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Indiana Jones? No, It's UC Newcomer Ellis, Up to His Neck in Pompeian History

Indiana Jones returns this week with a young sidekick. In real life, that could be new UC Assistant Professor of Classics Steven Ellis, who returns to Pompeii this summer as the youngest project director in that site's celebrated history.

Date: 5/20/2008 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825

UC ingot   More than a quarter-century after debuting, Indiana Jones returns to movie screens this week to much acclaim in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." The older Jones this time has a youthful sidekick in Mutt Williams, played by actor Shia LaBeouf.

But if the biggest character ever to glamorize the field of archeology were to really cast a young counterpart in real life, one person who would have to get short list consideration would be the University of Cincinnati’s Steven Ellis.

Steven Ellis
Steven Ellis, on location in Pompeii

Ellis, one of two new archeologists in UC’s Classics department this year, is young – he was only seven years old when Indiana Jones first barreled onto movie screens and gave archaeology a glamorous edge. Now age 34, Ellis – like Indiana Jones – has a big summer planned: he’ll be returning to the fabled site of Pompeii, where as the youngest archaeologist ever to be appointed a project director at the ruins he leads one of the largest operations in progress.

Ellis is an Indiana Jones fan – he plans on going out with the department’s other new Mediterranean archaeologist, Eleni Hatzaki, and a group of their grad students to see the movie after it opens – but says the movies only scratch the surface of the true mysteries of his field.

"People ask all the time if that is really what it is like to be an archaeologist?" says the affable Ellis, a native of Sydney, Australia, who retains his country’s distinctive accent. "Everyone falls in love with the sparkle he brings to the profession. But what he does is the easy part. The real challenge is being able to understand what you find and to read it. That’s where the real thrill is. Discovering what all the pieces add up to is the real thrill."

For instance, last summer Ellis’ team excavated an area that turned out to be a restaurant near the theater district in Pompeii. It turns out that in 79 A.D., when Pompeii was buried in volcanic ash, some interesting things were on the menu.

The team was able to identify the area that was the kitchen. They uncovered cookware, but also food scraps such as dormice and pig bones. There was also an odd bone they couldn’t place.

Sent off to the Smithsonian for identification, it turned out to be part of the bone structure from a leg of a giraffe.

Pompeii wide view
An overview of the area Ellis excavates in Pompeii.

"It’s the first recorded giraffe find in all of Pompeii," says Ellis, who theorizes that the animal had to have been brought alive across from northern Africa to Pompeii in southern Italy. "It may have been brought for some kind of games or live animal display, and then been butchered in Pompeii and ended up as a delicacy."

Ellis first started working in Pompeii as a grad student at the University of Sydney. After earning his PhD, he first went to the University of Michigan and for the last three summers has been digging in Pompeii on the project known as the Pompeii Archeological Research Project: Porta Stabia with his co-director, Stanford University’s Gary Devore.

The area they work in covers 1,800 square meters and has been less explored, as it was home to the middle and lower-classes of the town’s social structure.

"I’m interested in the role that non-elites played in ancient societies," explains Ellis, whose dissertation covering that topic was the most extensive study done on that segment of the population in Pompeii to that point. "We look at their homes and their retail establishments, the taverns, the bars and the shops."

The kinds of stories that have been lost to history may not involve the eye-popping religious artifacts that the Indiana Jones’ tales have been built around, but they tell stories of their very own.

In excavating in Pompeii in the area around last year’s restaurant discovery, Ellis and his team found the homesteads for a number of middle-class families. But it appears the property which had once been divided evenly had changed boundaries. The restaurant, for instance, had once been the backyard of one family, only to have the family living behind it be able to take control of the property and change its purpose.

"Some plots grew at the expense of their neighbors," Ellis says. "We think that happened as a business transaction, that one family grew in wealth and was able to purchase the property to make it a restaurant. This tells us more about the middle-class and how they might have lived their lives."

Sorting pottery bits
Team members clean and sort pottery finds in Pompeii.

Ellis will be going to Pompeii in late June. First, he’ll make a stop at another project he’s working on at East Isthmia in Greece, where he and Ohio State’s Timothy Gregory are heading a project to determine the function of a mysterious series of buildings located adjacent to one of the most important temples in ancient Greek society, the Temple of Poseidon. "To this day, we are still trying to figure out what they were used for," Ellis says. "Because of their location they had to be important. They were in a pivotal space next to one of the most visited temple in Greek antiquity."

Ellis will be in the field until August, when he’ll return to Cincinnati and his young family, including twin 10-month-old sons.

Although that promises to make for a challenging summer, Ellis calls coming to UC "a real dream. This department is known everywhere as a world leader in Mediterranean archaeology. It’s a very strong department and a privilege to be here."

It might even have been the kind of department a young Indiana Jones could have ended up in.

"I liked the movies, but it was really other aspects of archaeology that drew me into the field," says Ellis. "I traveled a lot, as my dad is a travel writer, and I had some great adventures. The lust for seeing things and being able to go to interesting places and see interesting things was a great draw for me. Then, add in the dimension of time, where you’re going back 2,000 years and looking at life the way it was, and it just became a thrill."