ATHENS – It is fair to say that while many visitors to Greece fall in love with the country after visiting for the first time, the love affair for most archaeologists and historians begins earlier, and that their fascination extends far beyond what is seen in tourism videos and brochures.
“To say we go off the tourist trail is an understatement,” Brendan Burke told The National Herald. He is the current Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, a major research center in Greece and one of a number of the other foreign archaeological schools in the country.
“Graduate students from the U.S. and Canada come here for a structured academic program over the course of nine months: In the fall, we travel extensively throughout many different parts of Greece, covering Crete from east to west, two trips to the Peloponnese, and in Northern Greece for two weeks going from Thasos to Corfu.”
While the Ministry of Tourism has only recently focused on extending the tourism season beyond the sun and sea of summer, ASCSA has long welcomed scholars throughout the year. “In the winter, we offer seminars from visiting professors and from School staff. We also have an intensive course focused on the archaeology and history of Athens and Attica, which I lead. In the spring, members participate in the archaeological field school training program at the ASCSA excavations of ancient Corinth and they pursue their own research programs inspired, we hope, by everything they have learned throughout the year,” Burke said.
MONUMENTS EXPLORED AND RESTORED
ASCSA, which has been in existence for 140 years, is perhaps the best known of the renowned archaeological schools – at the very least, it can boast a spectacular advertisement: ASCSA is the institution that undertook the magnificent restoration of the Stoa of Attalos that dominates the Athenian Agora and has given millions of people their most powerful sense of what it was like to visit Ancient Athens, delighting countless visitors and inspiring thousands of scholars since its completion in 1956.
The Stoa is just one element, however, of the history and contributions of a unique institution for Greece and the academic world.
“As the Andrew W. Mellon Professor, my job is to manage the Academic program of the School, which is an important part, but just one part, of the overall School operations. School members and alumni are all very proud of the academic program and we see it as unique among the foreign schools,” Burke said.
ASCSA is the home of two remarkable libraries located across the street from each other, the Gennadius, which focuses on Byzantine, Medieval, and Post-Byzantine history, and the Blegen Library, which specializes in the period from earliest pre-history to late antiquity.
The Blegen library is where the academic program offices are located and where the Regular members – those participating in the year-long academic program – and most Associate members are based. The Blegen holdings cover a wide range of topics, from earliest prehistory and anthropology to ancient Greek and Latin literature.
“The strongest part of its collection,” Burke said, “is dedicated to the art and archaeology of Greece, from all periods. None of the books circulate outside the library. Users can check them out to their carrel or table so that they remain accessible to others if needed. It is a world-class research library. For many American School alumni, it is the reason they return to the ASCSA every year.”
Books and journals are the foundation of archaeological learning, but the importance of technology on site and in libraries for scholars grows each year.
“Archaeology encompasses a wide range of fields and so there are new developments constantly. My project in central Greece has been working with geophysical survey methods, less destructive means of understanding what is below the Earth than excavating, for example. We also employ new methods of digital photography, like photogrammetry or 3D scanning, to capture accurate visual data that is much more informative than simple film or digital photos. This is useful for both teaching and research.”
As an example, he noted that “if someone would like to check the recorded measurement of an excavated room or the storage capacity of a jar that have been recorded with photogrammetry, for example, the measurements can be done anywhere in the world with their computer. We also employ scientific methods to understand past populations and are able to make inferences about family relationships and places of migration or origin. New technologies and methods are improving every day and the ASCSA is fortunate that so many of its members are involved in these new technologies.”
ASCSA is in the middle of a million dollar 1:1 matching grant campaign – $600K has been raised so far – in support of its Laboratory for Archaeological Science.
Asked about any planned changes, Burke explained, “the ASCSA has many traditions, including the academic program I noted earlier. We make every effort to visit new excavations and museums to keep up with the latest developments throughout Greece, but in many ways, we don't change the overall structure of the academic program. We have expanded the scope of our program's coverage, from the earliest evidence for humans in Greece through the Bronze and Classical ages to Byzantine and modern Greece. I think what we have been doing for 140 years, as you noted, has been very successful and I'm very happy to be a part of it.”
For all the technological advances and innovations, archaeology remains an endeavor that relies of the field work and interactions of human beings. Naturally, the COVID pandemic had an impact, and changes had to be made in the institution's operations.
“For staff and visitors to the American School,” Burke said, “safety is a huge priority and the School is dealing with the challenges of COVID as best we can. We strictly follow the local regulations. For the academic program during the fall semester, the Regular members travel by bus to archaeological sites and museums throughout Greece.”
Current Regular Members applications must be submitted by January 15, 2022 and up to 12 fellowships are generally available.
Asked about long term changes prompted by the pandemic, he said, “I think it's too early to tell. During the last academic year, the ASCSA speakers series pivoted to all on-line presentations and these proved very successful. Many more people were able to listen and follow our lectures and this was a very good thing. There are plans for this year to have in-person public lectures, but these will also be recorded and live-streamed since we realize that there is a huge audience of interested people who want to hear new research about the Greek world.”