The American School of Classical Studies at Athens
ASCSA
06/27/2017

Meet a Member: John Oakley

Moira Lavelle

John Oakley is the Chancellor Professor and Forrest D. Murden, Jr. Professor at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. Oakley is a classical archaeologist whose main interests are Greek vase painting, iconography and Roman sarcophagi. 

Q: What are you researching at the moment?
A: Currently I am writing a handbook on daily life scenes on Athenian vases. The ones I’m looking at are primarily from the 6th and 5th centuries BC. The project is important because at present there is no book that collates all the evidence. There are some studies on individual subjects, and of course there are some handbooks on mythological scenes, but there is none for daily life.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?
A: I’ve written or co-authored a number of books on Athenian pottery. For example, I wrote a book with Jenifer Neils called Coming of Age which was about children in ancient Greek art. I also wrote a book with Rebecca Sinos, who I met here at the school when we were students. We later wrote a book together on the Athenian wedding as depicted on Athenian pottery.

My main research interest is Greek vase painting, but I have also published on Roman sarcophagi. In fact, I am the only non-German to write a volume in the corpus on German sarcophagi. It's a very German heavy discipline.

Q: What resources are you using to do your research?
A: Mainly when I’m here now it is the Blegan Library. This summer I have just finished a chapter on battle scenes. Warriors’ departure scenes are extremely common in the 5th century during the Peloponnesian War— Athenian soldiers were going off to war all the time, so that became a popular scene.

The library is such a key element of the School. A lot of people that use the Blegen come from abroad. Most of us don’t have a library like that at our home institutions. I’ve got a pretty good personal library of vase-painting books, but it’s the books in subfields that I don’t have.

Q: What brought you to the ASCSA?
A: One of my teachers, a wonderful woman named Anna Benjamin, was very involved with the school and my mentor as an undergraduate. She was in the first class of students after WW II and the Greek Civil War.  She advised me to come here, but of course it didn’t take much of a push. I was the Lane Copper fellow from Rutgers from 1976 to 1979. James McCredie was the director at the time— in my exit interview he asked how my Regular Year was. I said great. And he said “ok that’s it, we have a satisfied customer!”

Since then I’ve done a sort of cursus honorum of positions at the School. First I led a summer session, after which I chaired the summer session committee twice; next I was a Whitehead Professor, and then I was the Mellon Professor from 2005 to 2008. I’ve come back to Greece nearly every year since I was first a student, and I’ve been very involved in the school: Executive Committee, Personnel Committee, Publications Committee, etc.

Q: What is the biggest difference in the school since you first started coming?
A: Most of the changes I see are in the Regular Program. The Mellon Professor and other people leading the trips change them just about every year. Now there are more additional trips, like those to Sicily and Israel last year.

When I was the Mellon Professor I took the students to Bulgaria for the first time and the following year to Malta for the first time, and I also went on some of John Camp’s trips which were great fun. I also took the school for the first time to Western Macedonia; we went right up to near the northern borders. I liked doing something different each year. We went once to Corfu and seeing the Archaic pediment just blew our minds.

I recently spoke to the current Mellon Professor, Kevin Daly, to see what new sites and other things that he had added on. Today the national highway runs nearly coast to coast so that you can get all the way over to the eastern side of Greece in much less time, so there is now more time to add new sites.

Q: What keeps you coming back to the school?
A: The resources, as the library, and I get to see many of my old friends. Apparently we’ve developed a group of seniors now who come every summer. And that’s fun.This summer I’m only here for a month, but adding up all the time I’ve lived in Greece it would be somewhere around 15 years of my life. I love watching some of the changes. At the taverna nearby, Filipou’s, there is a picture on the back wall of the current owner when he was about 7 or 8 with his father. The son used to serve water at the tables when I first was a student at the School and he was child.

Q: What is your favorite restaurant in Athens?
Fillipou’s—the food is good and fresh, and you can still see a lot of what they have in the kitchen before you order.

Q: If you were a Greek god or goddess which one would you be?
Apollo, I suppose, because he cleanses and heals.

Q: What do you get from your experience at the ASCSA?
A: I think it’s all the things we talked about, the friendships you make, the collaborations you make with people that you meet here. One time I was working on an inscription in the library and needed help, so I went into the next room and talked to my friend who’s an epigrapher who just happened to be here. Where else can you do that? It’s the camaraderie you build with people. It’s getting to know Greece better. I mean we know Greece better than many Greeks because we travel all over.