Dr. Daniels is an Assistant Professor of Ancient Greek Material Culture in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is a field archaeologist and ceramicist and specializes in ancient religion and migration in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.
Dr. Higgins is an Assistant Professor cross appointed between the departments of Hellenic Studies and Archaeology at Simon Fraser University. She is a field archaeologist and art historian specializing in the development and spread of the early cult of the Virgin Mary within the field of Marian Studies.
Drs. Daniels and Higgins are also Institutional Representatives on the board of the Canadian Institute in Greece and two of the creators behind the Peopling the Past project.
How did you become an archaeologist?
M: I generally loved travel, history, and mythology growing up. I devoured Greek mythology, and my mom is from Scotland, so that meant summers spent in a country with a lot of old castles and houses – very different than the suburbs of Toronto where I grew up. I was also fortunate to have an amazing and passionate high school history teacher who taught a Grade 12 archaeology and Indigenous studies course, which opened my eyes to a whole new way of doing history. We even got to participate on local digs. Finally, I saved up all my money for several years in high school to take part on a semester-long study-abroad program, studying history and creative writing in Europe. All of these experiences converged to set me on the path to studying Mediterranean archaeology in university, although I also gained experience working as an archaeologist in Canada for Parks Canada, both during and after my B.A., as well as on two excavations on British sites in Bermuda. I didn’t end up excavating in Greece until the summer after my fourth year.
S: I took an unprecedented route to a career in archaeology. Initially, I began my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa in Health Science, but only two months into my first year I decided that this wasn’t the program for me. I grabbed a copy of the university course catalogue to see whether I could find a program that would better capture my interest. I happened to stumble across a course entitled “Athens, Persia, Sparta” and I decided right then and there that I would switch my major to Classics. I had never taken a history class, aside from mandatory Grade 10 Canadian History, but something about the Classics program called to me. It wasn’t until my third year that I took an archaeology course for my degree and realized that I could combine my interests in science and ancient history. I embarked on my first field school that summer with Angus Smith (Brock University) at Priniatikos Pyrgos, Crete, and I never looked back.
Where did you go to school?
M: I completed my B.A. at Wilfrid Laurier University in archaeology, focusing on Greek and Roman archaeology. After a hiatus working for Parks Canada and teaching in China, I returned to school to complete a M.A. in Classical and Near Eastern archaeology at the University of British Columbia, and then went on to do my Ph.D. in Classics (archaeology-focused) at Stanford University.
S: I completed an Honours degree in Classics with a Specialization in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, followed by an MA in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of British Columbia. I returned to the University of Ottawa for my Ph.D. in Religious Studies, where I undertook an archaeological and art historical investigation of the early cult of the Virgin Mary in Egypt.
Where are you currently doing fieldwork?
M: In the non-pandemic world, I was last working in the basement of the Environmental Museum of Stymphalia, on the ceramics from the acropolis at Stymphalos. The site had been excavated in the 1990s and 2000s and one volume on the acropolis finds has already been published. Before Stymphalos, I was working on ceramics at two other sites – the Burgaz Harbours Project in Turkey and the Zita Project in southern Tunisia.
S: I am currently the Assistant Director of the excavations of a late antique basilica and settlement at Golemo Gradište,
Konjuh in the Republic of North Macedonia, where I have been working since 2011. I am also a co-investigator on the
Temple of Isis Graffiti Project on the island of Philae in Egypt.
What is it that fascinates you about these projects?
M: Well, clearly I like ceramics! I found I learned the most as an archaeologist when I was actually studying the material. When I was younger, I wanted to be excavating and nothing else, and was disappointed when some projects, particularly at Parks Canada, involved much more lab work than excavation, or other projects where I expected to be digging had me instead stuck in the lab. But I slowly realized how much I learned about all sorts of things, from sourcing chert to dating and classifying pottery from all time periods, and felt I was able to make real advancements in my knowledge and contributions to projects.
Specifically for these projects, I’ve felt very fortunate to have worked in a variety of countries on different types of sites: Burgaz is an underwater harbour site, and likely the original location of Knidos on the Datça Peninsula. We learned a lot about local and regional landscapes of exchange through studying the pottery both visually and chemically. The Zita Project allowed me to work with pottery from a Carthaginian sanctuary and Roman town in the context of Roman expansion into Africa and integration with Phoenician and local peoples. Stymphalos was a small city-state in the stunning landscape of Arcadia, the site of one of Herakles’ labours, and possibly destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE – it gave me a long-term view of Greek history beyond the major city-states like Athens and Sparta.
S: The most fascinating element of my work at Golemo Gradište is that I get to combine my research interests in religious studies and archaeology. I love being able to walk into an ancient church every morning and unearth various elements of ancient religious practice, art and architecture. With regards to my work at the Isis Temple on Philae, I am humbled that I get to work on one of the most iconic Egyptian temples, cataloguing graffiti in locations that are completely inaccessible to tourists. For example, I spent 10 days in March 2020 standing on top of the Mammisi creating an architectural plan of the roof (before we got called back to Canada on account of the pandemic).
If you were an artefact, what would you be?
M: Oh probably an Octopus Jar (the Minoan kind, of course). Or maybe the terracotta hedgehog from Syros.
S: If I were an artifact, I would be a painting within an early Christian church or catacomb. These are my absolute favourite things to study.
If I could go back in time and excavate any site in the world, I would choose…
M: Naukratis in Egypt! It’s always been one of my favourite sites, and I’m so grateful that the British Museum re-studied and catalogued the artifacts that had been distributed to museums around the world, and also ran new fieldwork projects at the site. There are so many questions that can be asked about religion, migration, trade, and cross-cultural interaction at this site, and it was always difficult to answer questions on these topics due to the nature of the early excavations, which concentrated mainly on Greek finds. I’d like to excavate it again from scratch, before it became unfortunately water-logged in many places.
S: I would love to excavate the Egyptian monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit in Egypt. I always imagine how much these early-twentieth century excavations would benefit from modern scientific techniques, documentation standards and preservation practices. These excavations in particular offer some of the most comprehensive iconographic programs from late antique Egypt, and it’s a shame that so much information has been lost to us.
Who is your favourite modern historical figure and why?
M: I love the poetry of Konstantinos Kavafis – especially the poem “Ithaka”. I love poetry that can weave together history, mythology, and emotion so brilliantly.
S: Alice Kober, an often-under-credited figure in the deciphering of Linear B.
My favourite place in Greece is…
M: That is a tough one! I really loved the day I spent hiking in the Mt. Parnassus region with a friend on a roughly-marked trail and emerging above the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. It was a really amazing experience and made me think of what it might have actually been like traveling to the sanctuary in ancient times.
S: Athens. I feel most at home in Athens when I’m in Greece. There is something magical about a place where ancient monuments are so seamlessly intertwined in a vibrant modern city. I’m usually in Athens once or twice a year to meet with my research partners (pre-Covid), and there’s nothing like spending the day exploring the innumerable archaeological sites in the morning, and spending the evening enmeshed in all of the cultural and gastronomical offerings that the modern city has to offer.
“Peopling the Past” was founded by six talented women. What brought you together in creating this project?
M: Indeed it was the pandemic and the cancellation of all travel and fieldwork projects in the summer of 2020. In late April, one of our Peopling the Past members, Chelsea Gardner, tweeted “What if I create short podcasts for Greek Art/Archaeology classes? Would anyone out there use these for teaching if they go online in the fall?” A number of us chimed in, a few more came on board in the coming days, and we had a team of six amazing Canadian women who had all met while doing our MA’s at UBC. Together, we decided to turn our various ideas into a larger website-based Digital Humanities project that provided open-access educational resources for the study of the ancient Mediterranean world. Peopling the Past (PtP) at present includes a podcast, short educational videos, and blog posts, all featuring researchers from diverse background and perspectives presenting on aspects of the past that often get left out of history books. Chelsea and Carolyn Laferrière took charge of the podcast, releasing the first season on Greek art and archaeology in fall of 2020. Sabrina Higgins is our webmaster; Christine Johnston is our video producer; Melissa Funke is our social media coordinator (and current podcast host of Season 2); and Megan Daniels is the blog editor.
What is your aim?
M: Our project title, “Peopling the Past,” reflects our main goal: to create and host free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and showcase cutting-edge research by the real people who study them today. We are continuing to produce podcasts, videos, and blogs throughout 2021, and starting to think of further projects such as comprehensive, open-access teaching modules based on the ever-growing library of PtP material.
How have your different interests and research in various parts of the Mediterranean and Greece enriched your work together?
M: The six of us have really diverse interests and approaches – art history, ancient history, philology, and archaeology. It has helped us dream up a lot of different topics and reach out to a large, diverse, and talented set of colleagues to contribute to PtP and make it what it is. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all of our guests and contributors, as well as our audience.
The New Media Lab at the SFU Centre for Hellenic Studies has produced numerous digital platforms for education purposes. Have they been involved in the digital aspect of “Peopling the Past”?
S: I am so lucky to have access to the New Media Lab at Simon Fraser University to support my pedagogical and research interests. Up until this point, however, they have not been involved with Peopling the Past. This has truly been a grassroots effort by the six of us to build, create, populate and manage our digital platform. As we grow, however, I would love to partner with the New Media Lab to create more open-access instructional content. They have such vast expertise in this area, especially with the recent launch of StaEllinika, a Greek language app aimed at children in the diaspora.
How has technology helped your project? To what extent is technology important in education?
S: Technology is the at the core of Peopling the Past, but more importantly we rely on technology that facilitates the open-access dissemination of our materials. We are staunch advocates of creating free and accessible materials for anyone with an interest in the ancient world. As such, all of our materials can be found on our website, as well as YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts. From an educational perspective, our project was a direct response to the changing technological realities of teaching in a covid world. As we moved online, we wanted to create educational tools that reflected the shifting pedagogical needs of a virtual classroom.
What has surprised you most about the project?
S: I think the things that has surprised us most about the project was its reception by the broader classics and classical archaeology communities. We are always delighted to hear how our materials are being incorporated in classrooms and that they are accessible to a wide audience. What is most humbling, however, is the willingness of our contributors (most of whom are early career scholars, women, and visible minorities) to share their work with us. We have learned so much from them and the ways in which they are challenging the dominant narratives and “Big Histories” that are so often at the forefront of research in our fields.