Alumnus Nakassis Recognized with MacArthur Fellowship
January 8, 2016
The American School is proud to congratulate alumnus Dr. Dimitri Nakassis, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto, on receiving a MacArthur Fellowship, one of the highest honors in any field, and rarer still in the field of Classical Studies. This year’s 24 MacArthur Fellows will each receive an unrestricted $625,000 fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest private philanthropies in the U.S. These “Genius Grants,” as they have come to be called, are awarded to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”
Those from the School who know Prof. Nakassis and his work well are quick to agree that he is a worthy recipient of a grant that acknowledges superior contributions while also recognizing potential for even greater accomplishments. Praising his “rare intellectual breadth,” The MacArthur Foundation provided the following rationale for naming him a Fellow: “Nakassis’ multifaceted approach to the study of Bronze Age Greece is redefining the methodologies and frameworks of the field, and his nuanced picture of political authority and modes of economic exchange in Mycenaean Greece is illuminating the prehistoric underpinnings of Western civilization.”
Prof. Nakassis’ work challenges longstanding views that Mycenaean society in Late Bronze Age Greece (1400-1200 BC) was highly centralized. He proposes instead that power and resources were shared in an open society with a competitive economy and balanced political authority more akin to the democratic polis of Classical Greece. His study of the Linear B clay tablets from Pylos (administrative and accounting records written in the earliest form of Greek), using 3D scanning and computational photography, demonstrates a redefined methodological approach to studying prehistory. He will continue to put his hypotheses to the test through the Western Argolid Regional Project, an archaeological survey he is co-directing with Sarah James (University of Colorado Boulder; Regular Member 2003-2004; Associate Member 2007-2008) and Scott Gallimore (Wilfrid Laurier University; Regular Member 2008-2009; Associate Member 2009-2010).
Dmitri Nakassis during his Regular Year at the Mycenaean tholos at Koryphasion in Messenia
The recognition of his work by the MacArthur Foundation came as a total surprise to Nakassis. “What can prepare you for it mentally? Until it was announced publicly, I had partially convinced myself it was all an elaborate hoax.” There is no application, and the process by which fellows are selected is so anonymous that the names of the invited nominators and 12-person Selection Committee are never revealed, even to the Fellows.
The other marked difference with MacArthur grants is that there are no strings attached to the award; the recipient can use the money in any manner desired, without reporting back or being subject to evaluation or post-fellowship tracking. This idea of the grants being tied to people not projects, the Foundation explains, is that creativity blossoms most when there is no pressure for payoff. “It’s all backwards,” Nakassis muses. “With other grants, you have to very specifically justify the project and budget – and here, you’re just told you get a whole bunch of money. I’ve never experienced that kind of flexibility. Especially with archaeology, there are different costs that are hard to write in, such as buying land in Greece and other infrastructural things.”
That said, he hasn’t thought specifically about how he will use the money. “You’re only a MacArthur Fellow once,” he reasons, “so I figure I have one shot at using this money in a good way, and I want to be careful about getting max research bang for my buck, so to speak. It’s sort of counterintuitive: the grant wants you to be creative and innovative, but you also have to be careful because it’s such a big deal. I have three projects on the go right now, so I’d like to wrap them up first, then think about the logical next step.”
Prof. Nakassis says that the School’s influence on his education and career has “obviously been huge,” and in a cumulative way. He was a Regular Member and Heinrich Schleimann Fellow in 2003-2004; has excavated at Corinth and Nemea, and conducted research on Pylos; and has served on the Managing Committee since 2010, in addition to other School committees. “The American School has been so important to my intellectual development that I feel a strong obligation to continue giving back,” remarks Nakassis. Like most who have spent time at the ASCSA, he recognizes the friendships and professional connections he’s developed there as meaningful and lifelong.
On reacting to the “genius” moniker, Nakassis says it mainly makes him uncomfortable because it implies a gifted individual working at a level above the rest, alone, while he sees his work as fundamentally collaborative. “I can accept that people see my work as innovative, but I’m building on what other equally innovative scholars in the field have done. One of the things that drew me to academia was that people work together, not in competition. I’m also being awarded an opportunity to give credit to the people and institutions who’ve helped me. Being given an individual award in a team sport is awkward. The best thing about winning so far is how happy others have been.”
Prof. Nakassis hopes this honor will bring some attention to the importance of the field both within and outside of academia: “Greek history and political thought are very influential to American thought. But it’s also strange because the culture that produced this inheritance is foreign to our way of thinking. It’s important to understand and interpret our foundations so that they make sense now. Ancient texts don’t stand still and neither do we.”
Prof. Nakassis joins the distinguished club, now a group of 6, of ASCSA alumni/ae who have been named MacArthur Fellows: Thomas G. Palaima (1985), Susan Rotroff (1988), Joan Breton Connelly (1996), Leslie V. Kurke (1999), and Susan Alcock (2000). There have been 942 MacArthur Fellows since the program’s establishment in 1981.