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Gertrude Rachel Levy in Mandate Palestine

By Amara Thornton (Co-Investigator, Beyond Notability)

As we work our way through the “Certificates of Candidates for Election” of women at the Society of Antiquaries, I am starting to explore the careers of a few of them in more detail to begin charting the specifics of their work in archaeology, history and heritage. As Librarian of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, Gertrude Rachel Levy was elected a Fellow of the Society in 1947. The Combined Hellenic and Roman Societies Library at the ICS holds a collection of items relating to her – including a photograph, a postcard and copies of some of her works (Fig. 1).


Fig 1. A copy of Gertrude Rachel Levy’s book The Phoenix Rest, a photograph of Levy, and a postcard she sent from excavations in Iraq in 1935. Courtesy of the Hellenic and Roman Library.

Beyond her Hellenic/Roman Society position, another reason given to justify her admission to the Fellowship was her work for the Department of Antiquities of Palestine.  Having focused for quite a few years on the networks of British archaeologists in Mandate Palestine, among other places, this statement on Levy’s blue paper intrigued me, because over the course of my years of research I had not come across her name. The only woman known to me at that time connected to the Department during the Mandate period was Catherine Dixon, the Department’s Secretary in the early 1920s (Dixon is briefly referenced in the letters of Eunice Holliday, an architect whose husband Clifford, also an architect, was working the Palestine Department of Public Works at the time).

In her book The Phoenix Nest, Levy provided a chapter’s worth of autobiography. In this chapter, she briefly outlines her work Jerusalem which she states was, in part, cataloguing the library of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), sometime in the early 1920s. So, off I went to the PEF’s archive in Greenwich to find her. The PEF’s administrative archive is currently being sorted, and I hoped it might prove a fruitful resource.

My first port of call was the PEF’s Visitors Book. This is a rich resource for network analysis, with the signatures of visitors to the Fund listed by date, often with some reference to place of residence or institutional affiliation. As I flipped the pages I could see many names of other women active in archaeology at the time – Mary Brodrick and Gertrude Caton Thompson among them (Fig. 2a, b). Unfortunately, Levy’s name was nowhere to be found.

M Brodrick signature

G Caton-Thompson signature

Fig. 2a, b. Mary Brodrick and Gertrude Caton’s signatures in the PEF Visitors book, from 10 July 1913 and 15 May 1925 respectively. Courtesy of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

I turned to the PEF Minute Books for the relevant period. As Levy claimed to have catalogued the PEF’s library, I was hoping to find a note on this in one of the Committee meetings. The woman whose name appeared most frequently here is Estelle Blyth, who was the Fund’s paid Secretary from WW1 through the early 1920s. Born in India, Blyth had lived for many years in Jerusalem while her father was the Anglican Bishop there. She wrote several books, including a memoir, When We Lived in Jerusalem (1927). Her salary of £12 per month was regularly recorded in the PEF’s Minute Book (Fig. 3).

E Blyth salary

Fig 3. Detail from the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Minute Book in April 1925 showing Estelle Blyth’s salary. Courtesy of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

Flipping through the pages of the Fund’s minute book for the early 1920s, again, several women’s names appear. These include Miriam Tildesley, an anthropologist cataloguing skulls in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Genevieve (Cook), Lady Watson, a long-time supporter of the PEF, resident in Jerusalem, who was appointed the PEF’s Local Honorary Secretary there in 1924.

In 1925, the Fund’s minutes record that Estelle Blyth was paid £5 for cataloguing the PEF’s library. Clearly, Gertrude Levy didn’t do that work. So, what exactly was she doing in Mandate Palestine?

The answer was the Minute Book of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (BSAJ, now part of the Council for British Research in the Levant), an institution closely affiliated to the PEF. The School had been founded in 1919, just at the end of the war. Its first Director, John Garstang, was also the Director of the Department of Antiquities of Palestine. I’d published a list of BSAJ students as recorded in the BSAJ Minute Book some years ago, and I knew from that research that she was not a student. But the School’s Minute Book does record that in 1925, she was employed to catalogue the School’s Library as its Secretary-Librarian, at a salary of £5 per month (Fig. 4). This post had previously been offered to Estelle Blyth for a rather more generous salary. Blyth declined.

G Levy appointment

Fig 4. Detail from the BSAJ Minute Book showing confirmation of Gertrude Rachel Levy’s appointment as Librarian of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem in April 1925. Courtesy of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

Levy’s post began in March 1926. This was a month before a large-scale archaeological Congress (the post-war continuation of a series of Archaeological Congresses) was to be held in Syria and Palestine, the moment for the French and British Mandate Governments to show off their administration of these regions after the war, and encourage archaeological teams to excavate the lands of the Bible. The main feature of this Congress was to be a scholarly tour.

Delegates from universities, museums and learned societies in Europe, America and the Middle East came to the International Archaeological Congress. The Palestine Museum Bulletin, the only publication of the Department of Antiquities at the time, includes a list of these delegates. Gertrude Rachel Levy’s name was among them. She was representing the University of London, the institution that had awarded her a BA and MA in Classics. Among the list of 95 delegates are the names of 10 women, including, in the British section, Miss Agelasto and Alice Carthew representing the University Women’s Club, and Levy.

The travel writer Norah Hamilton managed to sneak onto the Congress’s tour at the last minute, as an unofficial delegate. It was Gertrude Levy, whom Hamilton records as “Miss L.” in Both Sides of the Jordan, her 1928 memoir of the trip with the International Congress, who smoothed the way for Hamilton to join the party.

Levy did not stay in her BSAJ post for long. The Minute Book records her resignation in 1927 to take up another post. The Palestine Museum Bulletin, of which only a few issues were published, provides a few further details, indicating Levy’s new post was as an Assistant in the Museum. Levy had attended the Royal Academy Schools for three years, and it was as an illustrator alongside archaeological cataloguing that incapsulated her work in the Department. Her illustrated catalogues of ancient pottery in the Museum were published as issues 3 and 4 of the Museum Bulletin.

From Palestine, Levy went on to Iraq, working as “Recorder” on the excavations of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute at Tel Asmar (Eshnunna). City in the Sand, the 1957 memoir of Mary Chubb (formerly a Secretary at the Egypt Exploration Society who was also on site at Eshnunna), enhances the brief, dry references to Levy in OI field reports. Levy was one of Chubb’s travelling companions on the journey from England (by airplane), and Chubb describes her knowledge and experience with great respect.  As “Recorder”, Levy’s work included coloured illustrations, some of which were reproduced to accompany Henri Frankfort‘s articles on the excavations across multiple issues.

Investigating this moment in Levy’s career pulls together a number of different strands we are seeking to reveal over the course of Beyond Notability. One is the colonial links of the women in our dataset. Levy was born in the British Cape Colony, South Africa, and Estelle Blyth in India, part of the British Empire at the time of her birth in 1881. Britain obtained a Mandate for the administration of Palestine after WW1; Levy’s work in in the Department of Antiquities of Palestine (and that of Dixon before her) reveals one area in which women were employed within Britain’s colonial administrative framework. Another theme is looking broadly at source material – just a smattering of different records at the Palestine Exploration Fund have highlighted the lives and work of various women in multiple institutions. Finally, we can see how women capture some of these wider histories (even if not quite accurately) through their memories – Levy’s, Blyth’s, Hamilton’s and Chubb’s.


Thanks are due to Paul Jackson, Felicity Cobbing and John Macdermot for their help.

References/Further Reading

Visitors Book, Palestine Exploration Fund archive.

Palestine Exploration Fund Minute Book Sept 20 1922-July 25 1925, Palestine Exploration Fund archive.

British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem Minute Book, Palestine Exploration Fund archive.

  1. Former Librarian Gertrude Rachel Levy. Joint Libraries of the Hellenic and Roman Societies blog.

Blyth, Estelle. 1927. When We Lived in Jerusalem. London: John Murray.

Chubb, Mary. 1999. City in the Sand. London: Libri Publications Limited.

The Gentlewoman, 1900. The Children’s Salon. 9 June: 761.

Levy, Gertrude Rachel, 1934. The First Sumerian Cult-Statues Ever Found: Sculpture of 3000 BC. Illustrated London News, 19 May: 777.

Levy, Gertrude Rachel, 1934. Sumerian Coloured Stone and Ivory Carving Nearly 5000 Years Ago. Illustrated London News, 19 May: 778.

Frankfort, Henry, 1936. The Oldest Stone Statuette Ever Found in Western Asia. Illustrated London News, 26 September: 524-527.

Hamilton, Norah Rowan, 1928. Both Sides of the Jordan. London: Herbert Jenkins Limited.

Holliday, Eunice (ed. John C. Holliday). Letters from Jerusalem during the Palestine Mandate. London: Radcliffe Press.

Levy, Gertrude Rachel. 1961. The Phoenix Nest: A Study in Religious Transformations. London: Rider & Company.

Melman, Billie, 2020. Empires of Antiquities: Modernity and the Rediscovery of the Ancient Near East, 1914-1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Palestine Museum, Jerusalem, 1926. Bulletin No 3: Selected Types of Bronze Age Pottery. Jerusalem: Department of Antiquities for Palestine.

Palestine Museum, Jerusalem, 1926. Bulletin No 4: Selected Types of Iron Age and Hellenistic Pottery. Jerusalem: Department of Antiquities for Palestine.

Thornton, Amara. 2012. Tents, Tours and Treks: Archaeologists, Antiquities Services and Tourism in Mandate Palestine and Transjordan. Public Archaeology 11(4): 195-216.

Thornton, Amara. 2012. Archaeologists in Training: Students of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem 1920-1936. Journal of Open Archaeology Data 1.





Digitisation of the Roman and Hellenic Societies’ Manuscript Collection

Aaron Fordwoh writes about the processes and discoveries of the digitisation project underway at the Hellenic and Roman Library, funded by the AG Leventis Foundation

I joined the library in June 2019 to undertake the task of digitising a part of the library’s fascinating manuscript collection. Previously these volumes have only been available to view on site and in person, with the manuscripts being housed safely in the library’s rare books room.

The digitisation project encompasses several collections here at the library; most notably the Wood Collection, the Bent Collection and the Societies Tract volumes.

Firstly, the Wood Collection, which contains the diaries, notebooks, sketchbooks and published works of Robert Wood and his colleagues, who journeyed through the eastern Mediterranean in the mid-18th century. Secondly, the Bent Collection, which contains the travel diaries of Mabel and Theodore Bent, who travelled in Greece and the Middle East in the late 19th century. Finally, the Societies Tract Volumes, a collection of tracts and pamphlets bound into volumes.

Before joining the ICS library I had previously held positons completing a mass conservation audit at Sir John Soane’s Museum’s Drawings and Books department, as well as a 6 month placement assisting at The Warburg Institute’s archive department. Both stood me in good stead for the nature of the job as well as the historic area around Russell Square and Bloomsbury.


Image 1

For the vast majority of the time I am using a Bookeye 4 Kiosk book scanner to capture the image data and BCS-2 imaging software to process and format the images once they have been transferred from the scanner. The capabilities of the scanner and image processing software can most easily be seen when looking at the digital image files of Giovanni Battista Borra’s sketchbooks (Volume 13) undertaken with Robert Wood throughout their tour (image 1).

Volcano details

Image 2

Here we can see the amount of detail the scanner can capture. When digitising a volume each page is saved and formatted as a single 600DPI TIFF file, all these files are then collated and converted into a single, readable book format PDF. This particular image comes from a page in Borra’s sketchbook which contains several beautiful pen and ink drawings of Vesuvius. When looking at the higher resolution TIFF file (image 2) we can notice the intricacy of the lines, details in the hatching technique and discern individual washes of ink.


Image 3

Some of the idiosyncrasies of the manuscript collection can also be noticed. One of these can be found in the diaries of James Dawkins (Volume 5) as transcribed by Robert Wood’s daughter (image 3). A method of pagination is used for writing on the recto side for the whole volume then flipping over and writing the other half on the verso side – usually with the script on the verso side becoming smaller and more cramped as it becomes apparent to the transcriber that they are running out of space in each volume. This can pose something of a mind mangling challenge when it comes time to order the pagination in the metadata!

Details from journal

Image 4

Another example of these peculiarities are the small illustrations that appear from time to time in the travel diaries of Mabel Bent (Image 4). It would appear that once she noticed something particularly worth mentioning she would accompany her descriptions with small drawings. These include; a sketch of a maid in the Balkans with a “paraffin can for a mop bucket and bare legs” while staying in a “hideous hotel” (Volume 4), a sketch of a mule with carrying apparatus (Volume 8) and an illustration of a unique method of shaving the hair on one’s head (Volume 8).

Unintended palimpsest

Image 5

Lastly we have an example of an ‘accidental palimpsest’ effect (image 5), whereby it appears some scribble or doodle of a flower has occurred over the top of the final pages of Robert Wood’s notebook containing copies of inscriptions from the tour (Volume 13). Whether this was done by a contemporary of Wood or by an overzealous archival assistant remains unknown.

It has been a real pleasure working with the volumes in these collections, I feel very privileged to be able to work so closely with the material on a day to day basis. I feel even more privileged knowing that this work will be made available for the public to see and pore over the pages as thoroughly as I have. So far the Wood collection has been uploaded and made available on SAS-Space, SAS’s online library, with the Bent and Tract collection following soon. Lastly let me thank the AG Leventis Foundation for their generous funding and the Classical Association for enabling us to extend the project since returning back to Senate House.

Classical Studies in Mainland China

Professor Simon Mahony, Executive Director of the Research Centre for Digital Publishing and Digital Humanities, Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai; Emeritus Professor of Digital Humanities, Department of Information Studies, UCL; Associate Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies

My association with the ICS has been a long one stretching back to before my undergraduate years at King’s College London, when my evening study college had a very limited holding for classics. I have kept up the association in a variety of ways, particularly through the Digital Classicist as a sub-field of the Digital Humanities that I found myself drawn to. Following my retirement from UCL, with plans to sail off into the sunset sunk by the demise of my skipper, I fully intended to re-engage more actively with classics but was recruited to head up a new research centre in Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, Guangdong, Southern China; this is one of the new twin-campus centres that are being set up in regional development zones and has equal status with Beijing.

I’ve been a regular and frequent visitor to China since 2014 when I first represented UCL at the China Scholarship Council Graduate Fair (CSCGF) in Beijing which brought me into contact with many students wishing to come and study in the UK in a variety of disciplines. One of those that stood out was classics and about which I was more than happy to offer advice. Over the years, I have built up many connections with Chinese universities and research centres in digital humanities which is a fast-growing field, attracting much interest there. Over the years, I have been invited to many conferences, events as well as to give guest lectures to both staff and students. One such invitation linked in with my Digital Classicist connection and asked if, as part of their digital humanities programme, I could deliver a lecture on digital classics; this prompted more in-depth research into the classics scene in China.

When looking for ‘classics’ in a university in mainland China (I’m using the University of Wuhan as an example as that is where I was invited to deliver the lecture), you will generally find the School of Chinese Classics.[1] These would include a comprehensive study of literature, history, philosophy, and art with additional research areas such as philosophical connotations, practical statecraft, textual research, as well as the art of writing. The college motto at Wuhan (a Confucian Analect – ch. 7 v.6) translates as ‘Set your will on the Way, have firm grasp on virtue, rely on humanity, and find recreation in the arts.’ This then is the study of Chinese classics, with sub-sets of Confucian Classics, Historical Classics, Classical Literature, Buddhism and Daoism, as well as Masters’ Theories. Similar to the ICS, Chinese scholars study the foundations of their culture and language(s) as well as the contemporary relevance of their past.

In the West we study Sinology, and there is significant interest in Western Classical Studies in mainland China. This is often seen as a way to understand the western world, western civilisation as a comparison to Chinese civilisation, and the different patterns of development. The universities of Renmin, Fudan, Nanjing and Shanghai Normal University offer such courses; these are the ones I am aware of and doubtless there are many more. These are generally found in History Departments, or those of Literature, Comparative Literature, and Reception Studies. Looking through WorldCat, there are many Chinese translations of western classical texts and secondary literature which can be found in the public libraries, including the Capital Library of China (the premier national public library located in Beijing), Shanghai Library (the second largest national library) and those of other major cities such as Guangzhou and Hangzhou, as well as many university libraries such as Wuhan.

The Shanghai Public Library has extensive holding of works of (western) classical literature, history, and reception studies, although these are held in the tower stacks to be ordered when needed (and so hence rarely accessed). Ancient philosophy, both Greek and Roman, however, is on the open shelves.

Shanghai Library

Shanghai Library

Shanghai Library - open shelves

Shanghai Library, Foreign Language shelves, Philosophy

Translating the western classical works into Chinese is often seen as a way of introducing them to students in history and literature faculties. Chinese scholars that I have contact with that work on western classical studies tell me that their interest started after reading Greek and Roman authors in translation during their undergraduate years. One that I first met at a CSCGF event has recently started a Postdoc at Tsinghua (ranked number one in China) on the cult of emperor worship after completing a PhD at Kings College London. Their starting point was language learning as an undergraduate at Renmin University followed by courses on tragedy, comedy, philosophy, history and medieval theology, exploring a wide range of interest before moving to Roman history despite the limitations of teaching and other resources. The differences between East and West became a motivating factor for pursuing doctoral study in the UK and the current Postdoc.

A colleague at my current institution had a similar experience but this time by discovering books on Western Historiography and (western) classical writers in their university library as an undergraduate which prompted a master’s programme in ancient world history, including language training. This led to the study of Virgil and other Augustan poets with a focus on the importance of culture within political movements. Their work after PhD took them away from classics which resulted in a move to the Centre for Historical Research at Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, the study of Roman cities and a comparison of ancient Chinese and Western cultures. At this centre, three staff members list Roman History among their research areas. We made initial contact after I got in touch with our campus library to enquire about an extensive collection of the Loeb Classical Library volumes that suddenly appeared in the Foreign Books section. With their distinctive appearance, their presence was immediately obvious. The collection had grown as part of the library initiative to expand their holdings of physical books to be on the same level as the library in the Beijing campus; they share the same online resources but purchase physical books as and when requested by staff, apparently without any budgetary restrictions. Part of the plan for this scholar is to start a systematic translation of selected works into Chinese to stimulate interest in upcoming students.

LOEB Greek

LOEB Latin

Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, Foreign Language section

BNUZH library shelves

Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, Art and Culture section

The interesting thing with both these scholars is their wish to get more Chinese students interested in western classics and western classical culture. Both wish to share their passion for western classics and encourage future students to discover the world of Greece and Rome. The latter scholar has used the resources of the developing campus library to generate extensive (for a Chinese university library) collections of classical works in English, Latin, and Greek. Their long-term plan is to translate and publish as many as possible into Chinese to stimulate interest amongst the students together with offering courses in western classical culture; something I shall be watching and advising on. Both scholars wish to open up the world of ancient Greece and Rome to Chinese students as well as contributing to the study of classics more widely.

It is clear to me that although there are many cultural differences, the study of the ancient world in China has many similarities with that in the West. Both study ancient sources, canonical texts, manuscripts, and other cultural artifacts; examine how our culture has developed and, importantly, how that relates to us now; as well as the importance of understanding our heritage to link the past with the present and our future. Here, as in the west, classics are studied with a passion and a wish to share that passion as widely as possible.



Ancient Greeks beyond Greece

Professor Franco De Angelis was A.D. Trendall Fellow in 2018-2019 and reports on a recently published edited book completed while in residence.

I am very happy to share my recent book launch, which happened via the newly established Centre for Migration Studies at the University of British Columbia, my home institution. You can watch it on the Centre’s YouTube Channel:  Why am I blogging about my edited book A Companion to Greeks Across the Ancient World here? In the final days of my fellowship at the ICS, I busily readied the book’s material for press. The very last details became part of pandemic publishing with the book squeaking through the presses just as lockdowns slammed everything shut. Thanks to this precious time at the ICS, we made it!

Book cover

The edited book is titled A Companion to Greeks Across the Ancient World, published in the series Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World via the Hoboken, NJ office of Wiley Blackwell Publishers.  The book consists of 580 pages (xxvi + 554) and contains 15 maps, 26 figures, and 3 tables (one of the maps is reproduced below).  Chronologically speaking, the book covers the Early Iron Age to the end of the Hellenistic period.  Geographically speaking, this story stretches from Catalonia in the far western Mediterranean to Afghanistan in central Asia, encompassing such regions as Italy, Libya, the Black Sea, and Middle East in between.  Such a book exceeds the abilities of any one scholar and thus demands a collective effort. This is the most up-to-date book on the subject and ambitiously gathers and analyzes the largest ever body of historical and archaeological data. The book is divided into three parts, across which are distributed 24 chapters, all written by leading specialists in their fields.  Part I has seven chapters that deal with ancient and modern approaches.  Part II comprises 14 chapters of warts-and-all regional history. Part III concludes with three chapters bringing together wider themes, such as the role played by ancient Greeks in culturally developing the pre-Roman Mediterranean, and how Greek migrants and their non-Greek neighbours made vital contributions to making Greece itself, in terms of supplying exports, ideas, and political and military challenges.  Full details about the book’s contents can be found on the publisher’s website:

Although this book has been a decade in the making, the research trajectory of which it is part has been even longer in the making and includes several issues of larger relevance to more than just the ancient Greeks outside Greece per se.  To start, these issues involve the application of postcolonial and postmodern approaches and include critically evaluating the appropriateness of previous terminologies and analytical concepts, the dismantling of centre and periphery narratives, the greater appreciation of the ancient world’s regionalism and non-Greek peoples, and the stressing of interconnected and interdependent relationships that have been challenging to identify with older nationalist and disciplinary approaches.  It is now clear that about one-half of the ancient Greek world did not live in Greece, and that the traditional neglect of these Greeks beyond Greece can no longer be ignored in the way we study and teach ancient history.  The edited book shows how a seemingly well-trodden subject like the ancient Greeks can still be opened up to new horizons in research.  Since my student days, my research has always aimed at telling a more diverse and inclusive story of the ancient Greek world, and this book represents another step in attaining that goal.


The next step involves writing a new book re-examining the role played by ancient Greeks in the development of the pre-Roman western Mediterranean, which was the primary focus of my Trendall fellowship at the ICS.  The complex sociocultural picture of this region, which is only partially illustrated on one of the maps from my edited volume, has come into sharp focus in the last generation of research.  Did the ancient Greeks play as big a role in the rise of Rome as scholarship has traditionally maintained?  Stay tuned!

Experiencing Epigraphy: Cognition & the Importance of Doubting your Senses

Abigail Graham writes about the research project which she is carrying out at the ICS

In Dickens’ famous “The Christmas Carol” the spirit of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge in his home, and Scrooge is so shocked and incredulous, he makes an unforgivable pun…

Ghost: “Why do you doubt your senses”

Scrooge: “Because a little thing affects them, a slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blot of mustard…  There is more of gravy than of grave about you…..”


Image 1

As a shrewd Scrooge illustrates, reconciling our sensory experiences of an event with our expectations is a difficult undertaking. Senses are not definitive, they can betray us, but they can also play a crucial part in countering our expectations. The survival of an object or account can lead us to treat a source as a factual, as opposed to a subjective version of events. Historians and archaeologists are often haunted by ghosts of expectation, which can play a defining role in interpretation: if one is looking for the mask of Agamemnon, a lost archive or an accurate account of a ritual procession, one is likely to find it, whether or not it exists.

After studying monumental writing on public buildings for 20 years, I remain tempted by the siren song of ancient voices: this writing has survived two millenia, surely it was revered and forged in truth. I want to believe the ancient whispers of success, glory, and inviolability that ancient monuments claim, just as I would like to believe that my engagement with ancient monuments is like that of an ancient reader, but neither is true.

How we access information can also distort our views: inscriptions are often found in a book or a website, written in a recognisable typeface with added punctuation, and a translation. Modern readers are more inclined to accept a published text, overlooking possible variables in sensory engagement with an object in context, such as lighting, legibility, lettering, organisation, spacing, accessibility, location, weather, or noise. These variables, which played a primary role in the experience of ancient viewer, can be lost in the translation from monument to text.

Image 2a

For example, when one encounters a large collection of documents in a book, such as the “Archive Wall” at Aphrodisias, a series of Imperial letters dating from 39 BCE into the mid 3rd century CE,  recording the city’s special status and relationship with Rome, published in Reynolds’ Aphrodisias and Rome (1982) or online I.Aph2007; it is natural to assume this collection of documents, presented as a useful archive for modern scholars, played a similar role for ancient viewers (See fig. 2a: An entry from I.APh 2007 8.29).





Image 2b

Approaching these documents as a monument, however, inscribed in five columns across a shadowed entranceway in the north parodos of the theatre at Aphrodisias, present a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the viewer (Image 2.b). Inevitable doubts creep in: Did anyone read these inscriptions? Were they accessible? Do they represent a truth or an aspiration? My research at the ICS attempts to address these questions and to imagine or recreate ancient sensory engagements with monuments in their urban contexts.





Image 3

Cognitive approaches facilitate attempts at placing oneself in the shoes of an ancient viewer. Recent studies in cognitive neurology (see Prof.  S. Dehaene (2010)’s  recent book and public lectures have shown how the process of reading was developed through a pre-existing neural network: how we process a visual landscape. How a viewer engaged and interpreted monumental writing was inextricably linked to their experience of a broader visual landscape.

Imagine walking down this crowded passage on a performance day (Image 3, Archive wall is on the lefthand side). There is a constant flow of traffic as people enter, chattering about an upcoming event. There is no place sit quietly and read, nor was it well-lit for most of of the day. This bustling entranceway was among the least-suited places for a thoughtful reading.  In this context, reading was likely a brief encounter by a passing viewer, which imposed a number of constraints. That is not to say that no one read these documents.  The careful arrangement of the inscription across the columns, the prominent heading, larger letters in the margins, use of indentations and spacing, suggest that writing was meant to be seen, but perhaps not read in its entirety or in one sitting (Image 4: below).

Image 4

Exploring the cognitive process of how we read read can help us understand how ancient carvers and viewers addressed the difficulties presented by the physical context.  This monumental writing was painstakingly organised on specific spaces with visual cues (spaces, decorations, margins, larger letters) as well as coloured paint.  Cognitive neuroscience illustrates how these features played a transformative role in reading: color creates contrasts, rectilinear capital letterforms can be decoded quickly, empty spaces (vacats) and paratextual elements (margins and decorations) played a crucial role in delineating the text; drawing the eye to key points of information (the author, recipient, greeting  and theme of the letter). These visual cues formed patterns in two ways, both in the columns (top to bottom) and on a horizontal line of vision (across the columns) (Image 5: below). Both features were useful, particularly for viewers in motion, highlighting the format or formula of a letter, so that passing readers could discern the writing as well as (to some degree) its form and function.

Image 5

The twenty-odd letters inscribed on the wall, which range in time from the Triumviral period (mid 1st c BCE) into the 3rd century CE, are a subjective selection of letters, chosen for a specific purpose: they are not a comprehensive collection of Imperial letters to Aphrodisias (see reconstruction from Kokkinia’s recent article 2016 article). In fact, some letters are not addressed to Aphrodisias, but to public officials or other cities (e.g. Smyrna (a provincial capital in Asia Minor) and the island of Samos). The letters share a tone of respect and warning from the emperor, regarding the special nature of Aphrodisias’ position in the Roman Empire. These messages, often at the end of a letter, were visually accentuated with spaces and/or decorations to draw the eye of the viewer.

The presentation of public writing can also provide clues about the function of monumental writing (e.g. was the “Archive Wall” intended as an archive?). On a practical level, there are a few issues in accepting this dossier collection as an archive. Some inscriptions are difficult to access (See fig 2b above), it could be too high (column 2 is 5+ meters high) or too low (the lowest level was at hip height: less than one meter high).  The letters appear to have been edited to fit within the space and to emphasise messages about the city’s privileges. These  may not have been “true” copies, unlike more accessible papyrus scrolls that were probably available in a local archive, where readers were not exposed to crowds or the elements.

Questioning how an ancient reader engaged with this inscription is a way of exploring the transformation from text to monument in antiquity. From a practical or sensory perspective, the experience of viewing and/or reading inscribed documents was often quite distinct from other forms of reading.  Stepping away from expectations of legibility and immutability of these documents, we can begin to experience the monument in a different way.  Altering the location and appearance of writing, as well as editing and arranging the text, probably reflects a different function: such as an honorary monument, intended for a broader audience. This makes sense, as the theatre hosted large and diverse audiences: locals, citizens, freedmen, foreigners, officials.

Exploring sensory experiences in our approaches to the ancient world need not lead us into darkness, rather it is a way of bringing our own ghosts of expectations to light, of exploring the veracity of monumental claims. Our view of the past is neither complete, nor perfect, and when it comes to understanding an ancient viewer, a little bit of doubt can go a long way.

This research will be formally published in the American Journal of Archaeology this October, and is also explored in forthcoming edited volume “Senses and Cognition”.

Blog: CaveatLector: Reading Rome

Twitter: @abby_fecit








Monuments of Marathon

Brandon Braun has been an academic visitor at the ICS over the last two years while writing his UCLA doctoral dissertation on monuments and memorials in ancient Greece. As well as researching the monuments of Marathon, which he discusses in this blog, he has run the course of the first marathon from the battlefield to the city of Athens.

Modern column

Figure 1: Modern reconstruction of Marathon Column Monument

The battle of Marathon was fought in 490 BCE. It was (and indeed still is) one of the most well-known ancient battles, having been alluded to as early as Aeschylus’ Persians of the 470s BCE, before a generation later Herodotus described the events that led to the battle, narrated the fighting itself, and indicated some of the subsequent commemorations. I won’t analyze of the ancient sources here. Instead, I want to focus on how the battle was remembered in physical forms on the field itself, primarily centered around a single stone column monument. This column, undoubtedly a commemoration of the battle, had a very interesting object biography.

As we understand from reconstructions, the Ionic column stood more than 10 metres tall. The vertical effect was further emphasized by the placement of the monument, as it appears that its base would have stood on an earthen mound, perhaps granting extra height and, therefore, prominence on the field.

Being such an imposing monument for an important battle, it may be surprising that the architectural features of the column date to the 460s BCE stylistically, indicating it was erected several decades after the battle was fought in 490 BCE. There are several possible reasons for this, and I’m sure the readers of this blog could posit many, but I’ll just talk about one: was it a stone replacement of an ephemeral trophy?

The answer is complex. First, we have to ask what a trophy was. Scholars connect the monument type to a celebration of the rout, literally the “turn” of the battle, linked etymologically with the Greek term τροπή. The trophy would thus be placed at the point in the field where the tide turned and victory was assured. There are plenty of literary sources that mention trophies, especially historians after Thucydides.

That leads to the follow-up question: what about in the early fifth century BCE? Some project the practice of raising trophies backwards from Thucydides, but there is little evidence before the second half of the fifth century. The earliest literary reference to a trophy is from the 460s in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (line 954). All in all, it seems unlikely that an ephemeral trophy was raised after the fighting at Marathon, thus the stone column was not a monumental replacement.

Nevertheless, the column monument attracted later embellishments that added iconography that would be expected of an ancient trophy. The first of these is a set of carved weaponry, now stored in the British Museum.


Figure 2: Possible added trophy elements, now in British Museum. Vanderpool 1967, plate 31.

There is some question regarding where this sculpture originated (a very interesting question, involving museum collections, inventories, and the relative fame of ancient battles), but let’s assume that it can be associated with the column. Thus, these sculptures effectively updated the appearance of the column, such that it more closely resembled an ancient battlefield trophy.

We only know of a second embellishment because of 19th-century drawings by Loius François Sébastien Fauvel. In this drawing, the early-modern French diplomat/artist/archaeologist has a block with the inscribed label ΤΡΟΠΑΙΟΥ, the Greek word for “trophy”. Unfortunately, the stone is lost so it is not possible to get more information about it. Still, assuming that it existed and was not Fauvel’s creative way of labelling a drawing of the column, the block is further evidence that the column monument was at one point considered a trophy.

Fauvel drawing

Figure 3: Drawing of column monument capital, with “ΤΡΟΠΑΙΟΥ” block. Drawing by Fauvel (Parigi, Bibl. Nat. Estampes, Gb 15, f. 23). See Beschi 2002.

There may have been later changes to the column or the space around it, but the next secure phase of its biography dates to the medieval period. Perhaps around the 12th century, several column drums and the ionic capital were re-used as building materials in the lower courses of a medieval tower. This was the state of the column until it was extricated from the tower in the 20th century, then taken to be displayed in the museum at Marathon.

Medieval tower

Figure 4: Reconstruction of Medieval tower. Korres 2017, plate 17.

In addition to being used as expedient building material, the monument also served as a makeshift gameboard at some point in its object biography. Close inspection of the face of the capital shows the marks for a game called “Nine-man’s Morris”, similar to checkers or tic-tac-toe.

Detail of column capital

Figure 5: Detail of column capital, “Nine-man’s Morris”

Today, the remains of the column are on display in the archaeological museum at Marathon, or rather, a few column drums and the Ionic capital. On the field, a modern reconstruction stands near where the original had been found. Rather than simply a stand-in for its ancient predecessor, the modern column is a monument in its own right, which has the capacity to attract further commemorations or “dedications”, such as the wreath in the first picture.

Thus was the simplified object biography of the stone column monument at Marathon. It was an early-Classical commemoration of the battle, which was later updated to reflect developing expectations of battlefield commemorations in the later Classical and Hellenistic period, before eventually falling and being reused as building material and a gameboard. Later, the stone was “rescued” from the field to be displayed in a museum, and its original location was marked by a modern replica.

The column was not the only monument on the field. Anyone who has visited will remember the soros or tumulus, an imposing human-made mound measuring nine meters tall and 50 meters diameter, supposedly marking the burial of the 192 Athenians that had perished in the battle. Just as with the column, monuments such as the soros also have complex histories, but I’ll leave that for another time!

Supposed burial mound

Figure 6: View of soros