Lee Anderson always reminds his Latin students at Pinecrest Academy that they never know where classical studies will take them.
Whether learning about Latin literature and philosophies or studying the history and mythologies of Greek and Roman civilizations, many who have studied classics have gone on to serve as political leaders, researchers and even authors.
Anderson brings up J.K. Rowling to his students as one famous author who found success with a degree in Classics from the University of Exeter in England.
“I don’t think ‘Harry Potter’ would be what it is if J.K. Rowling didn’t have that background in this kind of epic storytelling,” Anderson said.
But when Anderson found his own passion for learning about ancient civilizations, he set his sights not on creating fictional stories, but on learning more about the lives of real people from thousands of years ago.
That was when he began his work in archaeology, traveling most summers to Greece where he studies ancient artifacts and tools excavated from sites where people once lived between 3,500 and 4,500 years ago.
Discovering his passion
Anderson said he first found an interest in ancient civilizations and the histories behind them when he was a child. He would spend hours upon hours with his nose in a book, drawn to stories of Roman heroes or recreations of ancient Egyptian carvings.
But until he began taking Latin classes himself in high school, he didn’t realize he could turn that passion into something more.
“It just dawned on me that archaeology is an actual career that people can get into,” Anderson said.
After graduating, he decided to stay closer to where he grew up in Tennessee and began studying Native American archaeology at the University of Memphis. Then, he moved into the ancient world, studying Bronze Age Greece in graduate school at the University of Tennessee.
In 2013, Anderson found himself traveling to Greece over the summer for the first time with a group of other students starting their master’s thesis research. They all began this research as part of the Mitrou Archaeological Project, a venture coordinated by the university and the Greek Archaeological Service.
Mitrou is an island located in East Lokris, and according to the University of Tennessee, it was the largest settlement in the region during the Bronze Age. Anderson said the island was occupied by the settlement from 2,400-900 B.C.E.
Those involved in the project began excavating the site in 2004, and research began on found artifacts and materials after they finished in 2009.
Diving into the work
Anderson remembers feeling struck by Greece’s beauty and history during that first visit in 2013, but at the same time, he felt like he had been “thrown into the deep end” of this archaeological research.
“I remember sitting on the bus from Athens to our project with a couple of other people …. and I was just like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ And for those first few weeks, I felt completely in over my head,” Anderson said. “I feel like that’s partly everybody’s grad school experience if you’re doing academic research.”
Although he was nervous, Anderson dove into his research head on, looking at tools that had been excavated from the site. He specifically studies ground stone tools, artifacts made from geologic materials for everyday use.
Anderson said a mortar and pestle is an example of an ancient ground stone tool that many still use today.
Unlike how archaeologists are often portrayed in movies and on television, Anderson said the job of an archaeologist is often long and methodic. He and other researchers at the site spent much of the summer looking carefully over the tools and artifacts, looking for wear that might indicate how they were used thousands of years ago.
Those looking at archaeology with plans of becoming a real-life Indiana Jones would be severely disappointed.
Although his work isn’t as action-packed as a movie, he can’t help but be amazed by the research opportunity. He said it feels surreal to hold a tool in his hand that others may have used up to 4,500 years ago, and as his research has continued, he started to put together a big picture of what the Mitrou settlers’ lives were like.
Some of the tools Anderson has been able to look at were used by women at the time to grind grain each day, and others were used for similar daily chores and tasks.
“It’s cool to think about the hours of people’s lives that are represented in these tools,” Anderson said.
Anderson said he also enjoyed learning about everyday people from this era. In archaeology and history courses, lessons normally focus more on emperors, leaders and other members of high society.
Through his research, however, he found that ordinary settlers were not much different from ordinary people now.
“People 4,000 years ago were thinking the same things that we think about,” Anderson said. “They were worried about the same things that we worry about. They enjoyed the same things that we enjoy.”
He pointed out that Greek citizens flock to the beautiful beaches in the country during summer, spending time relaxing on the sand or going out for a swim. Thousands of years ago, the people of Mitrou and other early civilizations in Greece cooled off on hot summer days in the same way, likely also with “some sort of fermented beverage.”
“There is nothing new under the sun,” Anderson said. “It’s just cool to think about the similarities between their lives and ours. And then, of course, you become thankful for things like modern plumbing and air conditioning.”
Sharing his passion with others
Anderson has continued his research for several years, coming back to Greece in 2014 to finish his master’s thesis research before coming back to the site in 2016 to continue research for his doctorate.
He went back to Greece each summer before 2019 when he ended up leaving school. At the time, he said he knew that, even with a doctorate, jobs in archaeology were sparse. He planned to continue with archaeology while also pursuing a new passion — teaching.
While in school, Anderson had the opportunity to teach graduate students, and he instantly fell in love with it. It felt like a natural next step for him to start applying for teaching jobs after leaving school, and a little over two years ago, he found himself in Forsyth County.
He began teaching Latin and AP Psychology at Pinecrest Academy, and he has loved working at the K-12 Catholic school. To him, the students and staff have felt like family.
“I know everybody says that, but it really is the best group of people to work with,” Anderson said. “Everybody is just so supportive.”
And he still gets his summers off to head back to Greece and continue his research. This past summer, Anderson visited the Mitrou site for the last time to get a final look at the tools before writing a chapter on his research that will be included in a site publication.
The publication, done by the University of Tennessee and Greek Archaeological Service, will include chapters on each of the kinds of artifacts found at the site. Anderson said his chapter will explore each of the ground stone tools and how they were used in everyday life.
While writing, Anderson wants to ask himself what kinds of tools a typical household would have, what kinds of tools would change over time and if the settlers were involved in different chores over time.
Even after this chapter is finished, he said he has plans to eventually head back to Greece. He already has a permit to begin research at another archaeological site where he plans to look at similar stone tools.
In the meantime, he plans to enjoy his time at Pinecrest, teaching his students the foundations of Latin while, occasionally, sharing some of what he has learned in his own research.
He hopes his students can use what they learn to one day pursue their own passions — whether they want to become a politician, historian, scientist or even the next world-famous author.