Giorgio Buchner

Archaeologist whose excavations revolutionised knowledge of the ancient Greeks in Italy
Click to follow

The name of Giorgio Buchner will always be associated with that of his adopted home, the island of Ischia on the Bay of Naples. There, he devoted much of his professional life to the excavation and study of the vast ancient Greek centre of Pithekoussai that lies under the holiday resort of Lacco Ameno, and became one of south Italy's leading archaeologists in the process.

Giorgio Buchner, archaeologist: born Munich 8 August 1914: married Dora Niola (one son, one daughter); died Porto d'Ischia, Italy 4 February 2005.

The name of Giorgio Buchner will always be associated with that of his adopted home, the island of Ischia on the Bay of Naples. There, he devoted much of his professional life to the excavation and study of the vast ancient Greek centre of Pithekoussai that lies under the holiday resort of Lacco Ameno, and became one of south Italy's leading archaeologists in the process.

Nothing of any age concerning his island was unimportant to him, and nothing angered him more than the relentless advance of speculative building over the areas of outstanding natural beauty that he had enjoyed in his youth.

Giorgio Buchner was born in Munich in 1914, the only child of a German father and an Italian mother. His mother, the painter Massimiliana Coppa, had gone to Germany as an art student, largely (as her son liked to recall) because it was not permissible for her to learn how to draw the nude human figure in Italy. In Germany she met a young scientist, Paul Buchner, who needed to learn Italian before taking up a research scholarship at the Zoological Station in Naples. They married, and eventually built the house at Porto d'Ischia in which their son was to live for most of the last 70 years of his life.

While still a pupil in the Gymnasium at Breslau (where his father was teaching in the university), Buchner acquired the publisher's last remaining copy of Julius Beloch's classic 1890 treatise ( Campanien) on ancient Campania. His imagination was fired by the description in it of a part of Ischia that he had visited on fact-finding expeditions with his father: "The surface of the hill is strewn with fragments of tiles and vases, and intact layers of them are revealed when the ground is scratched with a walking stick."

The hill in question was Monte di Vico, dominating what was then the still quiet hamlet of Lacco Ameno. Beloch's report changed Giorgio Buchner's life, and caused him to revolutionise everyone's knowledge of the Greeks in Italy.

But the world had to change first. Paul Buchner, appointed to the Leipzig chair of zoology in 1934, had no sympathy with the Nazi regime; worse still, he feared that the regime would require him to find practical applications for his research on micro-organisms. Eventually the family decided not to return to Germany after their usual summer holiday on Ischia. And on Ischia they stayed. Paul Buchner was able to continue his research in an initially makeshift laboratory that soon became a mecca for the international zoological community. His monumental Endosymbiosis of Animals with Plant Micro-organisms appeared in 1965 and was followed by an equally learned account of foreign visitors to Ischia over five centuries ( Gast auf Ischia, 1968).

Meanwhile, in 1938, Giorgio Buchner had graduated in archaeology at Rome University. His thesis (sadly never published) treated Ischia and the neighbouring islands, and already incorporated the results of his own prehistoric and Mycenaean discoveries at Castiglione d'Ischia and on the nearby islet of Vivara.

He became an Italian citizen in 1940, and his appointment in 1944 to the post of Chief Civilian Engineer to the British naval base at Porto d'Ischia enabled him not only to continue his archaeological researches, but also to persuade the municipal authorities in Porto d'Ischia to open a small museum. No glass was available for the exhibition cases, so the Royal Navy commandeered a supply of wire netting.

Buchner joined the staff of the Naples Superintendency of Antiquities in 1946; and in 1952 he was at last able to begin work at Lacco Ameno. It had long been clear that this small commune coincided with ancient Pithekoussai, known to the Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman historian Livy as the precursor of Cumae on the nearby mainland. In 1952, it was just about possible to surmise that Pithekoussai had been established around the middle of the eighth century BC, presumably by the Euboean Greeks mentioned in the ancient sources: after all, early Euboeans were also known to have been active in north Syria from Sir Leonard Woolley's discoveries at Al Mina in the 1930s.

Buchner's excavations, first in the Pithekoussai cemetery and then on the acropolis (Monte di Vico) and in a suburban metalworking quarter, demonstrated that there was more to the story of the Euboeans around the Bay of Naples than Strabo and Livy had ever known. Thanks to Buchner's prolific series of campaigns, the eighth-century Euboeans emerged as "the first Western Greeks", whose first Western base received a multitude of products from most parts of the contemporary Greek and Levantine worlds.

By 1966, Buchner felt able to affirm that "with the possession of the base of Al Mina in the east and that of Pithekoussai in the west, the Euboeans were, from about 775 to about 700 BC, the masters of the trade between the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Italy".

It has since become apparent that east-west relations in the eighth century BC owed more than he realised to the Euboeans' north Syrian and Phoenician contemporaries. The precise degree of "credit" that should be assigned to the various parties is currently the subject of lively debate, in Italy and far beyond. It remains true that Pithekoussai provides a new and richly documented dimension to the story of the Greeks in south Italy and Sicily; and that its establishment also signalled the last phase in a search for western metals that began in the Bronze Age. No less significant was the impact of all this on the native Italian Iron Age communities. Foremost among these were the Etruscans, who adapted the Euboean version of the Greek alphabet for their own use by 700 BC.

The most famous artefact from Pithekoussai is a pottery drinking cup made in Rhodes, and deposited in a grave around 720. It bears three verses inscribed by someone who had clearly learnt to write in Euboea: "Nestor's cup was good to drink from, but anyone who drinks from this cup will soon be struck with desire for fair-crowned Aphrodite". Rightly hailed by Barry Powell as "Europe's first literary allusion", this high-spirited challenge to the famous cup of the Homeric king of Pylos speaks volumes for the previously unsuspected cultural cargo that the Euboeans brought to the west. So does a contemporary bowl, made locally, for mixing wine: the dramatic shipwreck scene on it is the oldest piece of figured painting in Italy.

In 1979, Giorgio Buchner retired from the Naples Superintendency - not without relief, on both sides, for his aversion to administrative duties had by then reached awesome proportions. To the delight of his friends and supporters all over Europe, a ministerial decree promptly designated him Honorary Curator for life of the antiquities on Ischia. As such, he was able to advise the Superintendency in the negotiations with the municipal authorities regarding the establishment of an archaeological museum in Lacco Ameno; and in 1994, he collaborated in the publication of the official case-by-case guide to it.

The museum itself finally materialised in 1999, and is a fitting monument to the excavator who added a brilliant first chapter to the history of the ancient Greeks and their neighbours in the central Mediterranean.

David Ridgway