"I love bones," says Emily Vermeule, an archeologist who has dug through much dirt and several graves in pursuit of them. "I love digging bones. I don't clean skeletons as well as some do."
Vermeule began digging bones as a Fulbright scholar at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in 1950. She wandered down to an excavation site at the Athenian Agora one day out of "pure greed"--she had heard they served tea and biscuits at 4 every afternoon--and ended up digging there long enough to uncover a Mycenaean family tomb (1400-1200 BC). Some 30 years and several books later, Vermeule, 53, is one of the foremost classical archeologists in the country, a professor at Harvard and this year's Jefferson Lecturer, a prestigious honor awarded by the U.S. government to humanists. The lecture was set up in 1972 by the National Endowment for the Humanities and carries a stipend of $10,000.
Since that first tomb, archeology has become her specialty, triumphing over Greek poetry and philosophy, which were her passions when she was an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College.
She has dug in Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey and discovered shards of civilization in bones, pottery, and an occasional oddity: "In Turkey, I found a latrine," she says. "A little mud-brick latrine. That was startling. It was sixth century B.C. The workmen knew right away what it was." She has also encountered snakes. "I don't like snakes, I'll be frank with you," she says, "and snakes love to live in tombs. Cyprus is full of snakes."
But discovery has never lost its thrill. "It's marvelous," she says. "You're the first person who's seen it since it got buried. There are some people who have a sense of what's going to be under the ground before they get to it. Not me. I'm always surprised--even if it's a stone wall."
She flew here Tuesday morning, 36 hours before she was to deliver her lecture, "Greeks and Barbarians: The Classical Experience in the Larger World," which she claimed was unfinished. She was treated to a luncheon souffle' at the home of her friend Joseph Alsop, and returned to her Hay-Adams hotel room for an afternoon of frenzied work.
"The speech coming well?" asked an NEH staffer upon her arrival.
"No," she answered forlornly.
"Yes, it's coming along very well," her husband, Cornelius Vermeule, curator of classical art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, answered cheerfully. He has an easy smile and wears a conservative suit. She wears a sensible blue suit, her gray hair cut short. Large green eyes alternately flash woeful anxiety (when talk turns to the lecture or her teaching) and subtle wit (when talk turns to archeology).
The Vermeules met at the 75th anniversary of the Archaeological Institute of America in Boston in 1953. "I thought Emily was an awfully hot ticket," he says, "and she liked the clothes I was wearing." They later both turned up at Bryn Mawr, she as a graduate student working on a PhD in Greek lyric poetry, he as a young teacher. They now share an interest in classical archeology and the fate of the Boston Celtics.
Her despair of Tuesday faded before a packed audience at the Departmental Auditorium last night, where Vermeule lectured on, among other things, how the Greeks and barbarians fell out. "What is a barbarian anyway?" she asked as slides of "Conan the Barbarian" and another of a New Yorker cartoon depicting a meeting of barbarians flashed on the screen. "A child will tell you barbarians are uncivilized, not living in cities, restless, roaming the world, great and savage fighters, no respecters of persons and property . . . usually hairy and often drunk."
But, she said, "that was not what the Greeks meant by barbarians. How could they when the barbarians occupied the oldest centers of civilization, were enormously and antiquely urbane, commanded hugh resources in architecture and the arts, were intelligent, literate, ceremonial, settled?"
It was the Persian Wars that ignited those conflicts, she said--"war galvanizes opposites." And when the Greeks went east, their own civilization nearly in ruins, they met people with different ideas about government and incomprehensible languages. "The language problem gave us the word barbarian," said Vermeule, "first used by Homer of King Priam's allies at Troy--who made the silly bar-bar-bar noises that foreigners do when their parents fail to teach them Greek."
Words have never been her problem. Her embrace of language is sweet and vivid. In 1959, The New Yorker published one of her poems under her maiden name, Emily Townsend:
I am fish:
I swim in your kindness. Fat,
silvery, veined with tears
strange to your outer waters, yet
I am home from my fears.
--from "Fish," The New Yorker, Feb. 21, 1959.
"I was never that good at it," she says, brushing off the poetry she no longer finds time to write. Then, with a pained look: "Oh, I always feel so driven all the time. I never have time for everything."
Capping a Career
In 1964, she published "Greece in the Bronze Age," now in its eighth printing, a standard text in early Greek history and archeology classes. It is the sort of tome that caps a lifelong career, one reviewer said. Vermeule was 36 when she wrote it.
She spent the summer of 1962 digging in Libya. "That was pretty weird," she says. "At the time, the ruler of Libya was King Idris who was a nomad. He'd travel the countryside and all the ambassadors would follow. You'd see 50 or 60 Cadillacs trailing behind him, wondering where he was going to stop eventually." Idris was concerned that his people be more mindful of Islam, Vermeule says. "He had the prayer from the minarets wired into the headboards of the beds in motels," she says. "Every several hours we'd be awakened by this call to prayer."
In Cyprus, she and her husband excavated a small Bronze Age city, Toumba tou Skourou. They began in 1970 and left in 1974 when a coup and subsequent Turkish invasion forced them out. In the process, they lost valuable artifacts that they had kept in the army barracks where they stayed during the dig. When the Turks invaded Cyprus, "they moved us out of the barracks," Vermeule says. "They just threw pottery out the window." The archeologists had stored excavated bones in burlap bags at a nearby Greek hospital. But the burlap bags were pressed into service by the Greeks and the bones were lost.
"I was mad as hell," she says with a rueful smile. "But wartime was wartime. We heard terrible stories coming out of Cyprus. There was no sense getting mad about a lot of old bones." She shrugs and looks down at the matchbook she has been twirling. She lights a cigarette.
Tobacco smoke! how beautifully staining the limpid lung
you come and curl down channels for only three centuries
alive to tone and tincture, the dark possibilities
inspiring like new muses on wing to the mind.
--From "Dactylo-Epitrites for Dudley Fitts, or Thoughts of an Inveterate Smoker," by Emily Townsend; Poetry Magazine, June 1961.
Passion for the Past
Although she published one interim book on her Cyprus excavation, the final report on the project was set back by the destruction of crucial evidence. However, enough evidence was photographed that a book will eventually be produced. Since Cyprus, she has done little excavating, a costly business that requires lots of fund-raising, she says. "There's a place I want to dig," she says, "but I can't tell you where it is. Everything is on the surface. It's an abandoned town, probably 1500 B.C." It is an island "around Crete," she will say that much, which she visited in the mid-'60s. "I've carried it around with me like a vision.
"Everybody you deal with in archeology is dead," she says. "After dealing with the bones at a site we always make a point of reburying them. At least, I do. And we get a priest to come and say a little service if that's what the workmen want . . . The Cypriots have a nice custom. As we open a tomb, the workmen will burn eucalyptus leaves and say a prayer." It is a touchy subject, this disturbing of the bones. "Oh, I don't think they mind," she says, a distant look in her eyes, her lips curled into a little smile. "It's probably fun to have the sun on them again."
The Greeks are a very active dead: no living person has the power of even a minor nameless hero, whose power flows simply from the fact that he is dead and angry about it, and cannot sleep still.
--From "Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry," by Emily Vermeule.
"I think if a student is ignorant of the past," Vermeule says, "he's really underprivileged. There's more of it than there is of us."