The current exhibit at the MSU Union Art Gallery captures the excitement and visual appeal of archaeological research while exploring “The Art of Archaeology.” The 27 black and white images that make up the exhibit were all taken at the MSU Excavations at Isthmia in Greece by Daniel Trego, Educational Media Design Specialist in MSU’s College of Arts & Letters.
Since fall 2020, Jon Frey, Associate Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design, has directed the MSU Excavations at Isthmia. Under his guidance, the project has renewed decades-old discoveries and made them accessible to the public through extensive auditing and digitization. Throughout this digital dig, another angle of archaeology has come to light — the unique relationship between archaeology as science and archaeology as art. This relationship is now on full display in “The Art of Archaeology” exhibit at the MSU Union Art Gallery through February 18.
The creation of the exhibit was spontaneous. After the directorship of The Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia was transferred to Michigan State University in fall 2020, Frey took stock of how the program’s study abroad component could be reimagined in the context of the pandemic. And, during summer 2021, the College of Arts & Letters and the Office of Education Abroad supported a pilot program to create a virtual study abroad program based on work at the Isthmia excavations.
Trego, who led the documentation of the pilot program, traveled to Greece to capture images, video, and audio recordings of two students in the Isthmia study abroad program to create a digital study abroad. The “Art as Archaeology” exhibit consists of those moments Trego captured outside the study abroad footage.
“Daniel Trego deserves all the credit for pitching me this idea and for directing nearly all of the documentation this summer,” Frey said. “This exhibit stems from the work he was doing on the side in-between moments when we were shooting video. When we got back to Michigan and he began to show me his images, I was just blown away. I had assumed he was always shooting for the study abroad, but it turns out he was also capturing this amazing behind-the-scenes look at the work of archaeologists, which I found to be so visually appealing.”
Since it was my first time in Greece and my first official endeavor into the subject of archaeology, I couldn’t help but process everything through the camera lens as I tried to learn all I could about the people, places, and work at Isthmia.Daniel Trego, Educational Media Design Specialist
When Trego began taking photos in Greece, he said he wasn’t thinking in terms of producing an exhibit. Instead, he wanted to capture images that could be used on the Michigan State University Excavations at Isthmia website, for future class content, and for study abroad.
“Since it was my first time in Greece and my first official endeavor into the subject of archaeology, I couldn’t help but process everything through the camera lens as I tried to learn all I could about the people, places, and work at Isthmia,” Trego said. “For me, photography is about intentionally connecting and interacting with the world, and it wasn’t until after I shared the images with Jon that I realized that some of these specific images might help others connect the same way they helped me.”
After reviewing the photographs, Frey contacted Jacquelynn Sullivan Gould, Director of Galleries in MSU’s Department of Art, Art History, and Design, and learned there was an opening in the Union Gallery. After a month of deliberation over which images to showcase, the chosen photographs were printed and mounted, and the exhibit came together.
“There were all these moments Daniel captured that really spoke to me,” Frey said. “We have this idea of archaeology being so full of activity — picks and shovels and dirt flying — but more often than not, it’s a series of quiet interactions with these ancient artifacts and monuments…I know that exhibitions usually are planned over months and years, but this show came together in a matter of weeks — it just felt like it was supposed to happen.”
As Trego and Frey analyzed the photographs, they recognized that, although archaeology is typically considered objective and scientific, the way audiences interpret artifacts depends heavily on the creative work of photographers who capture these objects.
“Daniel and I both agreed that this space between art and science was worth exploring in a show,” Frey said. “We’re trying to be objective and scientific in our study, but the objects we study in classical archaeology have been given the status of works of art. So, there’s already this push and pull between being level-minded objective observers of the past and getting caught up in the visual appeal of these objects that we’ve been conditioned to think are beautiful in their own right.”
This exhibit also is a way to bring awareness to the MSU community about the excavations in Greece. Situated between Athens and Corinth, the site of Isthmia was active as early as 700 B.C. with some parts in use through the Middle Ages. Dedicated to the worship of Poseidon, it is one of four Panhellenic sanctuaries where athletic games, drama and poetry competitions, and religious festivals took place.
The site was largely forgotten until 1952, when the University of Chicago began excavation of the sanctuary. Then, in 1967, the University of California Los Angeles began to conduct their own research project at the site, which was passed on to The Ohio State University in 1987. MSU faculty and students have worked at the site alongside colleagues from Ohio State since 2008, and in 2020, MSU became the institutional sponsor for the project under Frey’s leadership.
“I hope that [viewers] come away from the exhibit with an appreciation for the small moments and objects of beauty in our lives,” Frey said. “[Trego] found moments of wonderful visual appeal in places and things that we might be inclined to overlook in our busy lives. That is one of the joys of art history and archaeology — the research process requires that we slow down, look carefully, and think about what we’re seeing.”
I hope that [viewers] come away from the exhibit with an appreciation for the small moments and objects of beauty in our lives.Jon Frey, Associate Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design
After finishing the installation, Trego himself slowed down and took the time to just walk through and enjoy the images and stories they tell.
“I am continually surprised by the effect that printed images have on me in the scope of the entire photographic process,” he said. “Even though I have already spent a lot of time visualizing, making, and editing a particular image, seeing the physical print for the first time is like seeing the image for the first time.”
Beyond the exhibit at the MSU Union Art Gallery, Trego and Frey are looking for a permanent home for a couple of the photographs. They also are planning to open an international showing of the photos this summer in Corinth, Greece.
“We are excited to see how the gallery might speak to others in Greece,” Trego said. “This journey of discovering the art of archaeology, of personal connection within a professional context, was only possible due to the openness of so many, and in particular Jon. And for that, I am extremely grateful.”
For more information on the exhibit, visit “The Art of Archaeology” Companion Guide.