Dean's Newsletter

A newsletter from James B. Knapp Dean Beverly Wendland

Up from the Rubble

A temple collapsed at the Panhellenic sanctuary of Nemea, Greece, sometime between 425–400 BCE. Its destruction was left unexamined until 1980, when a team of archaeologists began digging up the foundations of the site. They found heavy deposits of carbon—suggesting a large fire—structural rubble, and bronze and iron weaponry. Because the temple’s demise coincided with the Peloponnesian War—setting Athens against Sparta—the working assumption was that the building was a casualty of battle. Enter Meagan Young ’12, honors student of archaeology, with a double major in civil engineering.

Meagan wasn’t buying the war theory. She looked carefully through the archaeological data and the weighty authority of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and concluded it just didn’t make sense. An attack big enough to bring down a major monument would most likely have become part of the historical record. But Thucydides makes no mention of the event. An alternative explanation was an accidental, but deadly, fire. How to adjudicate between these accounts?

“Thucydides notes an earthquake felt by Spartan troops in 415–414 BCE,” Young explains in her honors thesis, “in a city-state not far from the Nemean sanctuary. Using this historic record, modern earthquake intensity scales, an approximate model of the temple (developed from contemporary temple footprints), and a bit of structural engineering, it seemed to me that the earthquake noted by Thucydides might have caused the fire at the temple as well as minor damage to other buildings nearby.”

In the fall of 2010, Meagan began thinking about the puzzle in conjunction with her Krieger School course called The Archaeology of Early Greece. Professor Emily Anderson, a lecturer in the Department of Classics and a specialist in the Aegean Bronze Age, was the instructor (and is now Young’s thesis adviser). The class explored the early history of the Aegean and Greek mainland. Young chose to write on Nemea, thinking it would make a good project to pursue on the ground with the help of the field school in archaeology at UC Berkeley.

Young finally got to see her field site last summer. She joined an archaeological field school at Nemea, working with Princeton and Berkeley faculty, who in conjunction with Professor Anderson, helped her narrow down the topic of her honors thesis. “Meagan’s background allowed her to synthesize multiple strands of critical analysis,” says Professor Anderson, “in order to innovatively re-evaluate the archaeological evidence and ultimately propose a new theory for the destruction of the Early Temple at Nemea… her work makes an original contribution to the field in a manner that is striking for someone at such an early stage in her career.”

This honors project epitomizes two remarkable characteristics of the undergraduates I meet in the Krieger School. First, they are extremely curious and not daunted by complexity. They attack puzzles that have been vexing professionals in the field for many years with an intensity one often associates with much older students. Second, they refuse to be limited by the boundaries we often draw around scholarly domains. Instead, they jump across those chasms to combine research techniques and stores of knowledge that are often more powerful taken together than when separate.

Meagan’s double major in archaeology and civil engineering takes her back into the past, but draws squarely on the science of the built environment of the present. It demands the nuanced and painstaking research skills of an ancient historian and the technical imagination and precision we see in Whiting School of Engineering students. “Meagan is the kind of student I have in mind when I talk about what makes engineering at Johns Hopkins unique,” Whiting School Dean Nick Jones told me. “We provide undergraduates with a deep technical education that is enhanced tremendously through the amazing breadth of opportunities in the humanities and social sciences provided by the Krieger School. This combination of experiences prepares our students for leadership in any field they want to pursue.”

Meagan takes these multiple demands in stride. In this, she is very much like the hundreds of other undergraduates who come to the “Dinners with the Dean” every week at my home, where it is common for me to run into neuroscience students who are double majoring in the Writing Seminars, French literature students taking a minor in cognitive science, or film and media students who are also studying chemistry. We tend to think of people as predominantly right or left brained, but it is clear that Krieger School students—and their Whiting counterparts—are firing on all cylinders. And that is one of the qualities that make them such a joy to have in our classrooms.

Our curricular structure makes it relatively easy for students to double and triple major, but it also provides for the young person whose interests are so deep that they want to devote their time to plumbing the depths of a single field. One size does not fit all, and we don’t want it to.

Indeed, as we plan for the Homewood schools of the future, we continue to look across boundaries. We hope to make it possible for students to major in music, and hence take advantage of the presence of the Peabody Institute (and vice versa). Our public health majors trundle down to the Bloomberg School, spending their senior year in advanced courses at the graduate level, studying epidemiology or health care reform. Whiting and Krieger students are in the same classrooms from the minute they arrive. Students in film and media are collaborating with their counterparts at the Maryland Institute College of Art on documentary films. We look forward to the day when Krieger students will be able to work with faculty in the School of Education, preparing to become teachers during their undergraduate years. Everywhere we look, students are crossing over, and we are cheering them on.

Meagan’s “crossover” thesis provides one of what could be a number of applications of earthquake engineering to complex archaeological problems. Whatever she decides to do in the future, she is likely to pull on these twin strands of her honors work. As she put it to me, “More open dialogue between science and archaeology is absolutely necessary, as it can only benefit our understanding of the past.” You said it, Meagan.


Katherine S. Newman
James B. Knapp Dean