The Colgate Scene
On site in Athens
Academic research comes to life on extended study trip
|By Ryan Joyce '09|
Ryan Joyce '09
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
For me and 14 other Colgate students taking an extended study course in Greece, May 27 could not have come soon enough.
That was our arrival date in Athens for three weeks of hands-on experience with the topics we had researched last semester. The course, Individual Identity and the Material Culture of the Ancient Greek City, was taught by Rebecca Ammerman, professor of the classics.
Having done substantial research on the defense mechanisms built into Bronze Age Greek cities, I was especially excited for the trip. Unlike the topics other students were assigned to research for their major papers and presentations, for my topic I found little in the world of myth or literature that proved relevant. My research yielded source after source that could provide me only long lists of statistics to burden my imagination: heights, widths, and depths of walls, and the weights of the stones of which they were made.
The books and articles I read in preparation for the larger of two papers assigned for the course contained diagrams, plans, and maps of cities that I, with my horrible sense of direction, could barely read without turning my head sideways, or the paper upside down. So imagine my delight when our tour bus rolled into Mycenae for a walking tour of the ancient city.
Shaded grayscale rectangles on scale drawings, which had previously only existed in my mind, were suddenly changed into real-life walls as the group strolled into the city. I stood in awe as I leaned against the city's southern wall, 25 feet high and nearly as thick, and prepared to give my short introduction to the city in the shade of the massive Cyclopean walls, a stone's throw from the famous Lion's Gate.
Because a third of my major project was on Mycenae, it was my turn that day to give a presentation on the walls and defensive characteristics of the city. I rattled off factoid after factoid — the size of the famous lion relief (a triangle with sides of approximately 1 meter each), the functions of bulwarks outside in relationship to the walls (to exploit the undefended right side of attacking forces), and the three stages of the city's construction (about every 50 years between 1350 and 1250 BCE) — still in disbelief that I was actually standing on site.
Later in the day I was beaming (although no one could see me) as the class descended 60 feet through a 3,200-year-old cistern, despite swarms of bugs and the prospect of climbing up and down 95 steps, slick from millennia of water erosion, in near darkness.
No longer was the grand sense of scale of the city so hard for me to envision, nor were the maps so hard to read as I helped lead our group through the myriad of paths inside the city walls. I could plainly see how well-trained analytical minds, like that of the famous archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (at whose house we later ate) could cull so much from ruins.
Everyone on the trip seemed to have his or her own moment like this during our three weeks, whether at a site in Athens, Olympia, Delphi, Mycenae, Tiryns, or Epidauros. Many of my classmates shared experiences similar to mine, as the very abstract coursework they had spent so much time researching at Colgate came instantly alive upon reaching "their" sites. That was perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the trip: being on site and already knowing so much about where we were.
Classics majors often get asked that (dreaded) question, "Why are you studying that?" But all the students taking this course did so out of their love of the classics, from the two recent graduates about to begin doctoral programs to the rising juniors with only three semesters of Greek under their belts.
A Colgate political science professor, Fred Chernoff, was so intrigued by the course description that he also came along and audited the course.
With any luck, I'll return again in 2009 with a different group of students, and come home with a different set of outstanding memories.
—An Alumni Memorial Scholar, Ryan Joyce received the Award for Excellence from the classics department in 2006 and the Baldwin Greek Prize in 2007.
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