Carrie Atkins '06 Traces Seafaring Goddesses

Story posted May 01, 2006

Carrie Atkins '06 Carrie Atkins '06

Carrie Atkins '06 has found a way to combine her love of the sea with her fascination for classical archaeology, her first major. Add to that a second major in biology and a dollop of art, and you might see how she arrived at an honors thesis exploring how culture and religion are disseminated as a by-product of maritime trade.

"I'm so excited, because I found a way to use nautical archaeology as a tool to look at broader issues," she said. "This is just a different way of looking at cultural exchange."

Atkins begins her research by exploring the connection through time of four Mediterranean cultures: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, starting with the Phoenicians' rise as maritime traders in the 10th century B.C., through the decline of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D.

She focuses on seafaring goddesses, beginning with the Phoenician goddesses Asherah, Tanit, and Astarte, followed by the Greeks' Aphrodite and the Romans' Venus, and ending with the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Atkins describes how religious beliefs were displayed on the ships themselves, as well as in the temples and artwork found in the home and destination ports. She follows the goddesses, and the religious practices surrounding them as they were inadvertently transported, along with material goods, through established trade routes and into far-flung colonies.

"It's a lot more complicated than I thought it would be," Atkins conceded. "The home port religion is not static, but it's always changing on its own."

Atkins tries to sort out which religious practices and icons were adopted and reconfigured to suit the needs of different people, and which simply evolved naturally over time. For example, as nations joined the seafaring trade, they adapted their terrestrial gods to a more nautical life.

"Venus became the protector of harbors," she said. "And Zeus of the wind was used to protect them while sailing. They adopted what they needed to fit their sailing purposes."

They also transformed what they borrowed from other cultures.

"The Romans took the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and used her as a patroness of sailing," Atkins said. "You see evidence of that in Pompeii and Rome."

The Greeks had colonies with important harbors in Spain, France, Italy, Turkey, Sicily, Egypt and the Near East, in addition to the shores of the Black Sea and the Red Sea, she said. The Greeks were segregated from Egyptian society in their colonies there, but they were influenced by Egyptian culture nonetheless. For example, they employed Egyptian workers to build temples in the colonies, and those workers added their own style to the classic Greek design. When the colonists returned home, they incorporated some of the Egyptian architectural forms and portrayals of the gods in their new temples.

"This is a multi-disciplinary puzzle," Atkins said. "I always wanted to be a detective growing up."

In high school, she went on an archaeological dig with her mother near her central Pennsylvania home, and took an archaeology course at Penn State. But she was drawn to Bowdoin by the Coastal Studies Center and the opportunity to study marine biology. As is often the case here, she was steered in an unexpected direction once she arrived.

"I started taking Latin and liking it," she said. "Then I noticed all these other courses in the Classics Department that looked interesting, like classical archaeology."

Susan Kaplan, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, put her in touch with Warren Riess, research associate professor of history at the University of Maine's Darling Center, who was documenting a Colonial trading ship he had excavated from a dig in mid-town Manhattan in 1982.

Atkins spent two summers studying the construction of wooden ships, and building a scale model of what was excavated based on data and photos from the dig.

"I came in with very little knowledge of ships, and spent the first month reading books about the frames of ships," she said. "Then I reconstructed it as perhaps it was built."

She finished the framing in the first summer and returned the following summer to complete the ceiling planking. Last spring, she did an independent study project at Bowdoin to create three-dimensional schematic drawings of the ship on a computer.

"That's why I like archaeology: It's multi-disciplinary," Atkins said. "Marine biology still interests me, but it's not something I want to make a career out of."

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