Monday, June 13, 2011
In the Getting Started series, Further Findings highlights the paths some researchers at The University of Texas at Austin took to the laboratory, the library, the field—wherever they do their work.
Cynthia Shelmerdine met the Greeks in fourth grade and was enchanted with their myths and imagination. That seed, planted in elementary school, led to her life’s work.
Shelmerdine is a renowned scholar of Bronze Age (1400-1200 B.C) Greek ceramics and the Linear B writing system the Greeks used. She was a Classics professor at The University of Texas at Austin for 31 years until her retirement in 2008.
She continues to do field work at the site of the ancient Greek city of Iklaina, where the most exciting find of her career was discovered – a rare example of the earliest Greek writing.
She grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and went to the Shady Hill School. Classes were conducted in a system called Central Subject.
“All the history and all the writing and some of the art was organized around a theme,” she said. “So we were Vikings in the third grade. And we were Greeks in the fourth grade. And we were Romans in the fifth grade.”
There was a lot to be said for the Romans, but Shelmerdine just didn’t warm up to them.
“The Romans were very, very effective and they were very practical,” she said. “You could respect them.”
But the Greeks, well, “you could just love the Greeks because they always could surprise you,” she said.
She loved the rich Greek mythology and the Greeks’ creativity and imagination.
“Their imagination managed to pull the world into something that made sense and they made huge strides in understanding it and understanding people,” Shelmerdine said. “That humanity really excites me. It still does.”
Her love of the Greek simmered until she went to Bryn Mawr College.
“In my second year at Bryn Mawr I took ancient Greek and suddenly the world slotted into place,” she said.
Greek archaeology had captured her imagination.
“I’m interested in Greece,” she said. “I want to know everything about Greece. I want to know the history, modern and ancient, the food, the language. I just caught fire.”
That fire has burned throughout her career.
“I couldn’t have had a happier life,” she said. “Teaching ancient Greek and putting the archaeology together with the language to try to make history out of it.”
And it goes back to the classroom at Shady Hill School.
“The seed of it was fourth grade,” she said, “when we did the Greeks.”