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!
“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!
Wikipedia, according to its tagline, is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” – and yet according to the most recent survey only around 14% of the people who actually do edit the English language version are women, and the percentage of its biography pages which are about women is only slightly higher, at c.18%. Increasingly, projects are trying to address this gender imbalance by getting more women involving in editing and by creating and improving more pages about notable women: “Women in Red“, for instance, aims to turn “redlinked” references to women – for pages that don’t yet exist – into existing “bluelinked” ones. To improve the representation of women classicists in particular, the UK Women’s Classical Committee has been running a project called WCCWiki. I thought getting involved would be an interesting way of learning about women in Classics I might not know much about (as well as being a productive way of procrastinating from other writing…), so yesterday I went along to one of their training sessions to find out more about the project.
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!