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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
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William Martin Leake (1777-1860) was the pioneer of classical topography, a technique focused on making connections between ancient texts and contemporary geography. Born in London, Leake attended the Royal Military Academy and served in Antigua from 1795 to 1798. In his time with the military, Leake travelled all over Europe and Asia to such sites in Anatolia, Egypt, Syria, Athens, central Greece and the Peloponnese.
Before Leake’s work, most publications about Greece had consisted of travelogues or other forms of purely textual inscription. Leake was the first to collect exact measurements of the Peloponnesus for the purpose of mapping. Leake is the source of some of the easiest planimetric maps of Greek sites, such as the Mycenaean citadel of Tiryns.
Leake’s most important contribution was his linking of classical texts and the realities of contemporary topography. Obviously, such a method is bound to have some element of inaccuracy (since landmarks present in antiquity could easily be missing from present day observation), but Leake pulled on a multitude of ancient authors as his sources, among them Strabo, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and, most importantly, Pausanias. It is also interesting to note that for Leake studying archaeology was not something separate and clinical: his journal entries began from the minute he left his lodgings, focusing on such small details as travel times between villages. For Leake, the present and ancient worlds interacted in a daily discourse.
In many ways, Leake was responsible for the opening of the Greek Peloponnesus to the outside world. His careful approach combined ancient literature and present-day topography to create a quantifiable, precise image of the Greek landscape. Interestingly enough, Leake was not, in fact, trained in archaeology or even classics: he was commonly known as Colonel Leake, and his first excursion to the Peloponnesus was in September of 1804, when he was sent there by Britain’s government to stall French expansion in Greece. Although Leake’s work was primarily executed for its practical function as a land survey (vital to the success of any army trying to find its way through a foreign land), its application to the field of archaeology cannot be denied. In a strange way, the military expedition undertaken by Leake in 1804 shared much of the methodology, if not the goals, of modern archaeological ventures.
Wagstaff, J.M. “Leake, William Martin (1777–1860).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 2004. <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/16242>.
Whitley, James. The Archaeology of Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2007.
Witmore, Christopher. “Conclusions.” 2005. Metamedia at Stanford Univeristy. 29 Nov. 2007. <http://traumwerk.stanford.edu:3455/multiplefields/1124>.
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Witmore, Christopher. “William Martin Leake, Multiple fields & archaeological practice.” 2005. Metamedia at Stanford Univeristy. 29 Nov. 2007. <http://traumwerk.stanford.edu:3455/multiplefields/357>.