Phoebe Thompson ’20 Excavates the Earth to Understand the Ancient

Phoebe Thompson Classics

Combining a classics major and geology minor took Phoebe Thompson ’20 down some ancient paths. She excavated the Roman and Punic levels of two shops in Tharros, on the western coast of Sardinia, Italy, and did field work in Sicily. She documented and analyzed the 18th century activity of Mt. Vesuvius. She studied Egyptology and Viking studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. And she attended the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome.

Her road to antiquity, supported with grants from the Pomona College Summer Undergraduate Research Program, took her numerous places abroad prior to the pandemic, and Thompson wrote a thesis that married her two great academic loves. In it, she examined how geological phenomena—namely earthquakes and geologically generated gases—were understood within the context of the oracle of Apollo and the associated cult at Delphi, Greece. Her academic inquiry included exploring whether this narrative of geology-cult interaction at Delphi exerted cultural influence upon the cult practices at Hierapolis, Turkey, a site with similar geological phenomena.

Other research Thompson conducted was also an amalgamation of the two seemingly disparate disciplines, using the software ArcGIS to map ancient Sardinian settlement patterns and compare these patterns to environmental metrics. She presented this research in January 2020 at the joint Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the Society for Classical Studies (SCS). 

The COVID-19 crisis disrupted Thompson’s summer plans to return to do more archaeological research at the excavation site in Tharros. However, she continues her work remotely from her hometown of Pittsburgh and will take it even further in the fall with her Downing Scholarship to Cambridge University, where she plans to get a master’s in archaeological science and expand on her thesis. Thompson hopes to eventually earn a Ph.D. in archaeology.

Now from home, Thompson has been returning to the digital database of the artifacts from Tharros, looking for patterns in the presence versus absence of types of artifacts, pottery and the like, and doing some initial statistical and general analyses to help date their trenches. Later this summer, she will work with Leigh Lieberman, director of digital humanities at The Claremont Colleges Library, researching how machine learning is used within the context of archaeology.

Thompson had planned to be a history major when she came to Pomona. However, her first semester she took the course Achilles to Alexander with Classics Professor Benjamin Keim—and so it began. She says she is drawn to the major’s interdisciplinary nature.

“As much as I am interested in history, I'm also interested in literature, languages, mythology, material culture, philosophy, theatre, politics and trade—all of which can be found within the classics major. Majoring in classics was a way for me to study all of the above while focusing on a time in history that fascinates me.”

Another first-year course that compelled Thompson was her introduction to geology class. She appreciated that the discipline was field-based. She enjoyed that class so much that she found a summer opportunity that blended being in the field with her interest in history, taking her to the Isle of Mull, Scotland, the summer after her first year at Pomona. That summer was pivotal. It was when and where she decided to become a classics major, a geology minor and an archaeologist. Geology Professor Eric Grosfils and Classics Professors Keim and Christopher Chinn were founts of inspiration, whether through her SURP and thesis guided by Grosfils, academic advising and classes with Keim, or studying Latin, writing and Lord of the Rings with Chinn.

Thompson says Pomona was a great fit for her with all the advantages of attending a small college, including the size of the departments and relationships with faculty, students and staff. But she also notes she had the resources of The Claremont Colleges consortium at her fingertips. She took classes at all five of the colleges by the time she graduated, and gained Lieberman (from the library) as a mentor who doubles as her direct supervisor of the remote work for the Tharros excavation site.

What would Thompson, now a Sagehen oracle of sorts, tell incoming students?

“Not to be too rigid in their own expectations of their academic path.”