Dimitri Nakassis, classics professor and former ‘genius grant’ winner, lands support from National Endowment for the Humanities to complete paradigm-shifting study of ancient Greece
Dimitri Nakassis, an archaeologist and classicist at the University of Colorado Boulder, has landed a substantial grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to advance his paradigm-shifting study of ancient and Mycenaean Greece.
Nakassis, who is professor and chair of the CU Boulder Department of Classics and was a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, has won a $60,000 NEH fellowship that will support his research and writing that will yield a book that will challenge the “historical periodization of ancient Greece and the historical construction of Mycenaean Greece as a unified, homogeneous world from 1650 to 1075 BCE.”
Nakassis’ project is titled “Reassembling Mycenaean Greece, ca. 1650–1075 BCE.” It is one of 204 humanities projects that will receive $28.1 million in grants this year.
In documents outlining his plans, Nakassis notes that the stories that archaeologists tell about the past matter in the here and now. “Yet, although we know that ancient societies were complex and heterogeneous, we often present them as monolithic entities, even as simplifications and caricatures. We are conditioned to do so by a long tradition focused on isolating and studying individual cultures, a tradition that emerged from the search for national, ethnic and even racial origins,” he writes.
This way of thinking perpetuates “simplistic narratives in which such cultures are arranged serially across time to produce master narratives, like the rise of Western civilization,” he observes, adding: “But in order to understand the past productively and accurately, we require approaches that reject categories rooted in racial and ethnic essentialism and instead embrace the complexity of the past. If we use outmoded categories, we will tell outmoded stories.”
These problems appear specifically in the study of ancient Greece, Nakassis says, because people have traditionally imagined Classical Greece (ca. 480-323 BCE), and especially Athens, as the originator of so much: democracy, philosophy, tragedy and so on.
“In the master narratives that attempt to explain the emergence of the so-called ‘Greek miracle,’ the Mycenaean societies of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1650-1075 BCE) that preceded the Classical era have wrongly been reduced to a caricature: the oppressive, hierarchical, and centralized early state,” he observes.
Nakassis plans to use the NEH support to write Reassembling Mycenaean Greece, a book that will propose a new way of understanding the archaeology of mainland Greece in the Late Bronze Age.
“Its goals are to undermine the reductive role that Mycenaean Greece plays in Eurocentric master narratives and to unlock the enormous amount of new archaeological evidence has been published in recent years, but which has had little effect on our understanding of this critical phase in Greek (pre)history,” Nakassis writes.
I argue that a paradigm shift is needed to activate this data and transform the field. The shift is, in short, to eliminate the notion of a culturally homogeneous Mycenaean world and to replace it with a post-cultural archaeology that focuses on specific practices. We can trace the histories of these practices through time and space, and assemble them to produce rich, textured historical understandings.”
He adds: “I argue that a paradigm shift is needed to activate this data and transform the field. The shift is, in short, to eliminate the notion of a culturally homogeneous Mycenaean world and to replace it with a post-cultural archaeology that focuses on specific practices. We can trace the histories of these practices through time and space, and assemble them to produce rich, textured historical understandings.”
Nakassis has developed new methods for investigating individuals named in the administrative Linear B texts, and he argued from this evidence that Mycenaean society was far less hierarchical and much more dynamic than it had been considered in the past. He is the co-director of the Western Argolid Regional Project, an archaeological survey in southern Greece, and the Pylos Tablets Digital Project, a museum-based research project that makes use of computational photography and other techniques.
Nakassis holds an MA and PhD in classics from the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the CU Boulder faculty in 2016. He won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship—also called a MacArthur “genius grant”— in 2015. Nakassis is one of nine CU Boulder professors to win the award.
NEH Fellowships are competitive awards granted to individual scholars pursuing projects that embody “exceptional research, rigorous analysis and clear writing.” Recipients must clearly articulate a project’s value to humanities scholars, general audiences or both. Nakassis is the 12th CU Boulder professor to win an NEH fellowship.