The first time I got to go out to Turkey and work on an excavation really just exploded my knowledge. It made me have a personal connection to what I was doing. It wasn't just something I was approaching in books, but was now approaching with my hands.
Not every classicist gets to wear SCUBA gear to work. Assistant Professor of Classics Kris Trego spends her share of time poring over Greek and Latin texts from the time of the Roman Empire. For the past 10 years, she also has spent her summers working with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and Texas A&M University to excavate ancient shipwrecks off the coast of Turkey.
One recent project has been the excavation of a ship that was carrying, among other things, the components to a monumental marble column in the first century BCE. "We have all these great monuments made of marble throughout the Mediterranean, and we know about some of the quarries, but we don't know too much about the process of getting the stone from the quarries to these monument sites," Trego says. While the six to eight-ton marble drums found with the wreck fill in some of those details, Trego also is interested in smaller discoveries - coins, little bits of glass, small terra cotta statuettes, and cooking pots. "A lot of times these items tend to be what the crew has personally brought on board," she says. "It's these guys that I'm most interested in, these people who don't get recorded in the literature."Trego has also helped excavate a small Greek trading ship, during the Tektaş Burnu Shipwreck Excavation, which sank during the fifth century B.C.E. The discovery showed that local trade persisted despite a great war that was raging between Athens and Sparta at the time. Amphorae full of salted beef ribs also challenged the idea that the ancients ate meat only at ceremonial occasions.
"It's the everyday ships that are a part of bringing these cultures together," Trego says. "Some of the things that don't get recorded in the literature and the history, but which are preserved in the material record, show us a sharper picture of what life was really like and how the ancient world really functioned."
Understanding daily life and the place of the individual within larger society guides Trego's interpretations of the literature of the day. She asks why different literary genres, such as biography and novels, have appeared and disappeared over time.
"To understand some of those questions, I look at the broader history of the region - what changes are being made in the political and social arenas, how economies are changing, and how trade is functioning or isn't functioning, and how people wrestled with these changes through artistic expression" she says. "Changes in the literature are tied to changes in society and politics, and a lot of that is reflected in the archeological rather than literary evidence."
Trego is eager to share the excitement of shipwreck excavation with her students. "The first time I got to go out to Turkey and work on an excavation really just exploded my knowledge," she says. "It made me have a personal connection to what I was doing. It wasn't just something I was approaching in books, but was now approaching with my hands."
Posted Sept. 22, 2009