Campus & community, Milestones, People

Stephen Miller, who led Berkeley’s excavation in Ancient Nemea, Greece, dies at 79

For decades, Miller, his students and local villagers unearthed and brought to life a site of the ancient Panhellenic Games.

Stephen Miller, a professor emeritus of classics who died Aug. 11, 2021, stand in front of casts of ancient statuary holding a styrofoam coffee cup and looking at the camera.
In 2003, UC Berkeley professor Stephen Miller posed with some of the classical plaster casts that Phoebe Apperson Hearst donated to the university in 1902, but that wound up stored under Edwards Track's bleachers until Miller found out in 1973. He and six of his graduate students painstakingly restored and catalogued the casts. (Photo by Bonnie Azab Powell)

Stephen Miller, a professor emeritus of classics who for nearly 50 years led UC Berkeley’s archaeological excavation in Greece of a site of the ancient Panhellenic Games, died Aug. 11 in a Greek hospital.  The Greek Reporter, an international news outlet, reported that 79-year-old Miller died that morning following a hemodialysis treatment. Miller retired from Berkeley in 2004, and he and his wife, Effie, had been living in a home they’d built that overlooks Berkeley’s archaeological complex in the tiny agricultural village of Ancient Nemea, in the northeastern part of Greece’s Peloponnese.

Miller, who joined the Berkeley faculty in 1971, began in 1974 to excavate the 45-acre site within Ancient Nemea. He and his students went on to make headlines around the world for unearthing important antiquities — a stadium and track; an entrance tunnel to the track lined with the graffiti of ancient athletes; a temple of Zeus where athletes made sacrifices before competing; an early Christian burial ground; a hero’s shrine; a bathhouse; and what’s considered the world’s oldest remaining athletic locker room. In 1993, Miller led the reconstruction at the track of an ancient starting device made of wood, rope and cord that once launched the foot races. Local villagers also were part of Miller’s excavation crews.

The Panhellenic Games, a circuit of athletic festivals in which Greek athletes competed every two years for a leafy crown and free meals for life, also were held in Olympia, Ithsmia and Delphi. During the original games, wars and hostilities among Greeks were suspended for a week or two — the first evidence in history of an organized, regular and international event that promoted peace.

Miller’s work in Ancient Nemea was funded nearly entirely through his successful efforts with private donors. This fundraising also led to his founding of the Archaeological Museum of Nemea, originally constructed on the site to serve the research and educational purposes of the Berkeley project. The museum subsequently was donated to the Greek state and opened in 1984 to the public. In it, people can glimpse the thousands of excavated artifacts, including ancient coins, tools and pottery.

Since Miller’s retirement, the Berkeley Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology has been directed by Kim Shelton, a Berkeley associate professor in what is now called the Department of Ancient Greek and Roman Studies. Today, the center operates three field projects in Greece — in Ancient Nemea, Mycenae and Aidonia.

People wearing togas and barefoot run on a clay track in an ancient stadium in Greece excavated by professor Stephen Miller, who died Aug. 11, 2021.

Stephen Miller launched the Nemean Games in 1996 with residents of Ancient Nemea, Greece. The event, held on a clay track in the stadium unearthed at Berkeley’s excavation site in Ancient Nemea, recreated the foot races held there more than 2,300 years ago as part of the Panhellenic Games. It was open to runners around the world of all ages and abilities and has been held nearly every four years since. (Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology photo)

One of Miller’s most widely-known contributions to Greek history was his promotion of and work to establish the modern international Nemean Games, a recreation at the archaeological site of the ancient foot races that gave birth to today’s Olympics. The first races were held there in 1996 and drew more than 650 runners, most of them untrained, who were from 29 countries and ranged in age from 10 to 93. Designed to be held every four years, like the modern Olympic Games, the Nemean Games feature judges, heralds and trumpeters dressed in ancient-looking garb. In 1996, the inaugural runners, who competed in togas and barefoot, included then-U.S. Ambassador to Greece Thomas Niles, then-Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien and 1968 U.S. Olympic track coach Payton Jordan. 

The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, United Press International and other media outlets sent reporters to cover the 1996 games, and some of writers even chose to compete.

At the races in 2000, 730 runners from 45 countries participated, and among them were 16 ambassadors to Greece and then-Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl. A historian, Berdahl later wrote that the site is “a spectacular, visible presence of the University of California, Berkeley, in Greece.”

Races at the Nemean Games, which haven’t been held since 2016 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are organized by age and gender; women were not allowed to compete in ancient times, but are welcomed at this event. Runners can participate in 100-meter sprints in the stadium or in a 7.5-kilometer race from the ancient temple of Herakles, near the town of Kleonai, to the stadium. The winner of each race immediately receives a ribbon around the head and a palm branch, and is awarded a crown of wild celery at the day’s end.

“We want to give participants something of the feeling of an athlete in the fourth century B.C. The direct contact of bare feet on ancient soil and starting blocks creates a sense of history that has to be experienced to be understood. Many people describe the chill bumps they felt as they passed through the entrance tunnel, from the 21st century A.D. to the fourth B.C.,” Miller said just before the 2004 games.

The idea for the Nemean Games came from a handful of residents of Ancient Nemea, which has a population of about 400. After observing small-scale foot races held at the track in 1994 during a summer event celebrating the excavated stadium’s completion, they approached Miller about how to keep bringing the stadium to life for the public. That December, the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games was established, and it continues to organize the games.

In a press release issued the day Miller died, the group said that in losing Miller, the society had lost its “father,” and that its members have “no words to describe our grief, as we have lost a leading scholar, a great Greek! He was the man who dedicated most of his life in promoting and spreading the cultural heritage of our land.” 

Once a stranger in Ancient Nemea, where residents initially thought the scholar buying up farmland wouldn’t unearth anything of importance, Miller went on to “give us our history, and everyone here loves him,” the society’s former president, Aristotle Kallis, once said. “What is the word in English for the metal more valuable than gold? Stefanos Miller is platinum to us.”

Read a Berkeley Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology tribute to Miller here.