How Modern Greek Came to America

Posted by Curtis Runnels

Curtis Runnels, Professor of Archaeology at Boston University and an expert in Palaeolithic archaeology in Greece, here contributes to From the Archivist’s Notebook a story about how Americans first heard Modern Greek being spoken in the early 19th century. An aficionado of antiquarian shops, Runnels has frequently discovered unique documents of great historical and informational value, such as the four documents presented below, which tell us the story of a Greek merchant, Nikolaos Tziklitiras, who, after landing by accident in Boston in 1813, became the first Greek teacher in town and laid the foundations for the spread of Modern Greek studies in America.

On a late autumn day in 1813 the ship Jerusalem made its way slowly into Boston harbor.  She was a long way from home.  The 750-ton ship began her journey in Smyrna with a Greek-speaking crew bound for Cuba to take on a cargo of coffee, sugar, copper, and hides for Boston.  Unfortunately, things did not go exactly as planned.  Contemporary reports in the Niles Weekly Register, a popular news periodical of the day, relate that the Jerusalem was detained in September on her way to Boston by the British on account of the copper ingots in her cargo, and the ship was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  She evidently put into Boston on her way to Canada (“September 18: The Greek Ship Jerusalem”).  Now, in November, having sorted out her difficulties with the British authorities, she was at last bringing her cargo to Boston (“November 27: The Greek Ship Jerusalem”).

The news of Jerusalem’s detention as announced in Niles Weekly Register, Sept. 18, 1813.

The arrival of the Jerusalem in Boston was newsworthy because as far as the authorities knew she was the first Greek ship to reach the United States.  It was something of a sensation, and members of the public, along with officials, merchants, students, and at least one Harvard College scholar, Edward Everett, flocked to the dock to see the ship.  One man in the throng, however, was not interested in the story of her voyage and capture, nor was he interested in her cargo of Cuban sugar and coffee.  John Pickering (1777-1846) had come to hear the crew talk.

Once in a Lifetime

Having learned “Oriental” languages while serving as secretary to the American Minister in Portugal in the 1790s, John Pickering now practiced law in Boston.  There he acquired a reputation as a grammarian and a linguist, and his keen interest in languages, both ancient and modern, led him to perceive in the unexpected appearance of the Jerusalem a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn modern Greek from living speakers of the language (Larrabee, p. 299n4).  His desire to learn how Greek was pronounced was at least in part because of the well-known three-hundred year old controversy over the correct pronunciation of ancient Greek begun by Erasmus (Pickering, p. 4-25).

Few people in the United States knew anything about modern Greece in the years before the Greek War of Independence.  Though ancient Greek culture and language were staples of American education, only two Americans are known to have travelled in Greece before 1821: Joseph Allen Smith and Nicholas Biddle (Larrabee, p. 10-11).  I suspect there were other visits by American merchants and sailors in the early nineteenth century, as ships plying the Mediterranean must have put into ports in the Aegean, especially the island of Syra.  But if there were American visitors other than Smith and Biddle they left no records of their impressions.  Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844) kept a journal and wrote several very descriptive letters home, but these unfortunately remained unpublished until our own day (McNeal 1993).  Biddle made the trip to Greece in 1806 as part of a tour of Europe, and his travels were undertaken in order to learn something about the political circumstances in other countries to fit him for a political career when he returned to Philadelphia.  His observations on modern Greek culture and language, especially its pronunciation, would have been of great value for scholars like Pickering had they been known.  As it was, Pickering was unable to find out anything about modern Greek even during his time in the Mediterranean.  He was prevented from travelling to the eastern Mediterranean because of quarantine laws, and Greek-speaking merchants and sailors rarely ventured beyond Malta in those days (they were under pressure from the Sublime Porte to remain within the eastern Mediterranean).  So it is not surprising that Pickering was excited by the prospect of speaking with the Greeks on board the Jerusalem.

Pickering hit the jackpot.  There were two men on the ship fluent in Italian (the lingua franca of Mediterranean commerce) who were able to converse with him.  One of them, Captain Lazarus Nicholas Katara, a native of Hydra, had little education and knew nothing about ancient Greek, but the other one was the man for the job.  Nikolaos Tziklitiras was a merchant who had resided for many years in Constantinople and was now the supercargo, or officer in charge of the cargo, on the Jerusalem.  A native of Navarino (modern Pylos) in the Peloponnese, Tziklitiras was intelligent, educated, and familiar with ancient Greek; and he was willing to instruct Pickering in modern Greek and its pronunciation.  Pickering’s first lesson was how to pronounce his tutor’s name: he tells us that Tziklitiras pronounced his name “cheek-lee-teeras” and went by the Italian version of his name “Nicola Ciclitira.”  Thus we have a record of perhaps the first modern Greek lesson on American soil (Pickering, p. 1-3).

From Supercargo to Greek Teacher

Olympic gold medalist Konstantinos Tsiklitiras, grandson of Nikolaos Tziklitiras. Source: International Olympic Committee, public domain.

The ship and its crew probably remained in Boston over the winter (Pickering referred to his conversations with Katara and Tziklitiras as taking place “in 1814”) and sailed for the Mediterranean with the return of good sailing weather in late spring.  Captain Katara would turn up again in Greece where he ran into Edward Everett, the Harvard scholar he met in Boston (Larrabee, p. 29).  After a few years Tziklitiras returned to Boston to stay and to earn his living as a teacher of modern Greek and its pronunciation (Pickering, p. 1-3).  He remained in Boston for four years, and he married in 1815 a French woman (Phebe Catharine Ouvre) and had two children, one of whom, his son Nicholas, would become the grandfather of the noted athlete Konstantinos Tsiklitiras (1888-1913).

These facts can be gleaned from the reports in the Niles’ Weekly Register, the biographical background provided for Konstantinos Tsiklitiras on line, and a small book on the pronunciation of Greek published by Pickering in 1818.  Particularly interesting is the lithographed facsimile in Pickering’s book of a letter in Greek by Tziklitiras that establishes the date of his return to Boston and his intention of becoming a teacher.  To these sources we can now add a small collection of manuscript documents in the Archives at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).  One day about 20 years ago I received a small packet in the mail from a bookseller in Brockton, Massachusetts (John William Pye, 1948-2016).  Pye explained that the documents were miscellaneous items that had turned up in a box of materials obtained at auction.  He had no idea of their provenance or content, but knowing my interest in all things Greek, he thought I might like them.  A short examination led me to believe that they were possibly an independent record of Tziklitiras’s contribution to the teaching of modern Greek in the United States, and for this reason I donated them to the ASCSA.  They deserve a detailed description.

One document is a piece of tattered paper on which are written names (including “Tzikliteras” and “Jenks” in Greek), a Greek alphabet, and a quotation from the Greek New Testament.  At the bottom, in English, is a note: “[This] specimen of Greek chirography is from Mr Tzikliteras, [a native] of the south of the Morea, now resident in Boston, [and a] teacher of youth. He was supercargo of the Greek ship, lately in this port. My introduction to him was due [to the] kindness of my much esteemed & accomplished friend, the Hon. [John] Pickering Esq. Boston August 25, 1818.”  The note is signed “W. J.” for William Jenks.

William Jenk’s note about Tziklitiras, 1818. ASCSA Archives, Curtis Runnels Collection.

The second document is a holograph letter in Italian signed (in Greek) by Nikolaos Tziklitiras and addressed to the “Honorable John Pickering Esq.”.  Tziklitiras reminds Pickering that he promised to provide some proverbs and other quotations in idiomatic Greek to Mr. Jenks and asks Pickering to give the enclosed manuscripts to Jenks when he sees him.  The letter is also dated “Boston, 25 August 1818.”

Handwritten note by Nikolaos Tziklitiras to John Pickering, 1818. ASCSA Archives, Curtis Runnels Collection.

The third document bears the same date and a text in Greek on one leaf written and signed by Tziklitiras.  It consists of Greek alphabets, proverbs, and Biblical quotations.  On the second leaf of the paper the Greek texts are translated into Italian and signed ” il peloponnissio greco, Nicola Ciclitira.”

Handwritten note by Nicholaos Tziklitiras, 1818. ASCSA Archives, Curtis Runnels Collection.

The final manuscript is a letter in Greek addressed to “loanni Zugomala (Chiote) in America” from “his mother” and dated “Smyrna, June 15, 1830.” The writer hopes her son’s studies are going well and begs him to “dip your pen in the ink” and write her a letter.  The Greek text has a note in English (“My own omission”) keyed to a word that has a correction to the spelling, suggesting that this manuscript is a copy of an original letter.  An English translation on the back in another hand ends by stating “The above transl. by a Greek, probably” and “Tr. Dec. 3rd. 1830”.  It is unknown whether this letter is connected with Nikolaos Tziklitiras (perhaps the translator mentioned in the note?).

Letter addressed to Ioanni Zugomala in America from his “mother,” 1830. ASCSA Archives, Curtis Runnels Collection.

These documents belonged to William Jenks (1794-1884), a minister, one time professor of Oriental Languages and English at Bowdoin College, the founder of a mission for seamen in Boston, and the author of a Comprehensive Commentary on the Holy Bible (six volumes, 1835-1838).  Jenks was also a co-founder of the American Antiquarian Society and the American Oriental Society.  Jenks, who was a private teacher in Boston at the time of the arrival of the Jerusalem was, like Pickering, an accomplished linguist.  He was reputed to have the largest private library in Boston. (The William Jenks Collection is housed at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.) The significance of the documents that once belonged to Jenks and are now in the ASCSA is that they confirm the presence of Tziklitiras in Boston in 1818 and his connection with John Pickering, and illustrate how Tziklitiras engaged with scholars who were interested in modern Greek and the nature of the information they sought.

Tziklitiras remained in Boston until the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence when he returned to Greece with his son and young daughter (who died at sea).  During the war he served in the Peloponnese in a series of administrative positions before returning to Pylos at the end of hostilities.  He became a magistrate and died in Pylos in 1840.

In the Footsteps of Tziklitiras

The scholarly interest in modern Greek in the United States, however, did not end with the departure of Tziklitiras.  Colonel Alexander Negris, a distinguished veteran of the War of Independence, settled in the Boston area around 1827 and taught modern Greek at Harvard for two years.  He published a Grammar of the Modern Greek Language in 1828, the first grammar of modern Greek in the New World, in which he remarked “I can claim the credit of being the first to inspire men of learning and taste in America…with the desire of becoming acquainted with the living dialect of Greece” (Negris, Preface).  After Negris’ departure, modern Greek instruction at Harvard was undertaken by Evangelinos Apostolides Sophocles, who would make the greatest contribution to Modern Greek studies in America.  Sophocles was born at Tsangarada on Mt. Pelion in Thessaly about the time of Tziklitiras’ arrival in the United States (there is some inconsistency in Sophocles’ date of birth, between 1807 and 1814, an inconsistency due no doubt to Sophocles’ noted reticence in personal matters.  Sophocles was educated at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, and at some point came to the attention of missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions in Boston.  He sailed for Boston in 1828 with the missionary Josiah Brewer and two other Greeks.  After studying at Amherst College and holding various teaching posts, he moved to Harvard College in 1842 as Tutor in Greek (Professor of Greek after 1860), where he remained until his death in 1883 (Larrabee, p. 181, 255).  His contributions to modern Greek studies were many.  Besides teaching ancient and modern Greek to generations of students and scholars, he published many books, including a Romaic Grammar, and a History of the Greek Alphabet, which were standard texts for many years.  Sophocles was succeeded at Harvard by Aristides Phoutrides (1887-1923), who translated modern Greek literature and established Helikon one of the first Greek student organizations in the United States.  And today, thanks to the endowment in 1977 of the George Seferis Chair of Modern Greek Studies at Harvard University, the study and teaching of modern Greek introduced two hundred years ago by Nikolaos Tziklitiras from the deck of a ship has become a permanent part of higher education in the United States.

On How to Pronounce Ancient Greek

While the interest in modern Greek flourishes today in the United States, the same cannot be said about Tziklitiras’s views on the pronunciation of ancient Greek.  Pickering tells us that Tziklitiras effected a change in his thinking about the pronunciation of ancient Greek:

“It now appears to me highly probable, nay almost certain, that the Greeks of the present day pronounce very nearly as their ancestors did, as early as the commencement of the Christian era” (Pickering, p. 3-4).

Biddle too had been surprised to learn that modern Greek was pronounced differently from the way he had been taught to pronounce ancient Greek.  At first he was skeptical about the application of modern pronunciation to ancient Greek, but he changed his mind.  He asked in his journal:

“Can a foreign people dictate to the descendants of the Greeks how Greek is to be read?”

concluding that “[there] was a strong argument in favor for the use of modern pronunciation” (McNeal, p. 146-148).

Tziklitiras’s letter to Pickering about how to pronounce ancient Greek, as published in Pickering 1818.

The question of the correct pronunciation of ancient Greek has been debated for centuries.  Before the time of Erasmus in the early 16th century it was not uncommon for ancient Greek to be pronounced much like modern Greek.  Erasmus adopted a new, and in the view of many scholars arbitrary, method of pronouncing ancient Greek that would eventually become the accepted pronunciation in Europe and later the United States (Pickering, p. 4-15).  Tziklitiras obviously did not accept the Erasmian pronunciation.  A. E. Sophocles, on the other hand, summarily treated the matter saying “we may safely assume that the Romaic pronunciation, as a system, cannot go farther back than the seventh century of our era” (Sophocles, p. 92, emphasis in the original).

John Gennadius (1844-1932), the founder of the Gennadius Library of the ASCSA, however, was in Tziklitiras’s camp.  He expressed his views on the subject in a number of periodical articles at the end of the nineteenth century.  Always a sharp critic of contemporary methods of teaching Greek in Europe, Gennadius believed that the prevailing Erasmian system of ancient Greek pronunciation impeded the learning of ancient Greek.  Gennadius argued that it was better to learn modern Greek first because the knowledge of modern Greek and its pronunciation would facilitate the learning of ancient Greek.  Unfortunately the views concerning the pronunciation of ancient Greek held by Gennadius, and before him Biddle, Pickering, and Tziklitiras, have not won over the majority of American scholars, and today the Erasmian pronunciation of ancient Greek yet prevails.  It is fitting, therefore, that Tziklitiras’ unpublished papers, disiecta membra from the ship that brought modern Greek to American shores, and at least temporarily convinced American scholars to pronounce ancient Greek in the same manner as the living Greeks, should be housed at the Gennadius Library.

Note: For a brief presentation of the four manuscripts when they were first received by the ASCSA in 2006, see AKOUE Fall 2006, p. G4.


Gennadius, John, 1895, “The Proper Pronunciation of Greek,” The Nineteenth Century, vol. 38, no. 224, pp. 681-698.

Gennadius, John, 1896, “Erasmus and the Pronunciation of Greek,” The Nineteenth Century, vol. 39, no. 227, pp. 87-97.

Gennadius, John, 1897, “The Pronunciation of Greek in England,” The Contemporary Review, vol. 71, pp. 373-393.

Larrabee, Stephen A., 1957, Hellas Observed: The American Experience of Greece 1775-1865, New York.

McNeal, R. A., 1993, Nicholas Biddle in Greece. The Journals and Letters of 1806, University Park, Pennsylvania.

Negris, Alexander, 1828, A Grammar of the Modern Greek Language, Boston.

Pickering, John, 1818, On the Pronunciation of the Greek Language, Cambridge.

“September 18: The Greek ship Jerusalem,” Niles’ Weekly Register, volume 5 (1813), p. 42.

“November 27: The Greek ship Jerusalem,” Niles’ Weekly Register, volume 5 (1813), p. 214.

Sophocles, E. A., 1842, A Romaic Grammar Accompanied by a Chrestomathy with a Vocabulary, Hartford, Connecticut.

Sophocles, E. A., 1848, History of the Greek Alphabet with Remarks on Greek Orthography and Pronunciation, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Online References

“Modern Greek Studies Harvard” (accessed 29 July, 2019)

“Konstantinos Tziklitiras,” (accessed 29 July, 2019)Κωνσταντίνος_Τσικλητήρας

“Sophocles obituary”

“William Jenks Collection”


Mycenaean Mementos and the Govs: The Materiality of the Wace-Blegen Friendship

Posted by Jack L. Davis

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here writes the biography of three objects, modern copies of Mycenaean originals, which once belonged to Carl W. Blegen and Alan Wace, the “Govs” of Mycenaean archaeology. These objects were once woven in some way into the personal relationship of these two individuals who shaped the field of Mycenaean studies.


They will honor him in their heart as if he were a god
And send him to his dear homeland in a ship
With gifts of bronze, gold, and fabrics in such abundance
As Odysseus would never had taken from Troy
If he had arrived home unscathed with his share of booty.
(Od. 5.36-40)

Such is Zeus’s prediction of Odysseus’s fate among the Phaeacians.  And guest gifts are a phenomenon not only well-known to Classicists, but a concept that has had an impact on anthropological thought for nearly a century — at least since the publication in L’Année Sociologique of Marcel Mauss’s “Essai sur la donne” in 1925 —  and, through it, on the interpretation of patterning in archaeological data.  Mauss demonstrated that in pre-modern exchange systems there were obligations to give and receive, but especially to reciprocate in the presentation of gifts, practices deeply embedded in social systems.  In the field of archaeology, gift exchange has been seen, prominently since the 1970s, as a mechanism that accounts for distributions of material goods (e.g., T.K. Earle and J.E. Ericson eds., Exchange Systems in Prehistory, New York 1977), and studies of the cultural biographies of exchanged artifacts have been popular (A. Appadurai, The Social Life of Things, Cambridge 2013).

This post is not, however, concerned with archaeological finds, but rather with the histories of a few
mementos owned by two of the most famous Greek prehistorians of the 20th century, Alan Wace and Carl Blegen, best friends and colleagues,“the Govs” as they called themselves  (see Y. Fappas, “The ‘Govs’ of Mycenaean Archaeology: The Friendship and Collaboration of Carl W. Blegen and Alan J. B. Wace as Seen through Their Correspondence,” in J.L. Davis and N. Vogeikoff, eds., Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives, Atlanta 2015, pp. 63-84).  The copies of Mycenaean artifacts that I consider here have sometimes been thought to have been material manifestations of their friendships, mutually reciprocated gifts.  But were they really?

A Pair of Goblets

On the final day of my directorship of the ASCSA, June 30, 2012, Jim Wright, my successor, and I drank from a metal goblet of Early Mycenaean shape and style — high stem, shallow bowl with out-turned rim, dogs biting the rim, two strap handles.  We were toasting the passing of the baton from one administration to the next. The goblet in question had been sitting on a table at the foot of the staircase leading to the piano nobile of the Director’s house during my entire tenure in Athens (2007-2012). I had heard through the grapevine that it was one of a pair that celebrated Wace and Blegen’s friendship, each man having one.  That’s a wonderful story and one that I repeated to others on a number of occasions, but was it true?

Jack Davis and Jim Wright drinking out of Carl Blegen’s goblet, being watched by an approving Olga Palagia, June 30, 2012. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan.

This past spring I wrote Lisa [Elizabeth Bayard Wace] French to get her take on the matter, and she replied: “I am not sure whether the govs bought these replicas at the same time or not but I do well remember that I knew even as a child that each family had one. Attached is the photo of Ken Wardle filling the one held by Cynthia [Shelmerdine] with the bottle of wine brought by [one guest] … It was at a buffet dinner I gave at Millington Road … all the relevant Cambridge people came….“

Ken Wardle filling Wace’s goblet held by Cynthia Shelmerdine. Photo Elizabeth Wace French.

One of the gold goblets that Stamatakis found at Myceneae, now in the National Archaeological Museum. Photo: Jack L. Davis.

Where and when did the Govs get these goblets?  Did they, in fact, buy them together?  Were they gifts?  Both are copies, of gold, not silver, goblets found by Panayiotis Stamatakis at Mycenae near the Schliemann grave circle (see H. Thomas, “The Acropolis Treasure from Mycenae,” Annual of the British School at Athens 39 [1938/1939] 65-87). Wace’s goblet, now in the hands of his granddaughter, Ann French, is water-marked English sterling manufactured in 1908, in Chester by the firm of Nathan and Hayes – before, that is, Wace and Blegen met for the first time.  A discoloration on the base was likely created by a price tag, thus not made-to-order.  The goblet is also labelled underneath: “Mycenaean 14th cent. B.C.”  Nathan and Hayes manufactured and marketed a line of replicas.

Blegen’s goblet, in contrast, is unmarked and unlabeled — although nearly identical.  It was not made by an English silversmith nor at the same time as Wace’s — nor is it silver, as we recently discovered through XRF analysis in the Wiener Laboratory of the ASCSA.  It is instead a brass electrotype.

Carl Blegen’s copy of the gold goblets found at Mycenae near Grave Circle A. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan.

Dr. Dimitris Michailidis of the Wiener Laboratory analyzing Blegen’s goblet. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan.

Did Wace have it made for Blegen, perhaps in Greece?  It is not impossible that it was acquired from the shop of the Émile Gilliérons, père and fils, on Skoufa St. in Kolonaki. (On the Gilliérons, see Sean Hemingway’s lecture at the Met in 2011; and Watercolors of the Acropolis: Émile Gilliéron in Athens: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v.76, no. 4 [Spring, 2019]. The Met was one of the Gilliérons’ best customers.)

Certainly Wace and Blegen knew the Gilliérons.  Gilliéron fils worked with Wace in 1923 at Mycenae, as did Blegen.  He then worked for Blegen at Prosymna, and again, in the wake of the 1939 campaign, at the Palace of Nestor.  In the archives of the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati we have a small notepad with pen and ink drawings of finds from Tholos Tomb III at Pylos, as well as casts of two ivories. But did the Gilliérons make the goblet?  It is listed in their sale catalogue (Galvanoplastische Nachbildungen: Mykenischer und kretischer [minoischer] Altertümer, Athens, pl. 10, no. 16), but it was normal to hallmark their products with “Gilliéron Athènes” in an oval.

The gold Mycenaean goblet in the Gillieron catalogue.

A Mysterious Clay Alabaster

As I discovered more recently, the goblets are not the only Wace-Blegen realia enrobed in mystery. During the extraordinarily wet and cold winter of 2019 Shari Stocker and I were dining in Alameda, California, at the home of Kim Shelton and Dimitris Dimopoulos, her husband. Dimitris, who hails from the village of Ancient Mycenae, is a professional chef. Shari and I hung out in the kitchen, talking to Kim as Dimitris threw together a Mexican meal.

Kim’s LEGO models of a Starship Enterprise and a Millennium Falcon dominated conversation in their dining room, as did the biographies of her two cats.  It was only late in the meal that I saw a familiar friend sitting on a small table by the front door – a vase made by Cincinnati’s Rookwood Pottery, the best known of all 20th century producers of American Art Pottery. Shari, who in an earlier life bought and sold art pottery, saw it too.

The date of the pot was clear –1924 (written XXIV) incised before firing on its base – but the shape was odd. It was a masterful reproduction of a Late Helladic II alabastron! We had never before seen a prehistoric Greek vase imitated by Rookwood, let alone in a “production piece,” a category intended for the mass market. Even Classical Greek shapes are rare (although Shari and I have a calyx crater in our own collection).

Copy of a Late Helladic II alabastron by Rookwood Pottery, 1924. Kim Shelton Collection. Photo: Jack L. Davis.

The alabastron turned out to have been a gift to Kim from Lisa French, one of a pair of alabastra inherited from her parents. (Lisa’s daughter Ann now has the other.)

Here was a real conundrum. Kim thought Lisa had told her that the vases were presents from Blegen, but, if they had been commissioned by Blegen as friendship tokens, why hadn’t each Gov kept one? How exactly had the Waces come to possess alabastra made in Cincinnati?  Lisa suggested a possibility:

“The family story as I remember it is that my parents visited the factory and AJBW was asked to design a shape they could produce – which they did – My mother loved the black one and used it every year for a lovely low dish of anemones.   This must have been on a visit to the US between their marriage in 1926 [1925] and my birth [1931] BUT I do not know if it was before or after CWB got there as a very great friend of my mother was Mrs Alice Reynolds sister to Mrs Timkin who lived in Cincinnati –  They had served together at the YWCA canteen for returning soldiers in New York in 1918/19.”

There are some problems with this scenario, however. The Waces were not married until June of 1925 and the vases are dated to 1924.  The idea that Blegen gave the alabastra to Wace is also not likely.  Although by 1924 they had become fast friends, Wace having schooled him in Mycenaean pottery already in 1916 at Korakou, Blegen only came to the University of Cincinnati in 1927.


The Wace Family in the 1930s. ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers.

Lisa Wace with her godfather Carl Blegen, 1937. ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers.

Over the next few months I obsessively pursued the origin of the alabastra. First I wrote to Suzanne Perrault, an art pottery appraiser on Antiques Roadshow and a friend of ours. (Mary Darlington of the ASCSA had arranged for Suzanne and her husband, David Rago, to visit the School when I was director.). Suzanne suggested that I write to another friend of ours, Anita Ellis, former deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Art Institute of Cincinnati.

Anita responded: “Your vase is part of the [Rookwood] Brown Mat glaze line. The brown color of this glaze line ranges from dark chocolate to light brown, and is generally uneven in color or mottled, not unlike many finds from antiquity. Because this glaze line is not listed in any of Rookwood’s glaze notebooks, color identification sheets, or retail sales lists suggests that it did not sell well. I suspect that one had to like the browns of antiquity to appreciate it. … Like the other undecorated mat lines this one is considered a commercial ware product because it is undecorated and unsigned by any artist.

As for the impressed marks on the bottom, “2760” is the shape number. Peck’s book of shape numbers [H.Peck, The Second Book of Rookwood Pottery, p. 144 (privately published, 1985)] tells us that the vase was designed by John D. Wareham (1871-1954). [Our calyx krater was also designed by Wareham]. The date of the vase as you know is 1924. Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922, which gave way to a very desirable archaeological look to things for years. You also have an esoteric mark below the “2760.” … The commercial ware pieces that contain [such marks] are usually from more complicated molds, such as the one needed for your vase because of its shape and because handles needed to be applied.”

Copy of a Late Helladic II alabastron by Rookwood Pottery, 1924, bottom of vase. Kim Shelton Collection. Photo: Jack L. Davis.

Had these vases been special orders?  I turned to Rookwood Pottery Inc. for help.  Would they be able to provide a clue?  There I struck out. The Rookwood archives were destroyed when the firm moved to Starkville, Mississippi in 1959.

Alan Wace in Cincinnati in 1924

At this point I decided to approach the problem from another angle.  Had either Wace or Blegen been in Cincinnati in 1924?  I got lucky.  Although Wace’s diaries from this period are not preserved, public records came to the rescue.  Wace had, in fact, been Charles Eliot Norton Memorial Lecturer for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) in 1923-24.  In that capacity, he delivered two lectures about his excavations at Mycenae in southwestern Ohio: one at Miami University and one in Cincinnati.  The Cincinnati chapter had been founded in 1905 but was reorganized in 1923-24 by William T. Semple, head of the Department of Classics at the university.  Semple was also patron of the university’s excavation at Nemea, which in its inaugural campaign in 1924 would be directed by Bert Hodge Hill and Carl W. Blegen.  The chapter grew from seven members in 1924 to 80 in 1925. By 1926-1927, Semple’s wealthy wife, Louise Taft, had become a Vice-President, and Cincinnati was described as “one of our best societies” in President R.V.D. Magoffin’s annual report.

I found an advertisement for the Miami lecture in a local newspaper, but none for Cincinnati.  Jeff Kramer, archivist of the Department of Classics, wonders “if the Cincinnati stop wasn’t advertised to the public, especially since membership [of the society] was so small.  Who knows? – maybe the Semples hosted it at Louise’s parents’ house on Pike Street. The parlor there is more than large enough.”  That mansion is now the Taft Museum of Art.

It seems entirely possible that Wace visited Rookwood Pottery on the occasion of his visit to Cincinnati in January 1924 and supplied the design himself, as Lisa remembers the family tradition (although not with her mother).  Susan Walker Longworth, whose ancestors had once owned the Taft mansion on Pike St., had been President of the Cincinnati society and was a life member.  The Longworths were passionate about art and Greek Antiquity. But there is a smoking gun: her sister-in-law, Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, a patron of the arts and an artist herself, had co-founded Rookwood Pottery.  Had the Semples helped to arrange the manufacture of the two alabastra for Wace on the occasion of his Norton lecture?  One can even imagine that the Director of the ASCSA, Bert Hodge Hill, who had visited the Semples in November of 1923, supplied Rookwood Pottery with images of alabastra recently found by Wace at Mycenae — although there is no indication that he did so in his account of the trip included in a letter to Blegen.

Both Mycenaean object biographies have loose ends.  The bottom line is that, although this post has become much longer over the past six months, I am unable to be certain about the precise roles that the goblets or alabastra played or did not play in Wace and Blegen’s relationship – there are only likely scenarios.

Failure in the Archives?

Despite the fact that Blegen’s professional archive at the ASCSA comprises 8 linear meters, while Wace’s in the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge fills 34 boxes, questions that might easily have been answered, were the principals alive, remain mysteries. The momentos that concern me in this post are, of course, of trivial importance in comparison to gaps that historians often face, especially when confronted with biographies of the disempowered and disregarded. That problem is, in fact, so extreme that it was chosen as the topic of a 2014 conference sponsored by The Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at University College London, titled “Failure in the Archives,“ a celebration of the “frustrations of archival research,” … “a forum to examine everything that doesn’t belong in traditional conferences and publications, from dead-end research trips to unanswered questions. The dangers of misstepping in the archive are endless, no matter how robust the finding-aids. ‘Failure in the Archives’ [aimed] to make that danger useful.”

Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, is one of the many who have wrestled with such issues.  In regard to her biography of Jane Franklin, sister of Benjamin Franklin (Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, 2013), she remarked several years ago:

“I think [Jane Franklin’s] story is allegorical in that it helps us to think about inequality. If people go around with the idea that the only people in the 18th century were John Adams and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, then they are left with no ideas at all about inequality. The historical record is profoundly uneven and asymmetrical. These men left behind so many documents, so much paper, and these other people did not. So Jane’s life works as an allegory that reveals persistent forms of inequality, and what is more urgent to understand than inequality? … I took on a fairly ambitious sense of mission when I finally decided to finish this book — which I tried for many years to write and kept abandoning. I wanted to tell Jane’s story as a way to ask readers to think about how history gets written: what gets saved and what gets lost, what gets remembered and what gets forgotten, and what the consequences are of each of these choices.”

Do goblets and ceramic alabastra have their usefulness in the sense meant by the organizers of “Failure in the Archives”? In some small way I think they do.  These objects were once woven in some way into personal relationships of individuals who shaped the field of Mycenaean studies. And the strength of these realia is demonstrated by their continuing ability to bind institutions and individuals: Cincinnati, Cambridge, and the ASCSA, schools cherished by Wace and Blegen, as well succeeding generations of scholars from Alameda to Manchester. As a student of material culture, I can appreciate that.


I am grateful to all who have helped me research background for this post. These include: Anita Ellis, Ann French, Lisa French, Sean Hemingway, Riley Humler, Jeff Kramer, Joan Mertens, Dimitris Michalopoulos, Suzanne Perrault, Kim Shelton, Sharon Stocker, and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan.  The Odyssey translation is from Kostas Myrsides, ed., Reading Homer: Film and Text.

To Live Alone and Like It: Women and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens Between the Wars.

“But it is not education only that is needed. It is that women should have liberty of experience… to idle and loiter, the mental space to let your mind wonder,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own in 1929. The work was based on lectures she delivered in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College in Cambridge (both for women). She further advised her female audience “to drink wine and have a room of their own.” I will not dwell on the issue of wine because women of all classes had access to alcohol, at least privately, but for a woman to have a room of her own was highly unusual before WW II, especially for women who had not inherited wealth. Woolf would be eternally grateful to her aunt for leaving her a lifelong annual stipend of 500 pounds.

That a woman could live alone by her own choice was almost unheard of. Young women who moved to the big cities in search of work were usually sharing apartments with others of the same sex, for a few years at most, until they got married. However, WW I upset traditional demographics by creating a population imbalance in the western world: more women than men. To put it bluntly, for these extra women it meant that the prospect of marriage was less attainable (Scutts 2017). If Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was fighting her own battles in ultra conservative England, Marjorie Hillis (1889-1971), an American writer and contemporary of Woolf, was sufficiently daring to publish in 1936 a book that encouraged single women to take control of their lives and Live Alone and Like it. “A Lady and Her Liquor,” “Pleasures of a Single Bed,” and “Solitary Refinement?” were some of the chapter titles. Her book became an immediate best-seller and remained popular for many years.

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Exploring the Relationship of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens with the Greek Omogeneia in the United States in the 1940s.

In 1947, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) produced a color movie titled Triumph over Time; it was directed by the archaeologist Oscar Broneer and produced by the numismatist Margaret E. Thompson with the aid of Spyros Skouras (1893-1971), the Greek American movie mogul and owner of Twentieth Century Fox (see Spyros Skouras Papers at Stanford University). Triumph over Time portrays Greece rebounding from World War II and the staff of the ASCSA preparing archaeological sites for presentation to postwar tourists. The film was made to promote the first postwar financial campaign of the ASCSA, the direct goal of which was to increase its capital and finance the continuation of the Athenian Agora Excavations. Indirectly, the ASCSA was hoping to contribute to the rehabilitation of Greece by providing employment for the Greek people and by promoting the economic self-sufficiency of Greece by developing the country’s tourist assets (Vogeikoff-Brogan 2007).

Oscar Broneer, ca. 1938. ASCSA Archives, Oscar Broneer Papers.

Triumph over Time begins with a brief overview of impressive Greek antiquities, such as the citadels of Mycenae and Tiryns and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, before continuing with rare ethnographic material capturing parts of rural Greece that no longer exist. It then moves from the Greek countryside to the buildings of the ASCSA, especially the Gennadius Library with its rare treasures. The story then covers the ASCSA’s two most important projects, the excavations at the Athenian Agora and at Ancient Corinth, explaining all stages of archaeological work. The documentary ends with a hopeful note that financial support of the ASCSA’s archaeological work will contribute to an increase in tourism so that this major source of revenue for Greece’s economy can “restore stability and well-being to this simple pastoral land.”

Stills from Triumph Over Time

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Francis H. Bacon: Bearer of Precious Gifts from the Dardanelles

I first came to know Bacon’s name when, as a student of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) in 1989-1990, I was asked to report on the Assos Excavations during the School’s trip to Asia Minor. Assos, an affluent, ancient Greek city in the Çanakkale Province and a colony of Lesbos, is known for having erected the only Doric temple in Asia Minor, where the dominant style was Ionic. Francis Henry Bacon (1856-1940) was the architect of the excavations, which were funded by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and took place from 1881 to 1883, as well as one of the three co-authors (with Clarke and Koldewey) of a final publication that was not completed until 1921. Although Bacon’s name appears second, the publication would not have appeared without his dedication and persistence. Joseph T. Clarke (1856-1920) had given up on it long before, and Robert J. Koldewey (1855-1925) had dedicated most of his life to uncovering Babylon.

In 1878, Francis H. Bacon and Joseph T. Clarke bought a sailboat, the “Dorian,” in London and sailed to Athens by way of Holland, the Rhine, the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Aegean. Here a self-sketch by Bacon while examining a marble lekythos at the National Archaeological Museum. Source: MIT Libraries, Institute Archives and Special Collections.

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To Know One’s Country as a Foreign Land

I have always found informal travel accounts fascinating. By informal, I mean accounts found in personal diaries or letters. Occasionally, they are published posthumously by the writer’s relatives (usually for family consumption) and attract little attention because of their mundane nature. Until recently, such letters and diaries of anonymous folk were avoided by historians who considered their content subjective or inaccurate. After all, why use the private diary of an American expatriate in Greece as a source, when the event (e.g., a local revolution) was described in more detail in the newspapers or other official reports?

I, on the other hand, pay particular attention to these types of publications because they provide valuable information, otherwise undocumented, about the level of local awareness, participation or aloofness within foreign communities. Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936), an English writer and philosopher, once said that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land: it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” It’s the second part of Chesterton’s comment that makes me delve into the travel accounts of foreigners-mostly Americans in my case–who have experienced Greece as a foreign land. Here I am not interested in the tourist but instead the engaged traveler, the expatriate, or, in rare cases, the committed immigrant (that is the foreigner who has almost “gone native”).

My latest source of inspiration for getting “to know my country as a foreign land” is a privately published collection of letters which came to my attention after a visit to the newly established Archives of the American College of Greece. There, Dr. Demetra Papakonstantinou, an accomplished archaeologist who now serves as the College’s Archivist, graciously shared with me a copy of a book titled Odyssey of a Learning Teacher (Greece and the Near East 1924-1925). Published in 2005 by David L. Aronson, the book contains transcriptions of the letters that his mother, Charlotte Eleanor Ferguson, a graduate from Mount Holyoke College and a teacher at the American College for Girls (what is now Pierce College), sent to her family in 1924-25. (The original letters are now part of the American School of Greece Archives.)

Front cover photograph: Charlotte Ferguson and Helen Larrabee departing from New York.

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On Finding Inspiration in Small Things: The Story of a Pencil Portrait

My story begins six years ago when we inventoried Bert H. Hill’s collection of photos at the item level. Among the images were early portraits of Hill when he was a little boy, and later, a handsome young man. A graduate of the University of Vermont (B.A. 1895) and Columbia University (M.A. 1900), Hill subsequently attended the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or the School hereafter) as a fellow for two years (1901-1903). He then secured a job as the Assistant Curator of Classical Antiquities at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1903-1905) and lecturer at Wellesley College where he taught classes in sculpture.  Bert Hodge Hill (1874-1958) was only 32 years old when he was appointed director of the ASCSA in 1906, a position he held until 1926.

Bert Hodge Hill, ca. 1910s. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

While processing the images my eye fell on a small portrait (12 x 9 cm) that was not a print but instead a well-executed drawing of Hill’s profile in pencil. On the back, Hill had scribbled “Huybers” and “BHH”.  An initial web search for “Huybers artist” produced four of his pencil sketches in the Harvard Art Museums, a gift from George Demetrios in 1933 (keep the name in mind); the artist was identified as John A. Huybers.

Portrait of Bert Hodge Hill by John A. Huybers, ca. 1915-1920. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

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