known is
primarily from ancient text, finding physical evidence would be a major
discovery. An even bigger discovery would be a Phoenician shipwreck!
was also a strong Minoan presence in Kythera. Finding a well-preserved Minoan
shipwreck is another dream. A general dream is to circumnavigate Kythera and
Antikythera searching for shipwrecks (with the endorsement of authorities),
perhaps over the next ten years.
Don’t forget, these are just dreams – not
AA: What are the major reasons for your
JF: Determination. I’m a pretty good networker too. It’s
often helpful if you can call on the right people to get things
AA: Tell me something about yourself that we haven't
mentioned in this interview?
JF: My Greek isn’t very good. I can
probably read at the level of a 4 year old, and speak at the level of a 12 year
old. I haven’t needed Greek here in Australia and the main times I’ve used it is
when older relatives speak to me. They speak in Greek, and I usually reply in
English. Both parties understand and it’s been simple.
I learned a lot of new
words while in Greece. Especially modern Greek. A few random examples
γρασαδόρου - grease gun – this was needed to fix seized boat
steering on the day that we wanted to visit a small island just off Kythera to
inspect a 2300 year-old Sanctuary to Poseidon.
Σεβασμιότατε – respected one –
a way of addressing the Metropoliti. I couldn’t get my tongue around the word
for weeks. Bishop Seraphim politely suggested that I could use the word πατέρ –
father - as an alternative.
τομή – trench – a word often used when referring
to test trenches, a marked rectangle where archaeological excavation
systematically takes place, layer by layer.
ανασκαφή – excavation – a word
used for an archaeological excavation, or dig.
AA: Tell me about
your most difficult work or personal experience?
JF: I’m a
workaholic and find it hard to switch off. The intense amount of adventure just
listed has made it hard for me to concentrate on work at the moment, so I’m a
bit torn between two different worlds.
project was graciously supported by the Nicholas Anthony Aroney Trust and
Kytherian Association of Australia. The lecture is being sponsored by Laiki Bank
and presented in conjunction with the Sydney Friends of the Australian
Archaeological Institute at Athens.
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