THE AMERICAN excavations of the centre of ancient Athens (the agora), which are still in progress, began in 1931, and a major figure for 50 years of this time was Homer A. Thompson. He was one of the first two "Agora Fellows", the Field Director from 1947 to 1967, and a leading classical archaeologist of the 20th century.
Homer Thompson spent his undergraduate years at the University of British Columbia, transferred to the University of Michigan for his doctoral studies, and in the late 1920s moved to Athens and began his life's work in the city. The area where it was thought that the ancient agora lay had after long negotiations been acquired by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and from the start of the excavations in 1931 Thompson's presence was of crucial significance.
During the 1930s Thompson worked with other excavators stripping away the later layers of the site to reach the ancient levels - this was not yet the time when much attention was paid to evidence after the end of antiquity. In 1932 he published (with K. Kourouniotis, in the journal Hesperia) the results of their excavations on the Pnyx, the hill south- west of the agora that had been the meeting-place of the Athenian assembly. The following year he published an important study of the little-regarded pottery from deposits in the area that dated to the centuries after Alexander - and vowed never to work on pottery again.
His interests were mainly architectural and historical, and his 1940 publication The Tholos of Athens and its Predecessors, on the complex history of the site of this circular building on the west side of the agora, another vital meeting place in the history of Athenian democracy, remains a model. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Thompson was teaching at the University of Toronto, but quickly volunteered for the Canadian Navy and served as an intelligence officer in the Mediterranean, operating out of Bari.
Work in Athens began again in 1946. The original Field Director of the Agora Excavations, T. Leslie Shear, had died in 1945, and in 1947 Thompson was appointed to take over, a post which he held for the next 20 years. Those 20 years have been described as the period of "the agora's dominance of American classical archaeology". The scale and speed of operations increased on the site, and the agora, situated as it is in the centre of Athens, became a magnet for the increasing numbers of visitors to Greece.
Thompson fostered an attitude of openness and welcome, whether to earnest students, to serious scholars or to well-heeled business people who might be willing to donate …