Thursday, December 1, 2011

Margaret Crosby, PhD

The current exhibition at the small, lovely, out-of-the-way gallery (in other words, you've probably not heard of it but definitely should make a visit) at NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World contains objects from the excavations at Dura-Europos. I'd certainly not ever seen more than one or two objects from that site displayed in isolation, so visiting the exhibition gave me a much better panorama of what was there. (All of the Dura objects had been in storage for the restoration of the Art Gallery since before I began my studies at Yale, so it's not that I was negligent in exploring the available resources; they weren't available.) Two of my favorite objects were a very rustic Hercules-and-lion statue (which also made me wonder, I guess given the juxtaposition of the Mithraic cult objects and the paintings from the synagogue, whether there was any connection drawn in antiquity between Hercules and the lion and Samson and the lion) and several Greek-Aramaic bilingual inscriptions.

What really captured my imagination, though, was this photograph, mounted in a second room in the gallery that contained many photographs from the field as well as letters and other ephemera of the scholars who excavated at Dura.

This was just a quick snap that I took in the gallery with my iPhone (before realizing, somewhat abashedly, that all photography, and not just flash photography, is prohibited). You can click to enlarge the image here or find a clearer reproduction of the image here, the fifth image from he top.

The caption identified the woman as Margaret Crosby, a graduate student in archaeology at Yale (the American institution that headed up the excavations) and the first woman to work at the site in her own right (that is, not by virtue of being the wife of one of the archaeologists). This all piqued my Gertrude Bell imagination and fantasies (truly, I was born in the wrong century!) as well as the sort of camaraderie felt by Yale women, still only a generation out* from the admission of women as undergraduates, in spite of the fact that the population is fully 50/50 now. And I wanted to find out more about her: Who was she? How had she ended up at Yale and at Dura? Did she finish her degree?

Her life seems like the sort of thing that is ripe for a fruitful archival investigation up in New Haven, but since Dura and ancient Greece, which is what Dr. Crosby ended up specializing in, are well out of my area of expertise, I shan't be the one to undertake it. For now, what I've been able to find reads a bit like what was written very one-dimensionally and matter-of-factly about Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson prior to the recent biography that really humanized them and added depth to their history. From the postscript to Susan I. Rotroff and Robert D. Lamberton's Women in the Athenian Agora (American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2006):

"Margaret Crosby (known to her friends as Missy, a nickname she traced back to being addressed as such by a friendly English boatman, encountered on a family holiday when she was eight years old) grew up in Minnesota, where an active girlhood left her with a taste and talent for hiking and mountaineering (she ultimately bagged most of Greece's major peaks). Like Virginia Grace, she was a member of the Bryn Mawr class of 1922. Two years of study in Europe followed before she began graduate work at Yale. There she concentrated on ancient history, but a season at the Yale expedition to Dura Europos, in Syria, deflected her decisively into archaeological fieldwork. Upon completion of her degree she joined the Agora excavations as an Agora Fellow and embarked on a life almost evenly divided between the archaeology of Athens, and family duties and pleasures back in the United States. Throughout her career, her work and interests crossed unspoken gender lines. Her primary responsibility at the Agora was the supervision of fieldwork, and from 1935 to 1939, and then again from 1946 to 1955, she spent every season in the field (and field seasons in those days were epic in their duration — often as much as five months long). She also took on other duties (all the while continuing the daily excavation schedule), and oversaw the records operation in 1946, when Lucy Talbott was absent. In the realm of scholarship, it was the complex and highly technical fields of epigraphy (the study of inscriptions) and metrology (weights and measures) that particularly attracted her — interests that drew on the same powerful linguistic talents she deployed as a code-breaker in the Office of Strategic Services** during World War II. The inscription which she published is one of many found in the Agora that record leases on the famous silver mines of Athens, the material resource that formed the foundation and rise of Athens in the 5th century B.C. and continued to fuel the economic power of Athens in later years. By the early 1960s Missy had completed her excavation and publication assignments. By all accounts an unassuming and self-effacing woman, for all her scholarly abilities, she retired to a quiet life filled with travel, gardening, family and friends" (52-4).

References for some of her work:

Crosby, Margaret. An Achaean League Hoard. New York: The American Numismatic Society, 1936.

---. "The Leases of the Laureion Mines," Hesperia 19:3 (1950).

--- and Mabel Lang. The Athenian Agora: Weights, Measures and Tokens. Athens: American School of Classical Studies, 1964.

So there's at least a partial answer to the question: Who was the woman in that photograph?

*This link on the history of women at Yale is oddly, and to my mind unnecessarily, both defensive and patronizing. (Look! We've always let women serve the tea and marry professors!)
** See p. 99.

Edited on 12/18/11 to add this link: Dura-Europos, a Melting Pot at the Intersection of Empires

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