Newly on display at the Archaeological Museum of Thebes is a beautiful red-figure vase adorned with images of the Greek mythological figure of the sphinx. Dating back to the fourth century BCE, the artwork links viewers to the past thanks to the intellectual and physical labor of a group of Bucknell faculty and students.
The vase, along with Byzantine glass jewelry excavated by the team, is on permanent display in the museum, leaving a legacy of the first joint Greek-American archaeological dig in Thebes, which started in 2011. Professor Stephanie Larson, classics & ancient Mediterranean studies, said that the unearthed relics mark an important and inspiring outcome. "Bucknell is responsible for those pieces on display in this fantastic museum. I don't think anything as good as that will happen to me for the rest of my life, because these pieces represent everyone's blood, sweat and effort."
Larson and Professor Kevin Daly, classics & ancient Mediterranean studies, embarked on the dig after receiving a $350,000 grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, one of the world's leading international philanthropic organizations. During the past six years, more than 75 Bucknell students have spent eight weeks of the summer learning the physical and intellectual aspects of archaeology.
To make that possible, Larson and Daly moved to Greece and set up the excavation from the ground up — everything from buying basic tools to renting a secure storeroom to finding a place for students to live when they were off-site. It was a daunting task, but one that allowed Larson and Daly to develop strong relationships with their Greek counterparts, carry out important academic work and provide an experience that very few undergraduate students are lucky enough to have.
Students say that while challenging, the experience enhanced their Bucknell education and changed their perspectives. Jon Hunsberger '16, classics & ancient Mediterranean studies, spent four summers on the excavation in Greece and said that he learned about both ancient material culture and modern culture of the Mediterranean nation.
"As I was digging, I was learning history, archaeological technique, teamwork, modern Greek language, modern Greek culture and more," he said. "This experience meant more and more each summer — it was so easy to translate my previous experience into greater growth and achievement in subsequent years. It allowed me to be a better student on campus at Bucknell, too. I thought with a more open mind and was studying what I loved."
For biology major Taylor McNeely '17, the experience during the summer of 2014 informed his biology research back on campus. "This labor-intensive and collaborative experience really helped me develop my skills working in coordinated groups under a deadline," he said. "Integrating different ideas and perspectives, and understanding and carrying out instructions has been important to my work in the lab."
Larson agrees that the work is difficult and complicated. "It's not just about digging things up and recording them, although that's a huge, intellectually stimulating part of the work," she said, explaining that the responsibility of keeping detailed and accurate records teaches students both research competence and reverence for the process.
"Archaeology on paper is far different from archaeology in person," said Tyler Strobel '19, who came to Bucknell interested in archaeology and decided to pursue the opportunity to do field work right away. "As a classics major, going to Greece was priceless. It allowed me to integrate myself into another culture and taught me how much a humanities degree is still relevant in this day and age."
Documenting this connection between the past, present and future also carries great responsibility, explained Larson. "You find something that's been buried for possibly thousands of years, and you're the first one to come across it," she said. "You have the responsibility to make sure that all of the details about it are recorded well, so that the person who wants to study that thing 50 years from now can come and look at it and get what they need from your information. If you are not careful enough, if you don't take enough pictures from a certain angle, or if you forget to write down what the weight is, no one will ever know. It's up to you."
That's why the team has amassed more than 30,000 photographs with detailed metadata. Their workroom is filled with objects arranged in numerical order by year, each having been carefully processed. While the eight-week excavation season is all about getting things out of the ground and recording them, study seasons — the time for more detailed examination — are equally important.
Each year, post-excavation study seasons are intensive work periods that bring architects, Byzantine pottery specialists and bone specialists to the Thebes workrooms to spend their summers researching, sharing their expertise and collaborating on publications. Professional illustrators also come to draw many of the excavated objects by hand to scale so they can capture particular aspects of objects that photography misses.
While the on-site excavation has now ended, this kind of research work will continue during the next two summers while Larson and Daly complete their study and write both an article and a book, slated to be finished in 2019. The Thebes team of senior scholars working on the final monograph publication now numbers more than 15 professors from five countries. With their analyses of the excavated material, they will carry the work of this joint project through to its conclusion and set the stage for future archaeological projects in Thebes.