Bringing the past to life on screen

modelDr Matthew Nicholls of the Classics Department uses digital technology to create reconstructions of the ancient past. He’s been working for some time on a huge digital model of ancient Rome, which he uses a lot for teaching and research. Students find these dramatic visualisations of the past engaging and useful, so Matthew has now developed a new module, CL3SIL Digital Silchester in which Reading undergraduates research and create their own virtual reconstructions of our local Roman town.

Matthew’s work lends itself well to television programmes on ancient Rome, and he has been in demand for programmes on Rome and its colourful history. Over the summer of 2012 the BBC contacted him to ask whether he could help with a documentary programme on Roman Scotland. The problem that programme makers faced was that while the story of the Romans in Scotland is fascinating, the archaeological remains they left behind often don’t show up well on the screen – utf-8''DSC03128the forts and towns of the area, which never developed into settlements permanently occupied over centuries, often survive as bumpy fields rather than dramatic, easily-filmed standing ruins. The BBC decided they needed to create some computer graphics to represent these Romano-Scottish sites to the viewers, and asked Matthew to help.

After an initial research trip at the start of the summer, Matthew returned to Reading and began work in the library, reading up on the history and archaeology of the sites chosen – the legionary fortress at Inchtuthil in Perth and Kinross, a fort with civilian settlement or vicus at Inveresk in East Lothian, a village of roundhouses at Birnie near Elgin, and a huge temporary marching camp at St Leonard’s.

utf-8''IMG_0287For the last of these only the outer earthwork survives, so Matthew turned to an ancient literary source, Pseudo-Hyginus, whose work on how to lay out the ideal Roman camp within those ramparts turns out to work pretty well for a camp of this size – an interesting combination of literary and archaeological evidence. For this part of the work Matthew was able to employ a second year undergraduate assistant as part of the University’s UROP scheme  offering the student a fantastic chance to earn some money and CV points and to get his name on the credits of the finished documentary.

Matthew returned to Scotland at the end of the summer to film the use of these models on site, and then continued work on them to produce and render animations of the finished versions that were used in the finished documentary, Rome’s Final Frontier, broadcast in December 2012 The BBC kindly agreed to host some of the reconstructions online, providing a permanent resource for those interested in these fascinating sites.

Contemporary Greek Film Cultures 2013 Conference

The Department of Classics and our Centre for Hellenic Studies is proud to support a two-day conference on contemporary Greek cinema to be held at the Hellenic Centre in London in July:

Contemporary Greek Film Cultures 2013: International Conference
5-6 July, The Hellenic Centre
, London

At a time when news surrounding Greece has almost exclusively been about the financial crisis, it is imperative to redress the balance by examining the productive forces of culture in the country, maintaining that Greece is something more than a country in debt. Contemporary Greek Film Cultures 2013 is an international conference for the study of Contemporary Greek Film, co-organised by the Universities of Reading and Glasgow. This 2-day conference seeks to actively help expand the current scholarship in Greek Film Studies, and help promote a more concerted study and theorisation of Contemporary Greek Cinema, reflecting on the multi-faceted contexts of its production, distribution and research, in Greece and abroad.

Register online at:

New Book by Professor Barbara Goff

9781780932057Last week saw the publication of my new book Your Secret Language: classics in the British colonies of West Africa (Bloomsbury 2013).  It contributes to the Departmental research cluster in ‘Reception and Classical Tradition’, and to the Faculty research theme of ‘Language, Text and Power’.  Above and beyond these aspects, I have found it a fascinating story to research and write.

The classical languages, literature and history formed part of the cultural equipment which European colonisers called upon in order to justify their imperial ambitions, but within the complex and assertive societies of nineteenth-century West Africa, classical education quickly became a weapon to use against colonisers.  The Church of England, which was very early on involved in educating colonised West Africans, put a premium on teaching the ancient languages, including Hebrew, in order to enable converts to read and preach the Bible themselves, and missionaries were delighted when Africans showed themselves highly adept at Latin and Greek.  They and the colonial establishment generally were less pleased when Africans used their classical training to qualify as lawyers, churchmen, teachers and journalists and then to agitate against colonialism.  Several African commentators noted the ancient relations between Africa and Greece, anticipating Martin Bernal’s analysis by many decades and complicating the notion of the classical tradition.

In the early twentieth century the colonial establishment often reacted by trying to withhold classical education from Africans and teach them agriculture instead. Africans usually saw this as an attempt to keep them subordinate, as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’, and put up prolonged and articulate resistance.  The struggles over classical education continued, and eventually led to a situation in which Classics was the first degree offered in the post-war University of Ibadan.  Although the subject lost most of its prominent position after independence, when Africans seized the opportunity to study many other subjects that colonialism had not imported, there are still departments of Classics in Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, as well as in several other African states.  We are planning to welcome one of the lecturers from Nigeria as a visiting researcher, who will be in Reading in 2014.

Researching this book, I have felt privileged to learn more about the history of my discipline and to see what it has meant within the making both of the colonial and the postcolonial eras.  The history has also deepened my understanding of the West African adaptations of Greek tragedy about which I wrote in the co-authored Crossroads in the Black Aegean: Oedipus, Antigone and dramas of the African diaspora (Oxford 2007). In addition, I have felt proud to be part of a Department where ‘classics’ signifies both the ancient world and its varied manifestations in the modern.

Barbara Goff