Anna Apostolaki (1881-1958): a “visible” Greek female archaeologist

By Kleanthi Pateraki
Anna Apostolaki was a typical example of a “visible”, internationally recognized Greek female archaeologist (Fig. 1). She was born in Margarites, Rethymno, Crete in 1881. She was the eldest child of Emmanouil Apostolakis and Aikaterini Apostolaki (Florou 2017: 22-23). Due to the death of her father she had to take care of her younger siblings from an early age, but additional responsibilities did not stop her intellectual development, which was encouraged by her mother. After her circular studies, due to the turbulent political situation in the then Ottoman-occupied Crete, she moved with her family to Piraeus and then to Athens (Kokkinidou 2016: 13).

Black and white photo of a white woman with greying hair dressed in black with a white collar.

Fig. 1. Anna Apostolaki. Λεύκωμα της Εκατονταετηρίδος της Εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας 1837-1937 (Album of the Centennial of the Archaeological Society at Athens 1837-1937) (Athens 1937): 58.

Financial reasons must have led to her decision to follow the teaching profession, the only relatively decent professional outlet for the women of the time (Kokkinidou 2016: 13). She studied from 1891 to 1894 at the Εξωτερικό Διδασκαλείο της ΦιλεκπαιδευτικήςΕταιρείας (External Teaching School of the Society of the Friends of Education), a non-profit organization which created schools for young girls in Athens. She received scholarships as an orphan daughter from the Council of the specific Society and received the title of a teacher. She served as a home teacher for at least 25 consecutive years (Florou 2017: 24).

Education and Study

She enrolled in the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Athens in 1903 (Barkoula 2017, 55), while continuing to earn a living as a teacher. She was a student of very notable Greek professors of the time. Their influence, especially that of Nikolaos Politis, Panagiotis Kavvadias, and Christos Tsountas, played a key role in her subsequent brilliant course in the respective field of research and work (Barkoula 2017: 61).

Her network included influential people who played an important role in her career. She knew Iphigenia Syggrou, the widow of the Greek banker, politician and national benefactor Andreas Syggros and pioneer female figure of the Athenian society in the field of social welfare. Apostolaki settled in Syggrou’s mansion to accompany her after the death of her husband in 1899. The two women developed a spiritual relationship until the death of Syggrou in 1921. Thanks to Syggrou, Apostolaki was selected as a teacher of the children of wealthy Athenian families, including the children of Prince Andreas (Florou 2017: 24-25).

While she was studying in the University of Athens, Apostolaki started working at the Numismatic Museum of Athens as an unpaid assistant of its director and numismatist Ioannis Svoronos. He instilled in her the zeal for scientific research. Probably due to this acquaintance she participated in the First International Archaeological Congress held in Athens in 1905, published her first article in the Διεθνής Εφημερίς της Νομισματικής Αρχαιολογίας (Journal International d’Archéologie Numismatique) that Svoronos edited (Apostolaki 1906) and was admitted to the Archaeological Society at Athens in 1906 (Florou 2016; Kokkinidou 2016: 13). In 1909 Apostolaki became one of the first ten women to graduate from the University of Athens (with “excellent” qualification), characterized as a “female triumph” by Kalliroe Parren (Parren 1909: 623), one of the most prominent figures in Greek feminism.

Apostolaki was the first woman from Crete to earn a university degree at all and the first woman to join the Archaeological Society at Athens and the Greek Folklore Society (Ekonomou 2017: 115). Furthermore, she was a regular member of the Greek Christian Archaeological Society, the Historical and Ethnological Society of Greece, the Greek Society of Byzantine Studies and the Association of Friends of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Women and Craft

She became interested in the art of fabric through her acquaintance with the handicraft workshop of disadvantaged women of the Σύλλογος των Κυριών υπέρ της γυναικείας παιδεύσεως (Association of Ladies for Women’s Education), whose president was Iphigenia Syggrou. Furthermore, she was associated with the Λύκειον των Ελληνίδων (Lyceum Club of Greek Women), whose founder was Kalliroe Parren. The purpose of the Lyceum was to promote Greek culture and preserve Greek customs. Apostolaki became member of its administrative board and curator of its philological department (Parren 1912: 2045-46). She actively participated in its handicraft exhibitions and festivities from 1924 onwards (Ioannidou-Barbarigou 1958: 661).

Apostolaki contributed regularly to the Εφημερίς των Κυριών (Newspaper of the Ladies), the most widely Greek feminist newspaper of the times and seems to have been a close collaborator of its director, Kalliroe Parren (Nikolaidou & Kokkinidou 1998: 235). In addition, during 1921‐1922 and 1924‐1927 Apostolaki was a member of the Εκπαιδευτικός Όμιλος (Educational Association), which was founded by progressive Greek writers, educators and politicians in Athens in 1910. The specific Association promoted the Δημοτική Γλώσσα (Demotic Greek), which was a colloquial vernacular form of Modern Greek (Kokkinidou 2016: 27 note 93). In 1976, by government order, it became the official language of the state, replacing the Καθαρεύουσα (Katharevusa Greek).

Managing Collections and Museums

Apostolaki was the first woman to direct a museum in Greece, specifically the National Museum of Decorative Arts of Athens – currently the Museum of Modern Greek Culture. This museum was her life’s work. The poet Georgios Drosinis, co-founder of the Museum and Director of the Department of Letters and Fine Arts of the Ministry of Education in 1914-1920 and 1922-1923, invited her in 1924 to help him arrange the original collection of the museum. This invitation was probably related to Apostolaki’s scientific interests and to Iphigenia Syggrou, who was the common link between Apostolaki and Drosinis (Kokkinidou 2017: 94 note 54).

Apostolaki was an unpaid assistant of Drosinis in 1924-1926, curator of the National Museum of Decorative Arts of Athens in 1926‐1935 and its director in 1935‐1954. She was the driving force of the museum. She had a solid scientific background, she was also a linguist and she loved her research (Hatzinikolaou 2017: 183). With a lot of zeal, effort, and money from her earnings, she tried to overcome difficult conditions at the museum, such as the lack of staff, operating costs, the lack of annual state subsidies after 1926 and the need to purchase relics (Florou 2017: 34-36).

Colour photograph of classical building next to an Ottoman mosque in Athens.

Fig 2. Side view of the former National Museum of Decorative Arts of Athens, later renamed the National Museum of Greek Folk Art. Photograph Debbie Challis, 2023.

Moreover, as its director, she promoted the National Museum of Decorative Arts of Athens with all the means at her disposal. From 1927 onwards she was in contact with the International Institute for Intellectual Collaboration of the League of Nations giving her the opportunity of completing a questionnaire regarding the museum’s collections. She believed in international collaborations and was actively involved in them. In 1953, as a member of a committee, with Manolis Hatzidakis and Dimitrios Loukatos, she undertook the study for the completion and improvement of the Greek display case in Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

Apostolaki was in contact with colleagues in Greece and abroad. She corresponded with Manolis Hatzidakis, S. Pelekanidis, A. Grabar, R. Pfister, Monneret de Villard, F. Volbach, among others. She maintained correspondence with various museums, such as the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum (mainly in the 1940s), among others (Hatzinikolaou 2017: 191-192).
Her own research included the cleaning, maintenance, and exhibition of the Coptic fabrics of the 4th-7th c. BC, as well as their scientific classification and study. The fruit of her efforts was the catalogue Τα κοπτικά υφάσματα του εν ΑθήναιςΜουσείου Κοσμητικών Τεχνών (The Coptic fabrics of the National Museum of Decorative Arts of Athens), which was one of the first systematic catalogues of Coptic fabrics published internationally dealing with weaving and the only one at that time written in Greek (Hatzidakis 1960: 159). It holds a prominent place in the international literature (Kalamara 2017: 256).

Legacies in Folklore, Textiles and Beyond

Apostolaki carried out pioneering folklore research on-site for the study, and acquisition of folk-art objects with the aim of enriching the museum’s collections. Moreover, she gave expert advice on the establishment of new folk art museums in Greece (e.g. in Kefallonia) (Bounia 2017, 164). Due to her passionate activity in this field, she is considered today as one of the first Greek folklorists (Economou 2017: 118).

Apostolaki’s experience and expertise led the Benaki Museum in Athens to assign her the cataloguing of its rich collection of Coptic fabrics in 1933. Indicative of her collaboration with the specific museum is her correspondence with internationally recognized researchers of ancient or Byzantine fabrics, such as Rudolf Pfister, André Grabar, Fritz Volbach and Ugo Monneret de Villard (Kalamara 2017: 256-257).

On the eve of the Greek-Italian war in 1940, Apostolaki took care of the transfer of the exhibits of the National Museum of Decorative Arts to the National Archaeological Museum with patriotic devotion, with the support of the Greek archaeologists Semni Karouzou and Christos Karouzos (Florou 2017: 44).

Apostolaki was considered a model employee by the post-war leadership of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. She also received substantial recognition from the international scientific community. The director of Dumbarton Oaks, Thomas Whittemore, invited her in 1948 to participate in an honorary collective volume for the distinguished Coptologist Walter Ewing Crum. She contributed to the volume with the essay Κατοπτριζομένη επί υφάσματος (Mirrored in Fabric), written in Greek; it was the only non-English text in the entire volume (Florou 2017: 45).
In 1954 Apostolaki retired. On December 30 of the same year, she was awarded a Silver Medal by the Academy of Athens for her contribution to the development of the National Museum of Decorative Arts. Anna Apostolaki died on 26 July 1958 in Athens. After her death, the Lyceum of Greek Women honored her memory through various events (Economou & Florou 2017).


Dr. Kleanthi Pateraki is a Greek classical archaeologist, currently working as a freelancer. She obtained her BA, MA and Ph.D. from the University of Crete, Greece. Her research interests include archaic and classical sculpture, the sculptures of the temple of Zeus in Olympia, the history of the discovery, excavation and research of the sanctuary of Olympia, the ancient Olympic Games and the ancient Olympic winners. She was a lecturer at the History Department, Ionian University and at the Department of Mediterranean Studies, University of the Aegean. She has written a monograph and twenty-one research articles, mostly in Greek scientific and non-scientific journals. She has also co-editored the Honorary Tome for Professor Nikolas Faraklas – Ubi Dubium Ibi Libertas (Rethymno 2009).


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This post is part of a series in which speakers of the session “(In)Visbile Women in History of Archaeology” of the Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists 2023 publish their presentations. The posts will be published simultaneously in German and English. The German version of this post can be found on the blog of the project AktArcha at