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History > Archaeology > Assess the importance of oral history to human society and culture:

History > Archaeology

submitted by Mediterranean Archaeology on 12.10.2012

Assess the importance of oral history to human society and culture:

using the town of Paliochora, Kythera, as an example...

Nicholas Conomos

Nicholas Conomos has lived in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales all his life. He attended Oxley College, Burradoo. The essay below was completed as part of an Extension History course.

"The History Extension course involves students choosing a subject of their choice to research extensively and create an essay which is considered a major work. A range of sources must be used and this has to be evident in the essay. It is basically a short thesis".

Having just finished school this year Nicholas hopes to take a gap year next year and go to Greece.

"I'm second generation Australian. My fathers family and my maternal grandmother are from Kythera, Greece.

My father is Dr Vassili (Bill) Conomos. His father was Nicholas, who was a fishmonger in Leichhardt. His name was Megalokonomos, from the town of Potamos. The family nickname is 'Tsiknis".

My mother is Dr Frances Tefany. Her mothers name was Koroneos.

I have three sisters - Isabella, Andrea and Madelaine.

I researched some of the paper below at the Kytherian Association of Australia (KAA) library at Rochdale.

The resources and executives of the KAA were very helpful.


The first time I heard the oral story of Paliochora was from my grandmother when I was 10 years old, in Greece. The shocking events she detailed to me were entrenched in my memory and sparked the interest that led me to research the history for this essay. Having my ancestry from the island of Kythera has naturally created in me an interest in the islands’ history. The oral history of Paliochora is the islands’ most well known tradition and arguably the most interesting. Its tale of destruction, murder and decay has survived against all odds and continues to inspire recipients of its story, as it did with me. Due to the story being an oral history I felt it necessary to investigate the effect of oral history on societies in general, as I was interested in the effect the story of Paliochora has played and continues to play on the islands inhabitants. I believe that oral history is often overlooked and regarded as inferior, which is quite disappointing considering the enormous amount of information it can provide both historically and culturally. Oral histories are becoming increasingly less important as younger generations seem uninterested in their cultural past. By discussing the importance of oral history to society and using the example of the oral story of Paliochora, I hope to be able to share my newly discovered enthusiasm for the preservation of oral traditions and in particular the story of Paliochora.


Oral History democratises the study of past events, incorporating the experiences of those documented history had forgotten. It has provided explanation for the present state of living of many societies, bound people together in a community through their shared past, and is an expression of culture. It is the oldest form of history, having existed since mankind learnt how to communicate. It encourages education and knowledge in a community and makes sure events are not lost to time. It also empowers the masses through education and encourages class equality through the subversion of documented historical fact. These events can be recorded as written documents or through images; however more often than not they are retold from generation to generation as oral history.

Historians such as Munslow contend that history is the past written in the present , whilst others like Carl Becker say that history has to do with the thought and action of people who lived in past times . Oral History is therefore a mental version of this; repeated from memory and never written down. The consensus of most historical opinion; however, lies in the perception of oral history as purely methodology. “From this perspective, oral history often appears to be a more or less technical process in which the memories of the elderly are elicited through questions” , rather than authoritative historical fact. Oral History has traditionally been looked down upon by many historians. It was during the changing climate of the Post-Modernist and Marxist trends that oral history began to be given credit as a valuable source of information. Marxists such as Christopher Hill embraced the history of the people - oral history. Such historians recorded oral histories, and wrote about the history of the working class, which had previously been reserved for transmission through oral traditions. The Post-Modernist Simon Schama admits to creating fictitiousness from his own perception on sources and their relative history . These schools of thought focused attention onto the masses and the history of the working class rather than the elite. They encouraged the thought about the importance of oral history and its power of social equality.

Some historians, such as Edward Gibbon suggest, history itself will always be subjective . Memories are personal and as a result cause oral history to be subjective. As Jan Vansina outlines, “the initial informant in an oral tradition gives, either consciously or unconsciously, a distorted account of what has really happened, because he sees only some aspects of it, and places his own interpretation on what he has seen.” The subjectivity of oral history is the basis for criticism of the form. Arnold van Gennep, the French specialist on rites of passage and folklore, believes oral history to be inferior, questioning its reliability and other historians like E. S Hartland consider the information oral history provides as worthless . Similarly Robert Lowie states, “I cannot attach to oral tradition any historical value whatsoever under any conditions whatsoever” . Nevertheless, historians such as Jan Vansina and Luisa Passerini consider oral history extremely important. Passerini suggests oral history “is pre-eminently an expression and representation of culture” . It is oral history that unifies a society in their expressions of culture. A community’s past is retold so as to preserve a sense of identity with their land, culture and members.

The cultural ties held by oral history can be seen in the story of Paliochora, on the island of Kythera, Greece (see Appendix). This ancient town was destroyed in 1537 by the pirate Kheir-ed Din Barbarossa, and its legacy has since been a part of the island’s folklore. The story was told from generation to generation, keeping the history alive and binding the island’s population in a common past. As time went by the oral history evolved to become primarily a form of entertainment, told to children by their grandparents, detailing an event so terrible and shocking that it became to be thought of as purely folklore. Its tradition continued adopting different influences and variations, however it never lost its historical basis.

Jan Vansina argues that oral histories have “a social surface." They are “significant to members of the communities in which they are told. Otherwise they would not be communicated at all.” So when investigating oral histories it is important to find out what the purpose of the history is. In the case of Paliochora, piracy raids have been a torturous part of Kythera’s history, with the island’s population dwindling after every raid, to the extent of abandonment. Yet only the story of the pirate raid by Barbarossa has survived. Archaeological evidence suggests that this raid and resulting destruction of Paliochora was the most devastating pirate raid in the island’s history, a finding that is of significance to a community and hence worth retelling. However historians such as “A. Feder, make the point that a tradition must not be accepted as trustworthy merely on the grounds that its origins are known.” Claiming that an oral traditions origin may not determine whether it is disrupted or changed over time.

The story of Paliochora is an example of the clash of cultures between the ever-expanding Ottoman (of whom Barbarossa was an admiral) and Venetian Empires and the dwindling Byzantine one (see Appendix). Aside from wealth, power and territory these cultures would clash over religious superiority, a point that can be argued to be more important than any other, as it can be used to justify their expansion and power. The survivors retold the events of the raid, highlighting its horrific details as warnings to all who would listen. The repugnant details were used to shock listeners into remembering the story and its message of sorrow and loss. The town’s once proud residents were mourned and idolized as martyrs, often with religious implications. They stood firm in their Christian faith against the Muslim raiders and were used to inspire faith in the islands’ population later in time.

The use of emotive language to describe events and evoke interest in an audience creates a story rather than hard facts and this is part of the history we have today. This aspect of oral history makes it appealing to listeners. Often it is the oral history that becomes common knowledge, educating an entire community, rather than the elite literate class. Certain events in the Paliochora account were described more than others, highlighting shocking acts and horrific murder, which allowed for the story to remain in the memory of others, and hence be retold again. For example, Barbarossa and his men were portrayed as blood seeking devils, as opposed to the residents of Paliochora who were depicted as martyrs . The oral story of Paliochora illustrates the general point that oral history acts as “a way of gaining recognition for suffering endured” and “to promote or celebrate a common identity— that is to say, a sense of community”. The shared hardship and sorrow bound the islanders together but also highlighted differences between themselves and outsiders. The story fed a growing enmity for Turks, which is shared by the majority of Greeks today, and was used to highlight the differences between Christians and Muslims. Just as Kytherians had survived against all odds, so too would their history in the form of oral history.

It can be assumed that disruption to the oral history has taken place over time. It is likely that the town of Paliochora would come to be portrayed as wealthy so as to accentuate the fall from glory to destitution and instil a sense of pride in an otherwise modest past. From the 13th to 18th centuries, the island was controlled by the Venier, a wealthy Venetian family, who did not care for the native peasantry and lived in luxury whilst the islanders were struggling to survive. This would provide motive for the adaptation of the story to include the theme of wealth, something the islanders never had and which they would create through revising their history. Kytherians still speak of the wealth Paliochora held , and yet there is no archaeological evidence to support the account of a wealthy town . According to archaeological surveys conducted by The British School at Athens the only wealth the town of Paliochora held, and hence wealth Barbarossa would have left the town with, were people to be sold into slavery. Excavations have been conducted by a number of institutions, which found that the houses that have been excavated are hovel like , and it is believed that the majority of the population were serfs . Most houses are thought to have been double storey , utilising every available piece of land on the outcrop and the only source of light and ventilation for most of the houses is believed to be the doors . All of these findings oppose the oral history’s depiction of Paliochora as a wealthy town.

The process of transmission of oral history is outlined by Jan Vansina; “An observer reports whatever it is he has observed in a testimony which might be called the initial or proto-testimony. This testimony is heard by someone who repeats it to a second person, who in turn passes on the information by telling it to a third person, etc. Thus a chain of transmission comes into being, in which each successive informant forms a link and in which every testimony is a hearsay account. The final informant communicates the final testimony in the chain to someone who records it in writing.” What results is history that has been retold from the point of view of a number of people. Each individual recounting the history may have forgotten something or added an event unknowingly. This creates slight changes to the events that took place and hence variations to the original recount of the event. For example, the oral story of Paliochora tells of almost the entire population being sold into slavery and the rest killed defending their town . However the fact that there is an oral history at all means that there must have been survivors to pass on their experiences. Like any other oral history there are variations to this oral history. Some versions describe inhabitants escaping Barbarossa by hiding in a cave, whilst others speak of women throwing their children and themselves off cliff faces so they would not be sold into slavery. All of these variations are possible as the oral story is the most detailed record we have of the event. The archaeological evidence supports the account of the existence of the town of Paliochora and its subsequent destruction, however it does not provide details on the happenings of the population after or during the raid. This means that both archaeological and oral history should be used together to gain a complete understanding of the town, as neither can provide enough information individually.

Variations in the oral story are used to support historians like Arnold van Gennep who is “sceptical about the reliability of oral traditions. He holds that the very method of transmission rapidly results in the tradition becoming altered as it is spontaneously handed down from one generation to the next.” However it can be argued that the variations that have arisen are minute and continue the essentials of the event through the story. The dramatization of events encouraged remembering of the story and ease in retelling, thus keeping the history alive. The point of oral history is not factual accuracy, but the need to maintain identity through a shared discourse. This does not mean however, that oral histories place no importance on factual integrity, as their nature emphasizes factual events as the structure for the oral history to develop from.

All that remained of Paliochora was its story and legacy, to be passed on for generations to come. Much like the site itself, the oral history of Paliochora is also decaying. Its perceived importance has declined over the past fifty years due to emigration from the island and increased external influence, which disrupted the passing down of the oral tradition. Younger generations do not understand the story’s importance to the island and its people, nor do they wish to, as they have not been educated about its importance or the importance of oral history in general. The large majority of Kytherians that immigrated to Australia have left the island’s population relatively low, and most unfortunately for the durability of the oral history, the majority of people who know the story live on the island. This isolates resident Kytherians from migrant Kytherians and their descendants, who are in the majority, and who are thus disconnected from a once integral part of their culture and society. The Kytherian diaspora has endangered the preservation of the oral history, causing it to be recorded in 2000 by George Koksma , thus ensuring its survival for generations to come. The need to record oral history has become the norm for almost all oral traditions around the globe. Migration breaks the thread of oral history, as would-be recipients of the oral tradition are no longer present to hear it, and consider the history unnecessary in their new life in a foreign land, where often assimilation takes pride of place.

This decline in importance of oral history is not unique to the story of Paliochora. Oral history has been continually ignored by historians for centuries; however it is now finally being re-discovered and valued for the information it provides. The Marxist and Post-Modernist historians such as Christopher Hill and Simon Shama energised the curiosity towards oral history, through their concentration and recreation of the history of the masses, and what had not been documented. They wished to preserve the history of the lower classes by subverting the natural historical order, of which written history of the upper class was prominent. This academic enthusiasm for researching oral stories is allowing for the better understanding of various cultures and societies. It also allows for the documenting of these oral stories so that they may not be forgotten.

Jan Vansina argues that oral history becomes imperceptibly distorted over time . However oral histories in general, and in the case of Paliochora, never lose their historical origin and basis. The story of Paliochora, and oral history in general, are important to society and culture. They provide common identity for a community and hence bind people together in a shared past. They provide meaning for the present state of living and ensure the continuing knowledge of historical events that would otherwise be lost to time. However oral histories are passed on to future generations as stories, not historical fact. In the case of Paliochora, children are told the tale of the destruction of the ancient town by their grandparents, as told to them by their grandparents. They are designed to invoke emotions of sorrow and pride into the listener and thus commit the history to memory. Rather than baffle the listener with historical fact, they are designed to be remembered and passed on, thus preserving the historical content.

The purpose of oral history and consequently its significance to society and culture is to inform the community of the past as well as entertain. Through educating the masses it empowers all classes, promoting equality. Written history has been for centuries rewritten in an attempt to become more objective, whilst oral history has accepted the natural subjectivity of history and used it to create historically based stories of the past. The oral history of Paliochora serves as a perfect example. It may have been to some extent distorted and dramatized, however it continues to maintain a strong historical basis. It has served its purpose in preserving the history of an event, so that it may not fade to time. Without oral histories like that of Paliochora, the significance of past events would die with the passing generations. Oral histories provide the necessary insight into our past and secure us with a greater depth of understanding and interpretation of personal experiences and memory. They preserve communal memory to be shared with future generations and ensure the survival of a communities’ culture. Unless oral histories are preserved and cared for through education and awareness, valuable historical and cultural events will be lost to time forever.


The town of Agios Dimitrios, (which is today known as Paliochora- “old town”) is believed to have been founded in the 12th century by the Eudaimoniaonnis family of Monemvasia, who were wealthy Byzantine merchants. This family would struggle for control of the island, along with the Venier family (of Venice) and the Ottoman Turks. By 1537, when Barbarossa razed Paliochora, the Venetians controlled the south of the island and the Eudaimonioanis family the north. The wealthy lived in the Venetian capital of Chora (in the south), beneath the castle, or in large villas, whilst the poor lived in small cramped towns such as Paliochora and Potamos (in the north). It is then logical to understand why Barbarossa chose to attack a less well-defended township. If he were to attack Chora and the Venetians he would have to storm the castle there, whereas his cannons much easily destroyed the thin walls at Paliochora.

Barbarossa was at this stage an admiral of the Ottoman fleet, having been recruited to strengthen the Ottoman navy. He conducted piracy in the name of the Ottoman Sultan across the Mediterranean, pillaging islands and enslaving their populations. The ransacking of Paliochora was no different, the town was destroyed and its population enslaved. Hated and feared by the majority of these peoples, he was loathed by Greeks due to his being born to a Greek mother on the island of Lesbos; “eternal shame for Lesbos because the evil-doer Barbarossa was born there in Greece” . According to folklore, the town of Agios Dimitrios (Paliochora) became very wealthy. This was partly due to the towns’ location on a rocky outcrop in a valley, (216m above sea level, 2km inland; streams in valleys) which provided natural defences for its population. This outcrop and hence the town could not be viewed from the sea, and hence was considered safe from pirate raids . Word of the wealth of this town eventually reached Barbarossa, who became determined to ransack the town .

There have been two housing groups discovered that are larger than the others and these are believed to have belonged to the two ruling families of the town . It is believed that these two families are responsible for the numerous churches at the town (22), as a show of their wealth . These churches are the only signs of wealth, with archaeological surveys conducted by the British School at Athens and other institutes finding evidence of a majority serf class of residents. Houses were very simple, making use of the limited space on the outcrop.


Kythera: A History of the Island and its People (1993), by Peter Vanges, was written with the intention of creating the first official history of the island of Kythera. Previously there had been texts on specific time periods in the island’s history, however never a complete general history of the island. The book was commissioned by the Kytherian Brotherhood of Australia with the purpose of creating a complete history of the island. Vanges has used a range of sources in writing this history, including newspapers, oral sources, and books, which helps to validate the information he provides. Although the book does not go into extensive detail about events in the island’s history, it does provide a significant overview of selected periods, which is substantial in enlightening the average person, but is purely a starting point for the researcher. As a starting point it was very useful, providing much background information from which to base my further research upon.

The fact that Kytherians of the diaspora commissioned the book is important to note. The separation of these people from their island homeland has caused a reduction in common historical knowledge of the island and cultural traditions. By writing this book, Vanges and the Kytherian Brotherhood of Australia aim to preserve the culture and history of the island of Kythera, for those who no longer live there.

A Tale of Paliochora, was recorded by George Koksma in 2000 and is the first written version of the oral story of Paliochora. It is a reflection of the necessity to record oral history so as to preserve it for future generations. The fact that George Koksma is Dutch is interesting to note, as one would expect natives to the island to preserve their own history. The history was published by ‘The Kytherian Society of California and the West’, which like the previous source (see “Kythera: A History of the island and its People”) was created by migrant Kytherians.

The source was useful to my research as it is the only written version of the oral history, having been attained from local Kytherians. I used this written source in collaboration with other variations of the story as told to me by my grandmother, Effrosini Tefanis. The reliability of the written oral story can be questioned as it was retold by the ninety four year old Koksma to the “Kytherian Society of California and the West”. Koksma is said to admit to having forgotten parts of the story (see “A Tale of Paliochora” pamphlet), which begs the assumption that information was ascertained from other sources as well. Nevertheless, the fact that there is a written version of the story is extremely useful in continuing the preservation of the history and sharing it with others.

Paliochora on Kythera: Survey and Interpretation was a survey conducted by Gillian Ince and Andrew Ballantyne, of the archaeological site of Paliochora. Their survey was part of the ‘British Archaeological Reports’ in 2007, and includes archaeological examination of the site, background history and comparisons to other townships on the island. This source was useful as it contained much detail about the background history of Kythera and the powers in the Mediterranean at the time, along with in depth examination of archaeological remains. I used this source and other archaeological surveys to support or compare with the written oral history (“A Tale of Paliochora). However the source did not assess the importance of the oral history or its change over time. The focus was on documented and archaeological remains, which I subsequently used to support my oral history research. The site was examined and surveyed with documenting of buildings and fortifications in the town and their relation to its arduous location. It is reliable as it uses a range of primary and secondary sources in discussion of background information, and careful examination of archaeological evidence.



• Adams, P. C., Hoelscher, S., Till, K. E. (2001). Textures of Place: Exploring Humanist Geographies. University of Minnesota.
• Calligeros, E. Historical Synopsis of Kythera: Here is Born Aphrodite. Singular Publications. Athens. 1996 (Book in Greek)
• Green, A. and Troup, K. (1999). The Houses of History. Manchester University Press.
• Hamilton, P. and Shopes, L. (2000). Oral history and Public Memories. Temple University Press.
• Ritchie, D. A. (2003). Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. Oxford University Press.
• Schama, S. Dead Certainties, Unwarranted Speculations. London. Granta. 1991
• Thompson, P. (2000). The Voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford University Press.
• Vanges, P. D. Kythera: A History of the Island and its People. Kytherian Brotherhood of Australia. 1993
• Vansina, J. (1965). Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Aldine Publishing.
• Vansina, J. (1985). Oral Tradition as History. University of Wisconsin Press.
• Webb, K. Extension history: The Historians. The History Teachers Association of NSW. 2006


• Coldstream, J. N. and Huxley, G. L. Kythera. Excavations and Studies conducted by The University of Pennsylvania Museum and The British School at Athens. 1972
• Ince, G. and Ballantyne, A. Paliochora on Kythera: Survey and Interpretation. British Archaeological Reports. 2007
• The Annual of the British School at Athens. Paliochora: Survey of a Byzantine City on the Island of Kythera. Preliminary Report. The British School at Athens. 1987.


• Koksma, G. A Tale of Paliochora. (Written version of oral tradition) Kytherian Society of California and the West. 2000
• Oral Sources: Effie Tefanis, Stavros Paspalas


• Munslow, Prof. A., What History Is
• Becker, C. L., What are Historical Facts?

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