Dorothy Burr Thompson— 1987 Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement

Award Citation:

Dorothy Burr Thompson, excavator, teacher, lecturer, writer, and preeminent authority on the coroplastic art of the Hellenistic period, has proven the value of patient and painstaking observation of the smallest details that mark the intricacies of the Hellenistic minor arts. Her work on the broken pieces of ancient terracottas affords fresh insights into that notoriously complex and ill-documented field, Hellenistic Art. Her series of articles in Hisperia on "Three Centuries of Hellenistic Terracottas,'' and her books on the terracottas from Myrina I 934 and from Troy (1963) are indispensable guides to the complexities of the distribution and chronology of Hellenistic types. Whether she is dealing with the coiffures of Hellenistic queens, a coroplast's representation of a physical abnormality, or just a "miserable little head" of a "Graeculus who fawned upon the Romans" Dorothy Burr Thompson records a vivid picture of the tastes of the craftsmen and their public in the Hellenistic World, and—what marks her talent as extraordinary—places this picture in proper perspective to the major arts of the Hellenistic era.

Dorothy Burr attended Bryn Mawr College and after earning her B.A. there (1923), attended the American School of Classical Studies at Athens where she began her career as an excavator by taking part in excavations at Phlius, Eutresis, and the Argive Heraion. She received her Masters Degree (1926) from Bryn Mawr and after a year of graduate work at Radcliffe returned to Bryn Mawr for her Ph.D. (193 I). She joined the Excavations of the Athenian Agora at their very beginnings, and continued after her marriage (1934) at the excavations until they were suspended during the war years. From 1948 on, she has served on the staff of the Excavations of the Athenian Agora, excavating and publishing. Now she is preparing the final publication of the Hellenistic figurines.

After the outbreak of World War II, Dorothy Burr Thompson became a visiting lecturer at the University of Toronto and, for a year (1946-47), was Acting Director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology in Toronto, Canada. Her teaching did not stop when she moved with her husband, Professor Homer A. Thompson, and three daughters to Princeton, New Jersey. She interwove with her career as an archaeologist visiting professorships or lectureships at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, Oberlin College, The University of Sydney (Australia), and Princeton University.

Her book Swans and Amber (1948), with its discriminating translations of lyric poetry and its well-chosen illustrations, reveals the sensitivity to literature that informs so much of her archaeological work. The right work, the apt saying, the relevant literary passage, enliven her lectures and her writings. She buries verbal nuggets hewn in her own inimitable style in the catalogues of artifacts where the niceties of precise observation bring life even to broken fragments. She uses her gifts not only to communicate with scholars, but also, through her lectures and writings like those of the Picture Books Series, to illuminate for a more general public, costumes, hairstyles, gardens, shopping centers, and the details of the everyday lives of people who have left no names for history.

With pride in being able to honor a woman ahead of her time in balancing a career with being a wife and mother, with respect for her pioneering and exemplary work in understanding and interpreting the coroplast's art, with admiration for her contributions to our knowledge of the Hellenistic World, the Archaeological Institute of America awards its Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement to Dorothy Burr Thompson.


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