Students create exotic state of matter

By Bennett McIntosh

IN THE SUMMER OF 2015, Princeton students Joseph Scherrer and Adam Bowman experienced something few undergraduates can claim: they built, from scratch, a laser system capable of coaxing lithium atoms into a rare, highly excited state of matter to reveal their quantum nature.

When they joined Assistant Professor of Physics Waseem Bakr’s lab in the spring of 2014, Scherrer and Bowman had little experience in optics or quantum physics. Their task was to convince lithium atoms to enter a state of matter known as the Rydberg state. In this state, each atom has a very high-energy electron located far from the atom’s nucleus. The separation of the electron’s negative charge from the nucleus’ positive charge creates a dipole, like a magnet’s north and south poles.

To give the electrons the right amount of energy to create the Rydberg state, Scherrer and Bowman hit the atoms with two carefully tuned lasers, first blue and then red. To prove that the lithium atoms had indeed entered the Rydberg state, the two researchers needed a way to detect them. They trawled the scientific literature for a sensitive enough detection method, and eventually implemented a technique called electromagnetically induced transparency. With this technique, the Rydberg atoms interfere with the absorbance of certain wavelengths of light, so if the gas is transparent in those wavelengths, the Rydberg atoms are present.

The undergraduates designed and built the device independently, Bakr said. “I wasn’t planning on starting this, and suddenly it grew into a whole project, largely due to their efforts,” he said.

“It was a turning point in our scientific development,” said Scherrer, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in physics. “For me, it was a realization of what you can do with quantum optics.” Scherrer was awarded a Fulbright grant to join a team in Munich, Germany, where he is building electron microscopes to image the brain. He will next head to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue a Ph.D. in physics. Bowman, a physics major in the Class of 2017, continues to study the physics of electronically interesting materials, and spent his junior year and the summer of 2016 working on a new project with Ali Yazdani, Princeton’s Class of 1909 Professor of Physics. There, Bowman built a device that works like an inkjet printer for atoms to print superconductors layer-by-layer.

Princeton Research Day highlights student and early-career work

Watch the video

MORE THAN 150 undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers presented their work at the first Princeton Research Day held May 5, 2016.

The event highlighted research from the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities and the arts in formats including talks, poster presentations, performances, art exhibitions and digital presentations — all designed with the general public in mind.

“It’s a wonderful cross section of the research enterprise at Princeton,” said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, and professor of chemical and biological engineering.

In all, Princeton Research Day presented an important opportunity for undergraduates, said Dean of the College Jill Dolan, the Annan Professor in English and professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts.

“Princeton is one of the very few universities in the world where undergraduate students are encouraged to do the kind of original research that every single undergraduate on this campus does,” Dolan said. “So taking the opportunity at the end of the year to do a major public event in which students can present that work is groundbreaking.”

Princeton Research Day was a collaborative initiative between the offices of the dean of the college, dean of the faculty, dean of the graduate school and the dean for research. The second Princeton Research Day is scheduled for May 11, 2017. –By Michael Hotchkiss

Exploring the emergence of Cuban consumerism

DENNISSE CALLE FOUND THE TOPIC for her senior thesis along a Havana street in the back of a stall that sells pirated movies and music.

Cubans pay the equivalent of a few dollars, insert a flash drive into the computer at the back of the stall, and get access to El Paquete — a weekly, one-terabyte compilation of popular TV shows, movies, music, computer and phone apps, and advertisements that serves as an offline Netflix, YouTube, Craigslist and more in a country where internet access is slow and expensive.  Calle, a sociology major at Princeton, spent two weeks in January doing research in Cuba and interviewed 50 users and distributors of El Paquete — which means “The Package” — to learn about the service and the way it fits into the lives of everyday Cubans.

“I focus on how El Paquete is transforming how people view themselves as consumers,” Calle said. “This is one of the first forms of consumer culture that is being normalized in Cuba, in part because it’s cheap and easy to pass around.”

The origins of El Paquete, which began around 2008, are unclear, as is the identity of the people behind it. El Paquete is  widely available — either distributed door to door using a portable hard drive or from central locations like the stall where Calle discovered it — despite existing in a sort of legal gray area in Cuba.

It offers an alternative to state-controlled Cuban television, which broadcasts only 10 channels of news and sedate fare to most residents.

Many of the TV shows and movies — generally subtitled in Spanish — come from the United States, along with the United Kingdom and Spain. Competition shows such as “The Voice” and “Cake Wars” are popular, as are South Korean soap operas.  Calle, who is originally from Ecuador and moved to Trenton, New Jersey, also looked beyond the content to explore how El Paquete is changing the way people see themselves. “I think it’s reflective of what’s happening in Cuba, moving from a state that is very controlling to one that is allowing capitalism to emerge into the nation and its culture,” she said.

Calle’s research and analysis are impressive, said her adviser, Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a senior lecturer in sociology. “It’s really a study about identity,” Fernandez-Kelly said. “Not just personal identity but national identity.”

What’s ahead for El Paquete in Cuba, which has been working to ease tensions with the United States? Calle predicts El Paquete will survive even if Cubans gain broader access to the internet —  in part because it is so inexpensive and easily shared.  –By Michael Hotchkiss

Engineering health solutions for all

Benjamin Tien


Hundreds of women die every day due to excessive bleeding after childbirth, but this can be prevented by an injection of the hormone oxytocin, which stimulates uterine contractions that reduce bleeding. Yet oxytocin must be kept cold, and developing countries often lack the resources to transport and store the hormone. Nor do they have enough trained personnel to administer the shot.

Benjamin Tien, who graduated from Princeton in 2015 with a degree in chemical and biological engineering, has been awarded a Fulbright grant to join a research team developing an aerosolized, inhalable version of oxytocin. He’ll work at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Australia to use a technique called “spray-drying” to turn liquid oxytocin into a dry powder that can be released from an inexpensive, disposable device. This would cut out the need for special storage conditions, eliminate the risk of infection from needles, and make the treatment available even to women giving birth at home.

While at Princeton, Tien conducted senior thesis research on nanoparticles for dealing with bacterial infections such as cholera or pseudomonas with Robert Prud’homme, a professor of chemical and biological engineering and Tien’s thesis adviser. During the summer before his senior year, Tien worked at a startup company in Boston called Diagnostics for All that develops medical diagnostics for developing countries.

While doing research in Australia, Tien will also work with the Poche Center for Indigenous Health, an organization that aims to improve the health of indigenous Australians with an emphasis on forming lasting relationships with the communities. “I want to get a better sense of the challenges people are facing on the ground, which will help me know what to focus on in my career,” Tien said.

-By Takim Williams

Computer chip for point-of-care diagnosis

Lab on a chip is smaller than a penny.

Kaushik Sengupta and his team are developing a computer chip-based diagnostic system, which is smaller than a penny but contains hundreds of different sensors for simultaneous detection of disease-causing agents.

Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Kaushik Sengupta and his team are developing a computer chip-based diagnostic system, which rests comfortably on a fingertip but contains hundreds of different sensors for simultaneous detection of disease-causing agents. The eventual goal is to use the chip in a handheld, portable diagnostic device that could be deployed in health clinics around the globe, especially in resource-limited settings.

The chip detects and measures the presence of DNA or proteins to help diagnose health conditions. Most existing methods for detecting these agents involve shining light on fluorescent labels attached to the DNA or protein and reading a resulting signal. However, in many types of tests, the signal is so weak that complex optical equipment is necessary to read the signal.

To perform this analysis using a simple handheld device, Sengupta is co-opting silicon chip technology similar to that found in personal computers and mobile phones. “This is a great technology for handheld medical diagnostic devices because it allows us integrate extremely complex systems in a single chip at very low cost. The vision is to unleash Moore’s law in diagnostics,” said Sengupta, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s observation that processing power in computer chips has increased rapidly over the years.

The team starts with highly sensitive light-detecting components, or photodetectors, that are already ubiquitous in smartphone cameras, then adds new optical processor capabilities to the chip. The researchers found a way to re-wire the architecture of the chip so that in addition to carrying electrical information necessary for image processing, the chip also interacts with the incoming photons from the fluorescent light, and can block them out, allowing the signal that carries information about the test sample to be detected and processed.

Lingyu Hong and Kaushik Sengupta

Lingyu Hong, a graduate student in electrical engineering, and Kaushik Sengupta, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University are developing technology for use in a handheld diagnostic system for healthcare in resource-limited settings.

This ability to integrate optical elements with electronics inside a single silicon chip is enabling the team to build detection systems for both genetic material and proteins. Millions of photodetectors can already be crammed into smartphone cameras and Sengupta plans to put hundreds or even thousands of such sensors on the new chip to create a platform capable of testing many agents at once. In addition to being cheap and robust, this “lab-on-a-chip” will be user-friendly. Sengupta and his colleagues envision that the chips will be used in a portable device similar to a smartphone that can use an app to analyze the fluorescence data and display diagnosis results in a clear, simple format.

To make the device truly portable, it will be necessary to develop a small and lightweight apparatus to isolate proteins and genetic material from blood or other fluids, and Sengupta and his collaborators are working on this challenge. “The entire end-to-end system may take another couple of years to reach, but we’ve demonstrated the feasibility of the approach,” said Sengupta, who collaborates with Professor of Chemistry Haw Yang. “Princeton provides the kind of environment that makes it easy to reach out to faculty members across the campus and to work on creative endeavors that cut across traditional disciplines.”

The initial work on the chip was supported by Project X, a fund established through a donation from G. Lynn Shostack S’69 for the support of exploratory research. The project involvesgraduate students Lingyu Hong in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Hao Li in the Department of Chemistry, Postdoctoral Research Associate Simon McManus and undergraduate Victor Ying. Lingyu and Hao were awarded a Qualcomm Innovation Fellowship for 2015-16 for this work.

-By Takim Williams

Student identifies difference between the dinosaur sexes

Evan Saitta


THE DISCOVERY OF A SINGLE ANATOMICAL DIFFERENCE between males and females of a species of Stegosaurus provides some of the most conclusive evidence that some dinosaurs looked different based on sex, according to research published in PLoS One and conducted by Evan Saitta while he was an undergraduate at Princeton.

The study found that the back plates of the species Stegosaurus mjosi came in two varieties that indicated the animal’s sex — short and wide, and tall and narrow. Females had one type of plate and males the other. The lack of a particular female-specific bone tissue found in birds and some dinosaurs, however, made it difficult to determine which sex had which plate type.

Saitta, who graduated from Princeton in 2014 and conducted the research for his senior thesis project, drew from existing animals, particularly horned animals, to suggest that the distinct shape of male and female S. mjosi plates indicated two different functions. He supposes that the tall, narrow plates belonged to females, who would have needed the pointier plates to defend themselves against predators. The wide plates, which were 45 percent larger in surface area, likely served as “billboard” displays males used to attract females, similar to the plumes of the male peacock.

Beyond the implications for Stegosaurus, the research establishes that sexual dimorphism — in which males and females of a species have distinct physical forms — could exist in non-avian dinosaurs, a group that includes iconic reptiles such as Tyrannosaurus and Brontosaurus, Saitta said. Existing work on sexual dimorphism in non-avian dinosaurs had been inconclusive. Saitta is now a graduate student at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Andrew Farke, the Augustyn Family Curator of Paleontology at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, said that the work provides a potential foothold for other researchers wanting to explore sexual dimorphism in Stegosaurus and possibly other non-avian dinosaurs.

“This is very species specific, so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to extend this to other animals,” said Farke, who is familiar with the study but had no role in it. “It’s not the end of the road, but I think it will stimulate people to look at this issue in Stegosaurus.”

–By Morgan Kelly

Download PDF

Hero explores Vietnam War experiences

play/ Vietnam war

Undergraduate Eamon Foley created a major performance work that explored the Vietnam War and featured performances by fellow Princeton students, PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LEWIS CENTER FOR THE ARTS

FOR HIS SENIOR THESIS, Eamon Foley combined indie rock music, dance, aerial choreography and ethnographic research to create an original theater-dance piece titled Hero, which tells the story of a young man transformed by his experiences in the Vietnam War.

The senior thesis is a major research or creative work required of all Princeton undergraduates. Foley’s thesis, featuring a cast of fellow Princeton students, was performed April 25 through May 1, 2015, at the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Matthews Acting Studio, the Program in Theater’s black box theater.

The script is based on Foley’s interviews with Vietnam veterans and other research, including his visit to Vietnam in summer 2014. “I spent a lot of time studying ethnography — the idea of gathering information through interview,” said Foley, who graduated in 2015 with an anthropology degree and a theater certificate. “I thought this would be a great way to look at where anthropology and theater meet.”

A documentary about the experience of creating Hero, by Danielle Alio and Jamie Saxon, takes viewers through Foley’s 10-month creative journey, from early fall 2014 when he had no script, no choreography and no cast — just “a lot of great ideas bouncing around in my head” — through opening night.

-By Danielle Alio and Jamie Saxon

Download PDF

New chemistry aids drug development

Tova Bergsten


DRUG DEVELOPMENT OFTEN INVOLVES modifying the chemical structure to get the right combination of properties, such as stability and activity. Working in the laboratory of John Groves, the Hugh Stott Taylor Chair of Chemistry, undergraduate Tova Bergsten and graduate student Xiongyi Huang developed a practical and versatile method for altering molecules that could have wide application in drug synthesis and basic research. The method involves using a manganese catalyst to convert carbon-hydrogen bonds into chemical structures known as azides, which are useful for modifying the properties of drugs.

“Since this was my first long-term lab experience, I learned quite a bit,” Bergsten said. “It was eye-opening to be involved in the experimenting, writing and publishing side of a paper. I plan to continue with scientific research, and what I’ve learned through this experience will definitely be useful for my future work.”

The research, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society on April 14, 2015.

–By Tien Nguyen

Download PDF

Listening in on bacterial communications

Leah Bushin and Mohammad Syedsayamdost

While an undergraduate, Leah Bushin (left) co-authored an article on the structure of a signaling molecule involved in bacterial communication with co-first author Kelsey Schramma and adviser Mohammad Seyedsayamdost (right), assistant professor of chemistry, PHOTO BY C. TODD REICHART

BACTERIA SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER using a soundless language known as quorum sensing. In a step toward translating bacterial communications, researchers have revealed the structure and biosynthesis of streptide, a signaling molecule involved in the quorum sensing system common to many diseasecausing streptococci bacteria.

The research team included undergraduate Leah Bushin, who was the co-first author on an article published on April 20, 2015, in Nature Chemistry. Bushin helped determine the structure of streptide as part of her undergraduate senior thesis project.

To explore how bacteria communicate, first she had to grow them, a challenging process in which oxygen had to be rigorously excluded. Next, she isolated the streptide and analyzed it using two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, a technique that allows scientists to deduce the connections between atoms.

The experiments revealed that streptide contains an unprecedented crosslink between two unactivated carbons on the amino acids lysine and tryptophan. To figure out how this novel bond was being formed, the researchers took a closer look at the gene cluster that produces streptide. Within the gene cluster, they suspected that a radical S-adenosyl methionine (SAM) enzyme, which they dubbed StrB, could be responsible for this unusual modification.

“Radical SAM enzymes catalyze absolutely amazing chemistries,” said Kelsey Schramma, a graduate student and the other co-first author on the article. The team showed that one of the iron-sulfur clusters reductively activated one molecule of SAM, kicking off a chain of one-electron (radical) reactions that gave rise to the novel carbon-carbon bond.

Kelsey Schramma is a graduate student in chemistry working on a project to study bacterial communication. Disrupting communication could lead to novel strategies to fight infections. PHOTO CREDIT: C. TODD REICHART

Kelsey Schramma is a graduate student in chemistry working on a project to study bacterial communication. Disrupting communication could lead to novel strategies to fight infections. PHOTO CREDIT: C. TODD REICHART

“The synergy between Leah and Kelsey was great,” said Mohammad Seyedsayamdost, an assistant professor of chemistry who led the research, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health. “They expressed interest in complementary aspects of the project, and the whole ended up being greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.

Future work will target streptide’s biological function — its meaning in the bacterial language — as well as confirming its production by other streptococcal bacteria strains.

–By Tien Nguyen

Download PDF

Ashes, images and the survival of democracy


A vase known as a loutrophoros that carried water for ritual cleansing and was often placed at the graves of young, unmarried men. Loutrophoros in the manner of Talos the Painter. Berlin, Staatliche Museen. PHOTO CREDIT: JOHANNES LAURENTIUS/ ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

Ashes, images and the survival of democracy: Nathan Arrington searches for meaning in ancient Athens’ public cemetery

By Catherine Zandonella

IT’S AN OVERCAST AND WINDY DAY, cold for June, but a strawberry stand across the road reminds us that summer has almost arrived in New Jersey. Nathan Arrington, an assistant professor of art and archaeology, sometimes visits the cemetery near campus to think. “Archaeologists tend to be comfortable with death,” he says.

I walk with Arrington past pitted, moss-stained headstones, wondering if any of those buried here died fighting for a fledgling democracy in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Princeton. Arrington is an expert on another burial ground, thousands of miles away and 2,500 years in the past, in Athens, Greece, where another fledgling democracy — perhaps the world’s first — was fighting for survival.

The cemetery is an appropriate place for a mystery, and Arrington is exploring a mystery that has captivated him since he was an undergraduate at Princeton in the early 2000s. Back then, he became intrigued by how ancient Greek art included portrayals of their defeats as well as their victories. For example, several of the marble carvings on the Parthenon showed Greeks being speared, trampled and otherwise humiliated in battle. In contrast, Arrington says, “The ancient Assyrians would never portray their warriors as anything but victorious.”

Greek portrayal of defeat

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Arrington was intrigued at how the ancient Greeks portrayed their own defeat in works of art, such as this marble sculpture created around 447-438 B.C. of a centaur trampling a Greek warrior situated on an outside wall of ancient Athens’ largest building, the Parthenon. London, British Museum. PHOTO CREDIT: ALBUM/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

The portrayals of Greek defeat would eventually lead him to the larger question of how a young democratic society, at first fighting for survival against foreign aggression and later waging war for territorial expansion, convinced its citizens to sacrifice its young men to war. This topic would become the subject of a several-years obsession and eventually a book, Ashes, Images, and Memories: The Presence of the War Dead in Fifth-Century Athens (Oxford University Press, 2015). It’s a mixture of art, archaeology, history and modern neuroscience, tackling questions of how Athens in the fifth century B.C. developed rituals that helped its citizens accept the war dead as a necessary sacrifice to the survival of the state, rituals that influence us even today.

Mapping Athens’ ancient cemetery

When Arrington was an undergraduate, these findings were still far in the future. He wrote his senior thesis, a major work of scholarship required of all Princeton undergraduates, on the portrayal of defeat in classical Greek art, graduated in 2002 and then departed — first to the University of Cambridge, where he earned a master’s degree, and then to a doctoral program at the University of California- Berkeley. During that time, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

One day in 2008, amid the sound of cars honking and the smell of chestnuts roasting in a street vendor’s cart, Arrington followed Leda Costaki, a research archivist at the American School, on a tour of Athens’ ancient city walls. Most of the walls lie in ruins beneath the concrete and asphalt of the modern city. We know the location of the walls due to the work of government archaeologists who hastily catalogue the historical treasures — crumbling walls, roadbeds, even statues — uncovered whenever the urban landscape is peeled back during the construction of a commercial building or apartment house.

This type of archaeology — the examination of artifacts exhumed from beneath existing development — is considered so hard that a lot of people don’t want to do it. Instead of digging in dirt, urban archaeologists delve through stacks of papers or scroll through computerized reports. But as Arrington traipsed in and out of basements where parts of the walls had been preserved, he realized that it might just be possible to use the reports of these urban archaeologists to learn more about Athens’ ancient public cemetery.

Inspired by Costaki’s tour, Arrington undertook the task of mapping Athens’ ancient cemetery, the dēmosion sēma. Scholars already knew a bit about it from funeral orations and gravestones, but until Arrington, no one had conclusively mapped it or catalogued the locations of the large public graves for the war dead.

Arrington’s map revealed more mysteries. For one thing, the cemetery wasn’t exactly where you might expect a public graveyard to be — it was a little off the beaten path and outside the city — and the graves were not placed in neat rows the way they are in modern veterans’ cemeteries such as the Arlington National Cemetery. Instead, the graves were spread out over an area nearly a mile long that also housed a pottery manufacturing area.

“Sources speak of the [cemetery region] as a quiet place of solitude, or an ideal spot for a walk,” Arrington wrote of what the region would have been like in the fifth century B.C. in his doctoral thesis. “The wide road created an appealing, open space, with many paths leading off to the sides. The public graves did not dominate the edges of the road in a strict line but, like family plots, created smaller, inviting precincts. Such layouts of the monuments encouraged the pedestrian not to stroll by or between memorials, but to pause, experience, explore.”

The mapping of the dēmosion sēmaand study of casualty lists earned Arrington his doctorate degree in 2010, acclaim for his scholarship, and a job the same year as Princeton’s newly hired expert on classical Greece — filling the shoes, incidentally, of his senior thesis adviser, William Childs. Childs, professor of art and archaeology, now emeritus, is impressed with the scholar that Arrington has become.

“He is extraordinarily sensitive and very intelligent,” Childs says when I meet him in a windowless room above Princeton’s Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology. The room is crammed with filing cabinets and the walls are lined with faded black-and-white photos of Princeton archaeologists from a time when men on expedition dressed for dinner. “He covers just about everything — I disagree with him on a few points, but it is first-rate work, and he is a first-rate scholar.”

As an assistant professor at Princeton, Arrington began to piece together the story of what the public cemetery, together with the art and texts of the time, tell us about the lives and customs of a young, militant democracy.

The story starts about 508-507 B.C., when the citizens of Athens set up what is considered the first-ever democratic system of government. The city had hardly gained independence when it faced the threat of Persian invaders. Banding together with other Greek city-states, Athens triumphed over the Persians in 480 B.C. and waged many more battles — not only for survival but to gain power and territory. But the cost of these victories, and also some defeats, was high.

“There was an obvious problem with the war dead,” Arrington says. “You had to convince a society that these wars were worth the risk. And if you are a young democratic community, you need to honor the dead, but you cannot elevate the dead above the rest of society.”

The public cemetery was one way that city leaders sought to make the sacrifice more acceptable, Arrington found. Prior to the dēmosion sēma’s construction, the mourning of family members killed in battle was a very personal experience. Families would go to the battlefield to collect the body. Once home they’d wash the body, and invite extended family and friends to honor the deceased. Those who could afford to do so erected statues and monuments to commemorate the dead.

Once the public cemetery was created, however, the building of private monuments ceased, according to the records and artifacts that Arrington studied. Instead, officials cremated the war dead at the battlefield or somewhere else outside the city, then brought the ashes into Athens by the cartload to display in the burial ground. “This would have been a startling and disturbing sight,” Arrington says.

Individual monuments were replaced by tall slabs of marble called stelae inscribed with lists of names of the fallen. The carvings appear to have been done with some haste, probably in time for an annual celebration that would include speeches and funeral games.

“This was a way to honor people equally,” Arrington says. “You were elevated to the same level as your rich neighbor across the street. Death in battle was the great equalizer.”

Death was also the great anonymizer, he says. Only first names were carved on the stelae. “The anonymity of the lists encouraged a view of dead as a collective instead of individuals. These were fundamental changes in the way that people viewed their dead.”

Coopting the war dead for civic purposes

As Arrington learned more about these customs by studying the stelae, the works of art of the period and surviving funeral oration texts, he began to understand how the Greek battle scenes that had so puzzled him as an undergraduate fit into the picture.

These battle scenes were prominently on display on the crown of Athens’ largest building, the Parthenon, which, with its marble sculpture, was the Times Square of the ancient world. There, for all to see, were carvings of an Amazon spearing a Greek soldier, a centaur trampling a Greek and a Greek soldier turning to run or crawl away. These mythical foes, carved between 447 and 438 B.C., represent real-life battles. The Amazons, for example, wore Persian dress.

The location of these scenes on a sacred building — the Parthenon is a temple to the goddess Athena — suggests a deific stamp of approval. The images of flight, loss, defeat and death are a means of catharsis, creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the defeated, Arrington argues. Long after the funeral orations and games were over, the monuments posed the question to the living: What will you do?

Nathan Arrington

“There was an obvious problem with the war dead. You had to convince a society that wars were worth the risk.”
–Nathan Arrington, assistant professor of art and archaeology. PHOTO BY DENISE APPLEWHITE

How did the Greeks respond to coopting of their war dead for civic purposes? With their private traditions supplanted by public rituals, families over time shaped new customs. One such custom was to place in the cemetery offerings of decorative oil-filled bottles called lekythoi.

At the Princeton University Art Museum in the center of campus, I meet J. Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art. At a back entrance, a security guard checks me in, and Padgett takes me to a room lined with shelves of Greek antiquities where Arrington once worked as a student, and where in turn his students come to study lekythoi and other artifacts in the classes he teaches.

Padgett hands me a smooth vase about the size of a soda bottle. If I drop it, I would destroy an object created thousands of years ago. Holding it makes me feel somehow closer to understanding how a grieving mother might revere such an object, which served as a way of connecting the living and the dead. “Vases are a window on the past, although they are a smudged and cracked window,” Padgett says.

On one of the lekythoi described in Arrington’s book, a woman stands facing a tall grave marker, her outstretched hand holding a lekythos, possibly purchased at the nearby pottery works. A warrior looks at her from the other side of the grave.

From his armor, it is clear that he is a ghost; people didn’t go to graves dressed like that. The image carries a reassuring message for the grieving survivor who held this vase in pre-Christian Greece: Your dead son is here in spirit, and he knows that you visit his grave.


Disallowed from building individual monuments for their loved ones who died in battle, Athenians honored their war dead in the public cemetery by placing small vases called lekythoi at the mass graves. On this lekythos, dating from about 460-450 B.C., a woman carrying a basket with grave offerings on her head offers a lekythos to a striding warrior, probably the deceased. Berlin, Staatliche Museen. PHOTO CREDIT: JOHANNES LAURENTIUS/ ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

Arrington examined this and other lekythoi as snapshots — the selfies of everyday life and loss in ancient Greece — and started to see how the Athenians used the vases in combination with the public cemetery to make sense of their losses. “What you actually see is the variety of responses to the war dead, to the point of almost being subversive. I wouldn’t call it an antiwar movement, but these were reactions against the city’s claims to the dead, to the bodies or to the endless wars.” Eventually the monuments to individuals returned, paid for by the families who could afford them, around 430 B.C.

Padgett takes the lekythos from my hand. He has clear memories of Arrington as an undergraduate. Just after graduation in 2002, Arrington worked as an intern in the art museum, helping Padgett prepare an exhibition. “Of course I remember Nathan,” Padgett says. “He stood out even then as an extremely bright and motivated student. He has great powers of concentration — and he was already multilingual by then. I and others were delighted when he came back.”

During his undergraduate years at Princeton, Arrington met his wife, Celeste, who is now an assistant professor of political science specializing in the Koreas and Japan at George Washington University. A few years later, while they both were working on their doctorates, Arrington found himself living in Japan. When not sifting through piles of photocopied Athenian archaeology documents, he would visit the Yasukuni war shrine. (“I was the strange tourist just sitting there watching people come and go,” he says.) Here, soldiers who gave their lives for Japan are revered as deities. Around that same time, the U.S.-Iraq war was going on, yet U.S. government policy forbade news photography of the coffins arriving home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He began to think about how our ways of remembering the dead — even today — influence our willingness to accept the personal cost of war.

Crossing the centuries

The sprawling cemetery, the anonymity of the grave markers, the funeral orations, the objects of art from the small lekythoi to the massive marble friezes — all were clues that pointed to ways that societies shape how their citizens view death.

And that led to the last piece of the puzzle: Exactly how did these material objects influence the thought processes of Athenians? Arrington found himself turning to modern neuroscience to learn how our environments and past experiences influence what we remember. We don’t remember everything that happens to us, but rather only those things that have some importance or value. And our biases or mindsets can influence what we remember. The public nature of the cemetery with its ashes on display, funeral games and speeches, plus the anonymity of the markers, carried strong messages that the war dead should be perceived and remembered for their contribution to the state rather than as good sons or dedicated husbands.

Few scholars today could have put together such a comprehensive look at how the objects of art and archaeology revealed something about the culture of ancient Athens, says Matthew Sears, a historian who studies classical Greek warfare at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. “Nathan’s work crosses boundaries between disciplines,” says Sears, who first met Arrington when they were students at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. “The objects of art that Nathan describes in his book are very well known. They’ve been studied for, in some cases, centuries, but they’ve only been studied in isolation from each other. Nathan brings them all together, as parts of the same story, and he brings in advances in memory and cognitive studies, things that have nothing to do with classical scholarship, in a way that sheds light on how Athenians lived,” Sears says.

A truck rumbles past the strawberry stand outside the cemetery in Princeton. Arrington is leaving for Greece in a few days, where he’ll lead students in an excavation of an ancient trading port on the north coast of Greece. The financial uncertainty in Greece is a worry. Celeste will go with him, and they’ll be bringing their young child (with another on the way), to the dig.

Arrington is musing on how modern society has coopted Greek classical art and architecture to make grand statements. For example, near campus on the Princeton Battlefield stands a neoclassical monument consisting of four Greek columns. “We use classical style as a way to elevate things, but to do that is to not understand the full complexity of Greek art,” he says. “I think we adopted some of these practices without understanding where they are coming from.”

The issues of the treatment of the war dead, the state support of war veterans and the place of war in society are issues that we are still grappling with today, says David Pritchard, a senior lecturer in Greek history at the University of Queensland who is familiar with Arrington’s work. “All of these questions are still being asked. Athens is a very rich point of comparison for thinking about pressing issues of democracy, citizenship and military participation.”

He adds: “Ancient Athens was democratic, but it was a state that was constantly at war. It was a state that prioritized military spending over social security spending, and it was a state that picked fights with other states all the time. So I think that Athens stands as a warning to the modern world that we shouldn’t be complacent in thinking that democracy protects us from warmongering or that democracy means that we only fight just wars, and we only fight necessary wars.”

Western-style democracies, in other words, have much in common with the ancient Greeks when it comes to the war dead: What do you do with the bodies? How will you memorialize them? How will you portray them in images? And will you honor the dead as a way to glorify war?

Arrington is not sure we honor our war dead particularly well. “We as a culture tend to ignore death as much as we possibly can,” he said. “It is difficult for society to come to grips with the cost of war because death is not part of our visual culture on a regular basis, the way it was in the ancient world. Yet these ashes, images and the memories they create are needed if we are to have national healing.”

Arrington’s work has been supported by Princeton University’s David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project and the Stanley J. Seeger Sabbatical Research Grant.

Download PDF


Discovery_2015_F_3_Arrington_book_cover_9780199369072Arrington explores how a young democracy coped with the sacrifice of so many of their young men to war in his book Ashes, Images, and Memories: The Presence of the War Dead in Fifth-Century Athens (Oxford University Press, 2015). On the cover of the book is a vase known as a loutrophoros that carried water for ritual cleansing and was often placed at the graves of young, unmarried men. The vase, which dates from about 410 B.C., shows a deceased man looking at an equestrian statue of himself. The vase represents a way that families commemorated their dead and hints at a backlash against the practice of burying soldiers’ ashes en masse in Athens’ public cemetery.