Classics field school in Greece helps student learn real-world lessons

For the third time in four years, a student nominated by the Ripon College Classics program received a scholarship for the four-week summer archaeological field school in Kenchreai, Greece.

This was no easy feat. Melissa Velpel ’16, an anthropology and classical studies double-major at Ripon College, earned a full scholarship and air travel stipend from Sunoikisis, a national consortium of Classics programs. Sunoikisis is sponsored by the Center for Hellenic Studies, a unit of Harvard University located in Washington, D.C.

This year, two of the three full Sunoikisis scholarships were reserved for Harvard undergraduates; the third was awarded to Velpel in a national competition.

“This field school is an archaeology dig at the ancient site of Kenchreai,” Velpel says. “I was able take part in a wide variety of activities. On the weekdays, we spent our mornings working on and learning various basic archaeological skills. We analyzed pottery in our lab area, we dug up new artifacts in the field, we learned a bit about conservation of the sites our dig worked on including cleaning up vegetation, and overall got hands-on experience in the discipline of anthropology working alongside actual career archaeologists.

“On the weekends and in our free afternoons, we explored the area where we were staying (Old Korinth). We also went on day trips to other archaeology sites to learn more about the history and culture of the isthmus. It was a lot of fun and a good way to take a break from the hard work of the weekday mornings.”

Velpel says she became interested in archaeology at a very young age. “When I was 4, I found what I now know is a lithic (an ancient stone tool) along the coast of Lake Superior, and it captivated my attention,” she says. “Then through the rest of my young life, I was always fond of history. I always wanted to be like the awesome archaeologist Indiana Jones. As I grew older, I wanted to explore all the distant places I had read about.”

So var, she has visited 11 countries. She discovered during her travels that it wasn’t just the history and the language aspects that she loved about foreign countries and travel, but all of the culture of a country. When she was 17, she spent a year as an exchange student in Thailand. “It solidified my intrigue in the exploration of culture and just so happened to be the year I was looking into and applying to colleges. It was then that research told me that anthropology was the term I had been looking for to describe my interests.”

Velpel says this summer’s experience has helped solidify her ideas of what she wants to do in life. “I really enjoyed the archaeology and hope to go further in that field,” she says. “The dig focused around the Roman era, however, and I learned that I really don’t enjoy that era as much as earlier Greek periods. That has helped me start considering what eras I do prefer to study in Classics.”

She feels that this type of experience is invaluable for undergraduates. “All of the professors/archaeologists on the dig talked about how important it was to get early field experience before even going to graduate school,” Velpel says. “They believe, and I agree, that it really helps students get a feel for what life in this discipline is like. An experience like this is a good way to find out where you want to go in life before making a decision that, if you change your mind about your career/education path, could prove costly to alter.

“Work in archaeology is important to society because it physically ties humans to their past. Understanding past behaviors lends towards understanding modern behaviors. On a broader spectrum, anthropology provides us with a better understanding of ourselves through other cultures. By better knowing how other cultures work, we move closer to understanding how to best coexist with everyone else, even if they are vastly different from us.”

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