The Institute of Classical Studies
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Friends, Romans, and the Launching of ‘Lessons from Roman Floral Design: Building Sustainable Floristry Today’
Dr. Patty Baker (University of Kent) is a recent recipient of one of the ICS’s small grants for public engagement. In this post she reports on a trial event in which she used her research into ancient Roman floral design to open up a conversation about sustainable floristry in the modern world.
The sight and scent of flowers growing in nature or arranged into bouquets can enhance anyone’s mood. Flowers are admired throughout the world and hold various meanings in different societies. For example, the symbolism of heaven and earth are prevalent design elements in Japanese Ikebana. In spite of the popularity of flowers, the business of floral design is far from environmentally friendly.
Floristry is a global industry. It relies upon large-scale flower farming and long-haul transportation. Non-biodegradable plastics and tapes are used in the construction of flower designs, and the waste created by the leaves and stems is sometimes not composted. Due to the environmental impact, there is a growing movement by florists to use locally grown, seasonal flowers and to create designs with biodegradable materials. Historical knowledge of flower growing and methods of design can contribute to this development.
The Romans were fond of their gardens, floral garlands and crowns, and attempting to learn their methods can help us create new ways of approaching sustainable floral design today. With this in mind, I applied for, and was generously awarded, funding from the Institute of Classical Studies to run a public engagement project, Lessons from Roman Floral Design: Building Sustainable Floristry Today.
In January and February 2020, I will hold two workshops to teach local florists and the Canterbury Flower Club about Roman crowns and garlands. There are two aspects to the project. First, teaching the subjects of Roman gardens and flower design is a unique way to present the ancient world to artisans whose work is informed by modern fashion trends. Second, introducing past methods of flower construction can help florists learn about some environmentally sustainable techniques that they might wish to incorporate into their own work.
The project brings together two strands of my work experience. My research focuses on Greco-Roman medicine, health, and wellbeing. Recent publications explore the sensory experiences the Romans had in their gardens that they believed contributed to their mental and physical health. Aside from my research, one of my hobbies is floral design, a skill I gained when I was an undergraduate and worked for a florist during summers and holidays. The combination of my research with my hobby, has led to a project in experimental archaeology where I have attempted to learn the Roman methods of making crowns and garlands. To do this, I examined the limited descriptions of them in the texts of Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius, for example. In comparison, the surviving representations of crowns and garlands on fresco paintings, mosaics, and sculpture, gave me further insights into the techniques used in their construction.
Although the funded workshops do not take place until early 2020, I held a practice session with five friends on Saturday, 19th of October 2019. When I mentioned the project to them, they were enthusiastic about the idea and wanted to learn about it themselves. None of them works in fields related to ancient history or archaeology, making this good practice for the workshops I will lead. Moreover, my friends have interests in gardening, health, and crafts, which align closer with my research than with the traditional ancient history lessons they were taught in school that focused on politics, famous men, and warfare. To them, these traditional topics made the ancient world ‘dry’ and uninteresting. Therefore, these alternative subjects are a way of making the Greco-Roman past exciting and relevant to their interests.
One friend kindly offered her farm for the day. I began with a presentation about Roman gardens and how the Romans believed green spaces contributed to their mental and physical wellbeing. I wanted my friends to learn that the Romans saw themselves as part of nature rather than separate from it, something we tend to do in the modern world. An awareness of this historical shift in attitude is important for environmental action because it can make us rethink how we situate ourselves in relation to nature.
I thought the introduction would take about an hour. Yet, it lasted for over two. The conversation was lively, and everyone made insightful comparisons between ancient and modern practices and beliefs in relation to their life and work. For example, one, a holistic medical practitioner, pointed out similarities between the medical philosophies of her job with Roman conceptions of healthy spaces.
After this, we paused for lunch. Since I have an interest in Roman sensory experiences, I was also curious about how my friends would react to Roman food. The menu, based on recipes from Varro, Cato the Elder, and Apicius, consisted of two types of bread: libum, a cheese bread made for festivals, and simple flat breads with moretum, a cheese ball with celery and coriander leaves rolled into it. Two vegetable dishes accompanied this. One was broad beans cooked with a sauce of ginger, garum (East Asian fish sauce was the substitute), lovage, pepper, honey, white wine, and vinegar. The other was lentils with a chestnut sauce. The main dish was dill chicken. Lunch concluded with grapes, walnuts, and dates stuffed with ground pine nuts, walnuts, and pepper, rolled in honey and salt (I highly recommend this recipe by Apicius 7.13.1 for a holiday treat). Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the flavours. The meal led to discussions about different conceptions of healthy diets, the types of foods that were grown in Roman gardens, and how knowledge of Roman gardening might inform how people grow food in their own gardens.
We concluded the day making Roman flower crowns, something none of them had done before. I taught one method I thought the Romans might have used, which I will describe in my forthcoming blogs on the funded project. We experimented with greenery mentioned by ancient writers: parsley (Athenaeus Deip. 14. 629e; Pliny HN 21. 29) and ivy (Pliny HN 16.4;21. 28; Ovid. Tristia 7; Hor. Carm. 3.25.20, 4.8.33). For the flowers, we used daisy chrysanthemums and white carnations. The chrysanthemums replaced daisies, which are found in the garden fresco from Livia’s villa at Prima Porta. The carnations were a modern addition in an attempt to simulate small roses that Pliny the Elder mentioned were ideal for crowns (Pliny HN 21. 8, 14-21).
The day was a success. It not only brought to life the ancient world in a creative way, but it allowed my friends to develop a new skill, as well as to consider and discuss the global issue of environmental sustainability from a new perspective. Yet, the real indicator of achievement was when I received a thank you email from one of my friends telling me she wore her crown to a dinner party that lasted well into the early hours of the morning. If only she had a dining couch.
by Patty Baker
For this year’s Being Human festival, the ICS is putting on a free event in London in partnership with Islington’s Little Angel Theatre and puppeteer-storyteller Tinka Slavicek. Making Medusa, which will take place on Sunday 17th November at Little Angel Studios, will be a family-friendly crafting and storytelling event where we’ll create a larger-than-life moving Medusa puppet from recycled materials; audiences can learn more about the myth of the snake-haired monster and discover how tales of Medusa have been told and retold since ancient times by poets, storytellers and artists. Full details and booking information for the event are here. This blogpost provides a very short introduction to the legend of Medusa, and suggests some places to look for further information if you’re planning on coming to the event and would like to know more about the millennia-old story behind our snaky creation!
Like all myths, the story of Medusa is one which has changed over time: in Hesiod’s early ancient Greek poem Theogony (dated to around 700 BCE), she is one of three sisters, the Gorgons, who are so terrifying that those who look on them turn to stone. Of these three monsters, only Medusa is mortal – Perseus kills her by cutting off her head. In a later version of this story, by the poet Pindar (who was composing his works in the early fifth-century BCE, the emphasis is again on the heroism of her killer, who carries Medusa’s snake-haired head with him to inflict ‘stony death’ on those who see it. Pindar tells the story of how the music of the flute was invented by the goddess Athena as an imitation of the other Gorgons’ lament for the death of their sister.
Hundreds of years later the Roman poet Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, written in around 8 CE, imagined a backstory for Medusa – Ovid’s version is one whose disturbing elements are often forgotten in retellings which focus more on the figure of Perseus than on the experience of Medusa herself. Rather than presenting her as having been born a monster, this poet represents her as initially a beautiful woman, the object of male desire. In Ovid’s version she is raped in the temple of the virgin goddess Minerva (the Roman equivalent of Athena) by the sea god Neptune (known as Poseidon in the Greek tradition); Minerva, horrified by the act of desecration in her sacred space, takes out her anger on Medusa herself instead of punishing the perpetrator of the act. Medusa’s beautiful hair is transformed by Athena into horrible snakes. The goddess Athena is often represented in classical art as wearing an ‘aegis’, a breastplate or shield featuring the head of a Gorgon; Ovid’s story also invents a mythical origin for this emblem.
- You can read English translations of these ancient Greek and Latin versions of Medusa’s story by clicking on the highlighted links here: Hesiod’s Theogony; Pindar’s Pythian 10; Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Gorgons like Medusa appear in Greek art from very early on – they are often shown on painted pottery and in sculpture as terrifying figures with a wide ‘smiling’ mouth, protruding tongue, fangs and sometimes curly hair, although this is not always depicted as having snake heads. Other ancient images show Perseus in the act of beheading Medusa. Ever since ancient times Medusa has continued to inspire artists to create their own versions of her story – some have focused more on the heroism of Perseus as he kills her, as is the case with Cellini’s bronze sculpture Perseus with the head of Medusa. Other artists have looked more closely at the figure of Medusa herself – Caravaggio and Rubens, for example, both painted gruesome images of her snaky head, sure to horrify the viewer.
More recently Ray Harryhausen’s 1981 fantasy film Clash of the Titans brought a monstrous Medusa to life – he imagined her for the first time with a serpentine tail as well as snaky hair, and this image is one which has influenced other contemporary versions of Medusa, including even a Lego minifigure! Not all artists have represented her as a monster, however: Harriet Hosmer’s 1854 bust of Medusa, for example, focuses not on the horrific image of snake-haired Medusa but instead on the beauty and pathos of her story. Luxury fashion brand Versace also adopted a Medusa-figure as its logo, the image adapted from a version of an ancient mosaic.
If you’d like to find out more about some of the ways in which Medusa has found her way into images and stories over the centuries, here are a few free-to-access online resources to get you started:
- In 2018 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held an exhibition with the title Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art. This article by Allison Meier takes a look at some of the exhibits and explores the story behind them. Meanwhile this post by Nicole Saldarriaga at Classical Wisdom Weekly provides a useful introduction to some of the ways in which the Medusa myth has evolved over time.
- Curtis Dozier’s 2015 article in Eidolon takes a look at the ways in which the juxtaposition of beautiful woman and dangerous monster are combined in contemporary images of Medusa. You can also read a recent feminist take on the story of Medusa’s rape by Poseidon here; and this piece by Elizabeth Johnston looks at some of the ways in which the image of Medusa has been used as a way of criticizing powerful women.
- If you’re interested in ancient monsters more generally, our Royal Holloway colleague Liz Gloyn’s new book, Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture, investigates some of the ways in which monsters from the ancient world have found their way into contemporary media like films and television series. You can read the introduction of Liz’s book for free here. Liz has also written on her blog about a recent reinterpretation of Medusa, in which the singer Rihanna was styled with snakes for hair in a photoshoot for GQ magazine. On the ICS blog there’s also an earlier blogpost in which Liz talks to Catherine Baker, whose Medusa story features in our Making Monsters anthology of stories and essays (ed. Emma Bridges and Djibril al-Ayad).
- This animation created by the Panoply Vase Animation Project brings to life the story of Medusa using images from several Greek painted pots, including one featuring an image of a Gorgon.
- Meanwhile, if you’re interested in taking a look for yourself at some of the ways in which Medusa has featured in art over the centuries, it’s worth browsing the Iconographic Database hosted by our colleagues over at the Warburg Institute. A search for ‘Medusa’ reveals a wealth of different images; entering ‘Gorgon’ into the search box produces even more results.
We’ll be sharing more snippets about Medusa over on Twitter in the days leading up to our event. You can join the conversation by searching for #MakingMedusa; do share with us your own favourite versions of Medusa by using the hashtag! For more information about the Being Human event, and to book a free space, visit the booking page.
by Emma Bridges
Image credits Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise stated.
With less than a month to go until the opening of this year’s annual Being Human festival, this week’s blogpost picks out some of the classically-focused events which will be taking place around the UK this November. Being Human – founded in 2014 – is organised by our colleagues here at the School of Advanced Study, and is the UK’s only national festival which is dedicated to sharing the fruits of humanities research with public audiences. Themed around ‘Discoveries and Secrets’, this year’s festival will take place from 14th-23rd November at locations all over the country. All events are free to attend, but some do require advance booking – details for each can be found by clicking on the highlighted links.
In Lincolnshire a hands-on exhibition on November 23rd, Unearthing Roman Riseholme, will provide visitors with the opportunity to talk to archaeologists and handle finds from this summer’s community archaeology project which unearthed parts of a Roman settlement at the university’s Riseholme campus.
For those with an interest in ancient Egypt, in Edinburgh the National Museum of Scotland will host a panel discussion on Scottish contributions to Egyptian archaeology on 16th November – you can find out more about current and past excavations, and take a closer look at the museum’s Egyptian collection. Elsewhere, at Swansea’s tantalisingly-titled Enter the Chamber of Secrets family fun day on 23rd November, you’ll find academics from the university’s Egypt Centre sharing some of the secrets of their research.
The University of Exeter’s Secret Ingredients event, which is being held at Exeter Central Library on the evening of 19th November, will feature researchers from across the humanities (including classicists and archaeologists) offering tasty insights into the origins of our modern diets. Equally intriguingly, Death at Teatime, in Oxford on November 23rd, invites you to join in discussion over afternoon tea with researchers from a range of disciplines – including classical archaeology, history of medicine and medical ethics – to talk about historical and present-day perspectives on the often-taboo topics of death and bereavement.
There are also several events which are inspired by the ancient world taking place across London over the course of the festival. At the ICS we’re partnering with Islington’s Little Angel Theatre to put on Making Medusa, a family-friendly puppet-making and storytelling day bringing to life the snake-haired mythical monster (November 17th). On 21st November we’re also involved in Sea Change, an evening of storytelling in a riverside pub, focusing on sea creatures from the Sirens of the Odyssey to the selkies of Scottish folklore. Elsewhere in London you can discover more about Gilgamesh, The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Die (November 19th); and, also on November 19th, the London Mithraeum will host Excavating Roman Voices, which combines a poetic performance with short talks and the opportunity to view the ancient Roman temple.
Being Human festival events will be taking place all over the UK this November, inviting public audiences to learn more about some of the most exciting current research in all humanities disciplines. There will also be a preview event in partnership with the charity Arts Emergency on 30th October in London, focusing on issues around diversity in both academia and the creative industries, and asking ‘Are the Humanities for Us?’ This event is also free and open to all, and you can find further details here. You can search the full festival programme here, and can get festival news and updates on Twitter by following @BeingHumanFest, or by searching for #BeingHuman19.
Dr. Selena Wisnom (The Queen’s College, Oxford) was the recipient of one of this year’s ICS public engagement grants; the award helped to fund an immersive production of her new play about the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. Here she tells us more about the play.
I am standing in the crypt of St Pancras Church, which has been transformed into the throne room of Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria. It is a freezing night in 648 BC and the atmosphere is electric: the king is discussing a tense political situation with his advisors, and announces that he will ask the gods for advice by sacrificing a ram. Huddled around the walls, the audience watch as a group of actors carry in a man on their shoulders, stripped to the waist, twitching and terrified in animal incomprehension. They set him on an altar right in front of me and thrust his leg in my direction with the instruction ‘hold!’ As we the audience pin down the limbs of the sacrificial ram, the diviners begin reciting the ritual prayers and with a ray of light the priest standing next to me plunges in the knife. The ram’s limbs go limp and we stand back while the entrails are taken out and their meaning deciphered. The course of history is determined here.
This was my first glimpse of how the play would be staged at the dress rehearsal, experiencing it as the audience would for the first time. Ashurbanipal: the last great king of Assyria, is a play that I wrote based on historical sources, telling the story of Ashurbanipal’s disastrous war against his brother, the king of Babylon. The play dramatizes an event that was pivotal in Mesopotamian history, showing it through the lens of a deep-rooted family conflict. The plot pieces together the fragmentary cuneiform sources into a narrative, using dramatic license to bridge the gaps. The script is suffused with quotations from ancient texts so as to recreate the culture’s ways of thinking and figures of speech, with characters sometimes even speaking in their own words taken from letters and inscriptions. As I had explained to the director Justin Murray, I wrote the play with the aim of immersing the audience in the world of ancient Assyria so that they would learn about the period directly through the story without needing to know any of the background, since all the necessary information would be conveyed through the plot. Little did I know just how immersive this production of Ashurbanipal would become.
Immersive theatre is a new and popular form of drama which actively involves the audience. Instead of sitting and watching the stage from afar they are placed directly in the room as if they are also taking part in the action. Justin’s company Catharsis Theatre took the audience into Ashurbanipal’s palace so that they could walk the corridors of power themselves. The play began with an actress playing an Iraqi archaeologist, welcoming the audience to the archaeological site of Nineveh. As she begins to read from a tablet, the king’s chief astrologer walks out of the shadows and takes it from her hand, seamlessly transitioning into his monologue and transporting us back in time. As the scenes change the characters move from one room to another and the audience follow, but there are occasions when the action diverges and they must choose which character to follow while two scenes take place simultaneously. As one audience member commented, this highlights how we can never know everything that happened in history, and our understanding of events will always be incomplete. At the same time, each person has a different experience of the play depending on which path through it they choose, sympathising with different characters depending on which sides of the story they witness. The immersive format also made for some fun moments of audience participation, such as when the audience become servants of the palace, carrying torches and serving the king grapes, or bringing prisms to build the funeral pyre in Babylon, as well as participating in the electrifying ram sacrifice.
A cast of professional actors brought the story to life brilliantly. All were from BME backgrounds, many with personal links to the Middle East who were able to inject their own understanding into the play at the same time as deepening their engagement with their history. A major exhibition about Ashurbanipal was staged at the British Museum during the development period, and the museum generously gave us access on several occasions so that the cast and creative team could take direct inspiration from Assyrian artefacts. Rehearsals I attended became hours of Q&A as they sought to understand the historical context as authentically as possible, with an enthusiasm and dedication that was deeply affecting.
The play ran for six performances from 28th Feb – 3rd March 2019 and every show sold out. We are now planning to stage it again in larger venues and take it on tour around the country so that even more people can discover Ashurbanipal’s story. Thanks to support from the ICS public engagement fund we have been able to deliver a successful first phase of this project, which will bring this little-known but fascinating period of history to the wider audience it deserves. Ashurbanipal’s story is not over yet.
We would also like to thank The London Centre for the Ancient Near East and the University of Cambridge Arts and Humanities Impact Fund for further support for this project.
by Selena Wisnom
Image credits Rishi Rai
Prof. Miriam Leonard (University College London) reports on a new exhibition supported by an ICS public engagement grant.
For a number of years I have been exploring Sigmund Freud’s interest in antiquity. I have been repeatedly struck by the way that the Greco-Roman world competed with other ancient societies to inspire his theories about the history of the human psyche. This research gave me the idea for an exhibition which explored Freud’s relationship to Egypt. The exhibition Between Oedipus and the Sphinx: Freud and Egypt is taking place at the Freud Museum in London and runs from 12 August until 27 October 2019.
A painting of Oedipus’ encounter with the Sphinx hangs over the psychoanalyst’s couch in the museum. The significance of the figure of Oedipus to the development of Sigmund Freud’s thought is well known, but the presence of the Sphinx in this picture highlights Freud’s less celebrated interest in Egypt and other non-European ancient cultures. Freud had a very extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities as well as frequently writing about Egypt in his psychoanalytic works. The antiquities collection is linked to Freud’s interest in archaeology, which provided him with one of the most productive metaphors for exploring the layers of mind. Freud formulated his archaeology of the mind in tandem with important developments in professional archaeology and Egyptology. Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), the first Professor of Egyptology in the UK, was an almost exact contemporary of Sigmund Freud and is generally considered to be one of the founding figures of modern archaeology. The exhibition brings the Freud Museum’s Egyptian antiquities into a dialogue with UCL’s Petrie Museum. In particular, the exhibition highlights the overlap between Freud and Petrie’s fascination with the figure of Akhenaten. In 1891 Petrie conducted the first systematic excavation of Amarna, the site of the heretical Pharoah’s capital city. It was Petrie’s finds which enabled ancient historians to understand the religious and cultural revolution that took place during his reign. Freud followed these excavations with great interest and Akhenaten became the hero of his last major work, Moses and Monotheism, published from London in 1939.
In this book Freud makes the scandalous claim that Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian. Freud speculates that Moses was born an Egyptian noble and was a follower of Akhenaten. Akhenaten abandoned traditional Egyptian polytheism and introduced the exclusive worship of the sun god, Aten. Freud believed that it was Akhenaten’s monotheism which lies behind the Jews’ own adoption of a monotheistic religion. He also claimed that the Jews, impatient with the harsh strictures of his monotheistic religion, murdered Moses. The history of ancient Judaism is the site of an oedipal murder whose consequences for the Jewish people continued to be felt into his lifetime.
Alongside the exhibition, Ivan Ward (Deputy Director of Freud Museum) and I have been collaborating with the award-winning screenwriter Michael Eaton, who is writing a play based on a fictional encounter between Freud and Flinders Petrie in which they discuss their competing visions of archaeology, ancient cultures, and the history of the psyche. Michael Eaton will be reading extracts of the new play at the major conference which accompanies the exhibition on 12th October. He will also be taking part in an event at the Petrie Museum on the 26th of September which explores Egyptomania in the time of Freud.
by Miriam Leonard
Prof. Neville Morley (University of Exeter) shares news of a new animation about Thucydides, created with the help of an ICS public engagement grant.
In recent years, Thucydides has become an increasingly familiar name in debates about current events, such as the future of US-China relations, the rise of populism and factionalism in western democracies, and of course Brexit. Boris Johnson’s professed admiration for Pericles has simply added to the level of interest on social media in recent months. Many of these references are trite and simplistic, taking a few quotes or examples out of context and elevating them into universal political theories. Worse, they tend to be obscure and elitist; it’s not so much that these commentators assume extensive knowledge of Thucydides on the part of their audience, as that they assume their audience will simply accept their invocation of Thucydides and what he stands for without question.
In other words, there is a clear need for better knowledge and understanding of Thucydides, to demystify the ways that people make use of his name and accumulated authority. The problem is that Thucydides’ work is long, difficult and inaccessible – even his name is long, difficult and inaccessible. Of course there are excellent introductory books about him, and resources like the episodes of Radio 4’s In Our Time (on Thucydides generally from 2015, and on the Mytilinaean Debate from earlier this year) – but those already demand considerable investment of time. What is there for someone who wants more than just “Athenian historian and general”, but wants it in under three minutes..?
Thucydides: Heavyweight Champion Historian of the World is a short animation designed to offer an accessible introduction to Thucydides and his work. I originally proposed it as a TED-Ed video, but they changed their minds about the idea halfway through the development process; I’m enormously grateful to the ICS, along with my Head of Department and the Associate Dean for Research, for coming up with the funding to make it possible nevertheless. It was written and narrated by me, and illustrated and animated by Bee Jamieson and Matt Hawkins, a couple of students from Falmouth University – and if anyone else has plans for something similar, I can’t recommend these two strongly enough for their enthusiasm and imagination, but failing that I’d certainly suggest that working with students is the cost-effective way to go.
The animation is intended for anyone with a passing interest in who Thucydides was, especially young people and those for whom English is not their first language. It’s a lot shorter and less wordy than any of the videos on Thucydides currently available, as well as funnier (sillier?) and rather more memorable (I hope), without being too simplistic. Yes, it’s ended up being less explicitly critical of the ‘Thucydides’ Trap’ idea than I would have liked, but there’s a limit to what can be done in three minutes – and the opportunity to show Greek warriors falling into a pit was too good to miss…
It’s now on YouTube for anyone to see. I’m going to be adding it to the resources supporting the ‘Might and Right: Thinking Through Thucydides’ activities that Lynette Mitchell and I have been developing with The Politics Project to help support political literacy in schools (contact me for further details if interested!), but I hope it will be useful in lots of different contexts. I’m enormously grateful to the ICS for their help in making this project possible. And if anyone wants to crowd-fund an animation of a Herodotus-Thucydides Historical Deathmatch…
by Neville Morley
You can read more about Neville’s research on his personal blog, and you can also find him on Twitter @NevilleMorley.
Dr. Christine Plastow (Open University) reports on the latest phase of a new project from By Jove Theatre Company.
From 22nd-26th July 2019, By Jove Theatre Company held a week of research and development work partially funded by the ICS Public Engagement small grant scheme. The research and development was towards the company’s ongoing interest in producing a new piece of theatre exploring queer interpretations of the myth of Orestes, and culminated in two work-in progress showings.
The R&D sessions were held at Centre 151 in Hoxton, London. The sessions were attended by members of By Jove including actors, movement practitioners, writers, dramaturgs, directors, and stage managers, and also by our external collaborators, academic Nancy Rabinowitz and musicians Vivienne Youel, Gemma Storr and Sam Blenkin. The ICS funding contributed to paying all of the creatives for their time.
Prior to the week’s work, the company had produced a pack of text with which to work, curated by head writer Wendy Haines. On the first day’s session, the company explored the story of the myth of Orestes, working with the narrative of the myth itself, improvised storytelling exercises, and boiling down the texts we had produced to the most crucial scenes for telling the story. On the second day, the company began working with movement, led by movement director Susanna Dye. The musicians also arrived and began to respond to the work we were creating. Two scenes were strung together to form a short narrative. On the third day, we continued movement work and staged further scenes, identifying a structure for our piece built around three sections, each focusing on Orestes and Pylades, Iphigenia, and Electra. We also identified necessary props and costume pieces. On the fourth day, we constructed and worked on the central narrative of the show; we also sourced necessary props and costumes. On the morning of the fifth and final day, we finalised a few aspects and ran through the entire piece.
The piece that we produced was about 45 minutes long, and blended movement, music, and text to explore the lives of Orestes, Pylades, Electra, and Iphigenia in the aftermath of the trauma they all endured – the ‘sacrifice’ of Iphigenia, the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and Orestes’ encounters with the Furies. The piece made it explicit that Orestes and Pylades were in a romantic relationship, and also portrayed queer aspects of Iphigenia’s relationship to the goddess Artemis, as well as exploring the queering of family dynamics more broadly. The narrative was designed to occupy the spaces in between the Greek tragedies that depict the myth of Orestes, exploring the more everyday, human moments that the characters go through between the heightened, tragic events of their major myths. At the end of the piece, the characters reflected explicitly on their use in later history, arguing for the importance of (re-)inserting queer characters into Greek mythology in order to foreground a shared history and genealogy of queerness.
In the afternoon of the fifth day, we hosted two sharings of the work we had produced. These sharings were very successful and well-attended, with around 40 audience members attending across the two shows, including representatives from academia, theatre, the press, and the LGBT+ community, as well as friends and supporters of the company. Both sharings were followed by Q&A/feedback sessions, during which we received comments from the audiences on the successes of our piece and areas which we could develop further or improve. This was extremely valuable for working out where we want to take the project next. Moving forward, we intend to develop a full-length production on the back of this work, as well as producing a piece of collaborative academic writing between Christine Plastow, David Bullen, and Nancy Rabinowitz on the process of working in the rehearsal room as academics and the value of theatre for public engagement in Classics.
by Christine Plastow
Image credits Christine Plastow
You can find out more about By Jove Theatre Company’s work via their website or by following them on Twitter @ByJoveTheatre.
As part of our contribution to the Intercollegiate Masters programme in classics, ancient history, art and archaeology, late antique and Byzantine studies and classical reception, the ICS offers two one-semester modules on Digital Classics. These modules are: ICS02 Digital Classics: Linking Written and Material Culture and ICS03 Digital Approaches to Cultural Heritage: Places, Artefacts and Images.
The Digital Classics module, which currently runs in the spring semester, focuses primarily on text, art, literature and language, including sessions on text encoding, text and image annotation, translation alignment, morphosyntactic annotation, computational linguistics and a short introduction to programming for text analysis. Other sessions we have sometimes incorporated include palaeography, collaborative editing, pedagogy, philological tools, or data structuring and visualization. As part of this module, students prepare a small digital project, which may involve one or several of the methods, tools or materials presented in the course, and attempt to demonstrate through a small research project the academic potential (or shortcomings) of the method. Along with a short report on the experiment and its results, this project forms the assessment for the module, and contributes to the MA result at the students’ home institution.
The Digital Approaches to Cultural Heritage module, currently led by Valeria Vitale in the fall semester, focuses on material and cultural heritage from the classical world and beyond, and several key methods for studying these areas. Topics covered by this module generally include geographic technologies (geo-annotation, gazetteers, visualization, analysis and GIS), 3D imaging and modelling (including using the computers, VR headsets and printers at the Institute), network analysis crowdsourcing, and public engagement. Other topics have included prosopography, data structuring, visualization and querying, linked open data, and copyright. The assessment for the Cultural Heritage module is similar to that for Digital Classics, combining a practical project and written report applying and then assessing a method or tool.
Both of these masters modules contribute to and draw on the international, massively collaborative Sunoikisis Digital Classics programme, founded at Leipzig University by Dr Monica Berti in 2015. SunoikisisDC is made up of about 25–30 sessions per year, divided into three semesters, that are presented online via GoogleHangouts sessions and YouTube videos. A few dozen scholars from universities and cultural heritage institutions from Georgia to Brazil, Iran to Canada, and Finland to Egypt, via almost all of Europe, contribute to the individual sessions. Each session usually involves 2–3 presenters, and a mix of lecture, software- or web-demo, and discussion. We aim for an overview of theoretical background, concrete project examples or case study, and practical exercises for the students.
Each participating scholar or department has a slightly different relationship between their home teaching and the SunoikisisDC programme; some use the Youtube videos as a loose backbone for their teaching semester, others see the programme as a list of resources to be offered as “further reading” on certain topics for students, but not central to the course itself. In all cases, student recruitment, tuition, supervision and assessment are entirely the responsibility of the local tutor.
Here at the ICS, we use the fall and spring semesters of SunoikisisDC as the main information-provision element of the taught modules, each hour of which is then supplemented by two hours of discussion seminar and practical tutorials to work on the concepts and topics of the course. An average of 2–3 students from the University of London intercollegiate MA programme take each module, and about the same number of PhD students or early career scholars audit the seminars. For those who take the module for credit, assessment is by a practical project, for which each student brings together methods or tools from one more session and some text or material of interest to their own studies, and attempts to bring about some original creation or new knowledge production using it. A short written report combines discussion of the background of the topics and methods applied, and an assessment of their effectiveness in the declared aim.
In past years, our students have built 3D reconstructions of buildings at Pompeii or other ancient sites, visualized geographic information or annotations in mapping software, used EpiDoc to encode small epigraphic corpora, assessed the pedagogical value of translation alignments, and build and queried small bodies of morphosyntactically annotated (“Treebanked”) ancient texts for linguistic research. The standard of work has been incredibly rich, and students have without exception risen to the challenge of approaching very new and very difficult materials as part of their Masters or later research.
by Gabriel Bodard
Dr. David Walsh (University of Kent) shares some thoughts on his podcast series, ‘Coffee and Circuses’, which was recently supported by an ICS Public Engagement Grant.
Like many people, I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last few years listening to podcasts. Whether learning something new from shows like In Our Time or reliving my childhood by listening to discussions on 90s pro-wrestling, tuning in on the way to work or whilst cooking dinner, they’ve become a regular fixture in my daily routine. I’m not alone this, with an average 5.9 million adults listening to podcasts on a weekly basis in 2018, with the biggest growth among people aged 18-24.
Having clocked up many hours of listening to podcasts, I began to ponder what it would be like to produce my own. It seemed to me that there were many podcasts out there discussing figures and events from the ancient world, which is great, but I’ve often thought it would be interesting to focus on the people who work on this stuff: the archaeologists, lecturers, curators, tour-guides, authors etc. I mean, having a Roman building or inscription is all well and good, but you need someone to find, interpret, publish, and then do something creative with it. One of the things that has often struck me about this field is that it is full of interesting people who have their own stories to tell, but you don’t always get a sense of their personalities from reading their books or journal articles. So I figured that a podcast could be a way of communicating this in an accessible fashion. What drew them to ancient history or archaeology? How does their work intersect with their other interests? What do they feel about how the subject has developed? Where do they think it will go in future?
I also hoped that in some minor way it might break down some barriers, as I think misconceptions still abound that a career studying the ancient world is permitted only for a small, privileged group. And when I talk about those who might have these misconceptions, I don’t just mean people outside of the field, but students (and prospective students) of the subject too. As much as lecturers can try to inject personality into their teaching, they’re often limited on time and/or dealing with large groups, so for many students their lecturer or other professionals can feel like distant figures. Listening to a lecturer (or archaeologist, curator, author etc.) talk about their background, missteps and aspirations can demonstrate to students, and people more widely, that the subject is accessible to a broad range of people (or at least it’s moving in the right direction).
One of my favourite episodes thus far was with Miller Power at TRAC 2019, where he discussed his trans-identity, and addressed this theme in both the archaeological record and the academic world. I could have record myself giving my thoughts on this and putting them out to the world, but how can what I have to say compare to someone who has lived it? Miller’s observations give a fresh perspective, and I can’t see how that’s anything but a good thing for study of the Roman world. Similarly, the most recent episode recorded with Mai Musié, recorded at the FIEC/CA conference, highlights that the ancient world wasn’t just the Greek or Roman societies living in isolation, but rather they were part of wider networks that included communities in India, China and Sub-Saharan Africa. Approaching the subject with this in mind opens up all kind of possibilities, not just for research, but for people from an array of backgrounds and experiences to make a contribution to it.
I also hope that hearing how Ellen Swift studied pharmacy for a year before switching to archaeology, or how it wasn’t until long after university that Caroline Lawrence found success as a writer, or how Alex Davies thinks returning to academia as mature student is one the best decisions she’s made, highlights that whatever stage you’re at, it’s never too late to pursue your interest. It’s even never too late to start a podcast…
by David Walsh