Archaeologist's Book Based on Former Professor's Intriguing Spy Tale
Susan Heuck Allen, a visiting scholar in the department of classics at Brown University, recently gave a lecture at Rhode Island College to discuss her newest book, “Classical Spies: American Archaeologists with the OSS in World War II Greece.”
Twenty-five years ago, Allen was sipping ouzos in Athens, Greece with her then professor, John Langdon Caskey, a famed archaeologist. She became intrigued that night with Caskey’s stories about his time in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA.
During World War II, many American archaeologists joined Greece’s effort to resist the Nazi regime. Several of those archaeologists joined the OSS.
Caskey, Allen said, was hesitant to share his full experience that night in Athens, but she remained fascinated and many years later began research his story as her career turned from field archaeology to scholarly study.
“I began piecing together each of the archaeologists’ stories, wondering what motivated them to get involved in espionage and what they had accomplished,” Allen wrote in her book’s prologue. “As I questioned my generation of archaeologists about their predecessors, I was struck by how many scholars knew little about what their professors had done in World War II.”
Allen captivated her audience with talk of her numerous visits to Greece to uncover the story of the ring of U.S. archaeologists who risked their lives to become key players in informing U.S. policy. She spoke at the lecture with affection for her work, which involved years of research, breaking down governmental barriers, and earning the trust of the people involved who were still alive to tell their tales.
Allen talked at length about Clio Sperling, the widow of Jerry Sperling, one of the archaeologist spies, who met her late husband in Cairo, Egypt, when she worked the OSS Greek Desk for yet another American archaeologist, Rodney Young.
The elderly widow revealed more over time, but extracting her story was not easy, Allen said.
“She played cat and mouse with me when she was well into her upper 90s,” Allen said of the woman who “eventually” provided her with a “treasure trove” of research material.
“Classical Spies: American Archaeologists with the OSS in World War II Greece” tells the story of Caskey, Sperling, Young and others, beginning with their time at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, which brought them to Greece in the first place, to Greece’s fall to the Nazis in spring 1941, and through their OSS assignments around the world.
Archaeologists were suitable employees for the OSS, Allen said, because of their knowledge of Greece’s landscape and their tendency to work in tightly knit groups.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with this book,” she said.