The American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Q&A with New Mellon Professor Sylvian Fachard

Joanie Blackwell

In August, the American School welcomed Dr. Sylvian Fachard to a three-year appointment as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Classical Studies, in which he will lead the Academic Program of the School. Fachard, an archaeologist who has excavated in Greece for 20 field seasons, has published a range of periods and currently co-directs the Mazi Archaeological Project (Attica). He has co-authored multiple volumes on and led American School tours of Eretria, a site on which he is a leading international expert. Having lived in Athens for close to 13 years, Fachard has developed close relationships with the other foreign archaeological schools, as well as within the Greek academic community. The news article on his appointment, including a more complete biography, can be found here:

Q: As the former Assistant Director of the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece and a Research Associate at the French School at Athens, you are more than familiar with the foreign schools and academic scene in Athens. What made you decide to take the Mellon Professorship?

A: The Academic Program of the American School! The other schools and institutes have a scientific and administrative agenda related to their activities in Greece, but very few have an academic program running throughout the year. The opportunity to teach advanced graduate students using the archaeological, historical and cultural landscape as a resource is exceptional.

Q: What are you most excited about?

A: The multiple and enriching contacts with the students, Members, and staff of the School, including, of course, those at the Archives, the Wiener Laboratory, the Gennadius Library, and the Agora and Corinth Excavations. Leading a group of such talented students throughout Greece is a true honor. The School is a center of excellence, characterized by deep knowledge and cutting-edge research. In such a fertile and stimulating environment, there’s not one day that goes by without learning new things. I am very excited and honored to be part of the American School.

Q: What are your aspirations for the Regular Program over the next three years?

A: Well, the Program is very strong as it is. That being said, it is crucial for the Regular Members to keep getting as much as they can out of their year at the School. The Regular Program is a unique learning experience, during which the students acquire knowledge and skills that can’t be acquired elsewhere. Adding additional practical and technical skills is one way to go: photogrammetry, DGPS [Differential Global Positioning System] mapping, RTI [Reflectance Transformation Imaging], GIS [Geographic Information System]. Specialized field schools and providing cutting-edge seminars in the field or in museums (in pottery, architecture, epigraphy, sculpture, numismatics, and geoarchaeology, for example) offer yet another approach. If, after a year spent at the School, Members are able to “read” the Greek landscape, interpret ancient Greek material culture, read archaeological reports critically, problematize the sites they visit, and share issues and ideas in public, then they have acquired academic skills for life.

Mellon Professor Sylvian Fachard with students in Orraon, Epiros

Q: What do you see as the program’s current strengths?

A: When I describe the program to European colleagues, regardless of their age or academic position, they look at me with wide-open eyes and say: “I wish I could follow such a program!” The trips, of course, are a unique feature of the Program: I believe that it is otherwise impossible to get so much varied and rich information in such a limited amount of time. If you travel on your own, you will never gather so much data about more than 220 archaeological sites in Greece in just a few months. Additionally, preparing seven reports on different topics forces the students to rationalize and to be selective about the mass of geographical, archaeological, literary, and historical information. Sites and monuments can be overwhelming: however, after a few trips, it is remarkable to see how students are at ease interpreting a significant number of topics, sites, and regions.

Q: What changes do you plan to make?

A: Well, first of all, I am very fortunate to inherit such a strong program from the previous Mellon Professors: in particular Kevin Daly and Margie Miles, with whom I have worked most closely. Changes should be modest. Regarding the day trips to Attica, I tried as much as possible to group sites into regional and thematic entities (“Settlement patterns in Attica,” “The Deme of Sounion,” “State and Economy,” etc.). More generally, I am adding a few sites to the trips, but I mostly provide a field archaeologist’s and topographer’s approach to sites and regions. I try to provide a landscape framework for the sites we visit, focusing on the regional identities and (micro)regions that compose the Ancient Greek landscape. It is essential for the students to remember features specific to Acarnania or Thessaly for example, and also to connect the dots between these places. I also try to problematize the sites and monuments we visit, posing questions like: what are the limits of our knowledge and what could we do to overcome them? And I encourage the students to be very critical of what they read. Moreover, as mentioned previously, I wish to incorporate more practical and technical apprenticeships into the Regular Program. Last, I want to work to give students access to opportunities outside the School, in the form of field projects or other collaborations.

Q: How will you incorporate your expertise in advanced methodologies like GIS into the program?

A: I am organizing a GIS lab during the Winter Term. The objectives are to provide a theoretical and practical introduction to the use of GIS in landscape archaeology, to lay the foundations of digital cartography in Greece, to familiarize participants with the main functionalities of spatial analysis tools, and to help them incorporate the most suitable of them in their research. The teaching is based on concrete cases, taking the Attic landscape as a framework.

The last part of the lab will allow students to develop their own projects and research agendas, and to work through questions such as: How can I get Greek topo maps? How can I draw regional or thematic maps for my dissertation? How can I estimate the agricultural potential of a region? How can I put a database (of sites, coins, or literary sources) on an iPad? Such practical skills are not only valuable to archaeologists; epigraphists, ancient historians, and philologists should assess their needs and know that GIS tools can assist them significantly as well.

In a forthcoming paper entitled “Borders in Pausanias,” (Knodell and Leppard 2018) I used GIS to map all textual references to border crossings and to classify the border landmarks according to a typology. The visual results of the GIS maps are illuminating. In turn, this layer of information can be added to the road network in the Peloponnese, Roman cities, harbors, sanctuaries, etc. Students should have a handle on some of the techniques that are becoming standard practice in the field.

Fachard (at rear) with this year's student members

Q: Tell us about your research interests and the work you have been doing in the Mazi Plain. Are you still involved in the excavations at Eretria? How will you connect your research interests and work with the students?

A: The Mazi Archaeological Project (MAP) has been a fantastic project to co-direct (with Alex Knodell of Carleton College and Kalliope Papangeli of the Ephorate of West Attica), both from a human and scientific point of view. It is an international project that took place in a genuinely collaborative spirit, and I would like to thank our Greek colleagues from the Ephorate for supporting and embracing it from the very beginning.

MAP is part of a wider project on ancient Greek borders (which I started working on while at the Center for Hellenic Studies [in Washington, D.C.]). The goal was to develop archaeological methods for studying ancient borders and borderlands, which represent an understudied reality of the ancient Greek landscape, by asking questions such as: Can we delimit ancient borders based on archaeological data? What is the material signature of a border? What is the influence of a border on the populations that settle the borderlands?

Beyond its own interests as a microregion, the Mazi Plain offered a unique opportunity to study an ancient border landscape in one of the most disputed borderlands of the Greek world. It is also a rare place for being able to study both of my two other great research interests: Greek military architecture (Eleutherai, Oinoe, Velatouri) and ancient roads, which are, in many ways, connected to borders and borderlands. However, these issues are only a small part of the fruitful results of MAP; we have recorded new and essential information regarding the Prehistoric, Late Roman, Byzantine, and Early Modern periods. We are all very excited about our results, some of which have already been published in [the classical journal] Antike Kunst, and we’re moving forward now into the final publication phase of the project.

In Eretria, I am no longer directly involved with the excavations, although I am currently studying and publishing several groups of material (west necropolis and city walls). I have been more involved with the Amarynthos excavations, which yielded exciting discoveries this past summer, including a definitive grounding of the location of the Artemis Amarysia sanctuary. A summary of the work done there will appear in the forthcoming Archaeological Reports.

So far, I believe the students have already heard a lot about fortifications,  masonry techniques, historical landscapes, and borderlands. But because walls are ubiquitous (consider Delphi), recognizing and analyzing masonry techniques is a useful skill. Moreover, almost every polis built city walls, and every polis had border issues with its neighbors. My landscape and regional approaches help me contextualize sites within their region. In this way, my research interests are directly connected with the sites and monuments we visit.

Q:  Incoming students at the American School frequently receive advice to engage with the wider Athens community beyond the gates of the Blegen and Gennadius Libraries and Loring Hall, and to make connections with potential colleagues at foreign schools. How will you encourage the Regular and Associate Members to foster these ties?

A: First, by inviting many specialists and colleagues to talk to the students during the year, both at the School itself, as well as on trips/excursions. Moreover, this year we are inaugurating a new lecture cycle called Μέλη (“Members”) in collaboration with the French School at Athens (EFA). This platform is intended to promote the research of the French School and American School junior members, and to stimulate discussions and exchanges among the members of the all the foreign schools. Some of our Associate Members will deliver papers at the French School, while French scholars will give their papers at the American School. Second, I will encourage students to go out into the wider foreign school community, to follow lectures at other schools and institutes and to meet as many colleagues and specialists as they can. Last, I wish to make them aware of the realities of the challenging missions of the Ephorates, by visiting rescue excavations and inviting Greek colleagues to speak to the Regular Members during the year.

Q: What are some of your favorite things to do in Athens?

A: I think I just love being in Athens.

Q: You are living on campus with your family. What aspects of this experience at the American School do you, as a family, look forward to?

A: This is such a unique and enriching experience for us! Kalliope and I feel very privileged to be here and to be part of the community. It is incredible for our son Phil(ippos) to grow up in such an environment and to interact on a daily basis with such an incredible staff.

Q: Can you give us a brief report or a couple of anecdotes from the two Regular Program trips (to western and northern Greece and to central Greece) that you have already led?

A: While in Thessaloniki, we enjoyed a modern poetry reading in a café of the Kastro. Professor Karen van Dyke, from Columbia University, presented her new book, “Austerity Measures. The New Greek Poetry” (Penguin, 2016), for which she just won the London Hellenic Prize. We read and discussed several poems in the company of two of the poets, Giorgos Alisanoglou and Chloe Koutsoumbeli. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

The Olympic flame stopped at Delphi on its way from Olympia to South Korea for the upcoming winter games, and we were invited to the ceremony. Seeing the flame and the Temple of Apollo lit up at night was quite an extraordinary moment.