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Dr. Deborah Ruscillo
Dr. Deborah Ruscillo with Greece President Prokopios Pavlopoulos

Barat Academy teacher digs deep into history – moving 3,400 years of soil and sand


While many teachers may use their summer vacation to take a break from the trials and tribulations of the classroom, one local educator used her knowledge of the ancient world to uncover exciting artifacts overseas.

Dr. Deborah Ruscillo, a teacher at Barat Academy in Chesterfield, said her interest in archaeology goes way back – to her childhood.

“Born to a Greek mother and Italian father, I was surrounded with all things Greco-Roman,” Ruscillo said. “My parents always watched documentaries and I followed along with them from a very young age.”

Ruscillo, who grew up in Toronto, Canada, said her family background pushed her toward an interest in museums and history.

“When I was 16, I became a member of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and attended all the gallery openings, receptions and became connected in the world of academia.”

As a student at the University of Toronto in the late 1980s, Ruscillo became fascinated with the study of archaeology and ancient cultures. She enrolled in as many archaeology courses as she could, eventually finding a specific interest in zooarchaeology, the study of faunal remains. Faunal remains are the items left behind when an animal dies, such as bones, shells, hair, chitin, scales, hides, proteins and DNA.

After receiving her undergraduate education in Canada, Ruscillo relocated to the United Kingdom to complete her doctoral studies. She received her doctorate in 2000 from University College London.

Many archaeological projects followed, with digs and studies throughout many areas of Greece, including Agora, Corinth, Stymphalos, Torone and Naxos.

In 2001, Ruscillo moved to St. Louis after her husband was hired as the chair of Greek Studies for the University of Missouri – St. Louis. She followed her talent for archaeology into a research associate position at Washington University.

On location at the Iklaina Archaeological Project in Pylos, Greece.

On location at the Iklaina Archaeological Project in Pylos, Greece.

On location in Greece

When she isn’t teaching biology at Barat Academy, Ruscillo serves as assistant director on-site for the Iklaina Archaeological Project [IKAP], stationed in Pylos, Greece.

“I began as lab director, but I am now assistant director of the project because I am not only based in the lab, but also helping out in the field,” Ruscillo said. “I am also the primary zooarchaeologist for IKAP.”

Ruscillo became involved with the project in 1997, setting up archaeological explorations with the Archaeological Society of Athens. The real digging began in 1999, when the initial surface survey of the land was recorded.

Continuing to combine teaching and archaeology even overseas, the Iklaina project opens opportunities to college students interested in archaeology through its Field School. Students can earn college credit through the program, which exposes them to archaeological practices such as surface surveys and excavations.

“It would be a pity to hire only workmen to dig such a great site and for students of archaeology to learn only from textbooks,” Ruscillo said.

Participating in the Field School in Pylos allows students to get a taste of field archaeology and decide if it is the right career path for them. Over the past 18 years, nearly 1,000 students have participated in the project.

“It is hard manual labor, but we have been blessed with great students who are willing to tough it out just to uncover pots and walls that have not seen the light of day for three millennia,” Ruscillo said. “Archaeology can be very fulfilling in its quest for new discoveries, but it is always fulfilling as an educational tool.”

In the nearly two decades that Iklaina has been explored, Ruscillo and the rest of the archaeological team have uncovered some remarkable finds.

“We have two complete burials of females, plus another six individuals whose remains have been scattered around the site,” Ruscillo said. “The architecture is huge and impressive.”

Ruscillo also heads an envrionmental effort of her own within the Iklaina project, known as PRISM.

“PRISM is the Program for Regional Investigations of Sustainability in Messenia,” Ruscillo said. “I began this project in 2012 as we gathered information from our and other excavations about the environment around the region of Greece called Messenia.”

The goal of PRISM is a fairly straightforward one; to help preserve the ancient environments and protect them from human activity and industry.

“All of our studies contribute to awareness of the changing environment in Messenia, in the attempt to reduce the ecological footprint of humans, to maintain viable quality in the watershed, and to sustain biodiversity and the indigenous flora of the area.”


On your television screen

In 2009, the National Geographic Society [NGS] approached the Iklaina project after the discovery of a piece of a Linear B tablet. The artifact, which includes a list of names and products, is one of the oldest of its kind from the Bronze Age.

The rare discovery led to the taping of a miniseries entitled “The Greeks”, which aired on PBS [Public Broadcast Service television]. Part of the series focused on the IKAP, bringing attention to the project.

“NGS have been generous donors to the excavations, and thus, came in 2014 to shoot a documentary about the Greeks beginning at early sites, such as Iklaina,” Ruscillo said. “The Travel Channel and even the BBC also have shown interest.”

The involvement of major media outlets is something that is exciting to Ruscillo, who believes in the philosophy that archaeology should be made available to everyone.

“If we publish only in scholarly journals, archaeology becomes incestuous; conducted by archaeologists, only for the benefit of other archaeologists,” Ruscillo said. “But history and the information we uncover about early human societies belong to everyone.”

In today’s digital-centered world, media has become a key part of spreading any information, even where archaeology is concerned.

“Dissemination of research reaches the masses through more popular venues –  magazines, television and radio,” Ruscillo said. “Social media also is important. Awareness and interest in the project lends moral, logistical and financial support to continue our educational and archaeological programs.”

As for how long she plans to be involved with the Iklaina project, Ruscillo said she doesn’t see herself moving on anytime soon.

“Iklaina is a whole town covered with 3,400 years of soil and sand accumulation,” Ruscillo said. “It is a lifetime endeavor.”

Dr. Deborah Ruscillo with a student in the IKAP lab

Dr. Deborah Ruscillo with a student in the IKAP lab

In a Chesterfield classroom

Even when she is more than 5,000 miles from her classroom, Ruscillo continues to keep her students back home in mind by connecting her archaeological experiences with her teaching of biology.

“By examining ecosystems of the site today and yesterday, we can begin to understand the evolution of human societies given their environmental conditions,” Ruscillo said. “In short, my fieldwork provides me with many practical ways that biology is relevant to the study of people, both ancient and modern. I am able to use my field studies in practice and in narrative in the classroom.”

Having studied as an archaeologist for many years now, Ruscillo understands the duties and patterns associated with such a career.

“Most of an archaeologist’s life is either spent in the classroom teaching, in the library researching, or in front of a computer writing reports or grant applications,” Ruscillo said. “But for one or two months of the year, the life of an archaeologist is exciting and exhausting all at once.”

Even with the added exhaustion, Ruscillo continues to appreciate her job and the things it allows her to discover.

“If you love archaeology, you get up willingly at 4:30 a.m. to beat the heat of the sun,” Ruscillo said. “You work all day in the dirt for the exhilaration of discovery.”




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