Lionel Casson—2005 Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement
The sea has always bulked large in our perception of the ancient world of the Mediterranean and the man that we honor today has for nearly fifty years bulked large in the study this world and the ships that sailed upon it. A fine maritime historian and scholar of Greek and Latin Literature, Professor Lionel Casson began his studies of ancient ships in the 1950s with several articles that brought to the attention of the scholarly world important pieces of relief sculpture that show how ships were built—especially the shell first construction—and how new types of rigging like the fore and aft sail had come into the western maritime tradition long before the Arab lateen sail. Other scholars like Cecil Torr in the late 19th century had begun to gather material for a study of ancient ships, but no one had carried it forward. In the 50s the increased use of the newly invented aqualung allowed archaeologists to begin to investigate actual ships’ remains. Professor Casson was the first to integrate this new archaeological information with our knowledge of ships from ancient literature, epigraphy, papyrology, numismatics and iconographic sources. The Ancient Mariners published in 1959 first made the maritime story of the ancient world available to both the scholar and to the non-specialist. At the same time the growing field of underwater archaeology found a staunch academic supporter who was always willing to provide advice to the archaeologists, visit their excavations and participate in many international conventions. Casson has provided maritime archaeology with its scholarly foundation. His gift of communication has made this exciting world accessible also to the layman.
Among his some twenty-three published books Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World first published in 1971 is perhaps his crowning achievement and still remains today the most cited book in maritime archaeology of the Mediterranean. Expanding enormously on Torr’s study and providing good translations of all Greek and Latin texts, the book surveyed the ancient world from Egypt to the early Byzantine period and is still the first resource one goes to with a question about ships and the sea in antiquity.
In World War II (1942-1946), Lt. Casson served in the Department Of Naval Intelligence where he was trained in Japanese to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war. Casson’s scholarly career from undergraduate, graduate through his teaching career from 1936 through 1979 was spent at New York University where he is now Professor Emeritus. He served as chair of the Classical Department on two occasions. His first major book was on the papyrological discoveries at the excavations at Nessana in Egypt in 1950 and his most recent is the very well reviewed study of libraries in the ancient world in 2001. Besides his many books, Casson has published some 75 scholarly articles and some 25 articles in popular journals. Besides Ships and Seamanship, other particular highlights for the scholar are his commentary on the Periplus of the Red Sea and Travel in the Ancient World. Particular highlights for the lay reader are his American Heritage publications on daily life in the ancient world. Casson further reached a lay audience through his popular educational television show, Sunrise
Semester in New York in the 50s. In the first exploration of the Deep Sea using robots in 1989 with the “Jason Project” that reached about 225,000 school children, Casson participated in the training program for teachers in both the USA and Canada. He also was the key scholar who brought the National Endowment for the Humanities grant to the AIA in 1996-1997 for a summer program for high school teachers on ancient trade and led several seminars. Casson has been a Guggenheim Fellow several times, a Senior Fellow for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Classics at the American Academy in Rome. Casson has also served on the editorial boards of both Archaeology and American Neptune.
Throughout his very long and distinguished career Lionel Casson has been a constant source of friendship and intellectual support to his colleagues in the field, walking the Roman harbor installations at Cosa or Pyrgi or advising on the deep water discoveries off Skerki Bank. In gratitude for his many remarkable contributions in teaching, publication and in bringing a nascent field, maritime archaeology, to greater public awareness, the Archaeological Institute of America takes great pride and pleasure in awarding Professor Lionel “Jimmy” Casson its gold medal for distinguished archaeological achievement.