Discussion / Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar / Random thoughts

GIS November 16th

Legend has it that in times of yore the intrepid knights of King Arthur would gather around a round table for decadent feasting and discussion. In these more austere times, the feasting has been dispensed with, despite rash promises of wine-fuelled seminars, and only the element of discussion survives. Friday night saw the final GIS for this term and it was devoted to those new PhD students setting out on the quest for the Holy Grail of academia, an original idea. Each had twelve minutes to present their current plans and benefit from the advice of the battle-hardened veterans of the older years.

First to take up the challenge was Claire Jackson, whose PhD project aims to explore the ancient novel. In the past, Claire explained, the novel has not been studied as literature, but mined for historical detail and the like; Claire hopes to examine the literary sophistication of these works. Previous work has built up barriers, between Greek and Roman novels for instance, and Claire wants to trebuchet these scholarly walls. One angle she is particularly interested in is the notion that these novels were based on ‘truth’; often the writers claim to be basing their work on a document. This brought forth questions about authorial voice and the construction of authority, not least in historians of the ancient world. In the midst of this, time ran out and, driven by the principle of equality engendered by a round table, we moved on.

Next up was George Watson, interested in the coins of Asia Minor. George is hoping to discover whether the coins minted in the Greek cities of Asia Minor under the Roman Empire can tell us anything about identity in the period. Traditionally, the focus has been on the iconography and the legends of these coins, but George wonders whether the inevitable ‘bigging-up’ of individual cities that this produces masks broader patterns of regional identity. Is there something in the size, weight, or circulation patterns of these coins? This research is complicated by the fact that die links indicate that dies were shared between cities, perhaps, therefore, regional patterns are not about identity at all but the product of practicality. Do these die links mean there were travelling machines, we wondered, or is it impossible to tell? Were the coins minted for circulation or reasons of prestige, we asked; their bronze material suggests that the former is more plausible than the later, George responded. Perhaps other materials, inscriptions and so forth, might be useful comparative avenues for strengthening a case for a conscious regional identity, particularly in terms of thinking beyond the traditional regional borders which often seem to us merely arbitrary impositions. On this note, time ran out.

Patrick Cook was next up and he discussed his plans to explore the construction of aberrant bodies in Rome. As Patrick explained, there is very little existing scholarship on this kind of thing, and he is keen to begin with a grounding in the texts of the period, particularly Cicero. He suggests that for late Cicero particularly, the idea of stability is crucial to notions of the body. Much of the discussion focused on finding other examples of discussion of the body amongst ancient authors, and something was made of a possible distinction between Greek and Roman attitudes to describing physicality.

Next up was Bogdan Cristea, who is interested in prose rhythm in Cicero’s speeches. Bogdan conceded that this has been studied for nigh on a century and confessed to doubting whether this would make a good PhD topic. However, he suggested that the previous historiography had focused heavily on statistics, looking at how certain elements combine. Instead, Bogdan is interested in how the construction of the speech is related to the general meaning, which has not received a great deal of attention. Particularly, Bogdan suggested that the theatricality of the speech may be a useful avenue of approach. One issue we discussed with regard to this, is the extent to which the speeches are recorded how they were delivered, or whether Cicero tidied them up for the written record. There was also the suggestion that Cicero’s own poetry may provide some interesting lines of comparison.

Finally, Anna Judson discussed the un-deciphered signs of Linear B. Of the 87 syllabic signs, 14 don’t have official sound values, although un-deciphered is perhaps a poor word as it covers signs about which there is near universal agreement on meaning to signs about which we frankly haven’t got a clue. Anna is not interested in trying to decipher these signs, but is interested in treating them thematically (usually they are discussed individually). What relationship is there between the un-deciphered signs and the script used at specific sites, for example. Inevitably, the ensuing discussion resulted in Anna drawing Linear B signs on the whiteboard and, at this juncture, it was decided to adjourn to the Granta.

All in all, this was an interesting and worthwhile session, giving everybody the opportunity to hear about the kind of research that is just underway in the Faculty. Hopefully the speakers found it useful too, perhaps in discovering a useful comparison or a potential avenue of approach. This Friday’s session is devoted entirely to careers advice, so, on behalf of Eleri and myself, can I thank everybody who has spoken and participated in the sessions this term, which, I, at least, have found interesting and stimulating. Anybody interested in running the seminar next term should get in touch!


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