“Life is what happens when you make other plans.”
The title line is attributed to a 1957 Reader’s Digest quote from Allen Saunders, and was famously used by John Lennon in his song Beautiful Boy. But for the purposes of this story, the first word may easily be substituted with “archaeology.”
Especially this year.
Just ask Fotini Kondyli, associate professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology in the Department of Art. She had a trio of students, Logan Miller (College '20), Caroline Carver (College '20) and Josie Sydnor (College '21), who were signed, sealed, and delivered to do a field project in Greece last summer. They had written grant proposals, received assignments, secured plane tickets, and were looking forward to seeing first-hand the heart of the work around which they wanted to build their careers. Then came COVID. “All of the sudden,” Kondyli said, “they were back home with their parents.”
Thanks to the foresight of Tyler Jo Smith, the director of UVA’s Interdisciplinary Archaeology Program, there was a solution in the works. “I saw the writing on the wall very early on,” Smith said, “that these students, many of whom were in the middle of internships, were not going to be able to come in and work with us, or do something like go to Greece, or work at Monticello over the summer.” Smith reached out to faculty members like Kondyli and Anastasia Dakouri-Hild and proposed a virtual platform.
Smith has made it a point in her 10 years heading the program to create pathways that bring undergraduate majors and minors together around common experiences that go beyond their required fieldwork. Early on in her time as director, she realized that while students were taking advantage of incredible invitations to learn on archaeological sites around the world, they were lacking opportunities to work alongside their own professors in the same way other students might do in a science lab or art studio right here on Grounds.
As a result, Smith sought and received support from the Dean’s office, and launched what has become a highly popular interactive, hands-on internship program. Since that time, working in coordination with faculty and staff across Grounds, she has leveraged some of the University’s own collections, such as those from Flowerdew Hundred, previously maintained by Hoke Perkins and now by Meg Kennedy at the UVA Library, as well as others housed at The Fralin and Kluge-Ruhe museums. She has also placed students with the Department of Archaeology at Monticello and at James Monroe’s Highland. Since 2015, a steady stream of undergraduates have worked on her own 3D-GV project, learning the processes of ancient Greek pottery recording and analysis using objects at The Fralin.
When COVID-19 hit, Smith facilitated the virtual pivot for the internships, permitting students to work with faculty on a range of ventures. Among them were several students guided by Dakouri-Hild, one who made detailed illustrations of ancient objects from one of her ongoing projects in Greece, another who created a publication catalog derived from a database of finds, and still another who honed skills of mapping the ancient landscape. In Kondyli’s case, the digital platform enabled students to use detailed excavation notes to give shape, dimension and life to buildings rather cryptically captured in the information provided. The pivot was a godsend to students as well as faculty. “We really threw them a lifeline,” Smith said.
The three students who worked with Kondyli, spent one month during the summer on her digital archaeological project, entitled “Inhabiting Byzantine Athens," that seeks to reconstruct the life and experiences of the city's inhabitants, studying their living conditions, habitats, and socio-economic activities. Kondyli’s project relies on the archaeological finds from the Athenian Agora Excavations and on its rich archives including the original excavation notebooks and photographs.
The task of engaging with this type of legacy material is daunting even for a professional. “We like to say that archaeology is very character building,” Kondyli said, “and this was one of those times that we were really able to illustrate this for our students. You would not believe just how complex the data I gave them was.”
The students, she said, loved the research, and described the experience in a video (below) compiled at the conclusion of the virtual internship. “It was amazing for them to go from very detailed notebooks that somebody else took about an excavation involving spaces that they had never seen, to piecing them together step by step, visualizing these spaces in their heads in two-dimensional and three-dimensional models, then introducing people to it and putting people inside these houses. It was quite a process.”
That process was, at times, “hilarious,” Kondyli said. “We met virtually every week and they would say, ‘I don’t understand this!’ I told them that if they did understand it at that point I would love to go ahead and give them a Ph.D. right there on the spot!”
Each week’s three-hour meeting began with a ten-minute venting session and ended with a ten-minute pep talk from Kondyli. Much of the rest of the time was spent illustrating the importance of teamwork and encouraging students to learn to rely on one another. “I would often tell the students not to come to me about an issue until they had talked with each other about it. It’s one of the biggest lessons of archaeology – you cannot do it on your own.”
At the end of the six-week project, each student was given their own individual house to reconstruct and asked to tell Kondyli the story of the houses and the people within them. “I was like, ‘Guys, I’m going to make some popcorn and pour some wine, and you are going to tell me a story and it better be an accurate one based on the data I gave you. The three students did an amazing job not just on their own stories, but also they cross-referenced their stories with each other to put everything in a bigger context. I loved it!”