College of Liberal Arts

UT Austin Classics Alumnus Wins MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’

Wed, Sep 30, 2015
Photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Greek classicist and archeologist Dimitri Nakassis’s fresh take on prehistoric Greek societies has earned him a spot among the nation’s 2015 MacArthur Fellows.

Nakassis, an associate professor of classics at the University of Toronto, earned both his Master’s of Arts in Greek archaeology (2000) and doctorate in classical archaeology (2006) from the Department of Classics at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the second person from the department to receive the honor —professor Thomas Palaima was named a fellow in 1985.

The no-strings-attached fellowship, known as the ‘genius grant,’ awards a $625,000, five-year stipend to individuals who have demonstrated “extraordinary originality and dedication” in their respective fields. This year, 24 fellows were selected based on three criteria: exceptional creativity, expectations for future success, and the potential for fellowship to facilitate both.

Nakassis’ unique research approach — a combination of philology, archaeology, and contemporary social and economic theory — challenges a long-held view of the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean palatial society (1,400 – 1,200 B.C.) as an era that brought palaces, kings and a strong centralization government to Greek societies.

Contrary to that, Nakassis’s book Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos argues the system was more open and bureaucratic — a theory he developed analyzing ancient clay tablets, which recorded day-to-day administrative activity of the palace, to track individuals and their activities outside of the palace.

“One of the insights of my own work is that you really need to look outside of the palace to understand how the palace worked,” Nakassis said in a video on the MacArthur Foundation website.

Nakassis continues to test this hypothesis through the Western Argolid Regional Project, an archaeological survey of the Mycenaean world. He has also partnered with UT Austin classics research fellow Kevin Pluta to begin digitally documenting the ancient tablets he referenced throughout his research, so that they can be easily accessible to other scholars.

In Nakassis’s fellowship profile, the MacArthur Foundation wrote: “Nakassis’s multifaceted approach to the study of Bronze Age Greece is redefining the methodologies and frameworks of the field, and his nuanced picture of political authority and modes of economic exchange in Mycenaean Greece is illuminating the prehistoric underpinnings of Western civilization.”

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