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Steiner Receives NEH Fellowship to Unlock Secrets in Ancient Greece

  • Anne Steiner and Christina McSherry at Poggio Colla
  • F&M Provost and Dean of the Faculty Ann Steiner, pictured here with student Christina McSherry '12 during a 2011 archaeological travel course in Poggio Colla, Italy, will spend much of the 2013-14 academic year conducting research in Greece with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Photo courtesy of Ann Steiner)

Franklin & Marshall Provost and Dean of the Faculty Ann Steiner can't help but marvel at the influence of Classical Athens on the modern world. From buildings and public art to speeches by political leaders, ancient Athens "remains a locus of fascination and inspiration," she says.

As its power structure evolved in the late sixth-century B.C., the Athenian government became the first incarnation of modern democracy. The class tensions and jockeying for power that took place in Athens can inform modern democracies that experience similar tensions. "In short, we cannot learn too much about ancient Athenian democracy," Steiner said.

Backed by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Steiner soon hopes to shed more light on the earliest democracy -- and contribute to the knowledge of social classes and political structures of ancient Athens.

Steiner, F&M's Shirley Watkins Steinman Professor of Classics and a scholar of ancient Greek archaeology, will spend much of the 2013-14 academic year in Athens unlocking secrets of the Athenian Agora, the capital hill of classical Athens. She will do so as an associate member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens for the year. She will analyze pottery in the Tholos, where government officials ate and drank in the civic center, in an effort to better understand the social tensions and politics of fifth-century B.C. Athens.

Steiner announced in 2012 her intention to leave F&M's Office of the Provost to return to teaching and research on a full-time basis on July 1, 2013, and said the project in Athens is an ideal way to begin the next chapter of her career in academia.

"The fellowship is an affirmation to me personally of my choice to return to teaching and research for this next phase of my career," Steiner said. "Even more meaningful is the permission I received from the director of the American School excavations at the Athenian Agora to work on the body of material that forms the focus of my project. It is humbling to be entrusted with material that has not yet been studied -- material from which leaders of the Athenian democracy, people whose names we know, like (the Greek statesman) Pericles, might have eaten and drunk."

Jenifer Neils, the chair of the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, said the selection committee was impressed by the scope, originality and significance of Steiner's proposed project.

"This was a highly competitive round of NEH applications, and Steiner's stood out as a model of clarity and specificity, addressing a fascinating topic," said Neils, who is the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University. "Steiner is one of the world's experts in ancient pottery analysis, and we expect her study to have major implications for the use of ceramics in a civic context."

Steiner credits F&M's newly launched Office of College Grants for part of the success of her grant proposal. "I would not have had such a strong proposal without Amy's help," Steiner said of the efforts of Amy Cuhel-Schuckers, the College's director of faculty grants. "She really improved my grant narrative with her suggestions."

Steiner will begin her research in Greece in the fall. She will explore the tensions that played out in the dining customs of ancient Athens, which included the commingling of social classes as all citizens participated in running the Athenian government. She said she is especially fascinated by the way social negotiation took place on several levels, both in the "office" of the Athenian government and at the meals where officials ate and drank together.

"It is fascinating to see how the Athenians were limiting the power of the elite in their political institutions, yet elite customs of communal eating were dominating in the official mess halls. It is a sober reminder of the intangibles that work against social equality," Steiner said.

Steiner has conducted work on Greek ceramics throughout her career, including research on Athenian black gloss pottery; the role of Athenian figural pottery in conveying cultural norms in the context of symposia (Greek social gatherings); and the norms and behaviors of the symposia. She will prepare a manuscript with the results of her upcoming research in Athens in 2014.

"There is a great deal yet to learn (about ancient Athenian democracy)," Steiner said. "This project contributes toward filling the deficit."