Scope and Contents
The Dorothy Burr Thompson papers consist of the personal papers of Dorothy Burr Thompson (Ph.D. 1931), a classicist interested in Greek terracotta. The collection, which ranges from 1912-1991, consists of diaries, correspondence, and professional papers.
The collection is divided into three series: “Series I: Diaries, 1912- 1969,” “Series II: Personal Correspondence, 1921-1975,” and “Series III: Professional Papers.”
“Series I: Diaries, 1912-1969” is made up of 46 diaries, beginning in 1912 and ending in 1969. The diaries largely contain descriptions of her personal life, records of her daily activities, and descriptions of her travels. Throughout the course of her life, Dorothy Burr Thompson kept a diary. Though the length and regularity of her entries varies, she rarely fails to account for any period of time longer than several months. Burr Thompson’s short but regular diary entries from the years 1912 – 1914 discuss her relationships with her friends and family, her experiences at school, and chronicle her trips. She often supplements her entries with postcards, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, and her own drawings. In the year 1914, at age 13, she writes about the Grand Tour of Europe that she undertook with her family. While abroad, she observes the beginning of WWI. At one moment during her trip from Geneva to Paris she remembers “realizing that I was really in the European war. It was a strange feeling.” In her diaries from her teenage and college years Burr Thompson’s lengthy entries are largely preoccupied her struggle to discover her “genius” and the forge relationships with those around her. She writes of her desire to attain, “worth in the world – the feeling that you have done something in the way of use or beauty or help, that you will not be forgotten – that is my youthful ambition.” In her diaries from 1919 – 1923, concerning her time at Bryn Mawr, she describes her adjustment to college life. She struggles with choosing between the study of literature, writing, mathematics, and acting and describes her developing interest in archaeology. Burr Thompson’s post-college diaries begin with an account of her two years at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (1923 – 1925). Her entries are more frequent, but shorter, than those in her previous diaries, though their preoccupations remain the same. She writes about excavations, Greece, and her growing love for the lifestyle of the people she observes there. In 1925 she writes that she is more absorbed in her work and her diary entries, though almost daily, are on average three sentences of disjointed thoughts or observations. In her 1926 – 1932 diaries, years in which she was writing her dissertation, her entries are longer and relate to her personal life and the progress of her work. In a diary which covers the years 1933 – 1938, she discusses her work as a fellow at the Agora excavation in Athens, the development of her relationship with Homer A. Thompson, the birth of their daughters, and their life in Toronto. A single diary contains the years 1939 – 1955. A little over half of the dairy consists of entries from the war years. Burr Thompson writes about once every month, sometimes once every two or three months, but her entries are usually extensive. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the diaries themselves are smaller. Though her entries are more frequent, they are shorter and more hurried. They deal mainly with daily occurrences, her travels, and her work, and sometimes include her agenda for a trip or list of her expenses. The last diary is from 1969. Burr Thompson’s diaries from this point forward are still with her family.
“Series II: Personal Correspondence” is largely comprised of letters from Dorothy Wyckoff. Wyckoff graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1921 with a degree in Latin and Greek. After graduating, she spent 1922-1923 as a graduate student in Latin at Bryn Mawr. She resigned from school and spent 1924 studying art in New York City at the Art Students League. She returned to Bryn Mawr in 1925 to pursue her masters in Geology from Bryn Mawr. After receiving her master in 1928, fellowships allowed her to spend two years studying at the University of Oslo. She returned to Bryn Mawr in 1930 and received her doctorate in Geology in 1932. She taught Geology at Bryn Mawr from 1933 until her retirement in 1966. During WWII, she organized training in photogrammetry and mapping and produced “terrain diagrams” for the Military Geology Unit of U.S Geological Survey, which were used to plan assault operations. About 74 of Dorothy Wyckoff’s letters to Dorothy Burr Thompson span the years 1921 – 1930. Two letters are undated, and one is from 1943. She sent daily letters from October 2, 1922 until November 6th, 1922 (20 letters total). Burr Thompson was ill and absent from school for the beginning of her senior year and Wyckoff was at Bryn Mawr as a graduate student taking a course in Latin Composition. From 1923 onward, Wyckoff writes every couple of months. Wyckoff describes her personal and intellectual life during the years following her graduation, during her time as a graduate student at Bryn Mawr, during her summers at camp in Vermont, and during the years she spent abroad in Oslo. One letter from 1943 is Wyckoff’s side of a discussion between her and Burr Thompson about teaching and the moral issue of colleges doing war work for the government. In some of her letters, Wyckoff includes snapshots of nature and drawings. Burr Thompson’s personal correspondence also includes six letters from Rhys Carpenter spanning 34 years. They are short notes, sent about once every 10 years. They mainly serve the purpose, in Carpenter’s words, of keeping each other “au courant,” though they are not extremely personal or detailed. The letters sometimes mention matters related to Burr Thompson’s work, her husband’s work, or Carpenter’s own work. Occasionally Carpenter includes a quotation in Greek. More of his letters can be found in the professional correspondence section. Additionally, her correspondence includes one letter from M. Carey Thomas. The letter was written in 1926 and deals with a controversy at the American School of Classical Studies. The personal correspondence section also includes a folder of five photographs of Burr Thompson, four of which were taken from her diaries. The folder contains two portraits, one at her wedding, a photo of Burr Thompson at with her newborn daughters, a photo from her time in Athens, and a portrait of the staff of the Agora excavations.
“Series III: Professional Papers” contain Dorothy Burr Thompson’s professional papers from the 1950s to the early 1990s. Boxes 5-9 are comprised of professional correspondences grouped by correspondent or subject matter, as well as research and lecture notes. They are, for the most part, arranged in the same order they came in or loosely according to subject. They are not arranged according to year. Most of the materials are in English, but there are a few letters in Greek, German, and French. Box 10 contains folders of mainly research related images of terracottas. Additionally, it includes several folders of photos, postcards, and Christmas cards from desk. Box 11 contains binders of research notes arranged by subject or by country. Box 12 houses a number of binders of notes for classes she taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr, and Columbia. Other binders in box 12 include transcripts of lectures, papers and catalogues by others. Box 13 contains a series of tag photos of faience and an envelope of research related photos, negatives and slides from Burr Thompson’s desk.
Burr Thompson’s diaries and correspondence provide an extensive, intimate view into Burr Thompson’s student life, travels, archaeological work, and personal relationships. Her professional papers provide insight into her research and academic work. This collection is an invaluable resource, not only for those interested in Burr Thompson’s research on ancient terracotta art, but also for the way in which it illuminates her personal life, her experiences, and her opinions on many of the critical historical events of the twentieth century.
Biographical / Historical
Dorothy Burr Thompson (née Dorothy Burr) was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1900. Her father was the prominent constitutional lawyer Charles Henry Burr Jr. and her mother was a biographer and novelist. She attended Miss Hill’s School and The Latin School in Philadelphia. She began her study of Latin at age 9 and her study of Greek at age 12. When Burr Thompson was 13, her family took her on the Grand Tour of Europe. In Switzerland, they were caught in the opening salvos of WWI, an experience which Burr Thompson chronicled in a diary given to her by her grandmother. She continued the practice of keeping a diary until she was no longer able to write at age 94.
In 1917, Charles Henry Burr’s appointment as a consultant to the British government caused the family to relocate from Philadelphia to London. During the two years that Burr Thompson resided in London before beginning her studies at Bryn Mawr, she was tutored in classics at her father’s insistence. Though she was passionate about writing, painting and math, at Bryn Mawr Burr Thompson became deeply fascinated by the classical world. She was exposed to the teachings of Rhys Carpenter, who sparked her interest in Hellenistic sculpture, and Mary H. Swindler. In 1923, Burr Thompson graduated from Bryn Mawr summa cum laude as the first student to attain a degree in classical archaeology and Greek. She earned the prestigious European Fellowship, which helped fund her studies at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (ASCSA) the following two years.
While she was at ASCSA, she participated in excavations headed by Carl Blegen at Philus and Hetty Goldman at Eutresis. In 1925, Burr Thompson noticed laborers at Dendra removing a large stone which she recognized as the entrance way lintel of a tholos – a beehive shaped tomb from the Late Bronze Age. The tholos proved to be the burial place of the king, queen, and princess of Midea. Burr Thompson told the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin that her accomplishments seem “very modest compared with the promise I ventured under Pem Arch long ago, to find another Tut-Ank-Amen tomb for Bryn Mawr. And yet I did find a king's tomb … and I did find as much pleasure, interest and zest in archaeology as Bryn Mawr ever promised me."
In 1925, she returned to the United States. She received her Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr in 1931, after spending six years writing a dissertation concerning her specific area of interest, Greek terracotta. She catalogued the 117 Hellenistic terracotta figures owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from Myrina on the Southwest coast of Turkey. When the curator of the MFA declined publication of her dissertation, she had it published privately in Austria.
Burr Thompson returned for one more year of study at ASCSA in 1931. In 1932, she became the first woman fellow of the Athenian Agora excavations. She met and married Canadian archaeologist Homer A. Thompson, the dig’s assistant director of field work, two years later. The pair moved to Canada when Thompson accepted positions as the curator of the classical collection at the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology and assistant professor in fine arts at the University of Toronto.
Despite the birth of twin daughters in 1935 and another daughter in 1938, Thompson and Burr Thompson continued to return to the Agora each summer. In 1936, Burr Thompson discovered the garden of the Temple of Hepaistos, and became an expert on the garden lore of Greece, Babylon, Italy, and Egypt. When her husband volunteered for Canadian Navy during WWII, Burr Thompson took over the responsibility of teaching his courses in Greek and Roman art, demanding and receiving the same pay that he had received. While teaching at the University of Toronto, Burr Thompson was also a contributing editor to the Canadian Classical Association’s journal, The Phoenix, and organized Greek war relief activities in Toronto
In 1946 Thompson accepted the chair vacated by Hetty Goldman at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Burr Thompson served as the acting director of Royal Museum of Ontario during the year of 1946 before moving to the United States to join her husband. At Princeton, she maintained an office at the Institute for Advanced Study, where she continued to write, research, and publish articles. In 1948, she published her translation of 6th and 7th century Greek lyrics, Swans and Amber. Beginning 1952, a series of important articles by Burr Thompson on Agorean terracottas were published in Hesperia . From 1953 on, Burr Thompson held positions as a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr, Oberlin, Penn, Princeton and universities in Australia. After 15 years of writing and research, she published Troy: The Terra-Cotta Figurines of the Hellenistic Period, in 1963. She was awarded the Gold Medal for distinguished achievement by the American Institute of Archaeology in 1987. Burr Thompson died in 2001 at the age of 101.