Meet a Member: Robert Pounder

Robert Pounder is an Emeritus Professor of Classics at Vassar College. He was Secretary of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens from 1970-1971, and then Assistant to the Director from 1974-1975. He has been involved, in one way or another, with the School for 50 years now.

Q: What is your academic area of interest?
A: My scholarly work started with epigraphy and archaeology. I studied and published the Hellenistic Arsenal in the Agora which had initially been excavated by Homer and Dorothy Thompson in the 1930s. After that, while teaching at Vassar, I became chair of the department and was pulled gradually into administration. I think that can happen often to classicists and archaeologists. The more administrative work I did the more it pulled me away from doing traditional scholarly work. That’s one of the great things about the school, that it prepares people for various kinds of intellectual lives and nourishes classical studies in more ways than one.

In terms of my scholarly and intellectual interests, I continued to publish on epigraphical subjects and write various book reviews. But I also became very interested in the lives of archaeologists Bert Hodge Hill, his wife Ida Thallon, Carl Blegen and his wife Elizabeth Pierce. All of their diaries, letters, papers, and correspondences were left to the school and are now housed in the archives. These voluminous papers offer illuminating portraits of these two couples, their achievements as archaeologists, and provides an interesting picture of them as people and their contribution to the development of archaeology as a science.

In the last 20 years, there’s been a growth of interest in the lives of archaeologists, not just their work. And these four people led very unconventional lives that for them were perfectly natural. I say unconventional because the two women were actually the couple and the two men accepted and were very supportive of this. It’s clear also that the two married couples loved one another and were deeply committed, but the physical relationship seems primarily to have been between the two women. Because they were often separated this is all documented. They wrote to each other often, sometimes two or three times a day—long handwritten letters.

Margot Camp, Robert Pounder and Charles Edwards at the American School in 1981.

Q: What are you researching at the moment?
A: At the moment I am writing a book review of a new biography of Grace Macurdy, a Vassar professor of Greek who spent some time at the American School and served on the managing committee. She became embroiled in the feud that developed between Bert Hodge Hill, the director of the American School from 1906 to 1926, and Edward Capps, the chair of the Managing Committee in the 1920s. Capps disdained Hill because of Hill’s slowness to publish his work and began a campaign to oust him from the directorship, which was ultimately successful. Macurdy and Hill’s wife Ida Thallon Hill fought Capps and tried to stop this although they ultimately failed. This is just one part of the excellent biography by the late Barbara McManus that I am reviewing.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?
A: I knew that both women (Elizabeth Pierce Blegen and Ida Thallon Hill) had gone to Vassar and then I learned that Ida was the professor of Libbie (Elizabeth). Libbie came to Vassar in 1906, was there for 4 years, and sometime in that period she and her professor fell in love. When I was secretary I realized that their papers had been left to the school. Some people thought that by studying these documents I was invading their privacy, but if the women didn’t want their story to be known, it is unlikely they would have left these letters to the school. So I began to look into it.

Q: What brought you to the ASCSA?
A: In 1966 just had started graduate work at Brown in classical archaeology and I wanted to come to Greece and see the sights in person as it were. In those years there was only a single summer session and we went around Greece in the usual way and it was terrific. It simply whetted my appetite and I wanted to come back to do the regular session. And I did in 1968-1969. That was a very interesting year at the school because there were many people who ultimately continued in the field: John Camp, Susan Rotroff, Mary Sturgeon, Stephen Miller, Nancy Palmer, Fred Cooper, Hector Williams, Sara Mcvane, Kaddee Vitelli, Jon Mikalson, and Tom Boyd, among others.

The atmosphere was quite intense and very committed. That all these people would go on and be eminent members of the profession I don’t think entered our heads at the time, but it was clear that this was a very smart group. And it was a very lively group too with lots of late-night ouzo and all that. It was no surprise years later to see everyone working in the field.

The Agora staff of 1980 and visiting scholars. Robert Pounder is in the top row, fifth from the left.

Q: And you stayed involved with the school years after?
A: I was asked by the new director James McCredie to be secretary of the school after my regular year, and I did that for a couple of years. I got what was supposed to be a one-year substitute position at Vassar that turned into 35 or 40 years because one way or another I just stayed on. I came back to the ASCSA one year and worked as assistant to the director. And I come back almost every year to do research.

The school opened up the ancient world to me in a way that would not have been possible at a library carrel in America. There’s no equivalent to direct exposure to the sites and to instruction by the people who have excavated them, to understanding from the inside out. And use of a fantastic library. There are lots of wonderful libraries in America but they’re not as concentrated and focused for our purposes as the Blegen Library. For the purposed of archaeology, ancient history, and literature you can’t top this one.

I think the school is such a unique institution because it inspires loyalty in the people who have studied here in a way I think other places don’t. There’s something special about this place. No matter what your relationship with the school is, or how it evolves, you always feel the school is important both for your professional life and your personal life. I find this is true for myself and my colleagues. And therefore it needs a lot of our support. I think all of us who have studied here have an obligation to support it financially.

Q: What is the biggest difference in the school since you first started coming?
A: One of them is the increased emphasis on technology and scientific study, and of course the Wiener Lab being a primary example of how that has evolved. But I think the essential spirit of the way classical studies is a discipline incorporating archaeology and history and literature kind of remains the same. There have always been philologists and historians and archaeologists here, and I think the mixture enriches the lives of everyone, it’s a reciprocal situation.

Robert Pounder visiting the School to work in the Archives (summer of 2017).

Q: What is your favorite restaurant in Athens?
I’d guess I’d have to say Fillipo’s because it’s been there since I’ve been a student and although it’s changed and become a little more upscale, its basic soul is the same. The quality of the food is, if anything, better than it used to be, and it’s close to the school. For classic Greek cuisine, you can’t top it. It’s got every standard dish you can imagine.

Q: If you were a Greek god or goddess which one would you be?
I guess Apollo because of the connections with art and learning, but not necessarily those with medicine and the plague.

Q: What do you get from your experience at the ASCSA?
It sounds over-the-top, but there was a transformation of my life for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. I do think this question of the friendships that are formed here is really important. I think being in this intellectual atmosphere, being in a foreign country is part of it, I think it creates bonds amongst people that remain.