U.Va. Archaeologist Anastasia Dakouri-Hild Receives Fellowship to Study the Ancient City of Thebes in Greece

May 21, 2008 — "Thebes is an amazing site that has been occupied for almost 5,000 years non-stop," said Anastasia Dakouri-Hild, an archaeologist in the University of Virginia's Carl H. and Martha S. Lindner Center for Art History. The center is affiliated with the McIntire Department of Art, where she teaches courses in Greek and Near Eastern art and archaeology.

Thebes was a major Greek city in the Aegean from prehistoric through Classical times, and was founded by the legendary Cadmus according to mythology. His purported palace, an impressive building called the House of Cadmus, which dates to the 13th century B.C.E., has interested Dakouri-Hild since her days as an undergraduate at the University of Athens, when she went to Thebes in search of study material. She continued that interest while working on her master's at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom, where her thesis focused on the palace's architecture, and during her doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge. 

Dakouri-Hild will continue the work — which she began in 1997 — evaluating the numerous objects excavated at the House of Cadmus in the early 20th century, as well as continuing to study the ruins and new discoveries she has made thanks to a faculty fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, one of 65 awards from a field of 1,034 applications this year.

The ACLS awards fellowships in all disciplines of the humanities and humanities-related social sciences to support a major piece of scholarly work. The fellowship will afford Dakouri-Hild the time to complete the first volume of her book, scheduled to be published next year in Rome. It will focus on the architecture, pottery and small finds. The second volume will be devoted to the frescoes from the site.

"The reconstructed frescoes, depicting an elaborate procession of women, are the earliest depiction of a ceremonial procession found on the Greek mainland," Dakouri-Hild said. "It is also the finest in terms of style, articulation of form and execution."

Since Antonios D. Keramopoullos excavated the site almost a century ago, the finds have been stored in the Thebes Archaeological Museum, but the assemblage has not previously been studied in its entirety, Dakouri-Hild said. The collection of artifacts is unusually comprehensive; "He kept all the finds and did not throw away those that were not 'pretty,' as was the custom at the time: this helps reconstruct context, which is key to archaeological interpretation," she said.

The studied collection currently includes about 19,000 pottery sherds and about 2,000 small artifacts made of terra cotta, glass, faience, gold, bronze, lead, semiprecious stones,  bone, obsidian and other stone implements, faunal finds, as well as 273 intact and restored vessels. Some of the latter are inscribed with Linear B, the earliest form of Greek used by the Mycenaeans for administrative records. These and other artifacts, some still being discovered, will help Dakouri-Hild, whose research interests are in material culture and value, produce an account and synthesis of Theban society, economy and artistic production at the peak of the Mycenaean civilization.

The artifact collection is a "multifaceted assemblage that illuminates society in ancient Thebes from about 1400 B.C.E. when the site was devastated by a fire," she said. "Moreover, the House of Cadmus is the earliest key to unlocking and understanding palatial topography in prehistoric Thebes."

The palace belongs to a wider palatial complex that was used for many centuries. "It was one of the most important centers of the eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age and may well have developed alliances with the Near East," Dakouri-Hild added.

"In some ways I feel I have been there at the right time and the right place," Dakouri-Hild said. "I am very fortunate to have stumbled upon this significant site and to have received the constant support of the Greek Archaeological Service, which has made this project possible."

— By Jane Ford