What Can a Dog Called Margarita Teach us About Ancient Rome? – Education in the Making.

Interviewees: Prof. Peter Kruschwitz, Dr. María Limón & Prof Xavier Espluga. Interviewer: Bunny Waring

Date: 30th April 2021.

Today the Classics Department of Reading is delighted to announce the release of a special video called What Can a Dog Called Margarita Teach us About Ancient Rome? In this video Prof. Peter Kruschwitz (University of Vienna), Prof. Xavier Espluga (University of Barcelona) and Dr. María Limón (University of Seville) discuss the lettered world of ancient Rome and how ancient peoples interacted with the world around them. The video was filmed, directed and edited by James Rattee (https://vimeo.com/jamesrattee/videos) and includes digital footage from Prof. Matthew Nicholls’ Virtual Rome model.

Today we invited Peter, María and Xavier to discuss with us the motivations and methods of making this video and what is next for this interesting project on ancient inscriptions.

INTERVIEW

Bunny Waring (BW): Good Morning All. Thank you for joining us this morning to talk about your collaborative piece What Can a Dog Called Margarita Teach us About Ancient Rome? The Classics Department are very excited to share this work and we wondered if you could explain a little bit about your motivations for this project?

Thank you so much for this – it’s great for us to be back for a little while, albeit virtually. All three of us share the same passion: our enthusiasm for Roman inscriptions, especially inscriptions composed in verse. To us, those inscriptions are not just stones or pieces of metal that happen to have some poetry inscribed on them. They are carriers of art. They are visible, tangible manifestations of a universal artistic practice of Roman times, spanning the empire across time and space, with thousands of examples surviving to the present day.

This art was produced by individuals from all runs of life, and it was produced in the city of Rome just as much as it can be found at Hadrian’s Wall, the shores of the Black Sea, or in the Roman settlement of North Africa. We can relate to these individuals very easily because they’re not just some remote elite: they are people with everyday occupations, everyday hopes and worries, everyday problems. Like (most of) us – the other 99%, so to speak, far away from the palaces and lives of the elite. What is more, these individuals inhabited the very spaces, geographically and socially, that we still inhabit today, along with all their challenges.

It’s neighbourhood poetry, it’s communal art. And it gives us the most direct, emotionally moving, and instructive access to the world(s) of ancient Rome.

Of course, we know how we ourselves, especially in an academic context, interact and engage with Roman inscribed material remains. But how did they do it? We were curious to find out! And then we got very lucky: the British Academy gave María the opportunity to get our joint research going, first through its visiting fellowship scheme, then through additional funding for this video. We are so grateful for their support, and we hope that this video will both repay them for their trust in our research and appeal and communicate to wide audiences just what incredible, valuable material we study in our desire better to understand the Roman world and its diverse cultures.

BW: How exciting to work on such an interesting topic! So I’m eager to know: why did you choose this particular inscription?

We wanted to make a number of strong, important points. About the way in which we perceive, in which we encounter the Roman world. About the way the ancient world is presented to us in museums, archives, exhibitions, and books. And we want to do so while racing a wide audience because what we have to say and offer is relevant to so many different audiences.

 

We want to enthuse new generations with our passion for Roman history, for poetry, for epigraphy. We want to give teachers the opportunity to expand the canon of teaching through the inclusion of poetry that students can easily relate to. We want to invite museums, collections, and policymakers to rethink their approach to the way in which these incredibly exciting, talking objects from the ancient world are displayed. What better way to achieve this than to choose a text that expresses, in such beautiful words, the grief of pet owners – whose faithful companion had died. We feel we all can relate to that, and we feel that this text alone opens up so many new ways of thinking about the Roman world and the people who “were” the Romans, than the ever-same repertoire of classical authors.

BW: There must be a lot of interesting stories out there?

There are several thousand inscribed poems surviving from across the Roman world. You find anything, from obscene graffiti on the walls of Pompeii, to epitaphs on funerary monuments, 110-lines long and erected in the desert of Roman North Africa. You find beautiful, outrageous, hilarious, thought-provoking pieces, but, of course, also the banal and uninspired. How else could it be: writing short(ish) poems was a shared pastime across the ancient world, and the pieces are just as varied as their authors – men, women, children. If you would like to see further examples, you may explore them in an easily accessible format here and here. The material truly is a hidden treasure waiting for its discovery.

BW: What was it like recording this piece? Would you recommend the process to others?

Haha, oh dear! Well… none of us are natural-born entertainers. We all were terrified and at first, we hated to see our faces and hear our recorded voices. But James Rattee, the producer and creative mind behind our video, did an incredible job to make us feel at ease, to make us look smart (within the limitations that we were painfully aware of), and make the video appealing to such a wide range of audiences. We hope that putting this video out there will make it available for generations to come – for pupils, teachers, academics, cultural managers, policy makers: it should entertain and be useful at the same time! It’s genuinely a piece of art.

 

BW: Well we all certainly agree with that, here in Classics at Reading University! Excellent work! Finally then, what is in store next for your project?

We want to do more. We want to reach out to schools, to those who design curricula, design teaching in schools and at university, to show them the potential and possibilities. And we want to transform the way in which inscriptions are presented and utilised in museums – there is so much potential wasted.

We are making first steps. But there’s much more work to be done. So, if you are interested, please do get in touch with us, and we will explore the potential for collaboration with you! And as we are still thinking about reaching larger audiences and improving educational materials we would be deeply grateful if viewers, students and teachers, from all over the world would send us their feedback, even in an informal way. And by all means do feel free to send us any kind of questions regarding how Roman communicate their feelings, emotions, fears, and concerns through their inscriptions.

 

WHAT’S IT LIKE? Episode 3: Dr Claudina Romero Mayorga – A Specialist in Sensorial Archaeology in Museums and Classics.

[Image of an image of Mithratic iconography and Latin inscription in a stone frieze. Lalupa]

Interviewee: Dr. Claudina Romero Mayorga. Interviewer: Bunny Waring.
Date: 16th April 2021

Welcome to the Classic Department’s series What’s it Like? During these episodes staff, volunteers and students who specialise in all fields of Classics, Archaeology and Museums, will share with you the realities of their jobs. What to be a Linguist? Museum Curator? Archaeologist? Lecturer? Well Travelled Researcher? A Barrier-Breaker? Have No Idea? Then read on!

This week: Dr Claudina Romero Mayorga

A Specialist in Sensorial Archaeology in Museums and Classics.

Name: Dr Claudina Romero Mayorga
Area of Specialism: Archaeology, Classics and Museums.
Topics of Interest: Ancient Mediterranean civilisations, material culture, education, sensorial archaeology, music, polychromy, 3d printing.
Job Title: Education officer at the Ure Museum and Sessional Lecturer at the Department of Classics.
Job Responsibilities: Develop and deliver educational sessions for primary and secondary schools, organise outreach activities, family events, lead the Young Archaeologists’ Club, research the collection, welcome visitors, manage volunteers and interns, teach Latin or Roman History to undergraduates.

Introduction

I grew up watching old films and documentaries about ancient civilisations: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome….everything sounded so mysterious and exciting! I wanted to know all about them so I started reading as much as I could. The objects left behind by them felt as if they still had a special power, so my focus was not so much on their languages, but on the material culture produced by these peoples who lived so many years before me. By the time I got to the university, “Gladiator” had already left a mark on me, and well…Romans are my thing now. I love working at the Ure Museum and teaching people about our amazing collection.

 

[A glimpse at some of the fantastic displays in the Ure Museum, including pots to get excited about. Ure Museum.]

What is your daily life really like?

Replying to emails takes most of my time! Before the pandemic, I would get lots of school groups in the Ure Museum and the time would just fly. Talking to kids, teachers, parents, looking at them being amazed by an ancient pot…Best feeling ever!!! Having children tell you that they want to be archaeologists and work in a museum after their visit is priceless…But in 2020 with the arrival of COVID, things changed dramatically. Although online sessions still felt great and children got to engage with 3D models, it wasn’t the same. I’m really looking forward to reopening soon!

[A YAC event (with permission) where young children are taught how to clean and understand ancient artefacts. Mayorga.]

A lot of my time is also spent planning new public events (online or face to face) for families, for older teens: trying to develop new educational resources for everyone, talking to my colleagues and other museums, updating our website, posting on our social media, writing grants applications and planning Young Archaeologist Club (YAC) sessions. If I’m teaching Roman History to undergrads, I need to prepare my classes and then mark their assignments. When I teach I try to make sure that they see that I’m passionate about the subject and that although everything seems to have been researched and discovered already, there’s still plenty to do.

I do love object-based research so whenever I have a bit of time, I would focus on a specific object and learn as much as I can. I also enjoy travelling; I like meeting colleagues in beautiful destinations to discuss our work, visit museums and tasting local food (this activity is also known as attending international congresses and seminars). Getting funds to do this can be very competitive and difficult, but I never give up!

[Dr Mayorga and Assistant Curator of the Ure Museum Jayne Holly on a research trip. Mayorga.]

What is the best part of your job?

· Handling ancient objects is the best part without any doubt! I still feel like a 5-year-old when I hold an old pot.

· Working with the curator and assistant curator at the Ure is great fun, we’re always coming up with new projects and new challenges…I don’t know what a boring day at the office is.

· Learning from other colleagues

· Being mind-blown by kids’ questions

 

Why do you think your specialism is important?

Studying ancient civilisations, in general, makes you aware that some of the problems we face today as a society, already existed in the past (misogyny, elitism, poverty). Looking at the solutions they came up with – or the lack of them – might give us a better perspective of the circumstances we are living in. My interest in sensorial archaeology comes from my focus not on emperors and great characters, but on ordinary people: how they behaved, what they liked, whom they loved, what they ate, if they were happy – and if so, how they expressed that. I believe that trying to know another person (even if that person has been dead for more than 1000 years) generates empathy and there’s nothing more important right now than trying to understand the person who is in front of you.

[The Ure Museum’s Museum in a Box tells the life of Annie Ure, the co-founder of the Ure Museum, whose life studying antiquity highlighted women’s rights issues throughout the ancient and modern eras.]

 If you didn’t have your current job, what else could you apply your skills to?

I guess I would be good in general admin, but I would do better in a position that would allow me to support or mentor young people. Teaching is a calling, whether it’s Classics or Economics, but I believe I would be good at working with younger people.

Did you always want to be what you are today?

Yes! Haha, I get to work in a museum and at the Uni, although I took the long and winding road to get here. People usually go for Museum Studies if they want to work with collections or in a heritage site. I started studying History of Art in Madrid and then my PhD in Archaeology offered fieldwork training: I was part of a team that dug up a Roman villa in Spain…and to spread the news among the locals I guided some tours and “played” with the finds to show kids how fun and interesting the Romans were. There I got bitten by the “museum bug” (beware!) and ended up researching lots of museum collections and storage facilities for my final dissertation in every single European country.

[Dr Mayorga teaching a range of students and volunteers about the importance of Museum collections. Mayorga.]

But I had to work and study at the same time, so it took me longer than expected. Volunteering and taking up education modules did the rest. But because I have a PhD in Archaeology people usually don’t understand why I’m the Education officer, as if researching and teaching were two completely different activities, when in the end they’re two sides of the same coin. I can’t conceive one without the other.

Where do you hope to be in 5 years time?

I hope the pandemic is over by then! I would love to see the government showering universities with funds, especially to support Humanities. Would love to have my role as an Education officer as full-time, and to continue teaching at the University of Reading. It would be great to have certain events and activities already cemented in our educational calendar (3D printed resources; Ancient music sessions).

 What 3 tips would you give to someone who wants to follow a similar path?

  1. Go for whatever you love: languages, physics, computers. That will always stay with you, money won’t. Studying something that you don’t like is torture.
  2. Don’t believe everything you read: even if it is printed in a book by a famous author, it’s opened to discussion.
  3. Travel as much as you can.

What to know more?

If you’re interested in staying up-to-date with what events the Ure Museum has to offer head over to the Museum’s webpage here.

Diversifying and Decolonising.

Author: Prof. Barbara Goff. Edits: Bunny Waring.
Date: 26th March 2021.

 

Like much of the world, the University of Reading has recently been having important conversations about race. The death of George Floyd and the effects of the pandemic have enabled a togetherness that scrutinises racial inequalities in this society (and others) with renewed intensity. Many institutions are responding positively, including the University of Reading both as a whole and on Departmental levels. Soon, the University’s Race Equality Review will be published, and last week the Centre for Quality Support and Development ran a webinar on ‘Addressing Discrimination – Diversifying and Decolonising Higher Education’. The Department of Classics was there in force.

Ian Rutherford, Rachel Mairs and Barbara Goff presented on how their teaching addresses issue of diversity and decolonisation. While the term ‘diversity’ can point towards including the varied perspectives of groups who may have been excluded in earlier times, such as women, BAME people, people with disabilities, or with varied sexual orientation, ‘decolonisation’ invites us to focus more closely on questions of race and the long history of European colonial dominance and oppression over peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas. Such questions include thinking about the history of our disciplines and how knowledge may have been affected by discriminatory attitudes; they also include thinking about how to make disciplines welcoming to students and scholars of varied backgrounds. Our Department includes Prof. Katherine Harloe, one of the few Black professors in the UK, but like many humanities departments, we do not include many BAME students. This is a situation which we would like to redress. It is important that the Department is a place where everyone feels they can flourish.

Classics as a discipline comes with a lot of racialised baggage. The cultures of Greece and Rome have historically been used sometimes to promote the idea of white western supremacy, and some groups nowadays who are still wedded to that idea use imagery of ancient Greece and Rome to serve their discriminatory agendas. In fact, the idea of ‘race’ is alien to the ancient world, which made many discriminations among people, but was not very interested in skin colour. Ian, Rachel and Barbara together showed how the ancient world offers paradigms for thinking about difference, and stressed that the modern discipline rejects simplistic claims about cultural superiority. Instead, classicists nowadays are intent on sharing the resources of the ancient world with all who might be interested.

Ian’s contribution reminded us that the Department of Classics has taught other cultures, as well as Greece and Rome, for many years. He teaches about ancient Anatolia, and about relations between Greece and Rome and ancient Egypt; in the past we have had modules on intersections with Jewish history and culture, and on ancient Carthage. The Ure Museum has an Egyptian collection alongside its Greek materials. Ian’s teaching and research shows how the ancient world was a place of endless movement and mingling of cultures, foreshadowing our own concerns with globalisation.

 

Rachel showed how her teaching addresses notions of decolonisation via her interest in how ancient Egypt has been perceived in western traditions. In her module on ‘Cleopatras’ she discusses Afrocentric scholarship, and how it contributes to reassessing assumptions about racial difference. The historical character of Cleopatra is claimed as both white and black, and the various arguments about her identity shed light on perceptions about history and race. Meanwhile her module on ‘Pioneers of Classical Archaeology’ examines how the discipline of archaeology has relied on the unacknowledged labour of people like the Egyptian labourers on digs, or the women who supported the ‘heroic’ male explorers.

 

Barbara drew attention to the Department’s work with groups who promote classics in state schools, such as’ Classics for All’ (https://classicsforall.org.uk/) and ‘Advocating Classics Education’ (http://aceclassics.org.uk/ ). She also talked about how teaching in the core modules on Ancient Drama and Ancient Epic includes discussion of African rewritings of classical literature, such as Derek Walcott’s Omeros or Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae. Authors of African descent have frequently engaged with classical literature, in Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe, so that some such rewritings have become part of the classical ‘canon’ themselves. Classical drama is not only performed throughout the world, but also reused and adapted by different societies to their own ends; this reuse is one of the major ways in which the discipline of classics stays vibrant and relevant in the modern world.

 

Together, the contributions made it clear that ‘decolonising’ is not about rewriting history, or about removing Homer from syllabi. It is instead about teaching and research that is rooted in the diversity of the ancient world and of modern responses to it. The Department’s work on this topic continues next term with a seminar series on inclusivity. Next term too, Katherine Harloe and Rachel Mairs will run a roundtable where students will be invited to talk about issues facing BAME students, students with disabilities, and students who identify as LGBTQI+, in the Department and the University. We look forward to some fruitful, if challenging, conversations.