Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg
Princeton Portrait: Mary Alison Frantz (1903-1995)

In 1984, at the age of 81, Mary Alison Frantz paid her last visit to the ancient site of Delphi, Greece. There, the scholar admired the ruins she had spent her life documenting as a photographer and archaeologist. “I went back to the sanctuary and this time climbed up to the stadium,” she wrote. “I felt my age as I reflected, going up the (relatively) easy path, how I once went up the rougher and steeper one.”

Frantz was accustomed to taking the more difficult path, whether as a photographer of ancient ruins or as a trailblazing woman in the male-dominated fields of archaeology, diplomacy, and espionage. From understanding Greece’s past to its contemporary political intrigues, Frantz was a key figure in bringing Greece and America together. Her career began and ended in Princeton. 

Born in 1903 in Minnesota, Frantz was homeschooled by her mother after her father, a newspaper publisher, died of pneumonia. After majoring in classics at Smith College and a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, Frantz moved to Princeton in 1927, where she joined the University staff of what is now known as the Index of Medieval Art. 

To photograph a 2,400-year-old lion sculpture on the Parthenon, she took advantage of the morning light and scaled its ancient walls. 

Two years later, Frantz moved to Athens and joined the American School of Classical Studies. In 1934, she became part of the Athenian Agora excavations supervised by Princeton archaeologist T. Leslie Shear Sr., a project that helped archaeologists understand the Athens of Socrates, and created an archaeological park now visited annually by half a million people. In 1937, she completed her doctorate in Byzantine art from Columbia, and in 1939, she became the official photographer of the Agora excavations, a position she held for 25 years.

Frantz’s photographic tactics were both calculated and daring. To photograph a 2,400-year-old lion sculpture on the Parthenon, she took advantage of the morning light and scaled its ancient walls. “The only way up was by climbing the broken end of the south interior wall,” Frantz wrote, adding, “thereafter inching down to the corner and crawling along the top of the colonnade to the point chosen for the photograph.”

According to art historians Amy Papalexandrou *98 and Marie Mauzy, Frantz’s methods achieved a “somewhat unconventional combination of scientific intent with aesthetically pleasing results.” 

In 1939, Frantz’s work took on an urgent dimension. Yale archaeologist Carl Blegen arrived in Athens with 600 clay tablets inscribed with Linear B, an undeciphered Bronze Age script. Worried about the escalation of World War II, Blegen planned to deposit the tablets in the Bank of Greece, but he wanted the artifacts photographed first. In just two days, Frantz photographed them all. According to archaeologist James McCredie, the images assisted the efforts of Michael Ventris, a British architect who deciphered the language a decade later, proving that Linear B was a form of ancient Greek. 

Frantz fled Greece before Germany invaded in 1941. She was recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor of the CIA, working as an analyst in the Washington, D.C. office, where she monitored the activities of Greek political exiles and their goals for the country upon liberation. In 1971, Frantz explained, “We had all kinds of ways of contacts with people, just to learn what they had in mind and what they were preparing.” 

After the war, Frantz returned to Athens as the cultural attaché to the American embassy, where she was a founder of the Fulbright Program in Greece. The program has led to more than 75 years of Greek and American cultural exchange.

In 1976, she joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton as a research fellow and completed a book on the Athenian Agora’s late antique period. In 1984, when she made her final visit to Delphi, she reflected on her life’s work in the ancient stadium, writing, “It was perhaps appropriate that I sat for a time in the seats near the finish line.”