BIPOC Feature: Najee Olya

One of the things that I wanted to do with Notes From the Apotheke was to amplify the voices and contributions of BIPOC scholars in ancient Mediterranean studies, at all levels and from all backgrounds. BIPOC in the field are invited to reflect on what brought them to studying the ancient world, as well as offer their opinions on the future of the discipline and share any work they are especially proud of or excited about.

The series is back with a much-appreciated contribution by Najee Olya, a PhD candidate in Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Virginia.

Who are you?

I’m Najee Olya— a PhD candidate in Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Virginia and for 2022-2023, the Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m a Classical archaeologist and ceramicist interested in ancient Greece and its connections to other cultures and societies in and beyond the Mediterranean. In particular, I study how these relationships manifest in material and visual culture.

What do you research?

My dissertation is concerned with visual representations of Africans in Greek vase-painting. I use the term African here broadly, as the iconography includes depictions of figures with a variety of physical traits. Many, in modern terms, would be considered Black, but there are others who are not but are who nevertheless from Africa. Personages from Egypt, Libya, or what the Greeks called Aithiopia, which they generally placed to the south of Egypt, all make appearances in the imagery.

The project is the first comprehensive examination of all the relevant extant vases and the first major study centered on portrayals of Africans in ancient Greek artistic media since the publication of the classicist Frank M. Snowden Jr’s Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks in 1983. Snowden was neither an archaeologist nor an art historian, however, so my dissertation is also the first major archaeological and art historical study of depictions of Africans since Grace Hadley Beardsley’s The Negro in Greek and Roman Civilization: A Study of the Ethiopian Type was published in 1929.

What I’ve done in my research is bring together as a group over 400 vases decorated with depictions of Africans in both quotidian and mythological settings. I am attempting to contextualize the objects and their iconography in a variety of ways. Throughout the discussion of specific artifacts and depictions, I explore issues such as the agency of the artisans, meaning among Greek and non-Greek audiences, the afterlives of the vases in modern museum collections, and their absence in Greek art and archaeology survey books.

A large part of the project involves working to extract the artifacts from the racialized and often outright racist narratives which position them as proof that modern conceptions of race were formulated in ancient Greece, which is untrue. Ancient Greeks very clearly thought about differences between themselves and other people, but racial categories such as “black” or “white” did not exist in antiquity. These terms are deployed constantly in the discussions of the objects in what appears to me an unconscious way—there is conflation of the term “Black” with images of Africans and “white” with images of Greeks without any kind of elaboration on the fact that these are modern fabrications.  

What made you want to study the ancient world?

Be forewarned, this is going to be a cliché answer: I’ve been interested in the ancient world from a young age!

A good portion of my childhood was spent growing up near the University of Chicago, so I was lucky enough to visit its Oriental Institute fairly regularly. I was fascinated in particular by ancient Egypt and the Near Eastern civilizations—the fact that people had built such impressive monuments and objects that continued to endure so long after their creators were gone. My interest in antiquity more generally was reinforced by trips to other Chicago mainstays such as the Field Museum and the Art Institute. In high school, I took Latin and so I added Rome to my interests.

Ancient Greece, however, remained something of a lacuna for me until I got to university, where I continued taking Latin and was encouraged to become a Classics major by one of my professors, the late Allan Kershaw. From there, I took ancient Greek language classes and courses on Greek myth, epic, and history and Roman history. My other professors in Classics were Nanno Marinatos, John T. Ramsey, and John Vaio.

I also majored in anthropology, in a department that had a strong focus on archaeology across North America, Mesoamerica, South America, and Southeast Asia, so my exposure to the ancient world as an undergraduate was incredibly broad.

I went into graduate school hoping to pull all of these different threads together. As an MA student in Classics at the University of Arizona, I had planned to pursue Roman archaeology, as I was stronger in Latin and more comfortable with Roman history. My trajectory changed in the fall of my second year, when I took a course on ancient Greek ceramics. At that point, I knew what I wanted to study—there was something about the objects themselves that drew me in. I ended up writing my MA thesis on Tyrrhenian and Pontic amphorae, products of the interconnections between Athens and Etruria.

After a couple years away from academia, I started my PhD at the University of Virginia to pursue study in ancient Greek vase-painting. I landed on my dissertation topic pretty early on, in my second semester. At the time I knew I wanted to do something related to ancient Greek depictions of the “other” in art. Africans seemed a good choice because not much recent research had been done, so the project would be important by filling in a gap in the literature.

Over the past five years, however, interest in my work has increased dramatically, in part because of important conversations that have been taking place—about race not only in Classics, the humanities, and academia, but in American society.

What would you change about the discipline?

I think that I’d like my own undergraduate experience of Classics to become more common.

I attended a large public university and my initial introduction to the field was, I would later discover, not at all the norm. I was never the only student of color in my classes, and this was even true in some of the advanced language courses. The larger classes, on Greek mythology, Roman history, courses in translation on Herodotus, Thucydides, and the like—these attracted an incredibly diverse range of students.

The department offerings were also quite broad. In addition to the standard subjects I’ve already mentioned, there were, for example courses on Near Eastern Archaeology, Egyptian Archaeology, and Ancient Mediterranean Interconnections. I’m dating myself here, but that department was already “Classics and Mediterranean Studies” starting in the late 2000s, long before the currently fashionable trend of renaming departments. It was also more than aspirational. There was a modern Greek program and courses in Arabic and Islamic studies, so the name made sense.

While renaming departments is a first step, I hope that substantive changes follow wherever possible.

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