I’ve just given a talk for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas about the different kinds of written evidence that survive from Roman Britain and what they can tell us, so thought I’d write up a summary here for any interested readers who couldn’t come to the talk! The title “On the Edge” was chosen to fit in with the theme of this year’s festival, “Extremes”, and to reflect the position of Britain on the very edge of the Roman Empire (a journey from Rome to London in October could take up to 40 days), and for that matter the position of many of the surviving texts, which come from Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain, on the very edge of the Roman-controlled part of the island. A major theme of the talk was how, despite this remote position, Britain was very well connected with the rest of the Roman world, as the evidence of many of the written documents shows.
I’ve just had a review published by the Bryn Mawr Classical Review of Louis Godart and Anna Sacconi’s Supplemento al corpus di iscrizioni vascolari in lineare B (Supplement to the Corpus of Linear B Inscribed Stirrup Jars) – a collection of drawings, photographs, and transcriptions of all the Linear B inscriptions painted onto so-called stirrup jars (after the shape of the handles) since Anna Sacconi first published her corpus of these inscriptions in 1974.
An epigraphic corpus isn’t, I admit, the most thrilling thing to read cover-to-cover, but it’s vitally important for researchers to be able to access details of these inscriptions without having to trawl through several decades’ worth of archaeological publications, often in fairly obscure places, to track them all down. The ISJs themselves are also a particularly interesting, important, and problematic set of Linear B inscriptions since they’re the only large group of texts written in this script that aren’t written on clay tablets within a palace or other administrative centre – they’re produced all over Crete, probably written by the same people who made and/or painted the pots, and found in various places on Crete and the Greek mainland – not just in palaces, but also in places with no other known use of the Linear B script, and even in tombs. They’re the subject of all sorts of ongoing debates, from what the inscriptions were for (some say they’re marking the jars, and the oil or wine they contained, as gifts being sent from one palace to another; others, myself included, say they were used to keep track of production as part of the same administrative system as the Linear B tablets), to what they mean for levels of literacy in Linear B (to what extent could the people painting these inscriptions read/understand the signs they were painting?) For more information, you can read the review here, and also check out the article I wrote a few years ago about the ISJs, which is freely available here.
Cambridge-based readers of this blog may be interested to know about two events focusing on ancient writing that I’m involved in as part of the Festival of Ideas (which starts today, October 15th, and runs until the 28th):
Raiders of the Secret Scripts: this is a free, drop-in event for adults at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, 7-9pm on Friday 19th. Have a go at deciphering inscriptions to follow the trail around the gallery (all necessary information provided!), try your hand at writing a curse tablet, find out more about different ancient writing systems – and have a glass of wine at the same time! I’ll be there to help out and answer your questions, along with colleagues of mine from the CREWS project.
On the Edge: Writing in Roman Britain: this is a lunchtime talk in the Classics Faculty on Wednesday 24th, 1.15-2pm; it’s also free, but prebooking is required. The festival’s (fairly loose) theme is “extremes”, so I thought it would be fun to look at the written texts from one of the extreme edges of the Roman Empire. Britain has produced a remarkable range of documents – from gravestones to letters, legal documents to curses, and much more – including some remarkable recent finds of writing-tablets from the City of London. Come along to find out more about what these documents are, who wrote them, and what they tell us about life in Roman Britain!
“We have always made monsters: in art, in myth, in religion; out of clay or bronze, pixels or hybrid flesh; from the stuff of human nightmares; by cursing women with bestial traits. This anthology brings together fiction and accessible academic writing in conversation about monsters and their roles in our lives—and ours in theirs.”
So says the blurb from the back cover of Making Monsters. A collaboration between Emma Bridges (Public Engagement Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies) and Djibril al-Ayad (a speculative-fiction editor and publisher), it’s an anthology collecting a mixture of short stories, poems, and essays about (mostly) classical Greek and Roman monsters and our responses to them. Medusa, as shown on the wonderful cover illustration, and Sirens seem to be the most popular of the monsters – and are used by many of the entries to explore the ways in which women in particular are viewed as monsters – but the Furies, Circe the sorceress, and Talos the bronze giant all make appearances too, and there are even some monsters from further afield like the Japanese tengu. It’s a wonderfully varied collection – some of my favourites are Megan Arkenberg‘s re-imagining of Danae as an inventor of living mechanical creations that I would have loved to have seen animated by Ray Harryhausen; L. Chan‘s “Field Reports from the Department of Monster Resettlement”, in which a harassed Singaporean civil servant attempts to get a group of monsters to agree to relocate from the locations they haunt; and Margaret McLeod‘s poem “Helen of War”, putting a different spin on the mythological tradition that says that Helen of Troy never went to Troy at all. There’s definitely something for everyone in this anthology, and I’d highly recommend getting hold of a copy to anyone who likes mythology and/or speculative fiction!