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Graduate study in Classical-Mediterranean Archaeology in the USA – why, how, where? Some comments and general advice

At this time of the year (Fall/Autumn) would-be graduate students think about what to do, where to apply, and what is the meaning of ‘life, the universe and everything’. As a Professor of Classical Archaeology, I get a range of inquiries from students who would like to pursue study in the general area of Classical-Mediterranean archaeology. Cornell has a concentration in Classical Archaeology in its Classics Field (see:; for the Cornell Graduate School, see:; for Cornell’s Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, see:

Thus I offer a few thoughts on the general topics:

(i)    Why Classical Archaeology?
(ii)   And what should you know when considering this choice?

1. First a caveat: other areas of archaeology are fabulous too! Archaeology overall is unique in the humanities and sciences as it seeks to explore, understand, and explain the total time-span of human activities and material engagements on Earth. But this blog is focused on the areas of Classical-Mediterranean archaeology. Classical archaeology today covers all aspects of the study of the regions of the Earth within or neighboring the area of the greater classical world within a time-span typically from the origins of farming and the first towns (the Neolithic) through the post-Roman world of Late Antiquity.

2. If? Suppose you read below and feel you are not quite prepared yet, or firmly committed, but you really want to study graduate archaeology? The answer may be to consider taking an MA or equivalent first, both to establish background and CV, and to clarify what you really want to go on to study and work on. One example, shamelessly recommending my own University and its Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, is the MA in Archaeology at Cornell: see If lack of ancient language preparation is an issue – see below on this topic – then one option is to consider a Post-Baccalaureate program in classics as offered by a number of institutions (for a list of institutions in North America which offer graduate programs in Classics – the first column indicates those with a Post-Baccalaureate Program offering – see:


Sketch schematic indication of the total area of the Earth encompassed,
at one time or another by the Hellenistic-Roman worlds. Neighboring regions are also important to the classical world.


3. Why? Classical Archaeology is very much the original interdisciplinary field, the literal cornerstone of much of the western tradition. It combines the rich classical worlds and their history, culture and literature with the study of the material culture, monuments, art, landscapes and entanglements of the humans who lived in and around the area of the Greek and Roman civilizations and their neighbors, and their predecessors, and successors. See Map for approximate main area (plus then neighboring areas). The field engages with several thousand years of human lives, thoughts, actions, experiences and desires which intellectually and materially shaped much of the world around us, from central Asia to western Europe, North Africa to Scandinavia, and, via relatively recent European transplants, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and so on. Shelley in the preface to his Hellas (written 1821, published 1822) famously stated “We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece”, and a recent book by C.J. Richard, 2010, Why We’re All Romans: The Roman Contribution to the Western World, makes some similar claims for the Romans. (For those interested – which would hopefully include would-be graduate students in classical archaeology, see, on the history of classical archaeology and art in the USA, the book by S.L. Dyson, 1998, Ancient Marbles to American Shores. Classical Archaeology in the United States; and, for a history of classical archaeology in general by the same author, see S.L. Dyson, 2006, In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts: A History of Classical Archaeology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries). This centrality is because the Mediterranean, south-west Asia, and classical worlds were home to several of the key early civilizations of the world, produced many of the most recognizable and beautiful objects and buildings known to humanity, and shaped and inspired much subsequent human history and material expression. The greater Mediterranean region, the ‘Middle Sea’, formed an extraordinary cradle and conduit in the history of humanity – a relatively small region compressing an enormous range of geographies and resources around a navigable, almost inland, sea. It was a central region (and actor) in the wider human story from the Last Ice Age to the modern period. Exploring and trying to understand this complex record is both fascinating, and fundamental, as made clear in two key synthetic studies which every would-be student of classical archaeology should aim to read: (i) Broodbank, C. 2013. The Making of the Middle Sea. A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World; and (ii) Horden, P. and Purcell, N. 2000. The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History.

Classical archaeology at a North American university comprises the study of the material culture – that is the landscapes, monuments, sites, artifacts and art – of the ancient Mediterranean world and western-central Europe north to Britain, as well as the neighboring regions and cultures. The field typically explores the period from the prehistoric era through to the Late Roman-Byzantine world, with a central focus on the civilizations of Greece and Rome. In recent years more emphasis has gone to considerations of those civilizations and areas on the margins of the Classical World, but which exerted significant influence from prehistory to late Antiquity, in particular to the east: Egypt, the Near East, and central Asia. It is important to remember that the Roman Empire, and its Hellenistic fore-runner, was merely the western end of a set of empires which formed and re-formed across the mid-latitudes of Eurasia from late prehistory to the modern period.

4. Requirements? How can you aim to be suitable for admission to a graduate program in classical archaeology (and of course win funding)?
(i) Ancient languages. Yes, it is classical archaeology, but all major programs require some background in at least one classical language (i.e. either ancient Greek or Latin) even to be seriously considered. Further, most major programs require students to achieve at least a reasonable competence in one of these languages before moving to the all-but-dissertation (ABD) stage. And you will be recommended to try in fact to acquire some standing in the other language if possible. This language requirement makes sense for two reasons. First, looking forward, if your aim after the PhD is a faculty position in a Classics Department, then competence in one or both languages is something of a sine qua non. Second, unless you plan solely to work in the prehistoric period, knowing one or both languages is relevant/useful/essential for your research. So, as an undergraduate, you should try to acquire at least a couple of years, or more, of either ancient Greek and/or Latin. If you are reaching the end of your undergraduate career, and you do not have much ancient language background, then options to consider are looking for intensive summer courses, and looking at Post-Baccalaureate Programs in classics (see 2. above).
(ii) Archaeology. Take some courses that give you evidence of background in classical archaeology and art-history, and also wider archaeology (so look at anthropological archaeology courses, Near Eastern archaeology courses, for example). If possible, seek to volunteer to be part of an archaeological project. This is likely going to be a highlight of one or more of your summers. If this is in the classical world, fine, but anywhere (including locally) is OK. The point is for you to see if you actually like fieldwork, and to impress a graduate committee that you have sought out real archaeological experience and worked successfully on a project. For suggestions of possible projects, ask the archaeology professors at your university, or look at e.g. the Archaeological Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin (
(iii) Modern languages. Most programs will require you to pass a (fairly basic) reading exam in two modern languages – typically French and German –before becoming ABD. It is also important: a great deal of significant literature relevant to many topics in classical archaeology is written in non-English European languages, especially French and German (but for some areas Italian, Spanish, modern Greek, etc., may be as or more important). Thus to make yourself a strong applicant, and to get a head start, take one or more foreign language classes as an undergraduate, and especially consider French or German.
(iv) Personal statement. Make sure you have carefully researched the PhD programs you wish to apply to. Contact some of the professors, and especially those you think you would be interested to take courses with, and to work with. Your personal statement should make it clear that you want to come to the X (e.g. Classics) Department at Y University for their PhD (if general) or specific program/concentration (if there is one) for reasons based on your research of the program and mentioning some of the professors you want to work with and why. Explain your background and preparation and why you are suitable for admission. Give some indication of the research areas that interest you and why – but not too much detail and especially do not be too definite and determined that you will only study one specific topic (remember part of the point of the first couple of years of a PhD program is to experience additional areas and approaches, and you should seem open to development and seem teachable and able to develop – you may not, perhaps even should not, clearly identify your specific PhD topic until a couple of years into the program having read much more, taken new classes, talked more with faculty and other graduate students, and experienced more in classes, in labs, and in the field). Minimize dramatic ‘my whole life has been preparation for this’ type paragraphs – go factual and positive and professional.
(v) Writing sample. Utterly key. Yes you need good grades (obvious), and GRE scores (obvious) and yes you need some (three) professors who are prepared to write strong recommendations for you (obvious), but by far the most important thing is an impressive writing sample. This will likely be read both by professors interested in classical archaeology and those in other areas of classics. You need to impress both with a well written, interesting, and engaging paper. The paper should show evidence of thoughtful writing – independent critique and analysis by you – and the ability to use (and not just describe or list) evidence to make an argument. It should be properly referenced. Talk with your undergraduate professors. Select your best paper(s), discuss how they could be better. Consider a re-write. If there is an option to write a senior thesis – do so. Hopefully this can form a suitable writing sample. If you do not enjoy doing a senior thesis then reconsider your plans for graduate school.

Is this not all dreadfully conservative? Is archaeology not as important as, and independent of, the text-based approach to the classical world? Are we not breaking away from old stereotypes, and accessing a past beyond the world of the elite (almost exclusively) male literature studied for centuries from the Greek and Roman worlds? What about new anthropological approaches, archaeological science approaches, visual culture approaches, etc? Yes, yes. But… In the North American model (contrast Europe where there are regular departments of ‘Archaeology’), you have to fit at least somewhat into the disciplinary structure or you will simply not gain admission. Nor will there be any job for you to go to afterwards. You have to sort of fit the mold in order to then break (or re-shape) the mold. Plenty of exciting and radical work is on-going in graduate classical archaeology right now in the USA – but you have to gain admission first. Then you can seek to blend new interdisciplinary directions, ask new questions of previously non-studied data, push frontiers, use or develop archaeological science or IT techniques, and so on. And you do so starting from a solid platform, as a substantive scholar.

5. Where to apply? There are some strong general programs, including those well integrated with cognate departments/fields at their university, but key is to identify some faculty you want to study and work with. Do research: that is what the web is for. If you are really interested in the earlier, prehistoric periods, then do not apply somewhere which only does later material and topics. If you really want to do art-history in the classical period, then again choose appropriately. Do not apply somewhere where there is just one suitable faculty member – pick places with at least a small group of relevant faculty. See what resources are there – in particular: the library. If possible, visit and have a look, and meet some of the faculty (faculty are usually very happy to meet prospective students and to discuss their options – faculty want to recruit applications from good applicants too).

The top programs are much over-subscribed and so very competitive in terms of getting a place. But, of course, every year students get places at each of these programs – so it is a case of you making the best application you can (see above). Only apply to programs you really would like to go to. If you get one offer: be delighted. Do not apply to somewhere you do not want to go to. Graduate school to PhD is 5-7 years of your life – the decision to go to graduate school is a very important one in your life; you should only go to a place you really want to go to and which seems right for you. Your application list should all be first choices. If you get more than one offer: wonderful – you then have to decide among good choices.

Top programs? This depends on your preferences. It is not a case of picking a famous university. Study the offering and faculty in classical-Mediterranean archaeology (and related) carefully at each institution. A number of the ‘top’ universities in the USA at present do not in fact have strong Classics Departments, and especially classical archaeology programs. Centers of gravity change over time: you should try to go to a currently strong, or up-and-coming, center. Look for faculty who are not already emeritus or very close to. Check the scholars are research-active. Again look at the Department webpages, but also check out e.g. to see what the faculty have been doing in the recent (last 5 years) period. You want major active scholars who will be good to shape your studies and career, and write recommendations, for the next 10+ years. You of course do want a university with a major research library and associated resources – check.

A few programs strong in (interesting) classical archaeology (or classical archaeology and art) in the US at present, in no order of ranking nor as a comprehensive list by any means, are (author’s personal opinion):

Berkeley: Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology Program at the University of California, Berkeley,

Brown: The Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University,

Cincinnati: The Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati,

Cornell: Concentration in Classical Archaeology, Field of Classics, Cornell University,

Michigan: The Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Michigan,

Stanford: The Department of Classics and the Archaeology Center, Stanford University,

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Department of Classics, UNC,

North of the border it is also worth looking at both the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia.


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November 2013