Classics Department’s ‘Night at the Oscars’

Addressing assembled staff and students at the Undergraduate Research Showcase event on Wednesday 20th November, the Vice-Chancellor likened the event to the Oscars ceremony … and, well, to continue the metaphor, Classics came away holding a golden statuette!

Josh Kerr and Emma Aston toasting his poster on the Thessalian cavalry in ancient warfare.

Josh Kerr and Emma Aston toasting his poster on the Thessalian cavalry in ancient warfare.

At the event, every student who undertook a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Placement) in 2013 presented a poster on his/her research.  Posters were grouped by category, and in the group labelled ‘The Past’, antiquity was strongly represented in the form of Classics Department students Abi cousins, Josh Kerr and Will Burks.  Between them, their three projects covered a wide and fascinating range of ancient life and culture, showcasing the flexibility of the discipline.  Will’s project involved collaboration with University Teaching Fellow Dr Matthew Nicholls on the ongoing development of the latter’s digital reconstruction of ancient Rome.  Josh’s poster presented one aspect of his joint research with Dr Emma Aston on the role of the famous Thessalian horse in ancient society, and reflected his particular interest in military history and ambition to continue on to postgraduate study.  Abi Cousins had, with Professor Peter Kruschwitz, produced a ground-breaking study of speech-impediments in ancient culture, a neglected aspect of the ancient world with far-reaching implications for our understanding of language and communication.  What all three had in common was the process of painstaking reconstruction: reconstruction of lost buildings, reconstruction of beliefs and of ways of life now imbued with that hair-raising mixture of strangeness and familiarity which makes the ancient world so unceasingly fascinating to all who work on it.

Abi Cousins with her two pieces of shiny stationery

Abi Cousins with her two pieces of shiny stationery

For those of us who managed to tear ourselves away from ‘The Past’ (and it’s never easy), the other categories of research on display also provided interesting viewing, ranging from environmental science to cognitive processes in primary-school children.  Deciding which projects should be judged best in their categories can’t have been easy, and the hard work of all participants was recognised in the presentation of certificates and VC handshakes.  But when it came to the presentation of the awards, it was hard not to wait with baited breath.  And Classics gained an amazing double prize: Abi Cousins received not only the award for the best project in her category, but also the prize for best project overall.

Actually, there was no statuette … but she did receive golden envelopes (a classic HE equivalent, and very appropriate to these straitened times).  Not to mention, to use Homer’s phrase, a hefty dose of κλέος ἄφθιτον (‘undying glory’)!

Emma Aston

Dr Emma Aston meets Achilles

Archaeologists, Classicist and … Homeric hero.  Photo courtesy of Margriet Haagsma.

Archaeologists, Classicist and … Homeric hero. Photo courtesy of Margriet Haagsma.

If you thought an encounter with the best of the Achaians was beyond the scope of modern mortals, think again: go to Farsala, in northern Greece, and you can bump into him on your way to the zacharoplasteío (cake-shop).  The town in Thessaly, roughly on the site of ancient Pharsalos, has recently erected an imposing bronze statue of Achilles, their most famous son.  It’s easy to forget, when reading Homer, that Achilles came from Thessaly, but the people of Farsala are clearly in no danger of letting it slip their minds!  When questioned, Farsalians said firmly that no, an adjacent statue of Patroklos was not on the cards; but Achilles should at least get his mother’s company, as a statue of the sea-nymph Thetis is planned when funds allow.

Farsala was the location of a recent conference on the region which brought together local archaeologists and historians as well as a small number of international specialists on ancient Thessaly, including Dr Emma Aston of RUCD, shown above (at right) in the company of Achilles and some colleagues from the Canadian team who excavated the important south-Thessalian site of Kástro Kallithéas (probably ancient Peuma).  The event was organised jointly by the local Archaeological Service and by the Municipality of Farsala.  As well as academic papers on a range of Pharsalian topics, the conference included a visit to the ancient acropolis of Pharsalos, still in the process of being excavated, whose fortifications display an impressive range of Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Byzantine masonry, testifying to centuries of occupation and embellishment.  It is also worth noting that southern Thessaly contains some of the loveliest scenery in Greece, wooded hills rising out of the famous horse-bearing plains.

The conference as a whole, and the passion of the local participants, really brought home the extent to which the myths and folktales of ancient Thessaly (Achilles and his family, centaurs, Lapiths, Jason, Asklepios) remain a vibrant part of the local community and its self-perception.  It also demonstrated that no conference should be allowed to proceed without tsípouro, a northern Greek liquor of great potency whose stimulating effect upon academic discourse and intellectual engagement cannot easily be overstated.

Emma Aston

Dr Emma Aston wins Mary White Prize 2012

The Mary White Prize for Best Article in Phoenix for 2012 has been presented to Dr Emma Aston, University of Reading, for her article “Friends in High Places: The Stereotype of Dangerous Thessalian Hospitality in the Later Classical Period” in Phoenix volume 66.3-4, 247-271.

Dr Aston’s “Friends in High Places: The Stereotype of Dangerous Thessalian Hospitality in the Later Classical Period” was a unanimous choice for the inaugural Mary White Prize.

There were a number of original and thought-provoking papers, but Aston’s contribution stood out for the quality and development of its argument, its sensitive reading of primary texts, and its engagement with a variety of scholarly debates.

Aston’s conclusions were thorough and convincing, and the judges believed her success in situating her study of a specific stereotype within the larger context of self-representation in classical Greek culture deserved particular recognition.

 

New Monograph by Dr Emma Aston

MixanthropoiWe are delighted to see the publication of Dr Emma Aston’s monograph ‘Mixanthrôpoi’. Emma’s book examines an under-explored aspect of Greek religion: gods and goddesses depicted in half-human, half-animal form.

Many of the beings discussed – Cheiron, Pan, Acheloos, the Sirens and others – will be familiar from the narratives of Greek mythology, in which fabulous anatomies abound. However, they have never previously been studied together from a religious perspective, as recipients of cult and as members of the ancient pantheon. This book is the first major treatment of the use of part-animal – mixanthropic – form in the representation and visual imagination of Greek gods and goddesses, and of its significance with regard to divine character and function. What did it mean to depict deities in a form so strongly associated in the ancient imagination with monstrous adversaries? How did iconography, myth and ritual interact in particular sites of worship?

Drawing together literary and visual material, this study establishes the themes dominant in the worship of divine mixanthropes, and argues that, so far from being insignificant curiosities, they make possible a greater understanding of the fabric of ancient religious practice, in particular the tense and challenging relationship between divinity and visual representation.