Field Museum's Bill Parkinson got his hands dirty to make 'The Greeks'

Chicago Tribune
Field Museum's Bill Parkinson found his way to anthropology because it was both blue-collar and intellectual.

When a trove of Greek artifacts is revealed at the Field Museum in November, no one, it is safe to say, will be more excited to share them with the public than museum archaeologist Bill Parkinson.

Parkinson, 44, has spent his entire field career digging in Greece and in Hungary, trying to understand how rural societies coalesced into cities, and he has spent much of the past few years working with other museum curators to put together "The Greeks — Agamemnon to Alexander the Great."

That exhibition, opening Nov. 25, brings more than 500 artifacts from ten times as many years of Greek history and pre-history to the Field.

"This is really a once in a lifetime show," said Parkinson, an associate curator of anthropology at the Field. "This is one of those where I'm just feeling so lucky that I'm part of it. Most of our temporary shows have a couple of hundred pieces in them. A big show might have 300. Here we've got over 500.

"Just the sheer size of the show is astonishing, and the amount of material in the show pales in comparison to the quality of it and the breadth of time that they cover."

It's a poignant time for the exhibit, Parkinson says, because of all that has been happening in Greece, from the ongoing economic crisis to the more recent immigration crisis. But Greece has always been key.

"To some extent, we're all Greeks, right?" Parkinson said. "So many aspects of our culture and our civilization derive from what happened over 2000 years ago in the southeastern corner of Europe, from our political system to many of the sports that still hold the American imagination to much of our language, medicine, philosophy …"

How does a kid raised in Joliet get to ancient Greece, both literally and figuratively? His dad worked at the Chicago Tribune, and Parkinson had entered University of Illinois at Chicago wanting to be a journalist, but he didn't like the literary criticism and textual analysis required of English majors.

Drifting into the school's high-quality anthropology department, he became enamored after not showing up for an archaeology exam, he said.

Prof. Larry Keeley "basically sat me down and talked to me for two hours about his work because he loved what he was doing so much," said Parkinson. "He was talking to a student that he knew blew off his midterm.

"He took me back into his lab. He had all of this pottery and stone tools from an ancient site he was working on in northern Europe, and it just blew me away. Archaeology is very tangible. It's very stuff oriented."

Parkinson turned out to have a knack for it, he said, and it continued to hold his interest because of the range of skills required: "It's kind of a blue-collar academic field. You spend a lot of your time doing the geeky academic thing: grants, teaching… But you are literally shoveling dirt for a good chunk of the summer.

"I also liked it as a discipline because it requires diverse knowledge. ... It's a social science, anthropology, but you need to know a little geology, and you need to understand a little bit of geophysics (due to) the gee-whiz techno-gadgets we use these days. We need to know a little bit of political science and a little bit of economics, and then to run a field team you need to know a bit of psychology."

Parkinson earned his PhD from the University of Michigan, there beginning his field work in southeastern Hungary and on the Mani Peninsula in southern Greece, he said.

He won a tenure-track faculty job at Florida State University, and in 2008 "I had just gotten tenure there, and this job opened up at the Field Museum, which is the holy grail of archaeology jobs in the United States," said Parkinson. "It's the best of both worlds. It's a museum-based research job, and we have a joint PhD program with the UIC. It just raised the interest that much higher, having gone to see the dioramas there as a kid."

In his field work, he's been discovering, he said, that the old belief about cities, that people banded together for safety and to better defend themselves, isn't the whole story.

"What we're finding is that even 10,000 years ago there was something drawing them there," Parkinson said. People went to join clusters of other people because "there were things going on — in the same way it happens today. This is the same thing we're finding in our work both in Greece and Hungary."

Being able — being forced, really — to communicate such concepts to the public is a thing he really likes about museum work, he said. Those skills were put to use in the development of "The Greeks."

Greek cultural officials "basically selected the objects, and then we worked with a group from the Canadian Museum of History and National Geographic to really put together the narrative for a North American audience."

The result, he hopes, will impress museum-goers as much as it does someone of his expertise. "I have never seen a show like this in the United States," Parkinson said, "and I never will again in my lifetime."

"The Greeks — Agamemnon to Alexander the Great" will run Nov. 25 to April 10, 2016, at the Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive; 312-922-9410 or


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