Rice’s John Hopkins wins Arlt Award in the Humanities, excavates in Rome

This year John Hopkins, assistant professor of art history and classical studies, traded the hot and muggy summer of Houston for that of Rome. There, steps away from the Roman Forum, Hopkins co-directed an ongoing excavation within the 2,000-year-old Horrea Agrippiana, an ancient warehouse whose recently uncovered foundations are changing the way art and architectural historians understand the early centuries of the Eternal City.

John Hopkins

John Hopkins. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“It’s 8 in the morning until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, five days a week at minimum, of back-breaking physical labor in 90-degree heat … in the sun,” Hopkins said. “You don’t get air conditioning and you don’t get a roof, so you really have to want to do it. But once you’re there, it’s hard not to be captivated. Even at the end of long, hot, punishing days, covered in dirt, everybody’s in a good mood.”

Hopkins, who is also co-director of the Program and Minor in Museums and Cultural Heritage at Rice, also undertook another monumental task recently: publishing “The Genesis of Roman Architecture” in February 2016. This book won Hopkins the 2017 Gustave O. Arlt Award in the Humanities Dec. 7.

Hopkins is the 47th recipient of the annual prize, awarded by the Council of Graduate Schools. Arlt winners must have received their doctorate within the past seven years, must be currently teaching at a North American university and must have written a book deemed to make an outstanding contribution to scholarship in the humanities.

“The Council of Graduate Schools is delighted to present this year’s Arlt award to Dr. Hopkins,” said Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. “This award has a long and prestigious history of recognizing the outstanding scholarship by early career humanities faculty. Dr. Hopkins’ exceptional work is a valuable contribution to the study of early Rome.”

“The Genesis of Roman Architecture” represents 13 years of work. The New York Review of Books termed the 254-page volume “engrossing,” calling Hopkins “a master of this exacting art.” Hopkins attributes these successes in large part to collaboration.

“This award is very meaningful because of what it acknowledges: that there are dozens and dozens of people whose input went into this book,” he said. “Anybody who downplays the amount of work that goes into a book like this is either shortchanging themselves or shortchanging the world lab that we work in.”

It’s this same world lab Hopkins credits for connecting him with the Horrea Agrippiana — the oldest such warehouse in the city — and his Italian co-director at the site, Dora Cirone, after a colleague in Rome reached out and suggested that Cirone and Hopkins pair up, which they did this past summer.

“We in the humanities are typically cast as working in isolation,” he said. “But as the acknowledgments in my book — which are something like three-and-a-half pages long — point out, the world is our lab. I am in constant conversation with colleagues across the world: in Italy, France, Germany, the U.K., Australia. And these open lines of collaboration and communication are the paths by which these new projects find their way to us.”

Roman Forum at sunset.

Roman Forum at sunset. Credit: John Hopkins


Among the most exciting discoveries Hopkins and his team have made at the Horrea Agrippiana is that boundaries once thought to be strictly defined, such as those between the Forum, the Palatine, the Velabrum, the Capitoline and other well-delineated areas of the ancient city, are more malleable than previously realized. “At the very least, it seems that Augustus, with the building of this set of Horrea, reshaped the boundaries of the civic center of Rome, and that is something we did not know until we began to peel back the floor of the Horrea — and that was just six months ago,” Hopkins said. “It’s just starting, so I know that there will be so many more discoveries that are going to eclipse this.”

The continuing excavation of the massive Horrea will take at least another four years. Excavation of surrounding structures, including an ancient Roman street, and publication of the work could take another 10 to 15 years. But Hopkins is in no hurry.

“By its very nature, excavation is destructive,” he said. “Once you pull the layers back, you cannot reinsert them into the ground. So the weight that an excavation director carries is enormous, particularly if you’re excavating in the Roman Forum. It’s not something that I can get wrong. It’s overwhelming, but in a very good way.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.