University of Toronto Classics Professor Researching Ancient Greece Wins $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship Known as “Genius Grant”


Twenty four winners of the MacArthur Fellowship were announced on Tuesday September 29, 2015 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Included in the winners list was Maryland native Dr. Dimitri Nakassis, 40, an associate professor of classics at the University of Toronto, in Canada.

The winners each receive a $625,000 grant that is paid out over five years and comes with no strings attached. The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation asks nothing specific of its fellows — only that they continue to produce good work.

Fellows are nominated by leaders across various fields and chosen based on three criteria: “exceptional creativity,” the expectation of future accomplishments and the potential for the fellowship to encourage both. A changing panel of anonymous nominators from different disciplines suggests potential fellows each year, and an independent selection committee — also anonymous — narrows down the list.

Dimitri Nakassis

Dimitri Nakassis

Nakassis is continuing to work on a book about the political organization of Greece in the late Bronze Age, as well as traveling to Athens for an archaeological survey and overseeing the digital imaging of ancient tablets from Pylos. The award will bring attention to his field, which he said can suffer from a perception that historians have closed the book on ancient Greece.

People “think the whole country’s been excavated already,” said Nakassis. “There are amazing things coming out of the ground every year that radically transform our understanding of the ancient world,” he told The Washington Post in an interview.

Nakassis is a classicist transforming our understanding of prehistoric Greek societies. His rare intellectual breadth, comprising philology, archaeology, and contemporary social and economic theory, has equipped Nakassis to challenge the long-held view that Late Bronze Age Mycenaean palatial society (1400–1200 BC) was a highly centralized oligarchy, quite distinct from the democratic city-states of classical Greece.

Instead, he proposes that power and resources were more broadly shared. This thesis, developed in his first book, Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos (2013), is derived from a meticulous reinterpretation of Pylos’s administrative and accounting records (found on clay tablets and written in the early Greek script, Linear B). Standard interpretations of the tablets suppose a rigid political structure in which a small group of palace elites controlled and distributed all resources.

Nakassis re-examined this model using a traditional method, prosopography, but through the lens of contemporary theoretical discussions of agency and structure. He determined that some recurrences of a personal name refer to the same individual playing multiple, sometimes competing, roles. This insight offers an alternative picture of the Mycenaean world as a more open society with a dynamic and competitive economic structure that displays some similarities to the democratic polis of classical Greece.

Nakassis is testing his hypothesis through an archaeological survey, the Western Argolid Regional Project, that will reconstruct the settlement history of a core region of the Mycenaean world from prehistory to modern times and clarify how Mycenaean states mobilized labor, incorporated peripheral communities, and expressed power over many centuries.

He is also co-directing a new study of the Linear B tablets from Pylos that includes the use of digital imaging technologies (three-dimensional scanning and Reflectance Transformation Imaging, a kind of computational photography) to produce high-quality print and digital editions of these important documents for the first time.

Nakassis’s multifaceted approach to the study of Bronze Age Greece is redefining the methodologies and frameworks of the field, and his nuanced picture of political authority and modes of economic exchange in Mycenaean Greece is illuminating the prehistoric underpinnings of Western civilization.

Dimitri Nakassis received a B.A. (1997) from the University of Michigan and an M.A. (2000) and Ph.D. (2006) from the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the faculty of the University of Toronto in 2008, where he is currently an associate professor in the Department of Classics, and he has been a visiting professor at the University of Colorado Boulder (2014­–2015), the Florida State University (2007–2008), and Trinity University (2006–2007). His articles and essays have appeared in the American Journal of Archaeology, Hesperia, and Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, among others.