A former archeologist, Social Studies Teacher Shrita Gajendragadkar excavated during her college summers at what is regarded as the center of Ancient Greek life: The Agora in Athens, Greece.
When Gajendragadkar was in high school, she had an affinity for the Greek and Roman cultures. Her passion for their history was sparked by a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where she was prompted by her teacher to write about a piece of ancient artwork.
She chose a sculpture of the Dancing Maenad, a follower of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and festivities. “These maenads follow Dionysus through the night and sort of have big parties and celebrate the joyousness of life and the scariness of the night through big crowds and parties and mobs … I just remember that the sculpture was really beautiful,” she said.
She believes that moment motivated her to pursue this interest in college. “I thought about a time in high school where I was really interested by something and I decided to take Art History for that reason,” she said.
Gajendragadkar made the jump from studying the Greeks and Romans in the classroom to archeology after one of her lectures in college. “I went to a lecture one night for my Latin class about archeeology… I had only studied the languages and the artwork that came from Greece and Rome,” she said. “[My professor] happened to run an excavation in Athens which I applied to and got accepted.”
During the summer after her freshman year of college, she went to Athens to work at the Agora. One of her most important moments happened in her first few days when she understood the importance of learning by doing. “My trench supervisor was sitting there talking to me one day as I was throwing all these pieces of what I thought were rocks into a garbage basket and I was like, ‘what does pottery actually look like?’ ” she said.
Little did Gajendragadkar know, she was actually throwing away ancient pot sherds. She described that as a pivotal moment for her to learn about archeology as well as the role of a teacher.
Later that summer, she uncovered a bronze arrowhead in the soil from the Persian destruction which dated to 480 BC. “What that meant was that the large historical war that I had learned about in a classroom, was just history coming alive,” she said. “I was the next person to see it 2000-2400 years later. And to be really present in that moment will be something I will remember forever.”
Her proudest moment occurred while she was excavating with her team in a well that hadn’t been looted in Ancient Athens and found unbroken pots that had been stuck inside. “We found these whole pots that had been thrown down and had been stuck in the mud and preserved fully. That never happens in archeology. Everything is usually broken, so it brings out a sense of ‘Oh my god, the last time some person touched these was 2200 years ago, and here it is’,” she said.
Even though Gajendragadkar was not planning to be a teacher, she “fell into teaching by accident and stayed by choice.” When she found out that she could teach something she loves, she knew it was the perfect opportunity to piece together her love for Latin and art history. “I saw a flyer when I was home for a high school reunion, ‘part-time art history, part-time Latin teacher wanted.’ I was like, ‘I could get paid to talk about what I love talking about all the time!’”
Gajendragadkar would like to implement an interdisciplinary course where students spend part of the time in the classroom and the rest of the semester abroad studying their coursework. She describes the class as a deeper historical and architectural analysis by combining physics and engineering with art history.
Gajendragadkar hopes that everyone will study art history at some time during their academic career. “It makes you recognize that nothing is built or created or designed arbitrarily. The way that our world looks today, the way our cities look, the way our buildings look, all relates to our cultural heritage,” she said.
Gajendragadkar believes that the ideas she has taught and learned in art history are important to an understanding of the world. “There is a famous saying in art history that ‘There is no innocent eye,’ where everyone comes to a work of art or architecture with some sort of experience,” she said. “What I love doing is sharing what I have done at that deeper level of art history and archeology with my students.”