FEATURE — Winter 2008

Michael Cosmopoulos (left), the Hellenic Government-Karakas Foundation Endowed Professor of Greek Studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, leads the Iklaina Archaeological Project near Pylos, Greece. During summers, he and his team work with students to excavate remains of what was likely an important district capital from the Mycenaean period.

Understanding the Ancients, Understanding Ourselves

Alumni archaeologists Michael Cosmopoulos and David Gilman Romano unearth the past, revealing shards of the origins of Greek government, religion, and athletics.

By Candace O’Connor

Michael Cosmopoulos and David Gilman Romano both are successful archaeologists, who have three other things in common. They are both excavating ancient Greek sites. They both graduated from Washington University. And they both had their lives and careers shaped by George E. Mylonas, renowned archaeology faculty member and department chair for more than 25 years.

Myth and Cultural Memory: Michael Cosmopoulos
As a child in his native Greece, Michael Cosmopoulos, M.A. ’86, Ph.D. ’91, was intrigued by the myth of Odysseus, the ancient king of Ithaca whose return trip from the Trojan War took 10 long years. On the way, Odysseus (known as the “cunning one”) faced one obstacle after another—such as lotus-eaters and a cyclops—before finally reaching his homeland.

Now an archaeologist, working on a large-scale excavation near the city of Pylos on the west coast of Greece, Cosmopoulos is a little like Odysseus himself. He has embarked on a difficult journey, fraught with questions and adventures. If definitive answers come at all, they will take years of work, a lot of ingenuity—and a bit of luck.

Just recently, he and his team of 20 staff members, plus some 50 student-helpers, discovered the skull of a teenaged girl buried near a cluster of houses on the outskirts of the ancient city they are uncovering. She had suffered from hypoplasia, a condition caused by severe physical stress. Why was she buried there? What caused her stress? Is her family buried with her?

“I cannot describe the feeling of laying eyes on an object that has been buried for thousands of years, knowing that you are the first to see it since it was buried,” says Cosmopoulos, the Hellenic Government-Karakas Foundation Endowed Professor of Greek Studies and professor of archaeology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis (UMSL). “There is always a human story behind what we find, and it is moving to experience part of an ancient person’s life.”

A veteran of other digs, with 12 books to his credit, Cosmopoulos is currently engaged in the Iklaina Archaeological Project (IKAP), named for a small Greek village near Pylos. From 1998 to 2006, he did a surface survey of the site, which had briefly been studied by archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos in 1954. In 2006, he switched focus to excavation, working to uncover the remains of what was likely an important district capital from the Mycenaean period (1600 to 1100 B.C.).

So far, Cosmopoulos and his crew have completed work on only 2 percent of the vast site, which encompasses nearly 25 acres. While one major focus has been a palace with its adjacent town, dating from the period of the Trojan War, they have also discovered four small villages and a number of ancient farms and cemeteries. “If you look at the area from above, it is like a puzzle,” he says. “With every trench we open, it’s like finding a new piece of that puzzle.”

This IKAP site is also steeped in Greek mythology, says Cosmopoulos, since it is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad as one of the state capitals of the kingdom of Nestor, a powerful Greek king who set off for Troy with 90 of his ships. As Homer described it, Nestor’s kingdom contained nine main cities, one being “the powerful Aipy.” The royal archives of that kingdom, with more than 1,000 clay tablets found in the so-called “Palace of Nestor,” reveal that the kingdom was organized as a quasi-federal state with a two-tiered government: a central and nine state capitals.

“The tablets also give the names of those capitals, one of which is spelled ‘Apy’—matching the name of the city mentioned by Homer!” says Cosmopoulos, excitedly. “So in the place that we are excavating today, the stories of Homer meet the texts of the tablets as well as our spades.”

Cosmopoulos, raised in Athens with monuments all around him, always knew he wanted to be an archaeologist. He graduated from the University of Athens in 1985 and then took part in digs at Mycenae under the direction of former Washington University archaeology faculty member George Mylonas, who had retired to his native Greece. Mylonas persuaded Cosmopoulos to come to Washington University for his graduate work.

New to the United States, he says, “everything seemed exciting and wonderful”—especially the collegiality that he found at the University. He took classes with many of the art history and archaeology faculty, including his mentor Sarantis Symeonoglou, professor of art history and archaeology, who Cosmopoulos describes as a wonderful teacher both in the classroom and on the field; William Wallace, the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor, who introduced Cosmopoulos to the art of the Renaissance; and Patty Jo Watson, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor Emerita, who taught him anthropology.

For several years, he taught at the University of Manitoba, Canada, as the professor of classics and director of the Centre for Hellenic Civilization. When he came to UMSL in 2001, he brought with him the field school that he had begun in 1999: a three-week summer program that has attracted students from around the United States and Europe.

Now he spends most school years in St. Louis and summers in Greece, where he is engaged in two other projects: archaeological work at Eleusis, to trace the origins of ancient mystery cults; and a survey at Oropos, to explore the rural history of Greek city-states. In 2003, he was awarded the Archaeological Institute of America Award for Excellence in Teaching.

At the IKAP location—where he is joined by his wife, Deborah, also an archaeologist, and their three children ages 5, 4, and 1—he has been investigating an exciting new hypothesis. This ancient kingdom is the first-recorded example of a quasi-federal state, but how did it develop? Did a long-ago king, either by force or voluntary submission, manage to unite some formerly independent chiefdoms into one domain? And did the king give these districts a measure of autonomy to make it easier to manage them?

“So far it seems that we do have a settlement, from the right period, which was destroyed around 1600 B.C. and succeeded by a new town. This destruction seems to confirm that the establishment of the new ‘quasi-federal’ state was the result of violent annexation,” he says. “Once these districts were united, a two-tiered form of government was born from the need of the kings of Pylos to control a large territory by granting local rulers the right to self-administration.”

A great deal more work remains to be done, he adds, and the project—which is funded by his own chair at UMSL, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, and private donors—will go on for another 10 to 15 years. Their discoveries along the way should illuminate more than just the past.

“One of our main targets is to understand the ancients’ way of life and ways of thinking, because in doing so we are understanding our own culture,” he says. “Ancient Greece is not isolated in time and space from our own western civilization, but is part of the same cultural continuum. To understand our own world, we need to understand its roots and development.”

Archaeologist David Gilman Romano is co-director of the Mount Lykaion Project in Greece’s Arcadia region.

Mysteries at Mount Lykaion: David Gilman Romano
In the ancient world, Mount Lykaion was known as the birthplace of Zeus, mightiest of Greek gods, with power over wind and rain, crashing thunder and brilliant lightning. Since 2004, archaeologist David Gilman Romano has been excavating this site in the heart of Greece’s Arcadia region, and he is still struck by its majestic scenery and furious storms. Even now, it is not much of a stretch to feel that Zeus may be involved.

“We have mountains all around, eagles swirling past, and clouds flying by, often below us. On some days we can’t work at all because it is too windy,” says Romano, A.B. ’69, co-director of the Mount Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project with colleagues from the University of Arizona and the Greek Archeological Service. “When you come here, you think: ‘Wow! This is a special place.’”

Aided by a large summer crew of students, Romano is working to unravel the mountain’s mysteries, which have only deepened through the years. At the start, he only hoped to discover new details surrounding the worship of Zeus at this site, last excavated in the early 20th century. But an open-air “ash altar” used for animal sacrifices has revealed a stunning surprise.

“This has probably been the most exciting aspect of our work,” says Romano, senior research scientist in the Mediterranean section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “When my predecessor excavated this altar, his earliest finds dated to the 7th century B.C. But we have found evidence that it went back to the 3rd millennium or earlier, which was 1,000 years before Zeus came into the Greek world.”

So what gods were these ancients worshipping at the site? Who were these people, how did they get to Mount Lykaion, and what exactly did they do there? How early did they first begin coming, and how often did they come? These are a few of the questions that Romano and his collaborators are pondering.

(Left) The project is studying the “ash altar” of Zeus (in background); in the foreground are bases for columns of Zeus. (Right) Among artifacts excavated at the site is this Arcadian League silver stater (5th century B.C.), which shows the head of Artemis or Despoina.

“We think we have a good chance to answer some of them because the site is remote and has been relatively untouched, so there is probably good material to be found. There are also written records from ancient authors and historians,” he says.

Romano’s introduction to his future career came while he was a pre-med undergraduate at Washington University. As a freshman, he got an “A” in an art course from Norris K. Smith but a near-failing grade in a chemistry course—and then-Dean Burton Wheeler summoned Romano to his office. Wheeler offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse: switch from pre-med studies to art and archaeology, and he would receive credit for the chemistry course.

The next year, Romano’s fate was sealed when he took an exciting class from illustrious archaeology Professor George Mylonas, whose own discoveries at Eleusis, Mycenae, and Attica in Greece had drawn international attention. Wondering whether he should become an archaeologist, Romano decided to visit Mylonas during his office hours, scheduled so early in the morning that students rarely came.

“He assumed I must be failing the class, but I told him I was actually doing well in it—I just wanted to ask him something,” says Romano. “After I did, he replied that he had three questions for me: Did I know Greek and Latin? Was I independently wealthy? Did I plan to marry a rich wife? I couldn’t answer yes to any of them, so he said: ‘FORGET IT! Pick a different career.’ It seemed to me like a challenge, and I decided then to become an archaeologist.”

Romano, a serious runner, first had other stops along the way: a fifth-grade teaching stint, a master’s degree in physical education at the University of Oregon, and another year of teaching. While at Oregon, he took his first trip to Greece and visited sites from the ancient Olympic games. The thrill of that visit propelled him to Penn for graduate school in archaeology, and he remained on the faculty after graduation.

As part of his student research, he traveled to Mount Lykaion, known for its ancient games honoring Zeus. In 1996, he did survey work there and in 2004 returned for two seasons of planning, with teams of architects, surveyors, geologists, and historians. State-of-the-art equipment, such as remote-sensing devices and ground-penetrating magnetometry, helped in this effort.

In 2006, he and his team began digging in earnest, but they faced daily challenges. They work on a 4,500-foot mountaintop, and until recently no good road led to the site. For supplies, they must travel 35 minutes away, though a tiny village—winter population: 23—is close by. The villagers, eager to promote their cultural heritage, are helpful, finding them places to eat and live.

While the earlier excavations uncovered such treasures as a large “stoa” (colonnaded building), a “xenon” (hotel), and a fountain house, Romano’s team has focused on two other areas: the ash altar and, in a nearby meadow, an open-air hippodrome where horse and chariot races took place. At the hippodrome, the only one still visible in Greece today, they found pottery sherds and ancient starting blocks that will help date the site.

At the ash altar, they penetrated to bedrock, finding drinking cups, votive figurines, and other objects. Among the most-intriguing is a Late Minoan rock-crystal seal, bearing the image of a bull. Was this site connected to Crete, with its bull iconography and fame, as another possible birthplace of Zeus? And what about a link to Olympia, 22 miles away, also a sanctuary of Zeus, with its own ash altar and history of ancient athletic contests?

During future excavations, funded by their universities, individuals, and foundations, Romano and his team will tackle these problems. Eventually, they would like to create an archaeological heritage area in Arcadia that would unite a number of ancient sites.

“The origin of Greek religion and athletics—those are big questions and really at the heart of this project,” says Romano. “That is the reason why we want to work here.”

Candace O’Connor is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

For more information, visit: www.umsl.edu/~cosmopoulosm/IKLAINA04/index.html and also corinth.sas.upenn.edu/lykaion/lykaion.html.