Faculty Spotlight: Elizabeth Murphy
Elizabeth Murphy is currently an assistant professor of Roman archaeology in the Department of Classics, which is part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. She received her doctorate from the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University. Since then, she has been conducting research on the Roman Empire, with an interest in the working segments of society and the shifting structures of wealth inequality during the empire.
Can you tell me about your background?
I am an archaeologist specializing in the Roman and Late Antique periods Mediterranean region. I earned my bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Arizona State University in 2004, my master’s from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium in 2007, and my Ph.D. from Brown University in 2014. Subsequently, I held postdoctoral positions in New York at New York University, in Germany at the University of Bonn and the University of Cologne, as well as fellowships in Istanbul and Jerusalem.
When did you first become interested in the classics?
I was an undergraduate anthropology major when I was first interested in archaeology. I even worked as an archaeologist in the American Southwest for a period of time after receiving my bachelor’s degree. However, following a year abroad in Europe, I became totally fascinated by the archaeology of everyday life in the Roman Empire. It was at this point that I began also studying classical archaeology, languages and history.
What are your current research interests? Why are you passionate about them?
Much of my research concerns the everyday people of the Roman Empire, particularly the working segments of society, such as farmers, craftspeople and tradespeople. I am currently writing a social history of the potting profession in the eastern Roman provinces using the archaeological record as evidence. The studies of these professions and working communities are also feeding a broader research project I’m developing on wealth inequalities in the Roman Empire. In fact, I am coordinating an international conference, Economic Inequalities of the Roman World, at FSU on the topic in the spring. Many assume that the Roman Empire was a period of economic growth and overall prosperity. While this may be true for certain segments of Roman society, a better understanding of those who benefitted and those who didn’t in different social contexts and across the empire’s vast geographic expanses can hopefully provide nuance to our socio-economic histories of the period.
What would you like the public to know about your research? Why is it important?
Most of what people know about the Romans concerns the activities and lives of the emperors and senators, but those segments of society were only a tiny fraction of the many millions of people who lived in the empire. I would like to help balance the historical narratives of the period in order to bring in other stories and experiences through the richness of the archaeological record of everyday people. Archaeology is particularly well-suited to offer these stories; from the material record that has been left, we can access people who might not otherwise be written about in historical sources. So, we can reconstruct exactly what their lives were like — where they lived, what they ate, how they worked, etc.
Who are your role models? Are there certain people that have influenced you the most?
I was very fortunate as an undergraduate to have several women professors who offered me incredible internship opportunities and who introduced me to the world of research. They not only took me to the field and trained me in archaeological methods, but also provided me with a wider view on the discipline. I am deeply indebted to the time and energy that they invested in my early career.
What brought you to FSU? Why do you enjoy working here?
The Department of Classics at FSU is probably one of the largest classics departments in the U.S. public university system, and we have outstanding faculty and students. It is a great privilege to be part of such a strong department. At FSU, I also enjoy being able to teach some of the larger general studies courses, as they allow me to meet and become acquainted with students from all across the university.
What is the best part of your job?
I love research, and I particularly love my time doing fieldwork in the summers. I direct an archaeological fieldwork project, the Landscape Archaeology of Southwest Sardinia Project with Tom Leppard, an assistant professor in FSU’s Department of Anthropology. The project is based on the island of Sardinia, Italy, and we are studying the evidence of human occupation in the region of Sulcis over the last 6,000 years. The region is rich with archaeological findings, including numerous Roman-period farmsteads and Bronze Age stone towers known as nuraghe.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
I think we have all faced additional challenges over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Trying to balance community health and safety concerns, while supporting complex teaching environments and an international research program has certainly not been easy. I am nonetheless continually impressed by the resilience of FSU students and my faculty colleagues, and I am looking forward to eventually returning to more “normal” university experiences.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have very little free time, but, in principle, I like to travel and watch art-house movies.
If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?
I would hope that my students gain a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the past. Humans have always been complicated, and their motivations full of contradictions, this is not a feature unique to today’s society. In this sense, I hope that my students come to appreciate that there are no simple narratives that can fully characterize a society; rather, there are always multiple viewpoints.