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Annapolis’ Indiana Jones

Dec 11, 2012 08:19PM ● By Anonymous

Sure he’s one of the most iconic movieland heroes of all time. He survived many hazards and legions of enemies without ever losing his fedora or bullwhip. But, don’t try to compare a real archaeologist or archaeological researcher with Henry Walton Jones, Jr. Ph.D., a.k.a. Indiana Jones. In the field, amazing discoveries come at a much slower, more tedious pace, often backed by decades of research, years of clearing bureaucratic tape, and months of excavating.

Still, for millions, the beloved “Indy” is who comes to mind when thinking of archeological pursuits. Enter local archeological researcher Dr. James (Demetrios) Brianas. From Annapolis, Maryland, to Athens, Greece, he hopes to fulfill the wanderlust oh-so-many envision when images of ancient artifacts, lost civilizations, and museums the world over are conjured. Brianas believes he has found the spot where Achilles palace once stood gleaming in the Mediterranean sun. (Yes, that Achilles.) A Greek warrior, Achilles was a hero of the Trojan War more than 3,200 years ago and a main character in Homer’s Iliad.

Brianas, 72, owns a home on Compromise Street in Downtown Annapolis and lives part of the year in Ormond Beach, Florida. With his former wife, he has five grown sons, three of whom attended the U.S. Naval Academy. Throughout his life, he has delved deeply into the ancient versions of Homer’s works. As a youth, he earned his first degree in industrial psychology at the University of Florida. “I had started out in architecture,” he explains, “but I got interested in human behavior.” His second degree, in Business Administration, was achieved at George Washington University in D.C. And, though he earned his doctorate in England in International Business, he continued to study Greek architecture, and the stories of Homer.

The parents of the American-born Brianas were Greek. His maternal grandfather, like many Greek males, was named Achilles. Though Greece is a largely Christian country, the cult of Achilles still resonates as a subtle undercurrent, over three millennia later.

A decade ago, during a visit to Greece accompanied by his son Chris, a USNA ’99 graduate, he took a side trip to view the ruins of Troy. Seeing the ancient ruins and Greek inscriptions further fueled Brianas’ desire to find the fabled palace of Achilles back in Greece. It is, his research reveals, high on a hilltop in the province of Thessaly in north central Greece.

“As an ‘historical researcher’ my archaeological work is more in the vein of Henri Schliemann, finder of Homer’s Troy in the 1870s,” says Brianas.

German native Schliemann was conversant in 13 languages and a peripatetic traveler in the late 19th century. An entrepreneur, he made and burned through several fortunes.

At age 46, Schliemann became interested in archaeology and visited Mediterranean sites, believed by various scholars, to possibly be the locations of Homer’s Troy. Eventually, he excavated at Hisarlik, Turkey, in 1870 and hit pay dirt. Unfortunately, in the process of hastily digging down to “Troy,” he destroyed several ancient cities built atop the original city, including, possibly, the actual Troy.

“He would have used a bulldozer if it had been available,” says a disapproving archaeologist, University of Florida professor, Dr. Robert Wagman, an Italian native. Right now, Wagman is working closely with Brianas on finding the palace of Achilles.

Brianas points out he is more proactive and anxious to solve the mystery of the location of the palace of the mighty Achilles. He feels it is located in the city which Homer called Phthia, a name unknown even to the classical Greeks. His extensive research and ancient texts show it to be at Pharsala, four hours northwest of Athens in the province of Thessaly.

In one ancient book called the Little Iliad, of which only fragments remain, he discovered a quote referring to Achilles homeland as Phthia.

Roadblocks to Discovery

Yet, for all his enthusiasm, Brianas has encountered one obstacle after another in his quest to begin a scholarly excavation of the site where he feels Achilles’ palace lies hidden beneath centuries of dirt. Key Greek officials are skeptical that University of Florida professor and archeologist Dr. Robert Wagman (left) has been working closely with Brianas on locating the palace of Achilles. Achilles existed, except as myth. Some scoff at the discoveries unearthed at Troy. Other officials are hamstrung by the county’s economy—the recession has bankrupted it. When a nation is out of money, digging up its past is not a priority. Obtaining a permit to dig is an arduous, bureaucratic process— and finding the funding to begin the project is another huge hurdle.

At one point, working with the Greek government, Brianas obtained permission to use an old, abandoned railroad station house and two outbuildings for his base of operations and research. He hoped, eventually, to turn the station into a museum to house any objects found in the excavation. Brianas is hopeful to put an excavation team on the site by the end of this year. He estimates it will take, at least, another twenty years of careful work to completely excavate the site.

“It’s sad, they’re not doing this, now. Archaeologists tend to be more conservative, methodical, slow. I want to move faster!” sighs Brianas.

“Achilles is the first military hero of Greece and the Western world. Homer’s Iliad was the first book of the Western world,” he says. “It was passed down by singing poets. Bards would go around and sing the story. They still have these bards in Serbia. That’s how the story of the Trojan War was preserved.

One obstacle, even among believers, is that Achilles’ kingdom was supposed to be in sight of the sea. Pharsala is landlocked. “Correct. The sea is no longer there,” says Brianas. He explains, “The sea has receded. The sea level had gradually dropped about 25 to 30 feet about 1,800 years ago. It happened at Troy; at Ephesus; at Alexandria, Egypt; at Piraeus the port city of Athens, which was once an island; at the port of Rome and more. The Mediterranean Sea dropped. That has high significance in researching and piecing the Achilles puzzle together.

“There is another interesting piece of information. During the second attempt of the Persian Empire to conquer Greece in 480 B.C., it was at the battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans held off 20,000 Persian troops for several days. They did so because, at Thermopylae, located two and half hours northwest of Athens, the pass was only about 25 feet wide from the sea’s edge to where the steep mountains began. Today that spot is about one-third of a mile wide!”

Wagman would like to move slowly. “My opinion is, until we start surveying, it’s hard to make a decision. A lot of evidence points to an aristocracy of Achilles in antiquity. Seventh Century B.C. tombs deliberately imitated the architecture of the Bronze Age when the Homeric Wars occurred. People in the province, Thessalians, claim to be related to Achilles.

“[But] until we go and find something,” Wagman says, “we can’t say no and we can’t say yes. Brianas has quite a vision about this. The same was said about Schliemann back in the 19th century. It took someone like Schliemann, outside of academia, to find something.”

Wagman, noting Pharsala is an out-of-the-way town, far from the major highways and railroads, and without a nearby airport, suggests a successful excavation would be highly beneficial to the region. “It will help the town a lot and be a stimulus.” He thinks it could become a tourist attraction. For example, Pompeii draws over 2.5 million tourists each year.

He ticked off what he thinks the stages of the project would be. They need to secure funding. They have to get lucky in their applications with U.S. and Greek authorities for permits to conduct an excavation. In Greece, permits have to filter through several layers of bureaucracy. Waiting for the permits, a few students and archaeologists can conduct survey work, mapping out the traditions of Achilles in that region. Finally, with permits, money and research available, they can follow up with an excavation.

Wagman adds, “Jim wants his vision accomplished and it’s a laborious process. But we’ll get there.”