Digging into ancient cities

William Parkinson

“For me, it’s a once in a lifetime show,” says archaeologist William Parkinson of The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, the exhibit he spent nearly three years curating for The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Photo: Lloyd DeGrane

By Cindy Kuzma
Alumni Magazine

Sure, Indiana Jones touched the literal Holy Grail. But real-life scientist William “Bill” Parkinson (’92 LAS) counts himself fortunate to hold what he calls the “holy grail of archaeology jobs”: curator at The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

The role involves the same fieldwork he’s done his entire career, digging up evidence of how the earliest cities emerged in Greece and Hungary. He also teaches through a joint Ph.D. program with UIC, “in the very same room where I had Intro to Greek,” he says, laughing.

But the Field gig, unlike other academic positions, offers opportunities to educate and influence an enormous audience.

Take the massive new exhibit, The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, which debuted at The Field Museum in November 2015. Parkinson spent the better part of three years coordinating the project.

“For me, it’s a once in a lifetime show,” he says. By the time the nearly 600 ancient relics are returned to 21 Greek lending institutions, more than 1 million people will have viewed them, Parkinson estimates.

Each visitor, he hopes, will leave knowing more about both ancient Greek civilization and modern society. After all, the foundations of democracy were forged in 5th century Athens; the exhibit explores this unfolding as well as the way Greeks came to comprehend individual identity.

“If we want to understand how the world came to be how it is,” Parkinson says, “we have to understand how we got here—and those are the lessons we learn from archaeology.”

On a personal level, Parkinson’s past illuminates his current successes. A native of Symerton, Ill. — a small town just outside Joliet — he arrived at UIC planning to study English, and followed his father and grandfather into journalism. But he disliked literary criticism and, in an effort to try something different, wound up in Professor Lawrence Keeley’s archaeology class.

Parkinson admits to slacking as a student. In fact, he skipped Keeley’s midterm. But when he asked for a retake, expecting a stern lecture in return, Parkinson found himself enthralled by tales of excavating 7,000-year-old Northern European Villages.

“There was a moment where I am looking at him [Keeley] and going, ‘Wow, this guy likes what he does so much, he’s willing to talk to some kid he knows was blowing off his class,’” he recalls.

Parkinson quickly realized that his talents for languages and teamwork would serve him well on field projects in faraway lands. Intellectually, he appreciated archaeology’s reach across disciplines — politics, economics, sociology, anatomy and the humanities. Plus, he savored its blend of deep thought and hard labor.

“Archaeology is very tangible — it’s visual and tactile,” he says. “You are feeling dirt. You are seeing beautiful objects. You are licking something you just took out of the ground because you want to see if it’s stone or bone, because bone sticks to your tongue.”

After finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, and post-docs at both the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State University, Parkinson landed at Florida State University. Seven years later and shortly after earning tenure, he heard about the Field Museum opening. Some academics might not give up such security to start over at a new institution, but Parkinson took the risk and moved with his family to Oak Park in 2008.

Fittingly enough, humanity as a whole shifted toward the metropolitan that same year. “We crossed this threshold where more than half of all the people in the world live in urban environments,” Parkinson says. “And that’s a process that started 7,000 years ago.”

The Greek exhibit moved on to the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., April 10, giving Parkinson a break from tours, presentations and interviews. He’s returning to studying and writing about the provenance of urbanization.

“As a species, we weren’t bred to live in cities,” Parkinson explains. “We evolved to live in small groups that move around the landscapes. We’ve done a pretty good job over the last 50 years of understanding how hunter-gatherers became agriculturalists. We haven’t done a really good job of understanding how some farming villages turn into big, complicated urban polities and how others don’t.”

The reasons, he suspects, have to do with geography, environment and the interactions between societies. But even as Parkinson strives to uncover them, he doesn’t expect definitive answers. Instead, he says, “The best research leads to more questions.”

—Reprinted with permission from UIC Alumni.

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