Studying at the Australian National University had not been part of the plan. And yet Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Minchin was enrolled at the ANU within a week of arriving in Canberra.
She came to Canberra to begin her first posting as a secondary school teacher of French and Latin—and, to her surprise, Bahasa Indonesia.
“I studied Indonesian for a couple of years, and Asian civilisation,” Elizabeth says.
“Then I thought that I’d really prefer to do a Masters degree in Latin because I’d studied a lot of Latin literature and had really enjoyed it.”
But Elizabeth had to study Ancient Greek before she could enrol in the Masters. This saw her earning her second Bachelor of Arts, having received her first from the University of Sydney.
Elizabeth taught at the ANU casually, completed her Masters degree as intended, and then a PhD. And so it was that Elizabeth’s first week in Canberra turned into more than 40 years at the ANU.
Across her decades in the Classics Department (now the Centre for Classical Studies), the continuing thread in Elizabeth’s research has been the Homeric epics and memory.
This research theme has offered up a wealth of other strands to pursue – and pursue them Elizabeth has. She is currently exploring the hero Odysseus’ propensity for telling lies, which he does again and again in the Odyssey.
Recently, Elizabeth examined Troy, landscape and memory. Supported by an ARC grant that she shared with a small group of colleagues, Elizabeth looked at the landscape around Troy, including the huge earth mounds that were thought to have been tombs for Trojan war heroes.
“It turns out that none of them are tombs of heroes. Some of them are older than Bronze Age Troy and many of them are much younger. But none of them are connected with the Troy-story.”
Some of the mounds were Neolithic settlements, Elizabeth says.
“People in subsequent centuries saw these mounds in the landscape and couldn’t explain them because the memories of Neolithic settlement had been lost. Under the influence of the stories of the Trojan War that were circulating in their world at that time, they reinterpreted these earth mounds and said, ‘Oh, this must’ve been the burial mound of a hero from Troy’.”
“This is a really useful lesson to us all, a graphic reminder of how over time any society adjusts its memories of its past,” Elizabeth says.
For her contributions to the university as a research scholar, Elizabeth has been named the 2016 ANU Alumna of the Year - Research or Academic (Humanities).
She says that she is honoured to receive the award, adding: “This award has come as a great surprise.”
“It has led me to reflect on my long and rich association with the ANU population: the fine teachers I encountered in my studies; my excellent supervisor, who oversaw both my Masters and my PhD; the good friends I have made along the way; and the lively and engaging and competent Classics students that my colleagues and I have sent out, year after year, into the wider world.”