Sarah Beal is Excavating Untold Stories of Ancient Athens

Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School.

Sarah studying pottery at her desk in Corinth. She sits by her computer and gazes down at an ancient pot that she hold under a lamp.

Sarah studying pottery in Corinth. Photo credit: Lilly Kustec.

When you think about the ancient Roman Empire, you probably imagine gladiators clashing swords or architectural feats such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon, comprised of iconic arches and massive columns. These historical marvels, while impressive, tell the story of one particular class of society: the elite. Gladiators fought for their entertainment and the architectural wonders were erected for the upper class to gather and dine in luxury. The lives of the commonfolk who lived during those times generally don’t get written about at length in history books. And their stories are the ones that Sarah Beal, a PhD candidate studying classical archaeology, is interested in uncovering. 

Sarah studies ancient Athenian culture from the 3rd century AD, with a particular interest in pottery and dining practices. She first became interested in ancient civilization when taking Latin in middle school, and this interest has taken her on a lifelong journey all over the world. She has worked on archaeological digs in Pylos and Gordion (where King Midas and his golden touch originates), and she also spent two years living in Athens and working on her current research project, a study of the ancient pottery of Athenian citizens. 

By the Roman period, the era Sarah specifically studies, Athens was no longer the center of cultural influence in the Mediterranean. Because of this, Sarah is interested in how they maintain their Athenian identity and how they take on influence from Rome and neighboring cities. “By using material evidence and archaeology, we can get at the lives of people that aren’t usually represented,” she says. “What’s really interesting to me about the ancient world is how is everybody else living?”

An Athenian pot with fingerprints left on it from whoever threw the clay.

Athenian pottery with fingerprints (c) copyright ASCSA, Agora Excavations

Sarah studies pottery that was made by the Athenians, which is unique to that region because it was handmade locally. Most other cities were having their dishes imported from elsewhere and produced on a massive scale. The imported pottery was large, which suggests that meals were communal affairs with people eating together from the same plates. In contrast, Athenian dishes were much smaller, allowing for individuals to dine based on their own appetites and needs. Their pottery was also more amateur, with paint dripping off the sides, asymmetrical forms, and splotchy colors left from unevenly heated kilns. They were making pottery for function, not high art. “Something that seems so simple in concept is something that not a lot of people are studying in the ancient world, so it’s exciting to think about,” Sarah says. “And sometimes we find fingerprints on the pottery. It’s so cool and so human.”

A photo of ancient Athenian pottery. Three bowls are stacked together.

Athenian pottery (c) copyright ASCSA, Agora Excavations

Sarah will publish her research with a goal of creating “a reference point for what pottery of this particular period looks like so that people will study it and challenge it and come up with new interpretations.” She wants to create a research methodology for the study of these materials so that other scholars have an entry point, because currently, Sarah is the only one working with these artifacts. She also hopes to expand her research past the walls of the city of Athens, a long-term goal of her research. “When you work at sites further out from the empire, you start to see these cultures that are native to that area begin to flourish,” she says. “You see this magical marriage of different cultures interacting.”

A collection of six ancient Athenian bowls.

Athenian pottery (c) copyright ASCSA, Agora Excavations

While being out in Europe doing field research and working with ancient materials is an amazing experience, Sarah suggests that her main source of fulfillment comes from spreading her knowledge to others. She leads courses in the Department of Classics and also works in the department’s Outreach program, which hosts free workshops about the ancient world. The program partners with museums, local middle schools and high schools, and retirement communities, as well as any others who want to learn more about the topics discussed. Sarah has led workshops on gladiators, the Trojan War, ancient pottery and materials, and many other topics. “The Outreach program is the single most rewarding thing I do,” Sarah says. “It’s really wonderful because you get to work with a lot of different audiences and get experience on how to speak to people and how to tell your research in a way that’s very understandable.”

Sarah’s ability to communicate has led her to recently win both the 2021 Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) and the 2021 Excellence in Teaching Award, doctoral category. Her innate ability to make her research accessible is on full display in her 3MT video, and it is clear that she loves bringing people into the discussion on these ancient artifacts and cultures. “Something that I keep coming back to is my passion for teaching and sharing knowledge. What was great about being recognized with these two awards is that, for the first time, I’m being recognized for something that I consider myself to be good at. It’s confirmation that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”