Phantom Threads of Mothers and Sons

“Dear Mother: How far are we responsible for already inherited faults? That old Sam Hill, by whom folks used to swear when they dared not take greater names in vain, brought over to Vermont at the end of the eighteenth century among his numerous children one son, Lionel, destined to surpass in dilatoriness all the other slow-going Hills of his generation. He married very tardily and begat two sons, both in due time notable procrastinators, the greater of them being the younger, named Alson, who added to more than a full measure of the family instinct for unreasoning delay an excellent skill in finding good reasons for postponing whatever was to be done. Alson Hill was my father…”.  Bert Hodge Hill (1874-1958) addressed these thoughts to his mother from Old Corinth on February 28, 1933 when he was almost 60 years old. Hill, however, never mailed the letter because she had died when he was barely four years old.

Bert Hodge Hill as a young boy and as a middle-aged man. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

We will never know what prompted Hill to compose this imaginary missive to a person he never knew. It is the only document, however, that has survived among Hill’s papers that gives us a hint of latent childhood trauma. Just google “mothers and sons” and you will get titles such as “Men and the Mother Wound”, “The Effects of an Absent Mother Figure,” and so forth, with references to a host of scientific articles about the decisive role played by mothers. Hill’s dilatoriness cost him the directorship of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) in 1926, after having served as the School’s Director for twenty years. Hill never even finished his imaginary letter to his mother. Had she been around when he was growing up, would have she corrected this family defect and taught him how to prioritize and achieve timely and consistent results? Hill must have wondered.

Hill’s letter to a “phantom mother” (read also my note at the end of the essay) and the fact that Mother’s Day is around the corner, inspired me to look for other cases of mother-and-son relationships among the people whose personal papers reside in the School’s Archives.

Carl W. Blegen (1887-1971), the excavator of Troy and Pylos, on the other hand, had a happy childhood in Minnesota with attentive parents and caring siblings. Many of his mother’s letters are preserved in the ASCSA Archives, but the contents are difficult to access because they are hand-written in Norwegian. As a result they are largely unread with only a few exceptions.  But, although Anna Blegen wrote to her son exclusively in Norwegian, he corresponded with his parents in English.

The majority of any archive (and here I am referring to our analog collections) usually consists of incoming correspondence. Letters sent out are rare and are either drafts, or, rarely, originals that relatives of the deceased (usually the “family’s historian”) have saved. In Blegen’s case, it was his nephew Robert (Bob) Blegen who preserved Carl’s correspondence to his family and then donated it to the School’s Archives in Athens. Yet, despite Bob’s care, only a handful of Carl’s letters to his parents remain.

Carl Blegen (standing, left) with his parents and siblings, 1908. ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers.

Blegen chose to write separately to his mother and father. His letters to his father, John Blegen, a professor of Greek and Religion at Augsburg Seminary, were usually long because he would often try to explain aspects of the current political situation in Greece. On August 1, 1915, Carl wrote a lengthy letter to his father about the nature of Greek politics and the “events which led up to the resignation of Mr. Venizelos as Prime Minister of Greece.” His letters to his mother Anna are shorter; hers, however, are quite long. In one of his to her, written on Nov. 16, 1916, he described the impressive discovery of two Roman statues at Corinth, while a month later (Dec. 25, 1916) he would share with her his successes as a gardener in Athens. “Gardening is almost as much fun as archaeology” Blegen confided. He often climbed Mount Hymettus in order to collect bulbs of wild cyclamen and orchid.

It would be wrong to think, however, that Blegen’s letters to his mother were trivial or mundane. A letter from his sister Martha reveals that Carl shared with his mother a lot more than just gardening adventures. “Mother was good enough to let me read that letter about Miss Schurman as you said I might. I was rather surprised to think that such a thing should happen to you for you were always making fun of others! But I might have suspected that you were very much interested elsewhere, for you have written, so seldom this last year… and I hope that when she does make up her mind it will be as you wish…” (Martha Blegen, July 31, 1913).

Anna Blegen writing in Norwegian to her son Carl. ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers.

I have written elsewhere about Blegen’s love affair with Catherine Munro Schurman (1886-1936), the daughter of the U.S. Minister to Greece in 1912-13, Jacob Gould Schurman. Knowing how much this affair had tormented Blegen, I was curious to find out how much more he had confided to his mother. With the help of people of Norwegian descent, I was able to read parts of two letters from his mother. In the earlier one, from July 22, 1913, she inquired whether Miss Schurman’s parents were aware of his marriage proposal: ‘What do her parents say to this? Have you spoken with her father?” She ended her letter with a little warning, no doubt, revealing a mother’s instinct: “I only wish and hope that she says ‘Yes.’ Should it go against you, it would probably become quite difficult to stay as ‘cheerful’,” his mother noted. By September 12, the not-so-good news had reached Blegen’s mother. Helen had declined Carl’s proposal. “It is all for the best” Anna Blegen wrote, further adding with a touch of motherly indignation: “it seems that her family had other expectations for their eldest daughter. She encouraged Carl “to keep up his courage” and “although nothing is good, you are that much stronger.”

Carl Blegen with Catherine Schurman and her father Jacob Schurman, 1913. ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers.

Ten years later he would share very little with his mother about his relationship with Elizabeth (Libbie) Pierce. It was too complicated and perhaps too progressive to explain to his mother. After an initial “yes” and engagement in February 1923, Libbie broke up with Carl, and resumed her relationship with Ida Thallon, only to agree, a year later, to a conditional marriage, involving a liaison of four. I wonder how much of this, if any, Carl ever confided in his mother. The family was almost shocked to read on July 24, 1924 that he had married Elizabeth in Lake Placid without inviting them.

“Mother doesn’t feel equal to writing you and Elizabeth today, so wants me to do so for her. The news of your marriage was certainly a very great surprise, since you had given not the slightest intimation of any such plans. You ask if she had had any suspicions – we only wish you had given occasion for them” wrote his sister Martha on July 15.

To add further that “you know she loves you so much that whatever will bring you the greatest happiness is what she wishes for you.” Martha concluded her letter by saying that their mother was looking forward to seeing him soon. He must have hurt her even more when he and Elizabeth decided to leave for England a few days after their wedding without going to Minneapolis to meet Carl’s family. In fact, his mother would die two years later without having ever met Elizabeth in person.

If Blegen, metaphorically speaking, broke his mother’s heart in 1924, a year later, he would convey the bad news of Richard Seager’s sudden and untimely death to his mother, Gertrude McCabe. Seager (1882-1925), the excavator of Mochlos and Pseira, an islet off the coast of Crete, had taken ill on ship returning from Egypt to Crete and died at sea. In the ASCSA Archives we have his mother’s response to the announcement of Richard’s death. “It’s as you know, a crushing blow to me. He was my most cherished possession and I am alone without him… The shock was too much and for 24 hours I was dumb and blind” McCabe wrote to Blegen on May 26, 1925, thanking him for taking care of Richard’s funeral on Crete. Seager was her only child. “I shall never take Richard’s body away from Crete. I’m sure he would prefer to lie there, where his best efforts were made and his heart was.”

To end this post on a lighter note I recall a conversation I had more than two decades ago with Nancy Winter, Head of the Blegen Library at the time. She had asked me whether I had read Theodore W. Heermance’s letters to his mother; she wanted to know if I had noticed the unorthodox way with which he signed them. Heermance, Director of the School for two years (1903-1905), wrote to his mother weekly. However, instead of simply signing as Theodore (or Ted), he used his full name: “Theodore Woolsey Heermance.” Why? I don’t know. One suspects a formal relationship between mother and son, which was probably not unexpected in the upper echelons of America’s East Coast, where boys were sent away to boarding schools at an early age.

On the other hand, John Gennadius (1844-1932), the founder of the Gennadius Library (one of the School’s two libraries) maintained a close relationship with his mother Artemis throughout his life despite his frequent and long absences from Greece, as the few preserved letters between the two reveal. He addressed her as Αγαπητή και πολύτιμή μου Μαμά (My dear and precious Mother) or Μανούλα (My little Mother, a very affectionate term in Greek) even as a mature man in his late 30s. And he treasured the scrapbook of dried plants (φυτολόγιο) that she compiled for his 36th birthday in January 1880.

From the plant scrapbook that Artemis Gennadius compiled for her son’s birthday in 1880. ASCSA Archives, John Gennadius Papers.

Speaking of formal and informal mother-and-son relationships, Prince Charles of Wales most recently broke protocol by publicly calling Queen Elizabeth “mummy.” The Queen’s reaction? Rather amused, she rolled her eyes!


Note: Phantom Thread, the movie, inspired the title of my essay. In it, Reynolds Woodstock (played by Daniel Day Lewis), the renowned London dressmaker of the 1950s, cherished his mother’s memory by having sewn a lock of her hair into his jacket. More than an act of remembrance, her lock acted as a talisman and guaranteed her protective omnipresence in his life long after her death.


The Riding Goddess of Mycenae

“In the summer of 1954, while Dr. Papademetriou and I were investigating the new Grave Circle of Mycenae, we removed the fill to the south of that circle; it proved to have been the dump of a previous excavation. Its position seems to indicate that in all probability it was made up of earth removed either by Mme Schliemann or by Tsountas from the dromos of the Tomb of Clytemnestra. Among other objects found in this earth were two carved gems, one of which bears the figure of an animal, and the other a design not only interesting for its excellence of its workmanship but also important because of the subject represented,” wrote archaeologist George Mylonas in the introduction of his book Ancient Mycenae: The Capital City of Agamemnon (Princeton 1957).

Tomb of Clytemnestra, 1953. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.


The Accidental Discovery of Grave Circle B

The Tomb of Clytemnestra had been robbed by Veli Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of the Morea, in the early 19th century; he had, however, missed the dromos. Years later, in 1876, it was cleared by Sophia Schliemann, while her husband Heinrich was digging the shaft graves of Grave Circle A. The Tomb was properly excavated by Christos Tsountas in 1897, who conducted excavations at Mycenae from 1886 until 1902. After WW II, the Greek Archaeological Service undertook the restoration of the Tomb of Clytemnestra, which, by then, was falling apart and needed urgent care. The restoration, which started in the spring of 1951, was completed by the fall of that year.

George Mylonas, ca. 1957. Photo: ASCSA Archives, George Mylonas Papers.

While recreating the mound that once covered the Tomb, the workmen discovered fragments of funerary plaques (stelai), some of which were still standing. A rescue excavation below one of the plaques revealed a shaft grave very similar to the ones that Schliemann had excavated in 1876. John Papademetriou (1904-1963), Ephor of Argolid, went back to the site in November of 1951, this time in the company of George Mylonas (1898-1988), who was on a sabbatical leave from Washington University at Saint Louis. (For Mylonas, also read “The Spirit of St. Louis Lives in Athens, Greece.” The two men knew each other well from the time when they were studying archaeology at the University of Athens, as students of Christos Tsountas (1857-1934). A careful examination of the area around the newly discovered shaft grave revealed the existence of a second grave circle dating to the 17th/16th centuries B.C.

The Athens Archaeological Society decided to conduct a systematic excavation in the following year (1952), assigning the direction of the project to Papademetriou and Mylonas. In terms of finds it yielded, the excavation of Grave Circle B proved as rewarding as that of Grave Circle A in 1876; more importantly, however, the shaft graves of the new Circle were dug and recorded in a careful and systematic manner, using the latest recording methods: Demetrios Theocharis (who would later direct important excavations himself) made detailed plans and drawings, Lawrence Angel, one of the most famous physical anthropologists of his generation, studied the skeletal remains, while Nikolaos Tombazis, an accomplished photographer, was assigned the photographic documentation of the dig.

John Papademetriou and Demetrios Theocharis, Mycenae 1953. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.

Archaeology, however, is an ever evolving and expanding discipline that follows closely the latest technological advances. About sixty years later, in 2015, the excavation of another shaft grave (that of the Griffin Warrior), this time at Pylos, would have stunned Mylonas and Papademetriou —were they alive— not only by the richness of its content but also by the recording and analytical methods that excavators Jack L. Davis and Sharon Stocker had at their disposal and applied to their dig: from photogrammetry, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), and X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF), to palaeobotany, micromorphology, sediment analysis, and DNA analysis — just to to name a few.

A Modern Mycenaean Feast

Nikolaos Tombazis’s photos were included in the books and articles that followed the excavation of Grave Circle B. After retiring from India where he worked for 30 years as a commercial representative of the Rallis Brothers firm, Tombazis (1894-1986), the father of architect Alexandros Tombazis, launched a new career as a free-lance photographer on archaeological excavations, including Mycenae. His rich photographic archive has been deposited at the Benaki Museum, which recently organized an exhibit in his honor, including photographs from India and Greece. Of the many included in the publications of Mylonas’s excavations at Mycenae, one, however, stands out, because it captures the entire excavation team in the summer of 1953: nineteen men, two puppies, and a tall girl with a bright smile, Katherine (Kate) Biddle, a student and classmate of Nike Mylonas at Vassar College. Sixty years later, Kate would inquire, through the good offices of Professor Kenneth Scott of Dartmouth College, if the American School would be interested in acquiring an album of hers with photos from the excavations at Mycenae. (See also my essay in Akoue 62, Spring 2010, p. 15.)

Mycenae 1953. The excavation team that dug Grave Circle B. Front row, center: Kate Biddle, George Mylonas, Nikolaos Tombazis, John Papademetriou (behind Tombazis) and Demetrios Theocharis (with hat). Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.

When the album arrived in Athens, we were surprised to see that, in addition to   excavation photos, the album also contained a series of beautiful landscape photos of Mycenae by Tombazis, as well as several images recording casual moments at the dig, such as the big feast that celebrated the end of the excavation, an event vividly remembered by Biddle. More in her note that accompanied the album:

“At the end of August or early September, when the dig was finished for the year, we had a Homeric feast in one of the tholos tombs near the citadel. The roof of the tomb had long ago collapsed and the debris had been cleared away. Two long tables were set up and a lamb was roasted on a spit over an open fire for several hours. When it was done we had a feast, with wine and other suitable things (salad? grapes? bread, surely) …  One workman stood guard at the circle of graves, as they were still open, with many of the contents in situ. During the feast he came running to Drs. Mylonas and Papadimitriou and reported that some German tourists were walking in the circle of graves, refusing to understand his urgent signals that they were not allowed to be there. Of course he didn’t speak German, and they pretended not to understand his communications. Dr. Papadimitriou ran back up to the site and, in German, angrily ordered the intruders to get out, with heated remarks about having had enough of Germans during the occupation of Greece in World War II.” (Let me add here that Papademetriou was fluent in German, having received his PhD from the Humboldt University  in Berlin, in 1935.)

 

Mycenae 1953. A Modern Mycenaean Feast in the Lion’s Tomb. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.

Mycenae 1953. Dancing in the Lion’s Tomb. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.


The Riding Goddess

To return to one of the two carved gems that Mylonas and Papademetriou found in the summer of 1954, while removing the old excavation fill from near the Tomb of Clytemnestra. Of clear chalcedony, lentoid in shape (0.026 x 0.025 m), the 13th century B.C. gem (NAM 8718) depicts a female figure with raised arms, dressed in Minoan fashion (with a tight girdle and exposed breasts) riding side-saddle on a mythical animal, which has the muscular body of a lion and the head of a wild horse, over waves of the sea. To the modern viewer the scene is reminiscent of the classical myth of “Europa on the Bull.”

Drawing of the Riding Goddess seal from Mycenae. Found in 1954.

A year after Mylonas published the gem, and in the aftermath of Michael Ventris’s decipherment of Linear B and Carl Blegen’s discovery of Nestor’s Palace at Pylos (what a decade for Mycenaean archaeology!), Emily Townsend Vermeule (1928-2001) included the gem in an article titled “Mythology in Mycenaean Art” (Classical Journal 54:3, 1958, pp. 97-108; for a list of Mycenaean images of riding goddesses with previous bibliography, also see Bernard C. Dietrich, The Origins of Greek Religion,  pp. 310-313). Vermeule argued that many classical myths, including that of “Europa on the Bull,” stemmed from sources with a Mycenaean foundation, having assumed their classical form “by corruption, distortion and ignorance” (p. 105). Vermeule, too, would have been happily stunned at the recent discovery of the so-called “Pylos Combat Agate” in the Griffin Warrior Tomb, a chalcedony gem that has “all the grandiosity of scenes like the Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey” according to its excavators.

While Mylonas discovered several engraved gems during his excavations at Mycenae, the riding goddess held a special place in his mind and heart. He used it for letterhead and had it also carved on a plaque that adorns the tympanum of the Mycenae Melathron (built in 1967-1972 by Mylonas to serve as the summer base of the Mycenae excavation team, and as an archaeology research center for Greek and foreign scholars).

Lela and George Mylonas in front of the Mycenae Melathron, ca. 1970. Photo: ASCSA Archives, George Mylonas Papers.

It was also recently employed on a commemorative marble plaque at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), set at the top of the passage that leads to the New Wiener Lab. To facilitate access, the narrow alley between the Davis Wing and the School’s stone compound wall was recently refurbished, thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor. Landscape architect Konstantinos Doxiadis transformed the old dirt path into a broad passage with flower beds of rosemary and Japanese pittosporum (“αγγελικούλες”) flanking one of its long sides. The donor also wanted to commemorate George Mylonas and his family with a plaque. What better way to honor him than with the imagery from his favorite gem. In Mycenae: Rich in Gold, Mylonas describes the riding goddess as θεά της ευλογίας (the blessing goddess). Whether she had really blessed his life is another story. Mylonas, nevertheless, believed that she had.

Commemorative plaque in honor of George Mylonas and his family at the ASCSA, 2018.


Note
I would like to thank Jack Davis, Jeff Banks, and Jeff Kramer for tracking down the gem’s CMS number (#167) and for directing me to Mylonas’s Ancient Mycenae.

Abbreviations
NAM: National Archaeological Museum
CMS: Corpus der Minoischen and Mykenischen Siegel


“Anything to restrain the reverend father”: Catholic Clergy at the ASCSA, Pt. II

Posted by Dylan Rogers

Dylan Rogers holds a PhD from the University of Virginia, and he has been Assistant Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens since 2015. This essay, the second of two parts, was inspired by recent research in the ASCSA Archives about the Summer Session program.


In my last post, I began an exploration of members of the Catholic clergy at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School). My curiosity was piqued by the acerbic comments of Gertrude E. Smith who was not in favor of selecting Fr. Schoder to lead the School’s summer program in 1961. Was the School against admitting Catholic priests and nuns in its programs or was Smith’s dislike of Fr. Schoder personal and exceptional?

Part I examined the figure of Fr. Quinn, an accomplished scholar of Ancient and Modern Greek at the turn of the 20th century. Subsequent to Fr. Quinn ten more priests attended the School’s regular program. In addition, the SS has hosted at least 16 priests and nuns, from 1936 until 1973. The clergy came from a variety of orders, including parish priests, Benedictines (O.S.B.), a De La Salle brother (F.S.C.), a Sister of Mercy (R.S.M.), a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.), a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur (S.N.D. de Namur), and two Sisters of St. Joseph (C.S.J.). But, by far, most of the priests (nearly 18) came from the Society of Jesus (S.J.), or the Jesuit order. And there were a number of interesting figures in this group, such as Fr. Thomas Bermingham, S.J. (1918-1998), a professor at Georgetown University, who had taught William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, Latin at Brooklyn Prep in the 1940s. Fr. Bermingham would later advise Blatty on the filming of The Exorcist, and eventually would play Tom, the president of Georgetown, in the film.

Fr. Thomas Bermingham, student at the ASCSA in 1961-62, as President of Georgetown University in The Exorcist.

Read the rest of this entry »


“If a Jesuit should prove not to know Latin we’d better shut our doors!”: Catholic Clergy at the ASCSA, Pt. I

Posted by Dylan Rogers

Dylan Rogers holds a PhD from the University of Virginia, and he has been Assistant Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens since 2015. The essay he contributes to “From the Archivist’s Notebook” was inspired by recent research in the ASCSA Archives about the Summer Session program.


Fr. Raymond Schoder, S.J. (1916-1987)

Last summer, I began researching the life of Professor Gertrude Smith at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or School), particularly in her role as Chairman of the Committee on Admissions and Fellowships. (On Smith see D. Rogers, “Gertrude Smith: A Classic American Philhellene.“) Smith guided the selection process of students during the Academic Year and the Summer Session (SS) deftly for nearly 20 years (1945-1963). Delving into her correspondence with various people associated with the School, I was struck by one letter in particular, as she was discussing Fr. Raymond Schoder, S.J. (1916-1987), and his desire to be a SS Director at the School in 1961:

I wonder with him just what the Roman Catholic situation would be. Don’t think I have anything against the R.C.’s. I haven’t, but I do not want the summer session turned into an adjunct of the church, and, if he once does the school, I foresee an avalanche for that particular summer of applicants for that particular summer of applicants from people who have used his dratted Homeric Greek books and who will be urged by their priest or nun teachers to take the session when they can have it under his guidance. In the two sessions which I have done I have had each time four or five Roman Catholics, but I could usually control that and get them meatless meals when they had to have them and get them to places where they could get to church on time and so on. But we do not want the summer session dependent of the Roman Catholic church, and I think it might be if Father S. were leading around people, the majority of whom were R.C.’s. (ASCSA ADM REC Series 100, Box 106/1, Folder 3, 26 October 1960)

Did this mean that the School, as a whole, had a bias against Roman Catholics? Certainly this would not be unheard of in American academic circles. Even as late as 1977, Catholic priests were still noticing a bias in academia, which stemmed from deep-roots in America against Catholics (particularly immigrants from Catholic countries of Europe, creating a so-called nativism, or bias, in society). Fr. Andrew Greeley noted that people often told him not to wear his collar, or he would not be taken as serious as his lay counterparts. Indeed, he questioned:

Is the nativism in education conscious or unconscious? I suppose the best answer is that it doesn’t matter. Those who ask, Isn’t Catholicism incompatible with independent intellectual activity? might as well be asking, Isn’t it true that blacks have a distinctive body odor? Or, Isn’t it true women are happier at home raising children? The person who asks the question is prejudiced whether or not he knows it. (Greeley 1977, 43)

Further, the School has been noted for occasionally making less-than-polite comments about religious groups outside of Protestantism, particularly Judaism. In correspondence in the early twentieth century, if an applicant was Jewish, oftentimes that was noted in their files (See J. L. Davis, “A Preamble to the Nazi Holocaust in Greece: Two Micro-Histories from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.”) While this did not hinder students and scholars of Jewish origin from coming to the School, it is disconcerting to a modern academic audience that such issues would indeed be brought up.

So I began to go back through the Archives to see if there were any anti-Catholic tendencies in the School’s past, as Smith’s letter of 1960 had the potential to suggest. What I did find was a fascinating history of Catholic religious figures (of both genders) coming to the School as students and scholars and flourishing. Almost from the beginning of the School’s foundation in 1881, Catholic clergy had been part of our history, with the first Catholic priest in 1887-1889, Fr. Daniel Quinn. Read the rest of this entry »


The Grecian Landscapes of Anna Richards Brewster

Temple of Poseidon at Sounion by Anna Richards Brewster, 1912. Private Collection (?)

The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) has an interesting, albeit odd, art collection. It comprises mostly oils and watercolors, with a few three-dimensional exceptions, such as Paul Manship’s bronze Actaeon. The card inventory that George Huxley and Mary Lee Coulson created in the late 1980s was replaced by a database I developed in the 1990s, in order to record the whereabouts of the artworks which frequently moved from building to building without any notice.

While some of the objects were bequeathed to the ASCSA by former staff and members, most of the material lacks provenance. My first database was short on content, but the more I delved into the School’s institutional records and collections of personal papers, the more interesting information I discovered about the origin of some of the art pieces. In the case of Amory Gardner’s fine portrait by Anders Zorn, I found that it was a gift from the Groton School in 1938.

The sources of some of the modern paintings (e.g., those by Martyl Langsdorf or Tita Fasciotti) were puzzling at first because I could not connect them with any gifts. The advent of the internet, however, has solved many of these mysteries.  Searches for artists’ names revealed that some of the modern paintings were connected with Saint Louis, suggesting that some may have come to the School together with the personal papers of archaeologist George Mylonas, who taught at the Washington University in Saint Louis for several decades. (See “The Spirit of Saint Louis Lives in Athens“.)

Inventorying purposes aside, my preoccupation with the School’s art collection did not stem from an art historical interest but instead from a need to contextualize it: for it seemed that each piece had a biography that continued past the death of its creator and owner(s). With patience, some luck, and a good amount of research in the School’s archives, I soon concluded that there was an interesting story to be told about many of these objects, a story that connected them with men and women once intimately bound up with the ASCSA. Read the rest of this entry »


Grace Macurdy of Vassar College: Scholar, Teacher, and Proto-Feminist


This is a guest post by Robert L. Pounder

Robert L. Pounder, Emeritus Professor of Classics at Vassar College, here contributes a review of Barbara McManus’s posthumous book about Grace Harriet Macurdy, titled The Drunken Duchess of Vassar. Pounder, who has been conducting in-depth research on the social history of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) in the 1920s-1930s, writes that Classics was “dominated by unaware, myopic, smug, unsympathetic men, men who viewed academic accomplishment by women with condescension and skepticism.”  Women in academia, like Macurdy, were thought to be anomalies–a different species. Based on his work at the ASCSA Archives, Pounder has also published an essay, “The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair,” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal & Archaeological Narratives, ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta 2015.


Born in 1866 in Robbinston, Maine, Grace Harriet Macurdy was the sixth of nine siblings whose parents had immigrated to the United States from the nearby Canadian province of New Brunswick just a year before her birth. Her father, Angus McCurdy (the spelling of the name was later changed to Macurdy because he did not want to be thought Irish) was a carpenter who barely eked out a living.  After leaving his children in the care of their mother and paternal grandmother for long periods and thus improving his situation somewhat, he was able to move the family to Watertown, Massachusetts by 1870; there they grew.  Watertown provided a better series of houses and slightly improved material circumstances for the Macurdy children.  Moreover, they profited greatly from the guidance of their mother and grandmother, both of whom encouraged the children, including the girls, to read, write, and pursue their educations. Read the rest of this entry »


An African American Pioneer in Greece: John Wesley Gilbert and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1890-1891.

Posted by John W. I. Lee

John W. I. Lee, Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, here contributes an essay about John W. Gilbert, the first African-American student to participate in the Regular Program of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) in 1890-1891. Lee is writing a book about John Wesley Gilbert, the early history of the ASCSA, and the development of archaeology in Greece.


In his official report to the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) for academic year 1890-1891, Director Charles Waldstein praised students Carleton Brownson, Andrew Fossum, John Gilbert, and John Pickard, who had “proved themselves serious and enthusiastic” throughout the year.  Waldstein went on to describe the School’s 1891 excavations at ancient Eretria on the island of Euboea.  While Fossum and Brownson excavated Eretria’s theater, Pickard and Gilbert “undertook the survey and careful study of all the ancient walls of the city and acropolis, and will produce a plan and an account which… will be of great topographical and historical value.”

Waldstein’s report gives no indication that one of the students, John Gilbert, was African American—the first African American scholar to attend the ASCSA.  With the passage of time, memory of Gilbert’s pioneering contribution was forgotten at the School, until Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick of Wayne State University searched for him in the ASCSA Archives in the early 2000s.  Ronnick’s work on Gilbert, featured in the School’s Ákoue Newsletter, forms the foundation of my research.

John Wesley Gilbert. Photo: Daniel W. Culp, Twentieth Century Negro Literature (1902)

John Wesley Gilbert was born about 1863 in rural Hephzibah, Georgia; his mother Sarah was enslaved.  After Emancipation, Sarah took her young son to the nearby city of Augusta.  From childhood Gilbert thirsted for learning.  An 1871 Freedman’s Bank register bearing his signature gives his occupation as “go to school to Miss Chesnut.” Read the rest of this entry »