The history of the discovery

Τhe Theater (1923)

Samothrace, a relatively small and isolated island in the northeastern Aegean, owed its fame in antiquity to the mystery cult of the Great Gods, whose initiation rites promised protection at sea and the opportunity, as Diodorus Siculus wrote 1, γίνεσθαι καὶ εὐσεβεστέρους καὶ δικαιοτέρους καὶ κατὰ πᾶν βελτίονας ἑαυτῶν τοὺς τῶν μυστηρίων κοινωνήσαντας (= for those who have taken part in the mysteries become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before). In modern times , the earliest reference to the antiquities of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods is found in the account of the short stay of Ciriaco di Ancona (1391-1452) on Samothrace in 14442. The island began to attract the attention of European archaeologists since the middle of the 19th century, as a result of the interest in the Great Gods and the mysteries, while the first excavation at the sanctuary took place in 18543. In 1858, the German archaeologist Alexander Conze, traveling to the islands of the Thracian sea, recorded the visible monuments of Samothrace and many ancient and Byzantine inscriptions, which he published in 1860 in Hanover4.

Charles Champoiseau (Image source: Wikipedia)

Three years later, in 1863, Charles Champoiseau, temporarily head of the French consulate in Adrianople, discovered the statue of Nike. After the Crimean war, Emperor Napoleon III, seeking to strengthen the French presence in the Balkans and the Black Sea, set up many consulates and vice consulates, including that of Philippopolis in 1857. Champoiseau, whose attention was initially drawn by the scattered tumuli of the Thracian plains, was appointed as a consul there. However, his requests to receive funding in order to excavate the tumuli of the Evros-Marica river plain did not have the same luck as his similar request in 1862, for the funding of the excavations in Samothrace, which he had visited that same year, while serving as temporary consul in Adrianople5. Indeed, the excavation in 1863 in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods led to the discovery of the Statue of Nike. Champoiseau never published the results of his excavations, but left a very brief and picturesque account of his first two expeditions published in the Revue archéologique of 18806 and Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 19637. More accurate and less selective are the documents that are contemporary to the discovery of the Nike, which give a fuller picture of the excavation work of Champoiseau on Samothrace in the spring of 18638, and in particular the Rapport sur les travaux de fouilles exécutés dans l’île de Samothrace avec les fonds du Ministère d’État9. While Champoiseau's descriptions are mostly accurate, his interpretations or dates were not scientifically supported, his method of work, as shown by his plans and sketches, lagged behind the developments of the era, while his conclusions were sometimes exaggerated, such as the famous "tomb of one of Alexander the Great’s generals"10 found within the Nike Monument.

It was no coincidence that in the same year Frank Calvert, an Englishman who was serving as the consular representative of the United States in the Dardanelles, made the first excavations in Troy11. This concurrence shows that Samothrace and Troy went hand in hand not only in myth12 and history, but in archaeological research as well. However, behind the archaeological interests of the diplomatic officials, the intense interest of Western governments in this region of the Ottoman Empire is hidden13. In the summer of 1866, an official French scientific expedition consisting of two archaeologists, G. Deville and E. Coquart, continued for two months the research on Samothrace, undertaking to verify, clarify and correct the report that Champoiseau had made in 1863. Deville and Coquart mapped with a few deficiencies the monuments of the sanctuary, focusing on the Rotunda of Arsinoe II. They removed important architectural members for the Louvre Museum, and generally made the same mistakes as Champoiseau14.

Palaiopolis 1875. Alexander Conze. Photo by W. Burger

The first systematic excavations in the Sanctuary were conducted in 1873 and 1875. The excavations were led by A. CONZE with the contribution of two architects, A. Hauser and G. Niemann along with O. Benndorf, an expert in sculpture. The Austrian government had responded to Conze's request (besides, Samothrace was within the sphere of Austrian trade and politics)15. Conze's excavation, which in terms of material-technical infrastructure had all the means then available, became a model at the time, using photography and other modern techniques to serve new goals. Instead of excavating to find impressive individual objects like the Nike, archaeological research was now directed towards the study and interpretation of architectural remains, the analysis of construction technology, and the precise measurement and detailed drawing of correct plan of an archaeological site as a whole. This development which had been traced from 1870 onwards, is mainly owed to the German excavators in the Aegean, Conze, Curtius and Dörpfeld. The publication16 in two large volumes of these works was the first "modern" excavation publication in the history of archaeological research, with drawings made by architects and real photographs of exceptional quality17. For the first time, an accurate plan of the ruins at the site of the Nike Monument was published, leading to the identification of the prow-shaped base of the statue18.

Champoiseau's chance encounter with Conze in May 1879, in which the latter informed the former about the course of his research and particularly about the discovery concerning the base of the Nike and the complete shape of the monument 19, brought the former three months later to Samothrace with the aim of transporting the base marbles of the Nike, which then travelled to Marseilles and from there to the Louvre20. Champoiseau informed O. Benndorf in detail, on the results of his expedition21 and his observations confirmed the Austrian assumptions in relation to the shape of the ship. The research of the latter22 formed the basis of the second restoration23 of the Nike statue at the Louvre Museum (1880-3). However, the fact that Champoiseau had transferred to Europe all the antiquities he found on Samothrace without leaving to the Ottoman authorities the portion that belonged to the Imperial Museum of Constantinople, became the reason to ban him from carrying out new archaeological excavations within the boundaries of the Empire. However, after ten years of constant refusals, in 1889 Champoiseau secured permission to excavate on Samothrace in order to find the head of Nike, and in the spring of 1891 he had at his disposal 6.000 francs and a ship of the National Fleet24, which, on the 20th of June, took him to Samothrace in his 3rd "catastrophic” expedition25. Champoiseau, in the hope of finding other pieces of the statue, began excavations in the area where the Nike was found, where he barely mentions the discovery of the Theater, and in the area of the Milesian Dedication.

N.V. Phardys (1853 - 1901)

With this expedition of Champoiseau the antiquarian N. B. Phardys enters the scene of the archaeological research. N. B.Phardis officially acted as an interpreter, however he had a much more substantial role. N. B. Phardis, an important figure of Samothrace at the end of the 19th century, had studied medicine in Marseilles (1880-5), where at the same time he delved into the Greek language by publishing the Διατριβη περι ατονου και απνευματιστου γραφης της Ελληνικης γλωσσης (Treatise on the writing of the Greek language without accents and vowel breathings explanatory note: a dissertation against the polytonic writing system of the Greek language) and, before his return to Samothrace in 188726, he taught Greek to the Greek-speakers in the village of Cargèse, in Corsica27. Phardys was the one who, in the context of the last Champoiseau expedition, first excavated in the Southern Necropolis28, the most important of the cemeteries of the ancient city of Samothrace, while his contribution to the study of the Samothracian inscriptions was extremely important. Apart from the Journal de la mission de Mr. Champoiseau à Samothrace, juin-juillet 1891, an official report-diary of the expedition kept in the archives of the French embassy in Constantinople29, information about this expedition is also left to us by Phardys through his manuscript Φ330. Champoiseau's main concern on Samothrace was to prepare the loading on the Troude of architectural members, because “the greatest part of the important marbles, which he had left intact upon leaving Samothrace in 1879, had been broken and mutilated by the inhabitants of Samothrace." In order to "save from total destruction the last existing traces", he transferred them to the beach, with the intention of delivering them to the Museum of Constantinople. First a granite column of the large Doric temple with a Latin inscription published by Conze31, then an intact sima from the Rotunda of Arsinoe II32, the volume and weight of which were reduced with a chisel by Troude's engineers to make it easier to transport, and then all the members which might be of interest to art and science. At the same time Champoiseau, in hopes of finding other pieces of the statue, began excavating in the area where the Nike was found, where he barely mentions the discovery of the theater. Describing Champoiseau’s excavation, Phardys stated in his manuscript the following33:

“While he (Champoiseau) was excavating the surrounding area of the Nike, he discovered a semicircular building‖5 34 whose chord is 16 meters, made of granite stone of a deep‖ red color, and consisting of successive steps, more than twenty‖ in number, which, as of its position, opposite the ancient temple of the Ka-‖ beiri, might have been either the gathering place of initiates, for the outdoor‖ ceremonies or a theater. The finding there of a square marble bearing deep‖10 imprints of the feet of a life-size statue testifies‖ the decoration of this theater with statues”‖.

As O. Kern,35 who visited Samothrace in the context of his research for the publication of the temple of Kabiri in Thebes, one year after Champoiseau's last operation, reported, the latter according to what Phardys had conveyed to Kern, began his excavation at the foot of the hill of the Nike Monument, "there where the huge plane trees stand, above which today the gaze wanders towards the sea and the mountains of Thrace"36. He proceeded from the bottom upwards, dropping the excavated fill into the areas he had just excavated. For this reason, during the summer in which Kern visited the island, the only remains visible from the theater which Champoiseau had uncovered on the slope of this hill37, were four rows of seats. However, according to Kern's narration, Phardys had counted a total of 17 rows of seats.

The Ottoman authorities interpreted the loading of the architectural members very negatively38, and thus on June 28, with the intervention of the French embassy in Constantinople, they requested the suspension of the expedition. Champoiseau, who was notified on July 3, announced 2 days later, the “abandonment of the excavations and his departure”, which took place on July 8. Reading the excavation diary, in fact, gives us very little information about the archaeological activities of the expedition and a lot about the behavior – a succession of failures and inconveniences – of the one and the other. Phardys’s description is similar39:

“….Right from the outset and without any prelude, I would discuss the subject ‖10 of our research, if it was not for the miscommunication and misunder‖ standing among the employees of the Respectable Imperial Government, who were assign-‖ ed with the inspection of the excavations, that interrupted‖ the continuation of the archaeological research, through the intervention of words and facts, due to which a diplomatic issue nearly occurred.‖15

Mr. Champoiseau, holder of an official permit, as we have already said, arrived in‖ Samothrace in June 8/20, aboard the French cruiser‖ Troude. The permit, which he brought with him, expressly stated that he had to investigate‖ in order to find the head and the rest of the other pieces‖ of the Samothracιan Nike, all of which would be given‖20 to him by the Respectable Imperial Government and that everything else he might find worthy of‖ preservation would be handed over to the Imperial Museum of Constantinople,‖ and that one supervisor, would be appointed by the Museum of Constantinople‖ to supervise the excavation in Samothrace‖ having being notified about the exact time and date of the commencement of the research. ‖25

Mr. Champoiseau arrived at Samothrace two days before‖ the aforementioned supervisor; after he had presented‖ to the Mudir of Samothrace all his documentation and requested‖ to start his work, then, while waiting for the supervisor, he began wandering the area around where the Nike was found‖30 along with 20 workers he had brought from Dedeağaç, carefully observing the preserved theremar-‖ ble blocks trying to find the desired ones. ‖ …

In the meanwhile the‖ supervisor of the excavations arrived from Constantinople, accompanied by a young Armenian‖20 who escorted him due to his frail health, as he used to say.‖ Mr. Champoiseau, without knowing that this young academic-‖was executing vigilis vigiliae duties, and above all paying him not the slightest heed, ‖ because of course from the beginning the agreement was for one and only supervisor, ‖ he explained in detail his activities‖25 to the officially recognized supervisor Mr. Emin Efendi and started work. This gravely offended the pride ‖ and provoked the menace of the young Armenian, who in a revengeful manner, ‖ begun to hurl indiscriminately accusations that probably reached the King himself. And this, whereas ..., on the other hand in Constantino-‖ ple meetings, interviews, tele-‖ grams, diplomatic notes were succeeding one after another favoring the libe ‖ ration of Samothrace ‖ which had been under the occupation of the French Mediterranean Squadron!!! ‖30

As a consequence of such a tragicomic state of affairs,‖ Mr. Degrand40 was invited via telegram to return to his position,‖ having left Samothrace on June 22 (July 4). At the same time, ‖ a telegram from the ambassador of Constantinople was forwarded‖ to Mr. Champoiseau, asking for explanations on the rumors regarding the matter. On the same day‖15 a Turkish warship from those stationed in the Dardanelles‖ sailed to Paleopolis and brought to land‖ the Mutessarif (governor) of Dedeağaç (Alexandroupolis).‖

A conversation of a few minutes between the Mutessarif and Mr. Champoi-‖ seau was enough to dissolve the dark clouds which‖20 had been covering for days the peaceful scientific excursion on Samo-‖ thrace of the elderly archaeologist and at the same time diplomat. Nevertheless,‖ although transient and inconsequential, this most awkward ‖ and deplorable incident cast a chill over the readiness and good will ‖ of the scientist, for on 28 June (July 10), he bade both Paleopolis ‖25 and the marbles farewell.‖”

The harvest at the end of this expedition, which lasted a total of three weeks, contained only very small pieces which were packed into three small boxes and then sent to the Louvre in November of the same year41.



1 : Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca 5.49.6 (Samothrace 1, 65-66: selection 142).

2 : Cf. BODNAR and FOSS 2003, 98-104; WILLIAMS LEHMANN 1973.

3 : BLAU 1855.

4 : CONZE 1860.

5 : HAMIAUX 2001, 153.


7 : « A propos du centenaire de la découverte de la ‘ Victoire de Samothrace ’ par Ch. CHAMPOISEAU (avril 1863) », Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1963, I, 252-255.

8 : Excavations started on the 6th of March and concluded on the 7th of May. Cf. PAPAGEORGIOU 1982, 191-212 and HAMIAUX 2001, 154-164.

9 : Adrianople, 15 May 1863.

10 : Or to put it differently: "burial monument related to the age of the successors of Alexander the Great" (cf. HAMIAUX 2001, 172).

11 : ALLEN 1999, 95-96.

12 : Samothrace 1, 17: selection 32; 24-29: selections 54-66; 31-32: selection 68; 33-34: selections 70-72; 70: selections 150-150a; 84-87: selections 182-184, 186-188: Cf. LAWAL 2003, 97- 99.

13 : See the mobilization of France in reactivatingthe Eastern Question in the mid-1860s and the commencement of the excavations (1870) by the French School at Athens in Thira (TZACHILI 2006, 73-74). The excavations of the French School at Athens in Delos (A. Lebègue) and Thasos (Ch. Abezou, Ch. Picard and A. Reinach) started respectively in 1873 (BRUNEAU and DUCAT 2010, 47) and 1911 (GRANDJEAN and SALVIAT 2012, 59).

14 : DEVILLE και COQUART 1867.

15 : MICHAELIS 1908, 117.

16 : CONZE et al. 1875 and 1880.

17 : DANIEL 1975, 164-165· TRIGGER 1989, 196· MICHAELIS 1908, 158.

18 : Champoiseau, a victim of a lack of method, had considered that the base of the statue belonged to a burial monument with a sarcophagus and three pillars. Cf. HAMIAUX 2001, 174

19 : CONZE et al. 1880, 88.

20 : HAMIAUX 2001, 183.

21 : CONZE et al. 1880, 55.

22 : CONZE et al. 1880, 54 ff

23 : This had been preceded by the first restoration in 1864-1866.

24 : Initially this ship was the Seignelay, which was subsequently replaced by the Troude. The contribution of ships by the interested countries to the archaeological research of Samothrace from 1863 to 1891 is distinctive: Ajaccio, a ship of the French Embassy in Constantinople, transported the statue of Nike from Samothrace to Constantinople along with the other findings from the 1863 expedition, and the steam-powered corvette La Gorgone of the Imperial Navy from Piraeus to Toulon. The Zrinyi and Frundsberg corvettes of Heris Majesty the Austrian Empress were made available to Conze in 1873 (CONZE et al. 1875, 5 and 7) and 1875 (CONZE et al. 1880, 1 and 4) respectively, the ship of the French National Fleet Latouche-Tréville assisted Champoiseau in 1879 (HAMIAUX 2001, 155, 163, 183).

25 : HAMIAUX 2001, 203.

26 : Manuscript Φ3, pp. 99 and 307. Cf. DRAGOUMIS 2008, 31-34. Manuscript Φ3 should had been written mainly (from p. 92 onwards) οn Samothrace between 1889 (see Φ3, p. 92, line 7) and 1897 (its last entry, a letter to Sp. Karvounis on Tenedos is dated 06.10.1897: Φ3, p. 307). Papageorgou (1982, 170) states that it was written around 1891. The descendants of Phardys gave it to Ion Dragoumis in July 1906, when the latter had visited Samothrace (cf. DRAGOUMIS 1926). The manuscript Φ3 was then donated by Ion’s brother, Philip F. Dragoumis, to the Gennadius Library, in 1960.

27 : In a list of the members of the Association pour l’encouragement des études grecques en France of 1886 he appears as professeur de langue grecque à Cargèse (Corse). Nikolaos B. Phardys has been a member of the above association since 1884 and has been mentioned for the last time in the general list of members on 1st November 1900 (Revue des études Grecques XIII, LXV): PHARDYS (Nicolas B.), ancien directeur de l’École hellénique de Cargèse, à Samothrace (Turquie) par Dédé agadj, chez MM. Hampouri Frères. A mention to the death of N. B. Phardys is made by the president, M. Paul Girard at the general assembly on 1 May 1902 (Revue des études Grecques XV, VII et seq.).

28 : Samothrace 11, 4.

29 : HAMIAUX 2001, 203.

30 : The text on pages 259-265 is entitled Archeological Research in Samothrace and was addressed to the redaction of "Amaltheia\” newspaper. On page 259 of the manuscript there is a note along the diagonal from the bottom left to the top right indicating that “it was published in Amaltheia of Smyrna … (illegible) in 1891”. Cf. KERN 1893, 338, note 1, where it is reported to have been published in August 1891 in this Smyrna newspaper. The content of this excerpt from Phardys's manuscript (Φ3, 259-265, writing in black ink) has been published (without following Phardys’s without accents and vowel breathings writing style) by S. N. Papageorgiou (1982, 41-48).

31 : CONZE et al. 1875, 36: 1.

32 : Cf. Samothrace 7, 73. ff.

33 : Φ3, 262.

34 : ‖ = change of line in the manuscript, 5 = 5th line on the page.

35 : KERN 1893. In this article, Phardys, whose name is mentioned for the first time in the international archaeological literature, informed Kern about what had been known on the island from 1875 until the summer of 1892 and about what Champoiseau had found in his excavations in 1891. Kern admits (1893, 337) that, although after the last excavation season (1875) of the Austrians, Samothrace had not been visited by an archaeologist, the interest in antiquities was alive and that “we should hope that the inhabitants of other islands shall follow the example of Mr. N. B. Phardys”. Phardys devoted his free time to his research on antiquities, and Kern (1893, 338) fondly recalled his courteous and knowledgeable tour. Also, after his departure Phardys posted to both, him and Conze, letters with information describing every new inscription found.

36 : KERN 1893, 342.

37 : KERN 1893, 342.

38 : HAMIAUX 2001, 205. Phardys, see below, gives a different explanation.

39 : Φ3, 259-261.

40 : French consul in Adrianople.

41 : Four pieces of sima, one intact inscription and nine inscribed fragments, two fragments of the frieze from the Hall of Choral Dancers, five fragments from the ship of Nike, twenty-nine very small marble fragments from the wings and the garment of the Nike, some indeterminate marble fragments, about sixty pieces of blue, red and black plaster and a roof tile from the Nike Monument, small glass vases, some metal fragments, a marble elbow and a small marble Hermes, and finally, a coin of Demetrius Poliorcetes with a representation of Poseidon holding a trident on the obverse and a Nike on the reverse.