(all photos courtesy Dimitri Nakassis

MacArthur Fellowship goes to U of T classicist

“Genius grant” with no strings attached encourages creativity for the benefit of humanity

They call them genius grants – and the University of Toronto’s Dimitri Nakassis in the department of classics, is among the 24 people receiving one this year.

The first professor at U of T to receive a MacArthur Fellowship – as the award is formally known – Nakassis joins an illustrious and diverse group of 2015 fellows that includes author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, puppetry artist Basil Twist, neuroscientist Beth Stevens and Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Read more about this year's fellows in The New York Times.) The award recognizes Nakassis' extraordinary originality and future promise.  

“Nakassis is a classicist transforming our understanding of prehistoric Greek societies,” the MacArthur Foundation said in its citation. “His rare intellectual breadth, comprising philology, archaeology and contemporary social and economic theory, has equipped Nakassis to challenge the long-held view that Late Bronze Age Mycenaean palatial society (1400–1200 BC) was a highly centralized oligarchy, quite distinct from the democratic city-states of classical Greece. Instead, he proposes that power and resources were more broadly shared.” 

photo of Nakassis at cliff faceNakassis’ ideas are described in his first book, Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos (2013), and were derived from a meticulous reinterpretation of Pylos’s administrative and accounting records found on clay tablets and written in the early Greek script, Linear B.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards the US$625,000 grants directly to recipients in stipends paid over four years. The foundation describes the fellowship “not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential” aimed at helping recipients “to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.” 

Fellows are free to use their award to advance their current expertise, engage in bold new work, or even to change fields or alter the direction of their careers altogether.

“At this point I'm just excited at the possibilities,” Nakassis said in an interview. “It's hard to absorb the news, because you're so unprepared for it: a phone call out of the blue. Even now I have a hard time really believing it.”

Nakassis combines his love of classics with a love of archaeology. He spent most of his childhood summers visiting archaeological sites in Greece with his family and became seriously interested in archaeology during his first year at university, when he signed up for classical archaeology courses with two amazing professors and “was immediately hooked.”

photo of Nakassis sitting and recording information at siteToday, he is co-director of the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP), an archeological field survey in southern Greece, where scholars are working to illuminate the nature of human activity in the area.

The team, which includes students from U of T and other universities, is surveying the Inachos river, north and west of the city of Argos.

“Essentially it involves walking systematically over the landscape, collecting artifacts from the modern ground surface and documenting what we can't collect, like standing walls or heavy artifacts like stone agricultural equipment,” Nakassis said.

So far, they’ve covered more than 12 square kilometres and identified archaeological sites that date from the Early Bronze Age (so ca. 3000-2000 BC) to the early Modern period (19th century AD) and everything in between, from Classical (480-323 BC) to Medieval. 

“We'll do one more field season in the summer of 2016, then two study seasons as we prepare to publish our results,” Nakassis said. “Hopefully we'll be able to get another strong cohort of U of T students to work with us in Greece.”

For Nakassis, intellectual curiosity has proven a trustworthy career guide.

photo of Nakassis on hillside“A good day on a research site is a surprising day, a day that you found something you couldn't have expected,” he said. “Archaeology's all about surprises: what draws me to survey, I've realized lately, is the urge to hike to the top of a hill to see what's up there – most of the time it's nothing, but that makes the successes all that more exciting – the urge to turn down a road or path to see where it heads.”

“Survey and excavation are full of surprising moments, moments where you realize that you have to rethink what you thought was happening, your old interpretations of the landscape or the site. In the summer of 2014 I was scouting ahead of the survey teams with my colleague Bill Caraher and we found a recently-plowed field that was full of material: complete loom-weights and huge fragments of tile.

“It was thrilling, and so we called over a survey team in the area to collect the material. It was so fun to see everyone hard at work, getting excited about what they were finding.”

Christer Bruun, chair of the department of classics at U of T, said the awarding of the MacArthur Fellowship to Nakassis “is a recognition of the fact that some of our brightest young scholars continue to be attracted to the study of the humanities and, in Dimitri’s case, in particular classical antiquity. 

“I look forward with great anticipation to the discoveries which the fellowship will allow him to make,” said Bruun.

Two U of T alumnae have received genius grants. Astrophysicist and U of T alumna Sara Seager received a “genius grant”  in 2013. (Read the news story about Seager's award.) And renowned poet Anne Carson, an alumna of the classics department, received one in 2000. (Carson was awarded an honorary degree from U of T in 2012.)

In 2014, U of T’s Citizen Lab became the first Canadian organization to win the MacArthur Foundation's Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, the version of the “genius grants” awarded to organizations. (Read the news story about Citizen Lab's award.)

Kim Luke is a writer with the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto.

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