Jonas Tai is a junior in Rutgers’ School of Arts & Sciences, who impressively will graduate with three majors: Classics (Greek option), History (Ancient History & Classics option), and Medieval Studies. Here Jonas recounts how he spent this past summer in Greece (including Crete) and Bulgaria on two intense and intensely rewarding programs.
“With the help of Rutgers Classics’ Ethel S. Cook Travel Scholarship, I was able to fund my participation in two excellent summer programs: the Summer Session of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and Late Antique archaeology in Bulgaria under the Balkan Heritage Foundation.
The Eastern Mediterranean is a supremely fascinating crossroads of cultures and civilizations, so it was quite an exciting experience to physically immerse myself in its cultural, religious, and historical topography. In the Summer Session of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), I was able to visit Greek historical sites ranging from the prehistoric to modern, guided by the foremost scholars of their respective fields at those locations.
It was a six-week bootcamp of Greek history, which included everything from hunting and fishing patterns in the prehistoric Peloponnese, to Byzantine monasticism and Greek resistance in the Second World War. Our program leader was the dauntless and ever-enthusiastic Professor Daniel B. Levine, a modern Pausanias. I must also mention our skilled veteran of a bus driver Spyros, who navigated the winding and narrow roads of Greece with remarkable ease.
I had the privilege of presenting two on-site oral reports to the group. The first report was on the Despot’s Palace, the residence of the Frankish lords and later the Byzantine Despots of Mystras, Mystras being a Frankish fort-turned-capital of the Late Byzantine Peloponnese. The political decline of Byzantium clearly did not translate into cultural decay, as its numerous breathtaking mosaics and churches will attest. The other report was on the Amphiarieion of Oropos, a healing sanctuary to the deified hero Amphiaraus on the Attica-Boeotia border, which fit nicely with the work I did on the cult of Asklepios the semester before.
Our group of twenty visited too many places to even count. Besides our excursions across Athens and Attica, we took three extended trips to Crete, the Peloponnese, and central/northern Greece, respectively. In Athens and Attica, we visited the National Archaeological Museum on several occasions, in addition to the Piraeus, the Agora, Sounion, Laurion, Eleusis, and of course, the wonderful Acropolis and Parthenon. We also took a day trip to Aegina.
Our Crete trip included such sites as Malia Palace, Gortyn, Phaistos, Knossos, as well as the cities of Heraklion, Chania, and Siteia. The Peloponnesian trip included Corinth, Epidauros, Mycenae, Sparta and Mystras, Messene, Pylos, and Olympia. Finally, our ‘northern trip’, began with Thebes, and moving up through Chaironeia and Delphi, we stopped by Hosios Loukas, Meteora, Aigai, Pella, Thessaloniki, and Olynthos, coming back down through Dion on the slopes of Mount Olympos, through Thermopylae and finally Athens.
Without a doubt, my endless listing fails to do each of these remarkable places justice, and I didn’t even mention all of them. Besides the historical locations, there was also no shortage of the more methodological aspects of historical study, as we received lectures and hands-on workshops on pottery, numismatics, epigraphy, and the various subfields of anthropology in museums and labs across Greece.
One of the coolest ‘sites’ by far was the Olympias, a reconstructed trireme anchored in the Palaio Faliro district of Athens. It was cramped; now I know what Aristophanes (Frogs 1075) meant when he said “καὶ προσπαρδεῖν γ᾽ ἐς τὸ στόμα τῷ θαλάμακι,” to break wind into the mouth of their rowing mate! There’s something indescribable about sitting in a trireme and feeling it sway from side to side.
On another note, the ancients recognized this truth, and now so do I: Delphi is a magical place. Looking over the valley of Phocis in the shadow of Mount Parnassus during sunset is a sight I will never forget.
What else is there to recall? Admiring the spectacularly decorated interior of Hosios Loukas, climbing up Messenian battlements, and running stade races at Nemea and Olympia are some of the other experiences I was able to enjoy.
It was also fascinating, seeing all the Asklepieia scattered across Greece, each with its own characteristics based on the surrounding topography and individual circumstance. I found it unique that the Asklepieion at Messene had a bouleuterion attached to it, functioning as a civic center of the city, as opposed to the standard view of the Asklepieia as healing centers.
The American School itself was wonderful. Living there, I felt like I was part of a scholarly community, discussing new ideas and discoveries with the foremost scholars over a glass of ouzo; I had never before seen so many people passionate about Classics in one place. I certainly asked an incessant amount of questions, too. I was the youngest in our Summer Session group of twenty, so it was humbling to learn from those far more along the academic cursus than I was.
After saying goodbye to Greece, I flew to Varna in Bulgaria, where I participated in a dig through the Balkan Heritage Foundation of a Late Antique monastery on Djanavara hill, in what was ancient Odessos. It was fitting that I had spent all that time in Greece looking at archaeological sites and learning about material culture, because soon after, I found myself actually digging in the trenches in Bulgaria. I picked the site partly because of my interest in the period—Late Antiquity is a wonderfully dynamic and exciting time for the Roman world; I also thought it would be a good chronological average between my interests ranging from ancient Greece to Byzantium.
I have a new respect for archaeologists; it was hard enough waking up early in the morning to begin work by 7:30. That work was mostly shoveling, wheelbarrowing, and picking until the early afternoon, all in the Bulgarian sun. Our most common finds were pottery sherds, but we also found coins, column bases and capitals, and most notably, a broken-off fragment of the face of a statue embedded in one of the house walls. We were also trained in the methodology of archaeology, which included stratigraphy, pottery and finds illustration, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), which is a similar concept to photogrammetry, keeping a meticulous journal, and so on.
Of course, the program wasn’t all work. We were able to visit various Roman, Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian sites across eastern Bulgaria. In the city of Balchik, we visited the archaeological site of a Byzantine, later Bulgarian, fort. In addition, we visited another Byzantine fortress on the cape of Kaliakra jutting out into the Black Sea, which was surrounded by water on three sides. Other attractions included the pillar-like rock formations of Pobiti Kamani, the Roman city of Marcianopolis founded by Trajan, and Madara, which among sites from various periods includes the Madara Rider relief, a national symbol of Bulgaria.
Looking back at this summer, as someone who mostly deals with literary sources, I was able to familiarize myself with the breadth of possible historical evidence out there. I myself gained a bigger picture of the whole historical process, incorporating anthropology, art history, and archaeology into my overall perspective of the study of the past, in addition to strengthening my background in history and Classics.
Both the Summer Session and any archaeology program come highly recommended for any student of the past. It’s one thing to learn about the past and consume its art and literature; it’s another to actually place it in its spatial context, and that will add a permanent filter to the way I interpret our historical sources. Besides these things, I was able to travel the world and see and experience things I never thought I’d see. Now, it’s safe to say that I have a personal connection with what I study, and every time I come across something in my readings that I can relate back to my summer studies, it will also bring back these wonderful memories along with it.”
Thank you Jonas—what an eloquent description of an amazing summer!