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The Stratigraphy of Serendipity

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Serendipity is slippery, marked by an ambiguity it is more enjoyable to explore than to lament. This talk will visit the concept through the lens of two related disciplines — classics and archaeology, particularly classical archaeology. From one direction, we will investigate the degree to which serendipity — the name an invention of the eighteenth century AD — possesses a stratigraphy, an ancient history, and examine some of the contexts in which Greeks and Romans (and those that study them) recognized the power of unexpected conjunctions and discoveries. From the other angle, the role of serendipity in the early history, and later development, of classical archaeology will be assessed. For a field in which the act of ‘discovery’ is so important, and luck so often ascribed to the successful, serendipity is a surprisingly unpopular factor to invoke — a reluctance that is actually quite revealing. Together these two disciplinary squints at the concept will demonstrate aspects of its history, elasticity, catalytic force, and occasional humor.


Susan E. Alcock took her B.A. from Yale University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge. After several years teaching at the University of Reading (UK) and the University of Michigan, in 2006 she was named the inaugural director of the Artemis A.W. and Martha Sharp Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Joukowsky Family Professor of Archaeology, and Professor of Classics at Brown University. She is the author or editor of ten books, including Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece (Cambridge 1993), Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece (with J.F. Cherry and J. Elsner; Oxford 2001), and Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscapes, Monuments and Memories (Cambridge 2001), which won the Spiro Kostof Award from the Society of Architectural Historians. She has been honored with awards for her undergraduate teaching, which she very much enjoys. Her current research interests include the study of the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean and Western Asia, landscape archaeology, the archaeology of imperialism, and the archaeology of memory. Dr. Alcock was a director of the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project (Messenia, Greece) and has recently begun fieldwork in southern Armenia, as co-director of the Vorotan Project, Syunik Marz.. Currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies (Washington, D.C.), Dr. Alcock was a 2001 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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