Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition First Generation of Women Archaeologists

Rhys Carpenter (1889-1980)

Rhys Carpenter was still a graduate student at Columbia University when he was recruited by Bryn Mawr President M. Carey Thomas to join Mary Hamilton Swindler in the new Department of Classical Archaeology. A longstanding story at Bryn Mawr holds that when President Thomas brought Carpenter to campus, she demanded that if he was not yet an archaeologist, he become one. Spurred on by Thomas, Carpenter plunged into archaeology, becoming a prominent scholar in the field in just a few years and remaining staunchly loyal to Thomas and the College throughout his lifetime.

A Rhodes Scholar (Balliol College, 1909-11) with degrees in Classics from Columbia (A.B. 1909, M.A. 1914, Ph.D. 1916), and having studied at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (1912-1913), Carpenter taught at Bryn Mawr from 1913 to 1955. He trained and enlightened generations of students in archaeology, Greek, and what he called "cultural geography of the Mediterranean," and he created a tradition of prominence for archaeology in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum. He famously taught his students to look with probing eyes and minds beyond prestigious labels and to challenge longstanding theories with creative thinking.

Carpenter took leave from his professorship only for appointments at the American Academy in Rome (1926-27 and 1939-40) and for the directorship of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (1927-32). At Athens, the years of his directorship were a golden era in the history of the School. He established the scholarly journal Hesperia in 1932 and became its first editor, and he was instrumental in the planning and inception of the Agora excavations. Under his directorship, numerous Bryn Mawr students carried out groundbreaking research at the American School. When he retired from his long career at Bryn Mawr in 1955, Carpenter returned to the American School in Athens as a Visiting Professor (1956-57).

Carpenter's scholarly research spanned many fields and disciplines, and he was described by his contemporaries as "an archaeologist, art historian, man of letters, epigraphist, geographer, author, poet, teacher, climatologist, and universal classicist. He wrote over twenty books and thirty articles that have become classic references for generations of students and scholars, including important studies in Greek art and archaeology, aesthetics, history, and literature" (from American Journal of Archaeology, citation for Gold Medal). Carpenter taught at Bryn Mawr and abroad in Rome and Athens, but he has also taught generations of archaeologists through his extensive publications and elegant and engaging lectures, for which he was called the "Bryn Mawr nightingale."

Rhys Carpenter's wide-ranging, unconventional scholarship earned him an extensive reputation and numerous distinctions, including an honorary degree from Rutgers University and the AIA’s Gold Medal Award (1969). He was elected to the American Philosophical Society (1935) and was a member of the Hispanic Society of America, the Pontifical Roman Academy of Archaeology, the Greek Archaeological Society, the German Archaeological Institute, and the Austrian Archaeological Institute. He remained actively entrenched in scholarship and continued writing influential texts until the very end of his life; his final book, The Architects of the Parthenon, was published in 1970 when he was 81 years old.