University alum receives MacArthur for research about ancient Greece

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 - 4:39pm

In the fall of 1993, then-LSA freshman Dimitri Nakassis was flipping through a course pack to decide which classes he wanted to take when he stumbled upon two courses that piqued his interest: Introduction to Field Archeology, and Intro to Greek Art and Architecture.

Twenty-two years later, Nakassis’ research on Mycenaean Greek society — which represents the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece — and the relationship between its nobility and working class earned him the 2015 MacArthur Fellowship. He is one of 24 individuals to receive the fellowship, a stipend of $625,000 that is often referred to as the “genius grant.” This year's winners also include Atlantic correspondent Ta Nehisi-Coates and playwright and actor Lin Manuel Miranda. 

“It’s part of a bigger project of trying to understand Mycenae society, not just by looking at the people in the palace and not just looking at the palace, but also by looking at what’s happening outside the palace,” he said. “So, if you wanted to understand Ann Arbor, you couldn’t just look at the University campus, right?”

Much of Nakassis’s study is dedicated to researching ancient Greek linear tablets, which are scripts that recorded the earliest form of the Greek language. The tablets are administrative palatial documents that note the events at the palace and the individuals present.

“Like a lot of students, I wasn’t really sure what to major in,” Nakassis said. “Initially my plan was to double major or have a double concentration in history or economics. I was in my room at Markley and I was flipping through the course catalog. Archeology wasn’t ever something that I had thought of as something I could study at the University. I mean, I knew archeology was a field, but it never occurred to me to major in classical archeology.”

Nakassis, who went on to major in classical archeology when he was a student, also took classes in ancient Greek. Doing so catered to both honing his academic interests and reconnecting with his family roots — his father grew up in Greece, where, he said, learning the ancient language was part of the high school curriculum.

“They were just the best classes. They were so well taught and so interesting and I was pretty much hooked after that,” Nakassis said. “From there, I had a very, very clear idea of what I wanted to do … It was just sort of luck of the draw, having really great and inspiring professors.”

One of his influential professors during his time at the University, Nakassis said, was Susan Alcock, who was a MacArthur recipient in 2000.

“It feels weird to think of myself or to be in the same category with someone like her,” he said. “That’s the other weird thing about winning the MacArthur. So much attention is on you and part of me just wants to be like, ‘I’ve only been able to get here because I’ve had, like, the best professors.’ I really feel like, at Michigan, I was exposed to some of the best professors in the field.”

The University is currently the only college in the state with a classics department. Michigan State University’s final classics major graduated in May 2014.

“I think it is an unfortunate reality of the financial crunch that a lot of universities are feeling,” Nakassis said. “Michigan’s a shining light, for sure, in classics … it would be better for the people at Michigan if it weren’t the only one.”