As one of four students currently concentrating in the Program in Early Cultures, Sarah Tropp ’15 belongs to one of the University’s smallest academic communities.
“No one’s heard of it,” Tropp said. “When you go to one of the advisers and tell them, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of concentrating in Early Cultures,’ the first thing they ask you is, ‘Are you sure?’”
Since Professor Emeritus of Classics and History Kurt Raaflaub founded the concentration in the 1970s as the Program in Ancient Studies, Early Cultures concentrators have had the opportunity to delve into multiple fields and pre-industrial cultures from around the world. But few students at Brown pursue the program — no Early Cultures concentrator graduated in 2011 or 2012.
An unconfined concentration
Because the program is so small, students tailor their curriculums to their own interests. In choosing classes, students focus on two or more ancient civilizations, which they compare and contrast throughout their coursework. They can also choose to focus on a specific overarching theme, like the languages or religions of ancient cultures. The only required class in the concentration is ANCT 1000: “Seminar for Concentrators.”
“What we ask from students who want to concentrate is that they show that they can’t work within the confines of other comparative departments, like Classics or Egyptology,” said Professor of Classics John Bodel, one of the program’s three directors. “Particular programs are then worked for concentrators in particular areas that cut across and beyond a particular region.”
Tropp said one of the most appealing aspects of the program is that it allows her to pursue her love for ancient civilizations from the perspective of different disciplines.
The same holds true for the program’s three directors, who all come from different fields. Susan Alcock, professor of archaeology and classics, focuses on archeological excavations in areas of Greek and Roman control. Bodel studies Latin literature and epigraphy, and Stephen Houston, professor of anthropology, specializes in Mayan civilization.
The small number of students in the Early Cultures program may “be something to do with advertising and word of mouth,” Houston said, though the program is “intrinsically appealing.”
“(The Program in Early Cultures) is consistent with the DNA of the college,” Houston said. “It encourages students to form a new understanding across disciplines, with the stamp of an individual concentration.”
As a child, Tropp surrounded herself with mythology books, a passion that in high school developed into a fascination with ancient history.
She applied to Brown intending to concentrate in Egyptology, but she looked into the Early Cultures program after her Meiklejohn advised her to consider it.
“It’s so tailored to my interests,” Tropp said. “The fact that before declaring I’ve completed almost all of the requirements says to me that it’s perfect for me.”
Louisa Chafee ’14, a Herald contributing writer, said her decision to concentrate in Early Cultures was also based in her early interest in mythology.
“I just love stories — there’s nothing more to it,” Chafee said. “We had little storybooks of Greek mythology and Norse mythology in our house growing up, and I really loved reading those.”
Studying Early Cultures in college has allowed her to explore those stories in greater depth, she said.
“As I got into the academic side, it just got more and more interesting, especially as we moved away from PG mythology and into the collegiate side,” she said.
Both Tropp and Chafee came into Brown interested in different departments but were pulled toward Early Cultures by the time they reached the spring of their sophomore years. Chafee said she initially wanted to create an independent concentration in folklore and mythology but realized she could pursue those fields within the Early Cultures program.
“It’s kind of like an independent concentration already, since there are no required classes,” Chafee said. “I’m technically focusing on the ancient religions aspect, but when people ask me about my concentration, I just tell them folklore and mythology.”
Tropp said she plans to focus on Egypt and Greece during their Hellenic periods, though she said she prefers Hellenic Egypt because of its relative egalitarianism. She will likely pursue museum work or teaching after graduation, she added.
“If being a professor doesn’t work out, I always joke with my family that I’ll write the next Da Vinci Code,” Tropp said.
Chafee said she plans to write a senior thesis on the ubiquity of dragons in the mythologies of many early cultures. But that cross-cultural analysis is one of the most difficult aspects of the Early Cultures concentration, she said.
“The hardest thing is there aren’t many classes that focus on one subject among multiple cultures,” Chafee said. “It’s something that you have to do on your own.”