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BSA Postgraduate Epigraphy Course 2013


Holes in the ground (where inscriptions might have once been).

When you think of the acropolis, one immediately thinks of the Parthenon in majestic ruin, or perhaps the famous Caryatids on the porch of the Erechtheion.  Perhaps, while you’re busy—perhaps a little too busy—admiring the architectural scenery as you progress up the sacred way, you might not notice some very very important bits of archaeology.  Yes, I’m talking about those mysterious holes in the ground.  One passes them without thinking, but when you start looking, they’re everywhere.  Not interesting, you say?  Well, let me tell you more:  these are, in fact, carved-out bases for inscriptions, in which they were placed and then fixed in position by pouring molten lead into the gaps.  Inscriptions, containing sources for all kinds of exciting aspects of Ancient Greek political and social history!

Do I have your interest now?  Well then, read on!

During the Easter break I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the Postgraduate Epigraphy Course put on by the British School at Athens March 24th to April 7th, taught by Robert Pitt (BSA Assistant Director) and Graham Oliver (University of Liverpool).  As many of you may know, my Ph.D. work focuses on the Ancient Greek dialects, for which the overwhelming amount of evidence is from epigraphical sources, and while I’ve spent much time reading inscriptions from the editions that you can find in any good research library, I’d spent up until now very little time working with the physical objects themselves and the course ended up being the perfect thing to understand epigraphy in their historical and archaeological contexts, especially for a silly little linguistically minded philologist like me, who doesn’t tend to think about these things all that much by the nature of the data that I’m interested in.

[Θρά]συλλος ⋮ καὶ Γνάθιος ⋮ Μνέσονος ⋮ ℎυιε̑ [ἐγ Λ]ευκονοίο ⋮ ἀνεθέτεν ⋮ τἀθεναίαι. +   ὁ δῆμος [Λεύκιο]ν Αἰμίλιον [Παύλλου υἱὸ]ν Παῦλλον     [ἀρετῆς ἕ]νεκα.

IG I³ 833 + IG II² 4147

The first week of the course was devoted to seminars in practical epigraphy and field trips around Attica and Delphi.  The first stop of the Grand Tour (of epigraphy) was the mighty acropolis with its many aforementioned holes in the ground, but still with much remaining epigraphy to be reckoned with, mainly a lot of dedications.  One example (IG I³ 833 + IG II² 4147) gives an excellent case of the use and re-use of stone, where two inscriptions found in two different volumes of an edition are actually found side-by-side, and that information that the original monument base had been re-appropriated and re-used later in antiquity.

Holes in the architrave, formerly an inscription.

Little holes, formerly an inscription.

Another example of epigraphy that no longer exists, but is reconstructable is a rededication of the parthenon, which only continues to exist in the form of small holes on the east architrave.  There’s a nice discussion of this inscription on Mediterranean Palimpsest relating the difficulty of the decipherment of the inscription, as well as the sad disappointment of the first decipherer, Eugene P. Andrews, when the inscription ended up being made at the bequest of Nero in the first century.  The epigraphical tour of the acropolis was not complete without a visit to the new acropolis museum, which is fabulous but unfortunately doesn’t allow photography in the gallery where most of the inscriptions are kept.

Photo Credit: Julia Tomas

Who or what is a ΡΑΝΤΕΒΟΥ?  Is it some kind of Greek underwear model?  (Photo Credit: Julia Tomas)

The second inscription-hunting expedition went around to the Athenian agora and Kerameikos, where there were many more inscriptions to be had, from boundary stones still in place, to the multitude of  inscriptions of all form and function stored within American School of Classical Studies’ storehouse in the basement of the Stoa of Attalos.  Mysteriously, access to the archives of the American School however could only be accessed with a something (or someone) known as a ΡΑΝΤΕΒΟΥ.  Whatever or whoever a ΡΑΝΤΕΒΟΥ is, fortunately, we happened to have one.

Oropos (Photo Credit: Nicola Nenci)

Oropos (Photo Credit: Nicola Nenci)

The epigraphical tour turned to Attica with visits to Oropos and Rhamnous.  Oropos is an excellently documented site, thanks to a hefty brick of a volume published by the Athenian Archaeological Society in 1997, Οἱ ἐπεφραφές τοῦ Ὠρωπού, by Vasileios Petrakos, and where, since the sanctuary of the site was of Eretrian (West Ionic) foundations and throughout its history gone back and forth from the control of Athens or the Boeotian confederacy, there is a great deal of dialectal diversity present.  Of course, there were many lovely wildflowers too.

Although Oropos is an excellent site to travel to if you’re interested in epigraphy in situ, I would strongly recommend a visit to Rhamnous, which was one of the highlights of the entire epigraphical tour.  Rhamnous is, perhaps, best known for the unfinished temple of Nemesis but the fortifications at the end of the old sacred road are particularly spectacular to see, especially on a beautiful clear day such as the one we had visited when Euboea can be could be clearly seen across the straits.

Rhamnous (Photo Credit: Nicola Nenci)

Rhamnous (Photo Credit: Nicola Nenci)

While the inscriptions of Rhamnous are well published in another volume by the same Petrakos who published the inscriptions of Oropos, many of the inscriptions from the fortress have been removed to other sites.  Delphi, however, provided one of the most stunning combinations of scenery and epigraphy one can find in all of Greece.

The Grand Tour of epigraphists with the inscription-encrusted Treasury of the Athenians in the background

The Grand Tour of epigraphists with the inscription-encrusted Treasury of the Athenians in the background

As one progresses up the path towards the temple of Pythian Apollo, more Athenian inscriptions come into view.  Can you count the number of inscriptions in this next photograph?


NB:  The earthquake-proof polygonal wall behind the columns is inscribed with hundreds of manumission documents.

And, if you manage to survive the whole trek all the way past the less-interesting, uninscribed things like the temple of Apollo, and make it to the very top of the sanctuary, you will be rewarded to read one of my favorite of all inscriptions, CID 1:3, Schwyzer 321, a lex sacra proscribing against the removal of wine from the stadion there:

τὸν ϝοῖνον με̄̀ φάρεν ἐς τοῦ δρ-
όμου. αἰ δέ κα φάρε̄ι, ℎιλαξάστο̄
τὸν θεὸν ℎο̑ι κα κεραίε̄ται καὶ
μεταθυσάτο̄ κἀποτεισάτο̄ πέν-
τε δραχμάς, τούτου δὲ το̑ι κατα-
γορε̄́σαντι τὸ ℎε̄́μισσον.

“Wine may not be taken from the racecourse.  If anyone takes it, let that person propitiate the god for whom it was mixed, and let him offer and pay five drachmas, of which half is to go to the accuser.”

CID 1:3

CID 1:3, Schwyzer 321

I do say, that must have been an interesting method of policing and punishing the removal of sacred wine.  Lastly I cannot possibly leave out one more very famous inscription from the Delphi museum.  Herodotus relates in his story of Croesus and Solon (1.31), Croesus asks who is the second most happy of all men, after he had been first deflated by Solon’s answer of Tellus the Athenian being the most happy of all men.  In this didactic tale, Solon unhesitatingly replied that the lads Cleobis and Biton were the holders of the the place of the second most happy of all men in his mind, since they were strong, healthy, won athletic contests, and when their oxen hadn’t yet come in from the fields, and their mother urgently needed to attend a festival of Hera in Argos, they had yoked themselves to a cart to draw it themselves.  After they had been praised by all at the festival for this feat, their mother prayed to the goddess that she give them the best thing for men, and that night after the sacrificing and feasting, the lads lay down to sleep and never arose again, and because of this Herodotus tells that the Argives dedicated statues of the two at Delphi, since they were the best of all men.

Fortunately for Herodotus’s credibility, we actually have found a pair of statues that fit the description:

[Cleobis and Bi]ton

[Cleobis and Bi]ton

On the base of the statues there is an archaic inscription (Schwyzer 317) in Argive script and dialect that might actually be the two statues in question:

(A) (dex.) [Κλέοβις καὶ Βί]τον τὰν ματάρα
(B) (sin.) ἐάγαγον τõι δυγõι. | Π̣ο̣λ̣υ̣με̄́δε̄ς ἐποίεε ℎαργεῖος.

[Kleobis and Bi]ton bore their mother with the yoke.  Polymedes the Argive made (this).

Unfortunately, the part of the statue base where the names are supposedly is broken and the actual reading Κλέοβις καὶ Βίτον is uncertain, but since Herodotus says there were these statues, and they seem to fit the description, there seems little else better for the restoration.  And besides, it makes for a great story.

Barnaby and Julia contemplate the symmetry of the two statues.

Barnaby and Julia contemplate the symmetry of the two statues.

It is also worth mentioning in passing, the symmetry of the scrota on the sculptures of Cleobis and Biton is particularly a feature of early Greek kouroi.  However, this is quite unnatural and Greek sculptors quite soon learned that there is a natural asymmetry of scrota on the human body.  This was famously studied and indicated in 1976 by UCL Professor Chris McManus in a paper published in Nature 259 : 436 about “Scrotal asymmetry in man and in ancient sculpture” and later expanded in a chapter of his 1979 Cambridge Ph.D. thesis Determinants of Laterality in Man.  The oddball professor appeared on QI a little while back discussing his discoveries on this matter, for which he won the Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2002.  (Robert Pitt was always full of such and similar anecdotes.)

But to get back on track after that rather *ahem* unbalanced digression into art history…  after the field epigraphy and and practical seminars of the first week, the second week of the course was devoted to working in the Epigraphical Museum in Athens on an assigned stone to produce a new edition of a text.  For those who haven’t been to the Epigraphical Museum before, the building is partly a museum and partly a storehouse for all manner of ancient inscriptions, large amounts of which are not on view to the public.  The inscription that I was assigned to work on was, unfortunately, in one of the back storerooms, and since the BBC was filming on the first day of work and the small number of guards at work in the museum, I couldn’t get started on my stone until the second day, but all was well once I was able to get at it:

IG IX,2 69

EM 10300 = IG IX,2 69

Because of my interests in Greek dialects, the text I was assigned to work on was a proxeny decree from Lamia in southern Thessaly (EM 10030), better known as IG IX,2 69, which turned out to be written in a dialectal variety known as the Northwest Greek koináa supra-regional version of the Northwest dialects Phocian and Locrian and was influenced to a slight degree by the better known Attic-Ionic koiné.  The stone was a particularly beastly piece of grey limestone that was near impossible to read, although with some quality time and some epigraphic tracing methods, I managed to get most of the text out of it with a lot of squinting and tricky playing with a lamp and a torch to manipulate the light on the face of the stone to make the shadows of the letter-strokes come out in relief.  To give you something of an idea of the process:


If you look carefully you can make out ΔΕΔΟΣΘΑΙ on the second line from the bottom.


You might not believe me when I say that these squiggles here read π̣αρ̣ὰ̣ τα[ς

You might not believe me when I say that these squiggles at the bottom here read π̣αρ̣ὰ̣ τα[ς

Now with careful manipulation of light, we can take tracings done on acetate film to make a drawing of the text from which we can make a proper record of what we have actually read on the stone.  This is a relatively new technique, surprisingly, considering its beautiful simplicity.  It has the benefit of ensuring honesty that you can only trace what you’ve seen, and also it can be taken with you and easily compared to older squeezes —a kind of ‘pressing’ taken of a stone with specialized paper; Stephen Tracy explains squeezes quite well in an article over at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study website—and a palimpsest of readings can be built up on a single piece of acetate, which is helpful where older squeezes perserve letters that were readable on a stone from decades ago that may be now lost from weathering.  Squeezing, however, can be damaging to the stones and should only be done when necessary; squeezing of stones is rarely, if ever, permitted in the epigraphical museum.

Three days of hard work sweating under a hot lamp and doing things that have likely greatly increased my glasses prescription for three straight working days (i.e. 9.30-14.30, since the Epigraphical Museum closes at 15.00 every day due to the financial crisis), and with a little bit of serious epigraphy later, this was my result:


Drawing techniques:  Acetate film and tracing marker

From this, we can make something that vaguely looks like something you might find in a proper epigraphical publication, like this edition that I put together for my presentation at the end of the course:

Screen shot 2013-04-16 at 15.54.14

Lemma and commentary not pictured.

All in all, the course and the trip was a grand success.  I met a group of wonderful people also on the course, and learned a lot about the practical side of the epigraphical documents that I regularly work with, especially on aspects of their use that I might not have otherwise considered as a not specifically specializing in archaeology or ancient history.  I would happily recommend the course to anyone else with an interest in using epigraphical sources in their research.


Group photo of the course participants at Delphi.

PY Ta 641 (top), the famous 'Tripod Tablet' excavated by Carl Blegen at Pylos which confirmed Michael Ventris' decipherment of Linear B

PY Ta 641 (top), the famous ‘Tripod Tablet’ excavated by Carl Blegen at Pylos which confirmed Michael Ventris’ decipherment of Linear B

By means of a coda to my description of my epigraphical visit to Greece, I did specifically take a couple of extra days to spend in Athens after the course officially ended on the 7th of April, since this was (quite embarrassingly) my very first visit to Athens, and I wanted to make sure I saw everything that I should.  And as a good Greek dialectologist, not confined to the temporal constraints of pre-1952 discipline and not confined (or even satisfied for that matter to keep myself) to Classical Greek epigraphy, I expressly took time to go to the National Museum of Archaeology to see their excellent collection of antiquities.  I am quite satisfied now that I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon, and have likely made an unusual spectacle of myself speaking in streams of monosyllables in the Bronze Age galleries reading aloud Linear B tablets (and an inscribed stirrup jar!).

Because here in Cambridge we are equal opportunity Bronze- and Iron-Age Greek Epigraphists.

A photo of a Linear B Inscribed Stirrup Jar, taken specially for Anna ‘pa-ra-ko-we-to-wo-ko‘ Judson, our po-ti-ni-ja of the pots, because here in Cambridge we are equal opportunity Bronze- and Iron-Age Greek Epigraphists.

EDIT – Emergency update: TORTOISE!


Tortoise!  In the Kerameikos!


6 thoughts on “BSA Postgraduate Epigraphy Course 2013

  1. Pingback: Greece, Practical Epigraphy, and Macedonian | Memiyawanzi

  2. Pingback: BSA Knossos Postgraduate Pottery Course | res gerendae

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