Excavating Aphrodite

By Emma Gallegos

The Greek government gave Macalester’s Kenchreai Cemetery Project the green light to expand its excavation site this summer. The site will now include not just the cemetery on the periphery of the ancient port of Kenchreai, but what program director Joseph Rife calls the “heart of the city.”

Since the program’s inception five summers ago, students, faculty and a team of experts have been restricted to excavating the tombs in Kenchreai. This new high-level permit, which Rife notes is especially difficult for foreigners to obtain, will allow the team to work anywhere on the site. The program’s expansion means that more student opportunities to excavate will be available.

Rife, a classics professor, said that this summer’s excavation will target two buildings that are not yet visible but have been detected by radar.
One of these buildings is a Christian Church believed to have been visited by the early Christian evangelist Paul, who mentions Kenchreai in his letter to the Romans. Rife said that the other building, a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, may contain fragments of a statue of the goddess who was famous throughout the ancient world.

Greek official Elena Korka will be collaborating on the project for the first time this summer as co-director, a further sign of the Greek government’s blessing of the project. Rife says she is a “reasonable politician” whose interests will dovetail with the greater interests of the excavation.

An archaeologist by training, Korka has gained prominence on the international scene in her role as Director of Antiquities in Greece. Most recently, she has been a central figure in the campaign to bring the Parthenon marbles back to Greece from the British Museum in London.
Because the physical site has been expanded, Rife said the program will enlist 40-45 undergraduates, four times the number of students who have joined him for a six-week stint in previous summers.
Rife said he will cast a wider net for applicants at other colleges “a lot like Macalester.” He hasn’t made any final decisions about which colleges will be included, but he said that they will all be small liberal arts colleges from across the nation.

Rife held an informational meeting earlier this week to recruit students of all classes, experiences and academic interests.

“We don’t discriminate,” said classics professor Mireille Lee, the site’s educational program coordinator.

Even President Brian Rosenberg and his family participated in the program for a short time one summer and Director of Facilities Management Mark Dickinson has served as site manager.

What’s most important, Rife said, is that applicants have a strong interest in the project.

Both Rife and Lee point out that archaeology is an interdisciplinary field that relies on the expertise of not only classicists and archaeologists but also anatomists, geologists, religionists and historians.

In fact, one of the greatest benefits cited by student participants in the program is the chance to work with “world-class scholars,” Rife said, including an expert in ancient curses, a pottery expert who can identify a pot’s origin by the curve of its rim, and a forensic specialist from the FBI who worked to identify bodies at the Pentagon after 9/11.

Students have taken advantage of this network of specialists. Maureen Ragalie ’07, a classics major with an emphasis in archaeology, said she has made valuable connections during the two summers that she has participated in the dig.

“I’ve had the opportunity to chat with cool people from all over about my honors project,” Ragalie said.

Both Rife and Lee said they are hoping to offer a discount to lure enthusiastic veteran students like Ragalie and Eli Weaverdyck ’07, who said, without a trace of sarcasm, that despite the physical labor, the menial tasks, the heat, the sun and dehydration, digs are “the most fun you can think of.”
With the program’s expansion, the educational component will become more formalized, since more students will be coming to the dig without a background in archaeology.

In previous years, students took trips with Lee and Rife to local sites like Athens. The professors would casually share their expertise as they trekked through various ancient sites and museums. Ragalie said it wasn’t uncommon for the two professors and other scholars to talk about their professional work over dinner.
Lee said that this summer, scholars will give formal presentations in the evenings after the dig and students will write papers and give presentations based on what they learn both on-site and in their excursions.

Lee said she is hoping to find a way to give students credit for their time on the dig, as an introduction to archaeology. However, because the college does not give credit for summer programs, she is looking for another institution to give students credit.

Weaverdyck notes that the educational component has always been there and he said that in his six weeks on the dig he learned more than he does in an entire semester.

Rife, for one, has found in Kenchreai enough material to keep him academically occupied for “decades,” he said.

Last year, Rife took a sabbatical to participate in a fellowship at Princeton. During that time, he published a series of articles about his first five years of work on the site, though he said eventually he is hoping to “produce at least two books that will present the results of these excavations.”