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.
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!
It’s a tradition for the Cambridge classical linguists that in Easter (summer) term, instead of our usual research seminars, we all get together to learn a bit about an ancient language that most of us don’t usually study, and to try to read through a few inscriptions. It’s become equally traditional that I provide refreshments for these reading classes in the form of an inscribed cake. This term, my colleague Robert Crellin from the CREWS Project has been teaching us all some Middle Egyptian, and so I’m pleased to present my latest linguistic baking project, Egyptian hieroglyphic cake:
Being an epigrapher – someone who studies inscriptions – definitely means that I pay a lot more attention to the different kinds of writing that I see as I walk around a city, and that happens even more when I’m learning a language and so trying to practice reading as much as possible. While walking around Athens during my recent stay there, I found myself thinking a lot about the similarities between the kinds of inscriptions I was seeing and classical Greek and Roman inscriptions — particularly when it came to graffiti, which is something that Athens has a LOT of, and of which quite a lot of ancient examples also survive, mainly from the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia. Here’s one of the nicest (most optimistic) graffiti messages I saw in Athens, which reads “Αθήνα η πόλη της τέχνης και της ελπίδας!!” (Athina i poli tis tehnis ke tis elpithas) — “Athens, the city of art and of hope!!”
A couple of years ago Johanna Hanink, a classicist at Brown University, wrote an excellent essay entitled ‘On not knowing (modern) Greek‘, discussing the fact that very few scholars of ancient Greek ever learn modern Greek; the average classicist studying ancient Greece is more likely to study French, German, and/or Italian than to learn the modern language of the country they study. Hanink argues very persuasively that this privileging of other modern European languages over Greek is effectively a continuation of 19th-century colonialist attitudes towards contemporary, as opposed to classical, Greeks:
…why does Modern Greek still not have a seat at the classicists’ table?
This is, bluntly put, largely because our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek. Historians and anthropologists who work on Greece have been much more willing than classicists to acknowledge the country’s legacy of metaphorical colonization: not by the Ottomans, but by the early European antiquaries and travelers who planted their flags in the ruins of Greek antiquity…Viewed through the lens of the present, the people who undertook this more “symbolic” colonization of Greece look a great deal like early versions of classicists.
One of the story’s many legacies is that classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language, while Greeks who want to participate in the tradition — to have their voices and ideas heard abroad— earn degrees in other countries and publish their research in English, German, or French. Granting Modern Greek a more valued place in the professional conversation would be a positive step for a field that, on the point of colonialism, has a lot to answer for.
This weekend I went to visit an exhibition in the Bodleian Library in Oxford called ‘Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page‘ (on until April 22 2018, and free to visit) – a display of medieval manuscripts, but with the focus not on the content but the way that their writers and illustrators went about creating them. The layout of the text itself and any accompanying images, the use of different coloured inks in different parts of the text, the addition of marginalia, and even the physical format of the book or manuscript were all shown to be just as important to the writer – and the reader – as the actual words themselves.
Illustrations aided understanding (as in herbals, for instance, whose pictures were vital in showing which plants were being described, or in the chess manual which included diagrams of chess boards); key words or passages could be highlighted by the use of colour or through the spacing of the text to draw the reader’s attention (particularly important for texts intended to be read out loud, such as sermons); physical form could relate to function, e.g. in making a book small enough to fit in a pocket to carry around, or to ideology, as shown by the books of royal genealogies, designed to fold out into a single long sheet so as to present one unbroken line of inheritance. Continue reading “Designing English and Linear B”
Now that the Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition is over, I’m able to make my catalogue chapter, ‘The Decipherment: People, Process, Challenges‘, available here for anyone who’d like to read it (click on the link for a PDF file)! It’s about the process by which the Linear B script was deciphered, the main people involved – Emmett L. Bennett, Alice Kober, Michael Ventris, and John Chadwick – and the remaining difficulties involved in reading and interpreting the documents written in this script.
Readers may also be interested in seeing some of the correspondence between Ventris and Chadwick that’s quoted in the chapter – PDFs of a selection of their letters are available on the website of the Mycenaean Epigraphy Group (the research group I’m part of in the Cambridge Faculty of Classics), and you can view them here.
I hope you enjoy the chapter, and if anyone has any further questions about Linear B and the decipherment after reading it, please ask me in the comments!