She Digs is a column from Secrets of the Dead featuring some of our favorite women in the archaeology field. In a special collaboration with Inside The Met, we feature Dr. Andrea Achi, Assistant Curator at New York’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Achi specializes in the art and archaeology of Late Antiquity and has a particular interest in manuscripts and archaeological objects from Christian Egypt.
We sat down with her to learn more about her new exhibtion The Good Life: Collecting Late Antique Art at The Met and her experience working through COVID-19.
By: Tess Brock
Secrets of the Dead: Tell us a little bit more about your background and how you got started in art and archaeology.
Dr. Achi: In my senior year at Barnard College, I participated in a study abroad program in Egypt. For the first part of the program, we lived at a dig house near a late antique archaeological site (fourth century – 7th century AD), and we were able to participate in the excavation as archaeological assistants. Before the program, I mainly studied ancient Greek literature. It was a transformative experience to go from translating Homer in class to deciphering personal letters written on pottery bits and pieces. Over the next decade, between graduate work, I went on excavations throughout Egypt and Italy. I worked on excavations of late antique villages, monasteries, and churches, and I picked up a multi-disciplinary training in the field of late antiquity. North Africa was the breadbasket of the Roman empire; it was an economic powerhouse. A lot of the religious and intellectual centers were in North Africa during the late Roman/late antique period. So, I was lucky to start my training in really the heart of the late antique world.
Secrets of the Dead: Do you have a memorable piece of art from your childhood that still inspires you today?
Dr. Achi: When I was around four, my grandparents coordinated a family trip to Egypt. I remembered being in awe of the Giza pyramids. I asked so many questions—how they were built, who built them, etc. That experience certainly stuck with me!
Secrets of the Dead: You currently serve as assistant curator at The Met. What was your path to becoming a curator?
Dr. Achi: I did not set out to be a curator. My path was a traditional academic career trajectory. When I started graduate school, I assumed that I would become a professor of Art History. When I was finishing up my Ph.D., I held an internship at The Met where I analyzed pottery very similar to the material I studied on my excavations. Between 1910 and 1930s, The Met organized a series of excavations at Christian sites in Egypt, and through my graduate work, I had already traveled to and studied the material from many of those sites. I didn’t know this at the time, but my archaeological experience helped me build a skilled set that I needed to transition into a curatorial position, which incorporates close looking and sustained research.
Dr. Achi featured in Inside The Met: The Birthday Surprise Now Streaming
Secrets of the Dead: You specialize in manuscript studies. What about manuscripts interest you and how do you handle such delicate, ancient artifacts such as manuscripts?
Dr. Achi: Parchment books are fascinating—so much time, money, and effort often went into making even the most mundane manuscripts. The books I study are over a thousand years old, and they have fascinating multiple lives. Someone had to collect animal skins to create the sheets of the book, and then they were read and used in different settings in their early lives; these objects traveled long distances and entered museum collections or libraries for various reasons. I am also interested in evidence of book production in archaeological contexts—these contexts help us understand where, how, and why the books were used. These object biographies are fascinating to me. And, of course, one must handle all works of art with great care.
Secrets of the Dead: What projects are you excited about right now?
Dr. Achi: I am excited about all my projects! My current projects include considering what an expansive Byzantine Art history looks like, writing on the monastic economy in medieval Egypt and Nubia, and exploring translations of Byzantine art and culture by local and foreign artists working in Africa from the fourth through fifteenth centuries. Most people do not know this, but many Egyptians and Nubians corresponded in Greek (the primary language of the Byzantine empire) for over a thousand years. Through my projects, I emphasize these little-known histories of northeast Africa and the Byzantine world.
Secrets of the Dead: Your upcoming exhibition, The Good Life: Collecting Late Antique Art at The Met, examines the extraordinary wealth of third-to-eighth-century Mediterranean Africa. How did you land on this collection?
Dr. Achi: The exhibition asks: What does it mean to live well? This question resonates for many societies across time and space. Living a happy, meaningful life is an eternal aspiration. For some, it might equate to wealth or social status; for others, it might mean access to a particular type of education or doing good deeds. In the late-antique period (third- to the eighth century), writers and craftsmen translated ideas about abundance, virtue, and shared classical taste into a concept celebrated as “the good life.” This concept intersected with issues of religion, identity, and relationships with the past. The objects in the exhibition reveal some of the aspirations, values, and lifestyles of late antique peoples, particularly those who lived in Mediterranean Africa and the southern provinces of the Byzantine empire.
The exhibition also considers the last moments of these object’s biographies, which reveal literary and visual representations of a life well-lived. I discuss how and why they entered The Met’s collection. The artworks in the exhibition are almost all Met objects, and most entered the collection through generous gifts from the 1890s to 2020.
Secrets of the Dead: What is your favorite object in the exhibition, and why?
Dr. Achi: My favorite object is a portrait of a man named Gennadios (26.258), who was probably an educated youth of Alexandria, Egypt. The artwork celebrates his success in a musical contest. It is inscribed in Greek and says: “Gennadios most accomplished in the musical arts.” The medallion worked in gold on dark blue glass, was made to be mounted and worn as a pendant. I think the portrait is so intimate. Though it is around 1,700 years old, I feel connected to the owner through the image and inscription. I think visitors will have a sense of human connections to the artworks in the exhibition as well.
Secrets of the Dead: What is one lesson you hope visitors take away from the exhibition?
Dr. Achi: Most of the artworks in the exhibitions decorated late antique homes, and many represented happiness and delight. The works in the exhibition depict dancing, laughter, and love, but also there are images of nature and serenity. I hope the visitor considers what in their lives brings them contentment. What objects in their homes might represent a good life to them?
Secrets of the Dead: How has your experience been working during COVID? What has been your biggest challenge?
Dr. Achi: Finishing up an exhibition in COVID has been challenging. Still, The Met’s reopening team did an excellent job of providing a safe and productive environment for staff to continue to work on their projects. The biggest challenge was not being able to travel for research and fieldwork. I had plans to go to Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan in 2020 to meet with colleagues at museums in those countries and visit archaeological sites. Virtual meetings cannot replace the lasting connections made by visiting colleagues and sites in person!
Secrets of the Dead: Past She Digs features have detailed a significant issue of lack of diversity and harassment in the field of archaeology. How do you navigate these embedded problems?
Dr. Achi: I have been able to navigate uncomfortable situations through the help of incredibly supportive mentors at each step in my career. I think issues with diversity also stems from the lack of opportunities for students of color to create sustainable, long-term connections with mentors (beyond the quick conversations sometimes organized at conferences, etc).
It is also important to continue to reflect on the “pipeline” to archaeological work and brainstorm ways to make the field more inclusive. The various points of entry to archaeology can seem opaque. Programs like Archaeology in Community encourage youth to become interested in the field at an early age!
Secrets of the Dead: How can archeology benefit from more women in the field?
Dr. Achi: There is a quote by James Baldwin that describes history as not being in the past, rather it is in the present; we carry our history with us. As archaeologists, we use landscape, material remains, and texts to interpret and reconstruct the past. Because of the constant re-interpretations of the past through archaeology, it is important to have as many diverse perspectives in the room as possible as we do this work.
Secrets of the Dead: What is one piece of advice you would have for young women interested in archaeology?
Dr. Achi: Enroll in a field school or study abroad program! There are many scholarships available for these programs, and they are such a fantastic way to get to know the field and to meet future colleagues or mentors.
Inside The Met premieres Fridays, May 21-28 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org and the PBS Video app. The largest art museum in the Americas prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday with a treasure trove of landmark exhibitions. When COVID-19 strikes, the world shuts down and, for the first time in its history, The Met closes its doors. Then comes another crisis: in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, there are urgent demands for social justice. Facing an uncertain future and questioning its very purpose, this great institution makes history in ways no one could have predicted.
The Good Life: Collecting Late Antique Art at The Met is on display now at The Met Fifth Avenue until May 27, 2023.