ATHENS – Greek and Byzantine history is filled with parallels to the COVID-19 crisis, but the dedicated staff and scholars of The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) which are world leaders in their study, aided by technology, has made the best use of its time and facilities.
Jennifer Neils, Director or ASCSA, told The National Herald “we made the decision last March to cancel the summer program, the regular academic program, and seminars, as well as our ongoing excavations,” including the major ones in Corinth and the Athenian Agora. But there was some limited excavation with staff and hired workmen. The period was a valuable pause also because “it gave everybody a chance to catch up on things like data entry and cataloguing, and conservation, site maintenance, etc. In that sense the time was not wasted.”
It was later decided that they would not be able to run their regular Fall fellowship program for graduate students and gave them the option to defer – which they all did. The program will be reinstated in Fall 2021.
“What is interesting, however,” Dr. Neils said, “is that a number of our second year fellows already in Greece opted not to go back. The 60 who are in Athens writing their dissertations are almost a full complement of scholars.” Faculty doing research stayed because they can do their online teaching with facilities set up by ASCSA. “We are teaching in America!” she said. “Sometimes it's 11 at night, but they are doing their classes.”
Some scholars, like the Fulbrights, are planning to come in the Spring. It all depends on COVID-19 restrictions being loosened up, but the picture is not clear yet. Students can come, but not necessarily scholars.
“We are not going to start our regular fulltime program until next summer. Hopefully June we will have our summer program and we will be back to normal in the Fall.”
Dr. Neils is currently also working on a history of ASCSA with the Gennadius Library's director, Maria Georgopoulou.
ASCSA is “the oldest and largest U.S. overseas research center, providing graduate students and scholars from affiliated North American colleges and universities a base for the advanced study of all aspects of Greek culture, from antiquity to the present day,” according to its website.
Housed in elegant neoclassical quarters in the lovely Kolonaki neighborhood near Athens Centre, the school's slogan is: “Bringing Greece's past to life since 1881.”
That was the year it was founded. Since then ASCSA has welcomed graduate students and scholars from a consortium of about 190 North American colleges and universities, providing a base for research and study in Greece.
ASCSA's outstanding academic programs, excavations, libraries, and other facilities are deemed extensions of those other schools' graduate programs in classical archaeology, classics, linguistic studies, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern Greek studies, archaeological sciences, political science, history, and more. Studying at ASCAS is considered an informal requirement for the well-rounded PhD in Greek area studies.
With the COVID-19 uncertainty now extending to next Spring, Dr. Neils is looking forward to the summer of 2021. ASCSA's Summer offerings include what is called a Boot Camp. For six weeks, students tour archaeological sites and museums all over Greece. There are also two three-week seminars. One is in Thrace, Macedonia and the Northern Aegean – a part of Greece that is less well-known by students – and where they have an excavation with Princeton University. There is another by a woman interested in ancient craftsmanship, including woodworking, pottery, titled The Aegean Networks of Technology.
The shorter seminars are valued by people with limited amounts of time.
Neils illuminated the modern reality encountered by visitors to many Greek islands which are virtually denuded of trees. She notes that pottery, metalworking, and even bread ovens consume huge amounts of wood. “We know there were forests because we find deer remains,” she said.
There is also a summer program funded by the Leventis Foundation with studies of medieval Greek Byzantine manuscripts through the Gennadius Library.
ASCSA has 400 supporting members in the United States – 200 institutions that send representatives to the school's Managing Committee and there are also 400 scholars who are directly linked to the school. “I sent a message to them to say how grateful we are to be in Greece where the COVID-19 situation was under control … and where we felt safe ... And we wanted to thank Prime Minister Mitsotakis and the Greek government. As a sort of return for our gratitude, even though he offered a furlough program for our 60 Greek employees, we didn't take it. We just kept and paid our employees. We didn't want to take money from Greece after doing such a great job with the pandemic.”
Dr. Neils said, “we are being very careful with our campus and libraries, limiting people.” She regrets that is frustrating for the scholars but there is no other choice.
Less than 10% of their undergraduate students are Greek-Americans, but many scholars from Greece who study in North America win ASCSA fellowships and come back to Greece. They constitute about 20% of the follows.
There are things this Fall at ASCSA to get excited about. “We are opening our big exhibition on Ion Dragoumis” – Greek diplomat, philosopher, writer and revolutionary – on October 15, the 100th anniversary of his assassination,” Dr. Neils said, adding that the School has a lot of his papers and materials.
ASCSA's webinar program, which included a presentation on the Battle of Salamis, has also strongly caught on along with other online attractions for scholars and enthusiasts. “The outreach is fantastic. We get two and three thousand viewers on them.”
With COVID-19, everybody is holding them, so the webinars are not so novel, “but we have a professional videographer on our staff. For the Salamis webinar we got permission from the Greek navy for drone photography over the tomb of Themistocles on naval property,” Dr. Neils said.