Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition First Generation of Women Archaeologists

The American School of Classical Studies in Athens

Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard University led a small group of scholars and influential businessmen in setting up the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in 1881. According to Norton, the purpose of the school was to provide a setting "where young scholars might carry on the study of Greek thought and life to the best advantage, and where those who were proposing to become teachers of Greek might gain such acquaintance with the land and such knowledge of its ancient monuments as should give a quality to their teaching unattainable without this experience."

A strong and fruitful relationship was forged early on between Bryn Mawr and the American School. The School was (and still is) an invaluable part of graduate training for Bryn Mawr archaeology students, and Bryn Mawr women were among the first to participate in this intensive study-abroad program. More importantly, the School provided opportunities for women students early in the twentieth century to participate in archaeological excavations and research. In this way, the American School became an essential training ground for early women archaeologists, and many of them dedicated their entire lives to work that they began while students at Athens.

Bryn Mawr played an important role in the American School’s excavations of the Agora of Athens during the 1930s. Rhys Carpenter, on leave from Bryn Mawr, was director of the American School when fieldwork began in 1931, and he had earlier spearheaded the long and involved negotiations that preceded the actual breaking of ground. In subsequent years, Bryn Mawr graduates supervised the removal of a substantial portion of the thousands of tons of earth that overlay the Agora’s ancient levels, and many went on to study the artifacts and monuments uncovered in the excavations. Among the most prominent were Margaret Crosby (A.B. 1922), who supervised fieldwork in the Agora from 1935 to 1939 and 1946 to 1955, Mary Zelia Pease (later Phillipides; A.B. 1927, Ph.D. 1933) who worked on the excavation’s coins and later served as the American School’s head librarian, and, of course, Dorothy Burr Thompson, Virginia Grace, and Lucy Shoe Meritt.