Antiquity Alive: A Tale of Transformation

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By lkoelle on January 4, 2012. No Comments

By Keturah Kiehl

“The past is never dead. It’s not even
past.” So said Gavin Stephens in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. At the
ASCSA Summer Session in June–July
2010, I found this to be true in surprising
ways. Not only was I to study Greece’s
ancient past, but the changes it underwent
in later ages, and its exportation to other
parts of Europe. Moreover, I also found
my own past and personal transformation
carved in Greek statues, temples, and
My first experience of the persistent
past took place before I even reached
Greece, and it was thanks to the zealous
German antiquities collectors of the 19
century and Hitler’s fascist propaganda.
(It’s a good thing I am not dependent on
tenure, as a sentence like that would likely
derail my application permanently.) Two
photographs on an informational sign atop
the grandstand of the Nazi parade grounds
in Nuremberg, Germany, compared the
Nazi grandstand in its heyday to the Pergamon altar that inspired its design. A victim
of the 19
-century antiquities trade, the
altar was (and is) one of Germany’s prized
cultural possessions; in selecting it as the
model for the focal point of the parade
grounds, Hitler clothed his diabolical
designs in the vestments of Europe’s glorious past. And the altar was in a museum
in Berlin…where I would be in two days! I
was a giddy young girl walking around the
enormous, airy room where the altar was
housed, scrutinzing with my own eyes the
details I had studied in a grad school art
history course, taking pictures that rivalled
any textbook’s with the digital camera I
had bought just for this trip, and listening
with rapt attention at every stop on the
audio tour. I had to take a couple of “I was
here” shots as proof that I had actually
seen, not dreamed, this magical meeting. In response to all of the compelling
emotional arguments for returning artifacts
to their countries of origin—which I also
remembered from that art history class—I
now had an emotional argument of my
own for leaving them where they were:
many people like me would have had little
chance of seeing the Pergamon Altar in
its home country of Turkey. The German
antiquities collectors’ desire to bring the
ancient world into theirs also brought it
within my reach.
The Pergamon Altar in Berlin was only
my first recall to days I had left by Lethe’s
streams. When I reached Athens in midJune and met the people with whom I’d
be spending the next six weeks, I faced
another ghost from my past: the graduate student. All but one of my nineteen
colleagues in the ASCSA Summer Session
were eyeing seminars, comprehensive
exams, dissertations, and eventual tenuretrack positions—much as I had been four
years ago when I participated in Classical
Summer School at the American Academy at Rome (also thanks to a generous Eta
Sigma Phi scholarship) in 2006. At that
time I was fresh from a successful thesis defense and MA graduation; and while I was
headed for a middle-school teaching job
in Memphis when I returned in August, I
entertained the possibility of returning in
a few years for the PhD and professorship
for which I had been told I was well-suited.
Under that looming prospect, I crammed
as much information into my notebooks as
possible for future use in brilliant lectures
and perhaps an article. I have two binders
from Rome, a shelf full of site guides, and
an extra suitcase I had to buy at the airport
to carry them all home.
In Greece this summer when I again
brushed shoulders with higher education,
I was surprised to discover how much my
perspective had changed in four years.
After four years of teaching to ten-minute
middle-school attention spans, I was
largely content with the broad brushstrokes and found my own mind wandering when the discussions about previous
building phases, mysterious references
to cult rituals, the accuracy of Pausanias’
descriptions, and the classification of
prehistoric pottery became too arcane.
I sought out cultural details that would
answer my students’ concrete questions
such as what the ancients ate, what sports
they liked, and whether the battle at
Thermopylae really happened as in the
movie 300. Instead of details I could argue
before examiners and conference panels,
I recorded and photographed items that
would help me recreate a site, event, or
an ancient person’s life for my students.
The result is that I have as many pictures
of cooking pots, jewelry, toiletries, and
weapons as of the sites where these items
were found. One example is the weapons
display in the museum at Olympia, which I
knew would make a popular lesson for my
students at the all-boys’ school at which I
would start a new job in August. Another
example is the display of cooking pots and
grills from the museum of the Athenian
Agora. At their tender age my students
would get more of a kick out of an ancient
Greek barbecue than they would out
of the fine stylistic points of Geometric
pottery, and my willingness to connect
with them at this concrete, foundational
level would give some future teacher or
professor the opportunity to lead them to
the higher levels. Besides, cultural info
would complement my pedantic knowledge of the literature. I also found that my
experience as a secondary teacher was a
novelty to some of my session colleagues,
and it was fun to share what I had done
and learned in the last four years with
them, some of whom were considering that
level of the profession themselves. In my
graduate Summer Session colleagues I was
startled to see a past version of myself as a
researcher, but I was equally startled by the
delight I found in my new perspective as a
secondary teacher.
Like my junior-high students, I even
forged a new concrete connection of my
own with the ancient Greeks through one
of their most popular athletic pursuits:
running. I had run on my own off and on
since high school for fitness reasons, but
my running became pretty sporadic during
grad school as the guilt of neglecting the
Reading List haunted my engagement in
lighter pursuits. Since going into teaching,
I have found it is possible to cultivate a
hobby without jeopardizing my professional success, so I have learned to train and
race long distances and have even added
cross-country coaching to my academic
responsibilities. Having completed two
full marathons and eyeing a third, I was
now thrilled to visit the ancient battlefield
that gave its name to the distance and to
do morning runs through Greece’s most
storied terrain. In this goofy picture, I
am aping a run in front of the Athenian
burial mound at Marathon—where I also
discovered that my technical workout
clothes were as good at beating the oppressive Mediterranean heat as they were
for running. Other thrilling athletic sites
were the stadiums for the Panhellenic
games at Isthmia, Nemea, Olympia, and
Delphi, which I found far more interesting
now that I can identify with the hard, long
training to which Greek athletes subjected
themselves to prepare for these games, and
the flush of excitement when they raced
before thousands of their countrymen.
Notice that I did not say I identified with
the flush of victory, as I was soundly beaten
in our group footraces at the Nemean
and Olympic stadiums. My compatriots,
however, readily accepted my claim that I
was trained for distance rather than sprinting, and I substantiated it by running four
miles through Nemean vineyard country
during lunch break while they lolled over
gyros and espresso frescos. Framed by the
pines that march toward the peak of Mt.
Parnassus, the Delphi racetrack was one
the most inspiring racing venues I had
seen and must have been doubly so for
the ancients who sought the advice of
Apollo there and represented their cities
at the Pythian Games. The racetrack sits
on a terrace above the sanctuary, which
spills down the mountainside in a cascade
of treasuries. We didn’t get to race on
that track, but I reveled in the dramatic
scenery on a morning run through the
lower sanctuary, which included a sprint
through a one-stade long stoa that served
as an indoor training facility for Pythian
contenders. Running not only kept me in
shape for my next marathon but helped
me to see ancient sites like Nemea and
Delphi up close, and also to experience a
part of the ancient culture as a participant
rather than a spectator.
Not every vestige of my past faded upon
exposure to the light, however. Fascinated by the “triumph of Christianity”
in fourth-century A.D. Rome and by the
attendant refashioning of Latin literature,
I had oriented my second-year master’s
coursework toward Late Antiquity and
had written my thesis on a hymn of one of
the era’s prolific Christian poets, Prudentius. It was interesting to trace some of the
same themes of Late Antiquity in Greece
with the ubiquity of Christian basilicas
atop earlier sites, the veneration of saints,
and some of the earliest known places in
Europe to hear the Christian message.
Having remained in the Christian faith in
which I was raised, I was also excited to
see some of the cities that St. Paul visited.
On a whim I lagged behind our group in
the Corinth agora to take a picture of the
bema that our guest speaker had bypassed
without a word; later I found that that was
where Paul had famously been dragged
before governor Gallio by unbelieving Jews
(Acts 18:12–17). Here was another marvel
of history that I had quite nearly bypassed!
Thessaloniki did not have a specific Pauline artifact, but it did have an excavated
first-century agora that Paul would no
doubt have seen during his stay in the city.
A few blocks from the ancient site stood
an impressive church, Aghios Demetrios,
which was built in the fifth century A.D.
in classic Roman basilica style with three
aisles, clerestory windows, and saints’ relics
at every turn. Remembering discussions of
Egeria’s travels and pilgrims’ graffiti from
a graduate Latin epigraphy class, as well
as my visits to the Constantinian basilicas
dotting Rome, I could identify with the
faithful who came from far away to see
the saint’s resting place, to “read” his story
in his icons, and to honor the sacrifice of
Demetrios and the other saints honored
at this church. I left with my own collection of “relics,” various icons, to give to my
Christian friends and family as a tangible
connection to a city that knew the presence and influence of Paul and those who
followed his lead.
The cultural richness of Late Antiquity
was not only religious, as evidenced by the
impressive remains of Emperor Galerius’
administration. The reliefs on Galerius’
triumphal arch and glittering palace mosaics bespeak the splendor of Late Antiquity
in defiance of scholars’ dreary dismissal of
everything postclassical as second-rate and
bereft of sensibility. While artistic tastes
changed, as they always do in a long-lived
culture, the care and skill with which these
later Roman artists worked rival that of
any other age, ancient and modern.
I have said very little of Athens, which
served as our home base between weeklong visits to other parts of Greece, since
it is already well-loved in the annals of history and travel. Athens is simply unforgettable. I will never forget the echoes of the
Athenians climbing the Panathenaic Way
up to the Acropolis, of Socrates teaching
in the Agora, or of Aeschylus’ chorus singing in the theater of Dionysus. I will never
forget the Parthenon and National Museums that hold so many treasures of art. I’ll
never forget my first view of the Parthenon
from the open-air restaurant atop my hotel
before my brown-bag supper and I were
chased out. I’ll never forget the relief of
the cool night air as I stole out of stifling
Loring Hall to a cot on the balcony under
the stars and city lights. Nor will I forget
my last night in Athens in the Odeion of
Herodes Atticus, piecing together the plot
of the opera Aida from Greek subtitles
with a new British friend at the foot of the
And I will never forget the generosity of those who made it possible for me
to experience all this. Thank you to my
grandparents who flew me to Europe, and
to Memphis University School, which forwarded professional development money
to me before my teaching contract even
started last fall. Most of all, thank you to
Eta Sigma Phi for awarding me the Brent
Malcom Froberg Scholarship to cover the
program fees. This trip would have been
unthinkable without this assistance; with
it Greece has been unforgettable. I have
learned the value not only of Greece and
its unique place in history but also of my
own place in life, which is educating young
students about ancient marvels. I am very
grateful for both lessons and for the opportunity, tools, and inspiration to continue
teaching them.

About the Author
Keturah earned a B.A. in Classical Studies
from Hillsdale (Michigan) College in 2004,
where she was an active member and
officer of Eta Delta chapter of Eta Sigma
Phi. Upon earning an M.A. in Classical
Languages from the University of Missouri
in 2006, she explored Rome as a member
of the AAR Classical Summer School, also
thanks to an Eta Sigma Phi scholarship.
From 2006–2010 she taught 8th grade
Latin I and Intro to Classical Studies at
Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis,
Tennessee. She currently teaches 7th grade
Origins of Language and 8th grade Latin
I at Memphis University School alongside
three stellar Latin colleagues.