Breaking Ground, Breaking Tradition First Generation of Women Archaeologists

Dorothy Burr Thompson (1900-2001)

Dorothy Burr (later Thompson) began her undergraduate studies at Bryn Mawr in 1919, where Rhys Carpenter became her "maestro" and inspired her love for Greek sculpture. In 1923, she graduated summa cum laude, becoming the College's first graduate with a double major in Greek and archaeology. Burr won the Mary E. Garrett European Fellowship and studied for two years at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (1923-25), where she participated in excavations at Phlious under Carl Blegen and Eutresis under Hetty Goldman. She received her M.A. from Bryn Mawr in 1926, and after a year of graduate work at Radcliffe returned to Bryn Mawr for her Ph.D., which she earned in 1931. In her dissertation, Terracottas from Myrina in the Museum of Fine Arts, she examined a group of Hellenistic terracotta figurines in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that she had researched while at Radcliffe. Burr's dissertation embodied the beginnings of the innovative approach to the study of mould-made terracottas that she dedicated her life to developing and refining.

In 1932, Burr was appointed a Fellow of the Athenian Agora Excavations. There she met Homer A. Thompson, the dig's assistant field director (and later director from 1947 to 1967), whom she married in 1934. This marked the beginning of Dorothy Burr Thompsonís lifelong association with the Agora Excavations. She served on the staff of the Agora Excavations from 1932 to 1939 and from 1947 to 1967, specializing in the terracotta figurines. Burr Thompsonís vigorous work on the plentiful terracottas from dated deposits at Athens allowed her to outline the development of style, iconography and techniques used by Athenian coroplasts (makers of terracotta figurines) based on stratigraphic position, which was an original approach. She meticulously documented this work in a series of Hesperia articles on "Three Centuries of Hellenistic Terracottas."

While Burr Thompson was one of three archaeologists who formed the core of the Agora excavation staff for more than thirty years (along with her husband and Eugene Vanderpool), she is less known, perhaps unfairly, as an excavator than as a scholar and specialist of Hellenistic minor arts. Among her contributions in the Agora were her excavation of the Middle Stoa, the Odeion of Agrippa, the gardens around the Temple of Hephaistos, and the house of Simon, cobbler friend of Socrates.

Burr Thompsonís numerous books and articles remain indispensable guides to the complexities of the distribution and chronology of Hellenistic terracottas, a poorly understood and inadequately documented field of Hellenistic art. In 1987, she received the Archaeological Institute of Americaís Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement for her study of Hellenistic terracotta figurines and devotion to the Agora excavations, and she was honored with an exhibition on "The Coroplastís Art" at Princeton and Cambridge Universities to celebrate her 90th birthday. In the course of her lifetime, Dorothy Burr Thompson created a new approach to the study of terracotta figurines that combined the ambiguous notion of style with the definitive concept of stratigraphic placement, and thereby revolutionized the scholarship of Hellenistic terracotta minor arts.

Because of Dorothy Burr Thompson's lifelong study of terracotta figurines, this class of artifact is now regarded as an important source of cultural and chronological information. The ancient Greeks kept terracotta images of the gods in their houses, placed statuettes in graves, and offered others to deities. Terracotta figurines were made from baked clay either by hand-forming or using a mold. Inexpensive and easily produced, terracotta figurines are commonly found in excavations, and they provide invaluable testimony to the everyday life and religion of the ancient Greeks.