Emily Vermeule -- an archaeologist who digs for the deeper meaning
Boston — She is preceded by Lionel Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, and Barbara Tuchman. As were those distinguished scholars, Emily Townsend Vermeule has been named the National Endowment for the Humanities 1982 Jefferson Lecturer. The National Endowment describes the lectureship as the US government's highest honor for outstanding intellectual achievement in the humanities.
On May 5, Dr. Vermeule, an archaeologist, classicist, and Harvard professor, gave the Jefferson Lecture, entitled ''Greeks and Barbarians: the Classical Experience in the Larger World,'' in Washingon, D.C.
Cornelius Clarkson Vermeule III, also an archaeologist, discussed his wife's approach to her work: ''She has always had her eyes open for the relationship between what she finds with her spade in the ground and what the Greeks wrote.'' Being able to fuse classicism and archaeology in one's career so that both disciplines come alive for both layman and scholar quite apparently is one of Dr. Vermeule's award-winning talents.
The fusion process started in 1950, her senior year in college. She was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, which took her to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. The Greek civil war had just ended and many of the classical monuments had been packed away, but, according to Dr. Vermeule, there was still a lot to see, and her professors made sure that even those with a poetry and philology bent would never again fail to see the importance of the visual side of Greek civilization.
She had never before really looked at great art. ''I thought they were beautiful -- the monuments I saw. They pulled me out of the books I'd been buried in for so long and showed me what I'd been studying about,'' she said.
Dr. Vermeule met Dr. Cornelius Vermeule when both were teaching at Bryn Mawr College. After her husband was appointed curator of classical art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1957, Emily Vermeule held teaching positions at Boston University, Wellesley College, and since 1970 at Harvard. Through the years the Vermeules have excavated and participated in excavations in southwest Turkey, Cyprus, Libya, Italy, Athens, and in southern Russia. Their two children went on most of those forays.
About this evidently orderly career development, Dr. Vermeule says: ''My career has been entirely a series of accidents.'' She says this because she feels students of today are unwisely trying to plan out their lives -- all before graduation. She adds that it's better to let experience find themm .
The archaeology field has changed greatly since Dr. Vermeule entered it. ''It was a small profession in those days. The field has gotten filled up with people on the technical side. Now there are pollen people and bone people -- vast numbers of them. The results are boring -- publications consisting entirely of graphs, statistics on animal bones, and lists of potsherds.''
But she firmly acknowledges the need archaeologists of her generation have for technical training. She wishes that they had had training in statistics and computers. ''The younger generation is better off from that point of view,'' she says. On the other hand, Dr. Vermeule urges younger archaeologists frequently to stop and ask questions like why something unearthed appears as it does, and what that ancient culture was like -- instead of just listing implements, fragments, and bones.
When asked what it takes to be a good archaeologist, she replied that experience and intuition are necessary and are innate more than they are acquirable. Even before he digs, an archaeologist with those qualities ''will know a building's shape through the soles of his feet,'' she says.
But even for the best, archaeology is not an easy field to be in. One reason Dr. Vermeule gives is that American professionals are decreasingly popular in foreign countries so it is much harder to get permission to excavate. Another problem she and all archaeologists encounter is that of economics. Population and its demands grow; industry draws poverty-stricken farmers away from the land and gobbles up archaeological sites; priorities shift from art and history to technological development.
That doesn't stop Emily Vermeule. If she had her druthers, all she'd do is ''dig and publish.'' What would she dig? She turns to an office map and puts her finger on a small island in one of the Grecian seas. ''There's a whole town here -- right in sight, totally deserted -- and I want to see what's underneath it.''
She doesn't think she and her husband will ever receive permission to excavate there. ''We can't pick our locations. Every nation with a school of archaeology in Greece gets three excavation permits a year,'' Dr. Vermeule said, adding that the US concentrates on Athens and Corinth.