Vermeule, Emily.

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Emily Dickinson Townsend Vermeule (1928-2001), a professor of classical philology and archaeology at Harvard University (1970-1994), was a distinguished classical archaeologist, animated lecturer, popular professor, and avid Boston Red Sox fan. As the author of numerous articles, books, monographs, and reviews, Vermeule established herself as a scholar of ancient Greek culture, poetry, history, science, and philosophy. She inspired those around her and brought currency to the study of the ancient world.

Early Life and Education

Vermeule was born on August 11, 1928 to Clinton Blake Townsend and Eleanor Mary (Menelly) Townsend. Growing up in New York City, Vermeule attended a preparatory school for girls, the Brearley School, from 1934 to 1946. Her higher education included a Bachelor of Arts degree in Greek and Philosophy from Bryn Mawr College (1950), a Master of Arts degree in classical archaeology from Radcliffe College (1954), and finally, a Ph.D. in Greek from Bryn Mawr College (1956).

Educator and Teacher

Vermeule was an instructor of Greek at Bryn Mawr College and Wellesley College from 1956 to 1958. From 1958 to 1964 she was an Assistant Professor of Classics at Boston University. Vermeule became a full professor and taught art and Greek at Wellesley College from 1965 to 1970. In 1969, she was appointed the James Loeb Visiting Professor of Classical Philology at Harvard University. Finally, in 1970 Vermeule was named the Samuel E. Zemurray, Jr. and Doris Zemurray Stone-Radcliffe Professor at Harvard. For the next twenty-four years, Vermeule taught in both the Department of the Classics and the Department of the History of Art and of Architecture.

Students and colleagues considered Vermeule to be one of the most inspiring and eloquent lecturers at Harvard University. Through her extensive use of slides, humor, and wit, Vermeule was able to illuminate the art, archaeology, history, and literature of ancient Greek culture. During her lectures, Vermeule attempted to recreate the day-to-day lives of the ancient peoples that her class was studying. Spending days preparing her lectures, Vermeule never repeated the same lecture in twenty-seven years of teaching.

Vermeule's involvement with school life did not end at the classroom door. She gave her time and energy to serve on the Faculty Council and as a member of a number of university committees including the Committee on the Administration of Educational Policy, Committee on Non-Departmental Instruction, and the Core subcommittee on Literature and Arts. Participating in the Harvard Alumni College at Sea Program with her husband, Cornelius, Vermeule introduced the classics to alumni in the Aegean and Black Seas. She also employed her speaking talents as a frequent television commentator during Harvard commencement exercises. Finally in the late 1980s, Vermeule approached the university administration regarding the decline in the number of Harvard students studying classical archaeology. As a result, a Standing Committee on Archaeology was established in 1988 to help promote and attract students to archaeology.


During her lifetime Emily Vermeule participated in seven archaeological excavations. In 1950, as a Fulbright scholar, she attended the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. In Greece she saw the monuments and architecture that she had, until then, only read about in books. Vermeule's fascination with archaeology began when she discovered a Mycenaean family tomb digging at the Athenian Agora . She supervised the excavation of this tomb and eventually published her results. Although only a student, her discovery attracted a great deal of attention in the professional community and established her as a specialist in the Greek Bronze Age.

In 1955, Vermeule went to Gordion, Turkey to help excavate the treasures found in King Midas' tomb. In 1960 she returned to Greece and excavated sites at Kephallenia and Messenia. Turning south in 1962, Vermeule traveled from Benghazi to Tobruk across the Libyan desert in a land rover performing a survey for the University of Pennsylvania. In 1963, she was in Müskebi, Turkey excavating Bronze Age and early Iron Age artifacts. A few years later, in 1968, Vermeule took part in the excavation of important Greek Aegean frescoes found at Thera-Santorini. Vermeule became responsible for the cataloging of these Thera antiquities for the Phira Museum.

Vermeule's most significant excavation occurred in 1971. As Director for a joint excavation project sponsored by the Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus, Harvard University, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Vermeule traveled to the Late Bronze Age town of Toumba tou Skourou on the outskirts of Morphou. Vermeule spent two years digging through mud brick mounds, stone houses, ancient pottery shops, and cemetery tombs uncovering the three cultures that came together in this one place: Palestinian, Egyptian, and Minoan. Unfortunately, a Turkish invasion of Cyprus forced Vermeule to end her excavation and leave the island. Although some of the valuable artifacts that Vermeule discovered were lost during the invasion, she had documented enough material to produce two books about her excavation: Toumba tou Skourou: The Mound of Darkness (1974) and Toumba tou Skourou, a Bronze Age Potter's Quarter on Morphou Bay in Cyprus (1990).

Perhaps Vermeule's most unconventional dig took place in 1963. Known as the "Earring Affair", Vermeule and her students joined in the search for a priceless earring stolen from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Digging in the Boston Fenway area with picks and shovels, they dug until a student discovered the earring in a crumpled soup can.


Vermeule published widely in the field of Greek history and civilization. Her writings included vivid descriptions depicting objects and artifacts as well as amusing notes and humor to illustrate her subject matter. Her best known and most successful book, Greece in the Bronze Age, was published in 1964 when she was only 36 years old. In it Vermeule combined art, archaeology, anthropology, and mythology to describe the Greek Bronze Age to both students and the broader public. It was immediately recognized as an excellent work and found its way onto many college reading book lists. Another of Vermeule's books, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry won the Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit from the American Philological Association and praise from the New York Review of Books in 1979. Vermeule's book Mycenaean Pictorial Vase Painting (1982) was a pioneering treatment of Greek vases from 1400 to 1150 B.C.

Vermeule's interests in writing went beyond the scholarly. She had composed poetry all her life and two of her poems were published, The Fish in 1959 and Thoughts of an Inveterate Smoker in 1961. As an ardent baseball fan, Vermeule compared her favorite sports team, the Boston Red Sox, to the mythical Greek heroes that she had studied. She wrote two articles about the Red Sox, It is Not a Myth-They're Immortal: Gallant Red Sox Did not Really Fail for the Boston Globe in 1978 and Odysseus at Fenway for the New York Times in 1982.


Known for her dramatic deliveries, poetic phrasing, and animated performances, Vermeule was in demand as a speaker and lecturer. She gave dozens of lectures at commencements, scholarly meetings, school celebrations, and seminars. In these lectures she promoted the importance of archaeology in helping her contemporaries learn and discover about the past. In 1982, Vermeule was given the Jefferson Lectureship in the Humanities, the highest honor that can be bestowed on an individual by the United States government for intellectual achievement. As Jefferson Lecturer Vermeule discussed the influence that classical philosophy and modes of government had on the shaping of constitutional government in the United States. In many of her other lectures, Vermeule stressed the positive influences of a well-rounded liberal education in an increasingly technical and specialized world and warned of the misuses of language in society for dishonest ends. As a Semple Lecturer at the University of Cincinnati in 1970, she discussed the shaft graves of Mycenae, and in 1974 she gave a series of lectures at the University of California at Berkeley concerning the descriptions of death in early Greek art and poetry.


Vermeule shared her personal and professional life in the field, museum, and classroom with her husband, Cornelius Clarkson Vermeule. They met at the 75th anniversary of the Archaeological Institute of America in Boston in 1953. Later on they both were affiliated with Bryn Mawr College, Emily as a graduate student and Cornelius as a professor of classical archaeology. Emily and Cornelius married in 1957. With several dogs, turtles, and partridges, Emily and Cornelius lived with their two children, Blakey, born in 1966, and Adrian, born in 1968.


Although Emily Vermeule retired from active teaching in 1994, her studies of the Greek world continued until her death in 2001. She investigated the Greek view of death in the Bronze Age, the aesthetics of prehistoric Greek art, Greek lyric poetry, the relationship of classical myth to art, and Greek religious expressions in literature and art. She also delivered a series of joint lectures with her husband, Cornelius, about Homer's hero from Troy, Odysseus, in another Harvard alumni cruise.

Upon her death, former students and colleagues remembered Vermeule as an inspiration for others in the study of the ancient Greek world. She was compared with the ancient Greek poet, Sappho, who infused her works with the strong emotions of love, desire, longing, and their companion, suffering.

Vermeule had the ability to combine the classics and archaeology so that both disciplines could come alive for both layperson and scholar. Her popular Fine Arts 13 class, known colloquially as "Darkness at Noon" because it was solely illuminated by slides, was her sanctuary where she could explain the experiences and imagination of ancient Greek culture to her students.

Although Greek poetry was her first love, archaeology held its own allure for Vermeule. Through the study of the bones, pottery, fragments, and objects of ancient cultures, Vermeule was able to reconstruct and rediscover lost worlds and make those discoveries available to a wide audience in her teachings, writings, and lectures.

References used for this biography were:

Carter, Jane B. and Sarah P. Morris, ed. The Ages of Homer: A Tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995. Classical Civilization Restored: Emily Vermeule studies fragments from the past to recreate ancient ways of life.Harvard University Gazette,12 May 1989. Emily Vermeule Lights the Way to Ancient Greece and Rome.Harvard University Gazette,8 April 1983, 3. Faculty Members Give Lectures for Campaign Supporters.Harvard University Gazette, 2 November 1979, 6. Gewertz, Ken.On the Path of Odysseus,Harvard University Gazette,9 June 1994, Faculty Retirements Section. Hall, Carla.History in her Bones,The Washington Post, 6 May 1982, Style Section. Ingall, Zoë.Upside-Down Gardening: Notes of a Prehistorian, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 May 1982, 1, 4. Morris, Sarah and Cynthia W. Shelmerdine.Emily Dickinson Townsend Vermeule, 1928-2001.American Journal of Archaeology 105 (2001) : 513-515. Shutt, Anne.Emily Vermeule: an archaeologist who digs for the deeper meaning, The Christian Science Monitor,16 August 1982, Education Section, 16-17. Wellesley College News (Wellesley, Massachusetts)21 October 1965.

From the guide to the Papers of Emily Dickinson Townsend Vermeule, 1946-1996 and 2001, (Harvard University Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Papers of Emily Dickinson Townsend Vermeule, 1946-1996 and 2001 Harvard University Archives.
creatorOf CentreStage Theatre Archives (University of Guelph). Electra / by Euripides, translated by Emily Townsend Vermeule ; directed by Kurt Reis, 1973 - house program. University of Guelph. McLaughlin Library
referencedIn Paul A. Freund papers Harvard Law School Library Langdell Hall Cambridge, MA 02138
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith American School of Classical Studies corporateBody
associatedWith CentreStage Theatre Archives (University of Guelph) corporateBody
associatedWith Paul A. Freund person
associatedWith Williams College. corporateBody
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Birth 1928-08-11

Death 2001-02-06





Ark ID: w60v9zk2

SNAC ID: 36626222