Maggie Popkin

Art history faculty member’s team receives NEH grant to study Greek archaeological mysteries

Maggie PopkinThe Winged Victory of Samothrace—one of the most acclaimed and widely recognized sculptures in the world—stands majestically, perched atop the prow of a ship at the end of a sprawling marble staircase at the Louvre in Paris.

The early 2nd century statue of the Greek goddess Nike (Victory) originally overlooked the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, located on the Greek island of Samothrace, likely to commemorate a naval victory. But more than 150 years after the sculpture was unearthed, much about the armless, headless figure remains unknown.

The sculpture is only one of a multitude of mysteries surrounding the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.

Maggie Popkin, assistant professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University and a principal investigator of a team of scholars, will work with archaeologists and architectural historians to attempt to uncover more of the sanctuary’s secrets with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Hieron, one of the major cult buildings in the central sanctuary, with Mount Phengari in the background.
The Hieron, one of the major cult buildings in the central sanctuary, with Mount Phengari in the background.

The three-year, $300,000 collaborative research grant, led by Bonna Wescoat, director of the American excavations at Samothrace and professor of art history at Emory University, will support the research and subsequent publication of the scholars’ investigation of the monuments of the Sanctuary’s Western Hill, the original home of the famous Winged Victory of Samothrace.

“It’s an important archaeological site,” said Popkin, a specialist in Hellenistic and Roman art and architecture. “Samothrace is the site of one of the most famous mystery cults of the ancient world and home to extraordinary architectural monuments.”

The writing of the grant proposal was instigated by the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in 2013, and a major conservation and reinstallation effort at the Louvre.

Popkin became involved in the project as a PhD candidate at New York University, which has sent scholars to excavate the site for almost 80 years. More recently, Emory archaeologists also became involved in the excavation.

In the summers of 2017 and 2018, Popkin and a team of scholars will travel to Samothrace to continue research to ultimately publish a monograph, Samothrace, volume 8.1, The Monuments of the Western Hill: The Nike and Surrounding Monuments. Popkin is responsible for research on the Stoa—a massive, colonnaded building that provided a space for dedications and shelter to the masses. The Stoa is one of the largest preserved examples of this monument type. She also will contribute a chapter to the excavation monograph analyzing the impact the monuments on the Western Hill had on cultural exchange and collective memory at the sanctuary.

Popkin at work with the Hieron in the background.
Popkin at work with the Hieron in the background.

Another major goal of the project is to better understand how architecture influenced how people experienced the sanctuary. Scholars ranging from archaeologists, conservation scientists and geomorphologists will work collaboratively to reconstruct the geological conditions of the period. Digital reconstruction videos will show the public what it would be like to walk through the Sanctuary of the Gods during ancient times.

“We use archaeology to think about original meanings and context,” Popkin said. “For students, it’s a great way to see where iconic objects such as the Nike really come from, what their original meanings were, and how they were discovered.”

Popkin joins Department of Religious Studies chair Tim Beal and The Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve in receiving large NEH grants this year—an enormous accomplishment for the university’s researchers.

“We’re thrilled because NEH didn’t give out many collaborative research grants [this year],” Popkin said. “It’s exciting to have a humanities department at CWRU be involved in such a large grant project.”

Learn more about the project at