UC celebrates a century of Classics scholarship

Classics marks its centennial with an eye to the future and the past

The University of Cincinnati’s Classics Department celebrates its centennial this month — 100 years of unearthing the past, rewriting history and celebrating ancient cultures that have shaped modern life.

From amazing discoveries in Greece to new insights into Pompeii and Troy, UC Classics in the College of Arts and Sciences has helped us understand the economics, politics, religion and the daily lives of ancient civilizations.

Kathleen Lynch holds up a painting of Athenian pottery.

UC Classics professor Kathleen Lynch holds up a painting of an ancient Greek vase. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

“We're not just celebrating the centennial of a department, but the founding of a new and different attitude to studying a past civilization: That the Greeks and Romans can't be understood without considering their artifacts, buildings and landscapes, as well as their languages, literature and history,” UC Classics Professor Barbara Burrell said. “This is something that many cultural studies are still just approaching.”

Burrell is an archaeologist specializing in Roman studies who has worked at sites across the Mediterranean and Middle East.

“The name ‘Classics’ may sound elitist to some, but think of it as being an abbreviation for ‘literary, archaeological, artistic, architectural, historical and linguistic studies of the Greek and the subsequent Roman civilizations.’ Just try writing that over an office door.”

Ancient history is fun — and our faculty get that message across to students.

Peter van Minnen, UC Classics professor

UC Classics professor Peter van Minnen has taught classes on ancient history, Greek, Latin and Greek literature, among many others. He said UC Classics remains popular for one big reason.

“Ancient history is fun — and our faculty get that message across to students,” van Minnen said.

UC soon will have four ancient historians on faculty offering introductory courses on Greek and Roman history along with advanced courses on diverse topics.

Graduate students get a chance to work on unpublished papyri that survive from antiquity, he said.

Carl Blegen and Marion Rawson sit in a Jeep.

UC Classics archaeologist Carl Blegen led groundbreaking expeditions at Pylos, Greece, and Troy. Photo/UC Classics

Daniel Markovich is a UC professor of Latin and Greek languages and literature.

“The study of languages and literature called philology has for a long time been the core of the discipline of Classics and it remains an indispensable part of the training we offer here in Cincinnati,” Markovich said. “Greek and Roman literature is a window into the minds of ancient Greeks and Romans. We engage in a dialogue with ancient authors and test and improve our own worldview.” 

“One thing UC Classics students look forward to is not only working with renowned professors but working on significant excavations,” UC Classics archivist Jeffrey Kramer said. “It’s exciting not simply to have the experience of working on an excavation but also to also publish the results.”

Today’s Classics Department was created in 1921 when the UC Board of Trustees combined the departments of Greek and Latin into a program that explores languages and literatures, ancient history and archaeology. UC Classics has influenced the academic conversation about ancient civilizations around the world, particularly in the Mediterranean.

The department’s first department head, William Semple, recruited notable scholars Rodney P. Robinson, Roy K. Hack, Allen B. West and Hilda Buttenwieser. Semple and his wife, Anna Louise Taft, niece to famous UC alumnus U.S. President William Howard Taft, had an abiding interest in ancient civilizations and personally sponsored UC’s landmark excavations at Troy and Pylos, led by the late UC archaeologist Carl Blegen.

Blegen made significant discoveries of the ancient Greek Palace of Nestor in Pylos in 1939 and in the early 1950s after the Greek civil war in collaboration with Greek archaeologist Konstantinos Kourouniotis.

Sharon Stocker kneels at the site of an excavation.

UC Classics senior research associate Sharon Stocker is supervising UC excavations in Pylos that are helping to inform our understanding of ancient Greece. Photo/UC Classics

More recently, UC Classics department head Jack Davis and senior research associate Sharon Stocker made the startling discovery of the tomb of the Griffin Warrior and associated family tombs that are helping to shed light on Bronze Age social strata, economies and religion. Archaeology magazine named it a Top-10 find of the decade, calling it, “one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in Greece over the past 50 years.” 

Davis was honored last year with a gold medal for archaeological achievement, its highest award, from the Archaeological Institute of America for UC’s work in the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, UC associate professor Steven Ellis has conducted groundbreaking research in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was entombed in ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. He is also working on excavations in Sardinia.

A frieze shows two scholars reading a text.

A frieze adorns Blegen Library, named for UC archaeologist Carl Blegen. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

UC associate professor Eleni Hatzaki, a former curator at the British School in Athens, has helped unlock secrets of ancient Crete and the prehistoric city of Knossos by studying its ceramics production and distribution, burial customs and architecture. UC Classics associate professor Burrell has worked at Israel’s ancient seaside city of Caesarea, home to ancient temples and a stadium called a hippodrome, among other remarkable landmarks.

“One hundred years since its inception, and at a time when the world accelerates its adoption of technology, our Department of Classics continues to be cutting-edge in its adaptation of technological advances to improve its understanding of the past, while holding steady to the value that this past holds for our understanding of ourselves as human beings,” UC College of Arts and Sciences Dean Valerio Ferme said.

“There is no doubt that the Department of Classics is a gem among the many gems we have at the University of Cincinnati. One of the top ranked departments of Classics in the world, its forward-looking investments in innovative scholarship from faculty and students ensure that it will continue to be a model to follow for a long time to come.”

Barbara Burrell holds up an ancient clay serving vessel in front of a screen with a photo of the artwork it contains.

UC Classics professor Barbara Burrell talks about the stories contained in the artwork of ancient Greek pottery in her classroom. Photo/Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

The department didn’t miss a beat during the COVID-19 pandemic, when most classes switched to remote learning. Web lectures are a natural fit for the storytelling that is essential to the subjects, Ferme said.

For that reason, too, UC Classics has been able to resume its popular and award-winning outreach program. Faculty and students in the department regularly share their enthusiasm for ancient civilizations by giving public talks to schools, civic groups and other audiences on topics relating Greek and Roman mythology and archaeology to today.

The next century is full of promise for UC Classics. The department maintained its undergraduate enrollment during the pandemic. Its diverse courses remain popular electives across UC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“In the future, we’ll see more archaeological research and faculty continuing to innovate in their fields,” Markovich said. “To understand the ancient world, one can’t simply study language or literature or archaeology or read translations of ancient histories. You need all to create a holistic view of the ancient world.”

Featured image at top: A UC Classics student inspects a clay drinking vessel from ancient Greece. Photo/Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

Steven Ellis poses at archaeological site.

UC archaeologist Steven Ellis has used the latest technology such as photogrammetry and ground-penetrating radar to understand ancient places such as Pompeii, where he used drones with 4K cameras to capture 3D images that revealed the ancient city in a new way. His work has been featured in Popular Science, National Geographic and many others. Photo/Provided

A group of masked people stand in front of a Greek flag.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou in April presented UC Classics Department Head Jack Davis and senior research associate Sharon Stocker with the Commander of the Order of the Phoenix medals for their amazing discoveries in Pylos such as the tomb of the Griffin Warrior that are helping historians better understand ancient Greece. Photo/Provided

A black and white photo shows a woman standing precariously atop a ladder held aloft by six men while she trains a video camera at something not pictured.

UC Classics archaeologist Marion Rawson stands on a ladder to get a better perspective while taking video of excavations at Troy with UC archaeologist Carl Blegen. Photo/UC Classics

A Western Union telegram reads: Deliver University of Cincinnati, CIncinnati, Ohio, Concession granted letter sent. Semple.

UC Classics Department Head William Semple delivers good news by telegram in 1931. UC has government permission to begin work at Troy. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

Jeffrey Kramer stands in front of documents from the Classics archive.

UC Classics archivist Jeffrey Kramer said UC has had a dramatic impact on archaeology over the past century dating back to UC's first expeditions to Pylos, Greece, and Troy by archaeologist Carl Blegen. Pictured are Blegen's field journals and other documents from the UC Classics archive. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

A professor talks to a student in front of a screen with a projection of ancient pottery.

UC Classics professor Barbara Burrell lectures on ancient Greek pottery in her classroom. Photo/Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand

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