Photograph by Michael Cosmopoulos
Photograph by George Vdokakis
Hometown: Athens, Greece
Current City: St. Louis, Missouri
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I had been wanting to be an archaeologist ever since I can remember. I was born and grew up in a city so steeped in monuments and myths that it was so easy to fall in love with antiquities!
How did you get started in your field of work?
My first excavation was when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Athens. It was at Voidhokoilia, near Pylos. After that, I was fortunate to dig at some wonderful sites, like Epidaurus, ancient Corinth, Eleusis, and Mycenae. I got hooked on being in the field, and it became a way of life, without which I cannot imagine myself.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?
I have been always fascinated by the idea that each piece of pottery, each wall, each artifact that we unearth has not seen the light of day for thousands of years. Our eyes are the first to see things that were last used, seen, touched by another human being so long ago. This is a real thrill, and there are moments of discovery so full of excitement, so full of anticipation, that I can feel the adrenaline pumping in my blood. But there is an intellectual thrill, too. I truly believe that we need the past to understand the present: We need to learn how society evolved over time to understand how our own world has become what it is.
What's a normal day like for you?
I usually get up around 5 a.m., brew a fresh cup of coffee, and sit at my desk to write and do research. I find that at this time, when all is quiet and my brain rested, I can focus and concentrate better. The rest of the day is taken by classes and meetings in the winter or a dig in the summer. When possible, I try to get a short power siesta in the afternoon.
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
My role model was my mentor, George Mylonas. He was the excavator of Mycenae and Eleusis. I admire his ability to not only produce specialized publications, but also to make archaeology accessible to the public. Perhaps more importantly, he was someone who had a deep faith in humanity and who genuinely cared for others, especially his students.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
The discovery of the Linear B tablet at Iklaina. I remember being on the dig that day and receiving a call from Cynthia Shelmerdine, our Linear B expert, who was supervising the washing of the finds in the lab. A student had just cleared the dirt off one of the finds and, noticing that it had inscriptions, he brought it to Cynthia. When she called me, she sounded agitated and almost out of breath in excitement, when she uttered the words: "Michael, we have a tablet!" I remember rushing as a madman to the lab, probably going through every red light and stop sign in my way!
Challenging moments have been a few, mostly moments of frustration dealing with issues of administration of the dig and, mostly, budgetary constraints. But the frustration disappears when I find myself back on the dig!
What are your other passions?
Greece. I am a strong believer in the humanistic values of Greek culture and in its relevance to modern life, a message that I try to pass on to my students. I like and admire technology, but sometimes we forget that it is just a tool, not the end. I find that Greek literature, art, and philosophy help us retain our humanity.
What do you do in your free time?
There is very little free time, but I try to spend it in quality time with my family.
If you could have people do one thing to help protect cultural heritage, what would it be?
Educating the public. I think that there is so much that we, as archaeologists, can do to get the public involved with our work. This is especially true in the regions where we conduct fieldwork. If we do not explain to the locals why antiquities matter and why they are relevant to their lives, how can we expect them to protect our cultural heritage?
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In Their Words
I truly believe that we need the past to understand the present: We need to learn how society evolved over time to understand how our own world has become what it is.
Discovered in Greece, the small clay tablet may predate other written records by nearly a century.
Cosmopoulos discusses the often bleak myths surrounding the ancient underworld of Greece.
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