Five questions with… archaeology and art history buff Jenifer Neils

Jenifer Neils
Jenifer Neils in Nemrud Dag, Turkey

Jenifer Neils knew she wanted to be an archaeologist in the third grade after she read about field archaeology pioneer Heinrich Schliemann—a man whose work advocated the idea that Homer’s Iliad reflected actual historical events.

She hasn’t looked back since.

After graduating from Bryn Mawr, Neils went on to earn a master of fine arts degree and PhD in classical art and archaeology from Princeton University.

Neils chose to focus her studies on ancient Greece, “simply because it was the most intellectual culture of the ancient world and produced incomparable literature, sculpture and painting—art that continues to have an impact today.”

She joined the Case Western Reserve University faculty in 1980 and now is the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History and Classics. In addition to teaching at the university, Neils also has served as a resident of the American Academy in Rome, a fellow of the Getty Research Institute and curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

She has written several books, guest-curated international loan exhibitions and excavated sites as a field archaeologist in Italy and Greece.

Neils said her most valuable research experiences have included: “digging an Etruscan palace in central Italy, organizing an exhibition on Greek childhood complete with ancient toys, and involving our art history majors in the making of an educational video about the gods on the Parthenon frieze, which has been shown at two international film festivals in Italy and Greece.”

And as for Neils’ favorite piece of ancient art?

“Obviously the Parthenon because it’s the summa of classical civilization,” she said. “But I stand in awe of all great art, from the recently discovered Gobekli Tepe megaliths to Picasso’s Guernica.

As president of the Cleveland Archaeology Society, Neils is planning next year’s lecture program. Simultaneously, she is working halfway across the world in Athens, Greece, where she is collaborating with an artist colleague on a long-term research project to reconstruct the lost painting on the interior of the gold and ivory cult statue of Athena in the Parthenon.

With a constantly jam-packed schedule, Neils often has to mix business and pleasure—which works because she loves to travel the globe. She recently spent time researching a Pompeii course in Italy, presenting a paper at the International Congress of Classical Archaeology in Spain and fulfilling her duties as chair of the American School of Classical Studies in Greece.

Of all her travels and adventures, though, her favorite trip took place in the states, when she and her son paddled down the Missouri River in Montana.

Uncover more facts about Neils in this week’s five questions.

1. If you could do any job in the world for one day, what would it be and why?

The Keeper of Greek and Roman Art at the British Museum because it would give me the opportunity to return the Parthenon (aka Elgin) marbles to Greece.

2. What’s your favorite activity to do in Cleveland?

Hearing the amazing Cleveland Orchestra play once a week in Severance Hall.

3. What’s your biggest pet peeve?

High decibel leaf blowers, lawn mowers, weed whackers and snow blowers, which destroy the serenity of suburban living.

4. What is the best class you’ve ever taken—from elementary school through higher education—and what skills or lessons did you learn that you still use today?

Probably my non-credit class held during the lunch hour in the office of a Greek professor at Bryn Mawr College. Deciphering arcane scripts impressed into clay tablets is the ultimate trip for a budding archaeologist.

5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The fact that it is across the street from one of the finest art museums in the country and that I can teach my classes in its galleries and exhibitions.