(Re)-Telling the story of ancient Greek portraiture
Elizabeth Baltes, assistant professor of art history in the Department of Visual Arts, has won a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) that provides for study of portrait sculpture from the ancient agora, or marketplace, in Athens, Greece. The NEH, which offers $22.2 million in grants annually to support 224 humanities projects nationwide, funded just 11 percent of submitted summer stipend proposals.
“We are incredibly proud of and excited for Dr. Baltes,” said Stephanie Miller, chair of the Department of Visual Arts. “Receiving the highly competitive, prestigious NEH Summer Stipend grant is a major accomplishment; completing the proposal itself is a feat of perseverance, which highlights her expertise and dedication.”
The grant was intended for a two-month period during summer 2020 but will be deferred to summer 2021 as a result of COVID-19 safety measures.
Baltes said the grant will allow her to continue a collaborative project in Athens, Greece, identifying fragments of sculpture to determine the nature – and thus the purpose and meaning behind – sculptures of people that were displayed in the Athenian agora.
“None of this has been studied systematically since the 1950s,” said Baltes, “and when it was studied then, the person studying it was only interested in portrait heads. But there are thousands and thousands of fragmentary pieces of sculpture that have been excavated from this site, and we’re working to go through all of them to identify as many pieces that we can confidently associate with portrait sculpture as possible,” said Baltes.
In her proposal for the grant, Baltes explained the larger context behind the project.
“More than a century of excavations by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens have brought to light a tremendous amount of sculptural material,” said Baltes. “The portrait statuary represents an important body of evidence – indeed, the largest body of sculptural evidence from a single excavation area in the city – for understanding the history of portrait sculpture in Athens.”
Baltes explained that because Athens was under Roman control when many of the excavated statues were set up, the portraits are generally referred to as “Roman” and are assumed to represent Roman interests. However, study of the excavated fragments seems to reflect, instead, local Athenian styles and issues.
“The narrative has been traditionally that portraits in Athens were driven by what was going on in urban Rome,” said Baltes. “One of the things that we’re finding out is that that doesn’t seem to be the case, that these portraits of local people are representing very much local concerns and interests and they’re not closely adhering necessarily to exactly what’s happening in urban Rome. So it makes us question: Traditionally these have been called Roman portraits, but what’s Roman about them?”
Baltes’ scholarly work directly connects to her work in the art history classrooms at Coastal.
“I’m really excited to be able to incorporate aspects of the work that I do in Greece into my classes that I teach at Coastal,” said Baltes. “The kinds of questions I’m interested in answering through this project about representation and identity are exactly the kinds of questions that I have students engage with in courses that I teach, such as Gender and Ethnicity in the Ancient World.”
Baltes earned her B.A. in political science from Louisiana State University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in art history (Greek art and archaeology) from Duke University. Her research interests lie at the intersection of sculpture, politics, and public space in the ancient Greek world.
Miller said Baltes’ expertise both in the field and in the classroom reflect the work of a true historian: one that makes events and cultures relevant to learners.
“Dr. Baltes’s research has a unique way of making the ancient world present, so I am really excited to see how this project unfolds,” said Miller.