The American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Meet a Member: Elina Salminen

Moira Lavelle

Elina Salminen is a PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Michigan, where she is also completing an MA in Anthropology. She is an Associate Member at the American School working on a dissertation on the mortuary record of northern Greece from the Archaic to the Early Hellenistic period.

Q: What are you researching at the moment?
A: My dissertation is on burials from central and western Macedon from the Archaic to the start of the Hellenistic period. It’s partially a synthetic work pulling together materials from different sources in order to gain a more complete view of Macedonian society as a whole. I am particularly interested in how gender was portrayed in these burials. What can we learn from how people were depicted in death? What can that tell us about what peoples’ lives were like? And what can it tell us about gender roles in the region?
At the moment, I am looking at disturbance and reuse of these graves. I want to understand how much continuity there was in terms of commemoration. Was there an ancestor cult? Was there a reverence for ancestors? (Spoiler alert: surprisingly little!) I’m going through my database and looking at my notes of how many graves were disturbed and during which periods.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?
A: Like many people, I totally had a crush on Alexander the Great growing up. Because of this, early on in my undergraduate career, I stumbled across Eugene Borza’s book In the Shadow of Olympus, which discusses the pre-Alexander history of the region. You hear about Alexander and Macedon in the Hellenistic period all the time, but I had never really been exposed to earlier Macedonian history. Because of the gaps in our knowledge, for a long time there was an illusion of a sudden emergence of a powerful kingdom in Macedon, but Eugene Borza and others realized that Philip II’s and Alexander the Great’s achievements had their roots somewhere. To me, this seemed like a really interesting path to explore.

Q: So what are you finding in these burials related to gender roles?
A: The broad patterns are exactly what we would expect - jewelry skews female, weaponry is almost exclusively male. What is more interesting to me are the things we don’t expect. For example, some of the burials included miniature models of carts and furniture. It seems the furniture is found mostly in male graves while the carts are evenly distributed. There is much debate about the meaning and symbolism of the miniatures, but carts (drawn by oxen) could imply agricultural wealth while we often associate furniture with the domestic sphere. So here we have “domestic” furniture associated with males and farmcarts associated with females - food for thought, given our general assumptions about gender roles.
Overall, I’m trying to expand our understanding of gender in Macedon both temporally and in terms of social groups, as historical sources only speak of the topmost elite, especially in the case of women, where we are almost completely ignorant about Macedonian women who were not royalty.

Q: What resources are you using to do your research?
A: I built my own database using Filemaker, and it now has about a thousand graves. It took me a year and a half to populate the database with any and all completely reported burials I could find. The Blegen was and continues to be really useful in this process because it contains in one place obscure museum publications that are hard to find in the States, yearly excavation reports, and journals. I have also visited museums and sites extensively, and probably will do more of that in the spring. One final thing I would like to do during this year is to work on landscapes and visit several Macedonian cemeteries I haven’t been to yet. Tumuli are very prominent in Macedon, and a lot can be learned by exploring their placement in the landscape.

Q: What brought you to the American School?
A: I was a Regular Member in 2014-2015. I’m a Greek archaeologist, so it is crucial for me to be familiar with the sites and the Greek scholarly community. The regular year seemed to hit all of those spots. I gained a tremendous amount from my regular year; it was almost like getting a rolodex of sites and museums and objects in my head. Now I have a much better frame of reference for any material I work with.
What I really enjoy about my current year as an Associate is the space, the time, and the almost monastic quality of being able to just write. I love teaching, but it takes up a lot of my time. So it’s really great to be in an environment where everyone is very focused, is working on similar things and shares a similar vocabulary. I find it very productive. All the relevant literature is also available right here, and I can walk right up to the shelves and consult books.

Q: What is your favorite restaurant in Athens?
A: Oxo Nou. It’s an American School staple but it’s so good! The restaurant is Cretan, so the flavors are a little different, which is refreshing. The salads are amazing!

Q: If you were a Greek god or goddess which one would you be?
A: Dionysus is my favorite, but I think I would be Darron, a Macedonian healing god. I would get to hang out in Macedon and do good. I would also get to have an air of mystery, because we know so little about Darron.

Q: Where else in Greece would you like to visit?
A: Everywhere! My favorite region is Epirus so I would really like to revisit that area and explore it more. The archaeology there is so wildly different, and the nature is so gorgeous.

Q: What do you get from your experience at the ASCSA?
A: Many things, but I would say the community is the most important. That’s something that separates the American School from any old library. It’s really fruitful and inspiring to be around people who are thinking deeply about things I am thinking about, and to be able to have really in-depth conversations about what I’m researching. It’s both a fun community and a very smart community.