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Greek Professor Digs Deep into Ancient, Mysterious Soil

March 18, 2023

As a youngster in his native Greece, Michael Cosmopoulos flashed a robust curiosity, spellbound by the wellspring of ancient treasure that encircled him. “It’s not hard to do when you grow up in Athens, surrounded by ancient stones, museums, and monuments!” enthused Dr. Cosmopoulos. “So I felt fortunate in the sense that I never had any doubt as to what I was going to do with my life. I am very passionate, not just about antiquity but about the value of historical studies to our understanding of our lives today.”

Now a professor of Greek history, archaeology, and culture at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Dr. Cosmopoulos parlayed his childhood wonderment into a distinguished career, soaring with it onto exalted academic peaks, drawn from his field work in the ancient village of Iklaina. It is there that the revered, popular educator has trained his expert eyes as he connects the dots of the misty past, unearthing dazzling new findings that speak to the genesis of states and how they functioned as the dominant political, economic, and social networks worldwide.

Nestled in the Peloponnese above the Ionian Sea, Iklaina has yielded many secrets. It may well have been the capital city of Late Bronze Age state during a period which ran from 1500-1100 BC and is known as the ‘Mycenaean’, was the temporal location of the Trojan War. He dispelled earlier discussion, however, that Homer mentioned Iklaina in his classic tales.

The 15-year-old project, funded by government and private scientific organizations, has yielded “exciting discoveries.” They include gargantuan buildings, paved roads, piazzas, and an advanced drainage system. Not to be forgotten was the unearthing of the Linear B tablets. “It’s a very ancient Greek script,” he explained, “in which each character represents one syllable. Linear B tablets were used exclusively for the needs of state bureaucracy. There was no private writing in that era.”

Seventy years ago, he said, noted Greek archeologist Spyridon Marinatos got word from farmers concerning the presence of possible ancient buildings in Iklaina. After excavating for four days, Marinatos unearthed sections of large buildings, frescoes, “and other wonderful finds,” said Dr. Consmopoulos. However, Marinatos never followed up on his initial search. It wasn’t until the 1990s, he added, when Dr. Cosmopoulos was selected to pick up where Marinatos left off.

Dr. Cosmopoulos, true to his exacting scholarly standards, hastened to sort out an important aspect of the research. “First of all, Homer does not explicitly refer to Iklaina,” he noted. “There is, however, a correspondence in the names of one of the cities mentioned in Homer and the Mycenean name of our site, which has led scholars to suggest this identification.” The location of the ancient city of Pylos is also unclear. “For the Mycenean period, it seems to be the site known today as the Palace of Nestor.”

Initial research for restoration of the monuments at the site and its eventual transformation to a public archeological site have been completed. Once the Greek Ministry of Culture approves the plans, fundraising for work at the site can begin.

The potential impact on tourism, he maintained, reaches far beyond Greece. “Our world is a world of states, and in order for us to understand how our governments work, we must learn how they came to be, what they are, what their components are, and how they operate.”

Along with his seminal work in Iklaina, Dr. Cosmopoulos has a sterling academic pedigree. In 1981, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Athens, studied at the University of Sorbonne in Paris, and earned his PhD from Washington University in St. Louis in 1986.

Among his other accomplishments, Dr. Cosmopoulos serves or has served as an Academic Trustee of the Archaeological Institute of America. He is also the founding director of the Centre for the Iklaina Archaeological Project. The group studies the systems from which sprung states and governments in Greece and the western world.

His most recent recognition came in June in Athens. President of the Hellenic Republic Katerina Sakellaropoulou, in a special ceremony at the Presidential Palace, bestowed the Golden Cross of the Order of the Phoenix on Dr. Cosmopoulos. The three others who were honored won in other categories. She hailed the quartet as “four of our eminent compatriots, who excel in the fields of politics, science, and the arts. It is a recognition of their work, values and ethos, both in our country and internationally, which set an example and make us proud.”

On a personal level, the classicist is half ‘owner’ of ‘the family business’ – his wife, Dr. Deborah Ruscillo, is also an archeologist “and a scholar in her own right,” he said. “She’s been a pillar of support for our personal and professional lives. We have three kids who work with us on the dig every summer.”

The well-deserved attention he’s received has only strengthened the bonds to his heritage. “Of course, I do feel very proud to be Greek, and it’s a pride that I try to instill in my own children and to our students,” he asserted. “Greek culture is characterized by continuity for thousands of years and by tremendous contributions to our society today”

That childlike awe still burns hot: “Each and every one of these finds was a source of tremendous excitement. Just at the thought that what you uncovered has not seen the light of day for over 3,000 years!”

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