Homer Armstrong Thompson, one of this century’s leading classical archaeologists, died at his home in Hightstown, New Jersey, on May 7, at the age of 93, from complications of pneumonia.
An internationally recognized scholar who played a central role in the excavation and reconstruction of the Agora, the ancient Athenian market place where the accomplishments and fissures of democracy first emerged, Professor Thompson was a Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he had been a member of the Faculty since 1947.
"Homer Thompson’s work revealed the heart of ancient Athens," commented Institute Director Phillip A. Griffiths, "and created a new understanding of its architecture, art, history, and politics. In the process, he also formed two generations of archaeologists and shaped our understanding of ourselves."
Homer Thompson was born on September 7, 1906, in Devlin, Ontario, Canada, and grew up in a farming community about ninety miles from Vancouver. Thompson’s father, a dairy farmer, had received a solid classical education in high school, and conveyed his passion for both Latin and Greek to his son, named Homer after the ancient Greek poet.
Thompson studied at local schools before going on to the University of British Columbia, where he received his B.A. and M.A. in classics in 1925 and 1927, respectively. In 1929 he received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, where a faculty member, Benjamin Dean Meritt (later a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study), introduced Thompson to the project which would occupy him for the rest of his life. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens was about to open a new dig at the center of Athens in the area once occupied by the heart of the ancient town. Meritt proposed Thompson as a candidate for a fellowship and in 1929, even before the excavations began, Thompson was selected as one of the first two Fellows. Thompson would continue his involvement in the project for the next 39 years, from 1931 onwards as either acting deputy or field director in charge of the excavations.
The enormous undertaking of excavating the Athenian Agora began on May 25, 1931. At the time, Professor Thompson later commented, "the difficulties were appalling. The location of the Agora was only vaguely known within a 30-acre area in the middle of the modern city then occupied by some 400 houses standing on the 10-metre deposit that covered the ancient levels. All that could be held out by way of results was the assurance of learning more about the functioning of an ancient city state."
In 1932 Thompson met his wife, Dorothy Burr, in Athens, where she became the first woman to be appointed a Fellow of the Athenian Agora excavations. They married in 1934, and their careers were entwined with their family life for the rest of their lives. Mrs. Thompson, a member of the group preparing materials on the Agora excavations for publication, wrote several of the books in the multi-volume Agora Picture Book series, as well as over forty articles and book reviews in various periodicals. She became an authority on Greek terra cottas and the decorative arts of the Hellenistic period, and was also an expert on ancient gardens, helping in the replanting of the Agora.
In addition to his work at the Agora, Thompson also explored the Pnyx, where the Assembly of the Athenians met and which later formed the subject of one of his books, co-authored with his Greek colleague in the excavations, Constantine Kourouniotes. From 1933-1941, Thompson served as Assistant Professor in Classical Archaeology at the University of Toronto as well as curator of the Royal Ontario Museum’s classical section. He also continued to spend part of every year at the Agora excavations until 1939, when the onset of World War II disrupted work on the Agora excavations. Thompson volunteered for service in the Royal Canadian Navy, and Mrs. Thompson taught his classes at the University of Toronto.
As soon as the Germans abandoned Greece in early 1944, Thompson returned to Athens, only to find that the country had become entangled in a civil war. He returned to Canada, where he resumed his teaching and curatorial responsibilities at the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum. In 1947 he was appointed Professor of Classical Archaeology at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he spent the rest of his scholarly life, becoming a faculty member Emeritus in 1977.
Concurrent with his appointment at the Institute, Thompson was appointed Director of the Agora excavations, and he embarked on what was to be one of the most remarkable decades ever in the history of archaeology. In 1949, with the end of Greece’s Civil War, he returned to Athens to reopen the Agora excavations. The Thompsons soon established a pattern of spending summers in Athens at the excavations, and winters at the Institute, researching and writing. Within a few years Thompson had assembled a remarkable team of men and women from among those who had opened the dig in the 1930’s and from the new generation of classical archaeologists coming out to Greece to study after the war.
Meticulous research allowed Thompson to pinpoint accurately the location of major monuments, which were quickly uncovered, adding thousands of objects to those already discovered. Thompson began to formulate plans for an ambitious project which would create a greatly-needed museum and research center in an exact reconstruction of one of the ancient buildings in the Agora.
In the course of excavation in the east end of the Agora, the team had uncovered a quantity of building materials as well as the full floor plan of a stoa, a type of multi-purpose ancient Greek public building used primarily to house offices and shops. Constructed in the second century B.C. by Attalos II, king of the city-state of Pergamon, this stoa was two stories tall, housed 22 shops on each floor faced by a two-story colonnade, and was built entirely of marble. Working with the architect John Travlos, Thompson and his colleagues drew up plans for its reconstruction. The American School of Classical Studies raised needed funds from John D. Rockefeller and others towards the realization of this ambitious project. The building was completed in 1956, as part of a grand plan to transform the raw, exposed remains of the ancient city into an archaeological park including areas planted with species used in antiquity.
As part of his work as field director, Thompson believed strongly in the importance of prompt publication of the finds uncovered during his tenure. He oversaw the development of two lines of publications, one aimed at the scholarly audience, the other at a general public but written by scholars. Some 30 volumes have appeared since 1953 in the Agora excavation series, along with numerous articles in the scholarly journal Hesperia. In addition, Thompson inspired a series of 24 books for the general public, among which were his own The Athenian Agora: A Short Guide and The Stoa of Attalos II in Athens.
Thompson retired as Director of the Agora excavations in 1968, but continued lecturing and writing until 1998, when illness forced him, at the age of 91, to curtail his activities.
During the course of his career he held visiting professorships at Columbia University, Princeton University, Oxford, and the University of Aberdeen, served as Norton Lecturer for the Archaeological Institute of America, and held the Regents’ Lectureship at the University of California at Berkeley.
The author of five books as well as numerous articles and reviews in professional journals, his many honors and awards included honorary degrees from, among others, Princeton, Dartmouth, Michigan, Athens, Lyons, Freiburg, New York, and Paris X Nanterre Universities. He was made a Commander of the Order of the Phoenix in Greece and an Honorary Citizen of Athens. He received the Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement from the Archaeological Institute of America in 1972, the Lucy Wharton Drexel Gold Medal of the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania in 1978, the Kenyon Medal for Classical Studies from the British Academy in 1991, and the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities from the American Philosophical Society in 1996.
Thompson is survived by his wife and by three children: Hope T. Kerr of Cedar Grove, New Jersey, Hilary T. Kenyon of West Hartford, Ct., and Pamela Sinkler-Todd of Philadelphia, Pa. He is also survived by eight grandchildren: Karen D. Kerr of New York City, Linda K. Bowers of Montclair, New Jersey, William M. Demarest of Miami, Fla., Lea D. Hart, of Bend, Oregon, Scott Sinkler of New York City, Paige Sinkler of London, England, Frazier Sinkler of Summit, New Jersey, and McKean Sinkler of Philadelphia, Pa. In addition, Thompson is survived by three great grandchildren: Tate M. Bowers, Brockton K. Bowers, and Denali Hart.
A private service was held for family members, and will be followed by a public memorial service at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions in memory of Homer Thompson may be sent to the Agora Excavations, c/o The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 6-8 Charlton Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540.