There’s been a lot of media excitement in the last few days over the discovery of a clay tablet at the ancient Greek sanctuary of Olympia (home of the original Olympic Games), with 13 lines of the ‘Odyssey’ inscribed on it. It’s certainly a very nice find – unlike in the Late Bronze Age period that I study, inscriptions of any kind on clay tablets are unusual at this point (the 3rd century CE, when Greece was part of the Roman Empire) – though it’s fair to say that most of the excitement has been due to the Homeric text and particularly to the claim that this is the oldest text of any part of the Odyssey. As plenty of other Classicists have been quick to point out, this isn’t actually true – there are plenty of earlier texts of (parts of) the Odyssey, e.g. on papyri from Egypt, and the oldest known example is an inscription on a potsherd from Olbia, modern Ukraine, dating to the 5th century BCE. This is just a quick post to provide some helpful links for anyone wanting to know more about this find:
Here is the original press release from the Greek Ministry of Culture (in Greek).
Here is a blogpost by ‘The Philological Crocodile’ correcting some of the errors that have appeared in a lot of the media reports, and speculating that the inscription could be a votive offering by a rhapsode (a reciter of the Homeric poems).
Here is a very detailed blogpost by ‘Kiwi Hellenist’ with a transcription and annotated photograph, as well as lots more details and a round-up of some of the news stories.
Yet another announcement of an event I’m speaking at…but this time it’s a two-day conference with 30 other people also taking part! The Cambridge Aegean Archaeology Group‘s conference on ‘Connections, Collaborations, and Current Research’ is taking place in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research on June 14-15. I’ll be speaking about the ways in which Mycenaean scribes edited and changed their texts and what this can tell us about their writing processes – something I’ve blogged a bit about here before – and I’m particularly excited about the two other talks in the epigraphy panel, which are going to be about the processes of preservation affecting the survival (or not) of the Linear B tablets and other Bronze Age documents, and about the use of digital tools for epigraphic research, collaboration, and public engagement. But there are also going to be a huge range of other talks on the themes of ‘Animals and Society’, ‘Cities and Landscapes’, ‘Rethinking Material Culture’, ‘Contextualising Connectivity’, and ‘Bodies and Burials’, plus keynotes on the recent excavations on the island of Keros and connections between monumental burial traditions around the Black Sea region. It should be an excellent couple of days – anyone who’d like to attend (from Cambridge or elsewhere!) can register for free here up until June 1st, and the full programme is here.
I’ll be travelling to Exeter next week to give a seminar in the Department of Classics and Ancient History there – the title is “Learning to spell in Linear B: evidence for scribal training in Mycenaean Pylos” and it will be at 3pm on Wednesday May 30th. The abstract is below – I hope to meet any readers from Exeter there!
I’m always interested to see how contemporary writers retell stories from the ancient world. When it’s done well, it can lead to a fascinating interplay between the ancient and modern versions of the stories – for instance, see my previous review of a wonderful collection of short stories based (loosely) around the Odyssey. I had pretty high hopes when House of Names, by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, was published in 2017. The book is based on the myths of the House of Atreus, as told in various Greek tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy: Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia on his departure to the Trojan War; his murder, and that of the Trojan princess Cassandra, by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus on his return; her subsequent murder by her son Orestes, encouraged by his sister Electra). Plenty of scope for a novelist of Tóibín’s talents (his novel on Irish migration to America, Brooklyn, won the Costa Book award and became a bestseller, and I can definitely recommend it) – and also, I have to say, an excellent cover, with the swallows from the Spring Fresco of Akrotiri.
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.
Athens’ Acropolis Museum is, naturally, best known for its display of sculptures from the Parthenon (in a mixture of originals and casts, many of the originals being, controversially, in the British Museum). Stunning though this top-floor display is, with views straight across to the Parthenon from the galley (see photo, unfortunately taken on a rather cloudy day), it’s not actually my favourite part of the museum – that prize goes to the first-floor display of the older archaic sculptures, dating from the 7th century to the early 5th century BCE (the Parthenon was built in the mid-5th century). Some of these sculptures are from the pediments of earliertemples on the Acropolis, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 480/479 BCE; others are freestanding statues set up on the Acropolis as dedications to the goddess Athena. (I can’t post photos here as you’re not allowed to take photos of the collections, but there is a nice selection of pictures available on the museum’s website). Continue reading “Archaic statues and Eleusinian mysteries at the Acropolis Museum”