Connecting Classics to its Wider Context

Figure 1: Huijiao (Photo taken from https://baike.baidu.com/pic/%E6%85%A7%E7%9A%8E/2626692).

We were excited to hear that the Centre of Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong has just published an English translation of Shi Huijiao’s The Biographies of Eminent Monks, edited by our PhD student, Edward A S Ross. Tianshu Yang (Jiechuang Institute of Buddhist Studies) was the translator. We asked Edward to share details of this exciting project with us. He reports as follows:

The Biographies of Eminent Monks is a compilation of the lives of over 500 Buddhist figures from 67 CE to 519 CE. This 14-chapter volume became the widely accepted basis for Chinese Buddhist, historical biography literature from the 6thcentury onwards. Extending from China’s first interactions with Buddhism to the Liang Dynasty (502-557 CE), the text of the Biographies of Eminent Monks discusses Buddhist figures well known during the time of Shi Huijiao (慧皎) (497-554 CE), the compiler and author (Figure 1).

Since it does not discuss the Mediterranean world, the relevance of this text to Classics might seem slight, yet there are interesting connections to the west buried in the life stories of these monastics. Since Edward studies ancient Central Asia, he was particularly interested in the monastic figures who came from and visited the so-called “Western Regions.” 47 of the 532 figures mentioned in the text hold ethnic or geographical origins to the west of East Asia, be that Central or South Asia (Figure 2).

 

Figure 2: Estimated places of origin for all 306 biographies with given locations. Points with white borders represent those with connections to the Western Regions (Image created by Edward A S Ross using mapping data from Google Maps (2020))

Shi Huijiao. The Biographies of Eminent Monks. Tianshu Yang, translator. Edward A. S. Ross, editor. Hong Kong: Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong, 2022.

Some come from as far west as Parthia, a region in Central Asia well known in the Mediterranean world. This reminds us how deeply connected different parts of the ancient world were to their wider global context. Whether through trade, war, or religious pilgrimage, people from the Mediterranean and Asian worlds did indeed interact. This is why it is important for those studying ancient history to broaden their source bases to garner a deeper understanding of the nuances of cultural interactions in the ancient world.

From the outset, the goal for this translation project has been to produce an open-access volume of Shi Huijiao’s The Biographies of Eminent Monks, so that these poignant stories and crucial aspects of Chinese Buddhist history are widely available to the English-speaking public, practitioners, and academics. The full ebook is available at https://www.academia.edu/90233933/Shi_HuiJiao_The_Biographies_of_Eminent_Monks_%E9%AB%98%E5%83%A7%E5%82%B3.

 

New exhibition: Black African Authors in the Roman Empire

In celebration of Black History Month we are delighted to announce the launch of a physical exhibition in the Classics Department hallway (pictured below). Reading University’s Classics Department is committed to decolonising the curriculum and challenging our preconceptions of the non-white world. Our students Chloe Gardner (BA Hons. 2021) and Edward Gregory (current 3rd-year undergraduate) created an online exhibit about Black African Authors in the Roman Empire in the wake of the University’s launch of its Race Equality Review on 24 May 2021. COVID-19 restrictions did not permit a physical exhibit at that time so we have re-animated this project here.

BHThe three authors featured here are ancient African writers: Tertullian, a Berber; Terence, a Libyan; and Apuleius, a Numidian. These authors wrote broadly and across different genres, but each touched on the experiences of their people, even if in a satirical manner.

TertullianThroughout history, black and African voices have been silenced systematically to forge a narrative of white supremacy. By casting Western-minority groups as savage or uneducated natives, collective memory now recalls groups of people subdued and modernized by the West. Traditional practices regarding research and interpretation in the Classics discipline tend to reaffirm and strengthen the misconceptions associated with this flawed and dangerous narrative. The field of Classics has been dominated by white, male voices. Through telling stories relatable to them they created an echo chamber of information on the classical world. Perpetuating the idea of a white-washed ancient past is harmful, however, to all. In ignoring data and evidence for a society that was far more influenced by the East and South than was sometimes thought, Westerners have lost or hidden a wealth of knowledge, understanding and answers.

To read more about each of these north African authors and a suggested bibliography see our online exhibition at research.reading.ac.uk/curiosi/black-history.

Reading Classics welcomes Dr Sam Agbamu

Next week on October 19th we welcome a special speaker to our regular research seminar series.  Of course all our speakers are special, but Dr Sam Agbamu, who is currently at Royal Holloway, is about to join the staff of the Classics Department at Reading, in January 2023.  We are hoping that lots of students and staff will come to the seminar and welcome him!

Sam did his PhD at King’s College London, researching modern Italy’s use of the history of Roman imperialism in Africa, during its own imperial endeavours on the continent in the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Sam’s current research project, which he will pursue at Reading as part of his Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, is on the afterlives of the neo-Latin epic, the Africa, by the fourteenth century humanist Petrarch.  This poem recounts the history of the Second Punic War, and Sam is studying its role in transmitting ancient ideas about the continent of Africa into the early modern and modern era.  Sam’s other interests include anti-racist and anti-colonial approaches to the literatures and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and their receptions.  In spring term he will teach on our Part 2 module ‘Roman History: the rise and fall of the Republic’, and a new module on ‘“Race” in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds’.  Students are encouraged to sign up for the new module if they would like to, as there are still places on it.

Petrarch by Justus of Ghent (public domain)

Petrarch by Justus of Ghent (public domain)

 

 

Autumn Term 2022 Reading Classics Research Seminars

We are pleased to announce the launch of our Reading Classics Seminar Series for Autumn Term 2022, which will boost our Wednesday afternoons with constructive and stimulating lectures and discussions on various aspects of Classics research!

In this series of lectures, starting on 5 October, we welcome a diverse group of speakers from both the UK and abroad in our Departmental seminars. Our Autumn seminar series, ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi, will explore a variety of topics and periods of Classical studies. All seminars will be livestreamed on MS Teams; tune in every Wednesday at 4pm! Attendance is free and open to all! To attend please follow this link: bit.ly/3BYG7Td! Below you can find a poster with all titles.

 

Full list of titles

5 October

Robert Wisniewski, Warsaw/Reading, ‘Four sermons, some relics, a bishop and a curse: Constructing the cult of saints in late antique Hippo’

12 October

Jo Quinn, Oxford, ‘North African monumental architecture in the Hellenistic period within the frame of regionalism’

19 October

Sam Agbamu, Royal Holloway, ‘Petrarch’s Carthage: Between ‘race’ and religion’

26 October

Elena Giusti, Warwick, ‘Rome’s imagined Africa’

9 November

Jacke Phillips, SOAS/Cambridge, ‘Connecting ancient Egypt, Bubia and Ethiopia and even beyond’

16 November

Timothy Penn, Oxford, ‘The boardgames of Roman and post-Roman North Africa: A regional perspective on personal leisure in the past’

23 November

Elena Chepel, Vienna, ‘Dramatic competitions in Ptolemaic Egypt: New papyrus programme for the royal festival of Theadelpheia’

 

Reading Classics at Rome: A review of the first post-covid study trip

Our undergraduate student, Kieran Evans, shares their experience from the first departmental study trip to Rome after the pandemic—in April 2022—along with a series of exciting and wonderful pictures of Rome! Thank you to everyone who participated to this trip, and particularly to Profs Amy Smith and Matthew Nicholls who organised it and led the tour!   

It started with a 2:15am meetup at the Sports Park building on campus to catch a coach for Heathrow. We left extra early just to make sure we had enough time for any delays or queues caused by COVID-19 restrictions at the airport. Despite being early hours of the morning, everyone was raring to go to Rome, bags packed, and the anticipation of getting to the airport was at a high. We just had to get through security then a rather long wait for the flight at 7am.  

The arrival into Rome, after the flight and coach journey, was only the start of the day in the ‘Eternal city’. We checked into our hotel in the afternoon, to get set for the first trek of the trip. Matthew Nicholls, our tour lead who came over from Oxford University, but in his role as Visiting Professor at University of Reading, walked us through some parts of the southern part of the city, checking out Roman building remains, seeing what remained of the concrete. One major theme of the trip was the material left behind in buildings, mostly the concrete that the marble would have covered up. From the first tour we saw how the massive structures, like the Porticus Aemilia, a long series of arched warehouses for food storage, or acting as a naval dockyard. They were impressive to look at, considering the size and how long they’ve been around, but like many Roman buildings the concrete lost the marble exterior, looted for other construction, or turned into lime. That same afternoon we came across one of the best views of the trip. From the top of the Aventine Hill, you could see across the city with St. Peter’s Basilica to the north peeking above the buildings before it. It became somewhat a preview of what to expect for the coming days, just spectacular. 

On day Two we visited monuments fitting the theme ‘Landscape of Victory’. Amy and Matthew had organised entering the Mausoleum of Augustus, very recently opened to the public. Such a grand monument which held the first imperial dynasty, was left in a state of ruin for years and recently restored for visitors to re-enter. Walking through the crypt we saw how the material again was laid bare, and how the diamond patterns bricks were organised into in the concrete. Some marble—the only marble left—greeted us at the entrance telling of how this place held the ashes of Augustus and his family. The building was remarkable to walk through. Like at all sites on the trip, Matthew and Amy told us everything there was to know, the way it looked when constructed, a wedding cake style of tiers of earth and trees planted on top and the history following. Somewhat surprising to hear was that, when the top tier collapsed, it filled the interior to create a new ground level above the original entrance and a space for a bull fighting arena. 16th-century entertainment turned it into a stage for the sport, then a theatre in the 20th century. It’s restored and the grand entrance is the only way in now, not the archway some 30 feet above it. 

My personal highlight of the trip was later in the day on visiting another monument, the Pantheon. Despite looking majestic from the front with the granite columns and inscription to Agrippa, it took a second to realise what I was looking at when we approached it from the south, only seeing the circular, brick building. Of course, when I finally recognised it, I got a little giddy. About an hour and a half before entering we had a lunch break and some of us found a restaurant on the piazza of the Pantheon. It was somewhat surreal sitting there eating proper Italian pizza and looking at the entrance of this building less than a hundred metres to my left.  

 

The group that went on the trip were great, insofar as everyone got on so well with each other, making meals out easier and so much more fun. Especially the final evening we all had in Rome, dining at Il Matto and drinking plenty of red wine with the excellent food. Amy and Matthew organised an amazing series of tours across the 6 days we were there. I cannot think of how that trip could have been better… maybe if we had another day there?

Musings of an Admissions Tutor and Outreach Officer and the reawakening after the pandemic

Our Departmental Admissions Tutor and Outreach Officer, Mrs Jackie Baines, shares her experience on arranging and running Open Days during and after the pandemic. You can read below her account on the various events and innovative methods undertaken in such a challenging period.

When taking on the role of departmental Admissions Tutor in 2016, and more recently Outreach Officer, little did I know of the enormity of the challenges which lay ahead.  We were about to be faced with the double blow of a fall in the number of 18-year-olds and then a global pandemic. Undergraduate numbers had remained relatively stable up to that point but now we were going to have to work much harder to recruit similar numbers of undergraduates in subsequent years.

The greatest of the challenges came with Covid-19.  Having run most of the 2019/20 recruitment cycle in-person—except for one Visit Day—we were obliged to complete the whole of the 2020/21 cycle online.  How, I wondered, were we to ‘sell’ our department and the Classics department student experience when nobody was in the building on campus.  It focussed my attention on showing our very best attributes in the online environment, with a small numbers of colleagues, current students and alumni.  At first, online presentations and using MS Teams were so very unfamiliar.  MS Teams Live also increased the difficulties.  We were not able to see our applicants, they were simply able to ask us questions in the chat function.  We rose to the challenge, knowing that we needed to portray our own personalities, our desire to support our students, our variety of modules, the wide-ranging scope of our research, to give a platform to our articulate, knowledgeable students and to show off the Ure Museum and even handle objects when we were not in the building.  We learnt to be ourselves in front of the camera and to cope in the online environment, even if sometimes sharing slides was a tricky hurdle.  It worked.  Our student numbers were good and we met our targets.  Our new students arrived in Reading and coped with an online Welcome Week and very little face-to-face teaching during the year.

Gradually we have now returned to in-person admissions processes.  We started with some very small-scale Open Days in July and then Open days with more visitors in October.  Our Visit Days were in person, but one Virtual Visit Day has been retained, allowing those unable to get the campus to have the opportunity to ‘visit’.  It has been wonderful to be back in person, to have the conversations which are impossible to replicate online.

Outreach too was thrust into the online world during worst of the pandemic.  The return to welcoming schools back into the department was an emotional experience.  I ran an alumni teachers’ event, linked to the Troy exhibition in the Ure Museum, in November. Three of our alumni, Niki Karapanagioti, Alex Winch and Jonny Herman, brought school groups.  Not only was it so gratifying to see children back in the building learning about the ancient world, but it was also very heart-warming to see our alumni renew their bonds with the department. Future teacher alumni events are in the planning.

We also enjoyed a Classics for All day on May 19th. Classics for all is the UK based charity which promotes the teaching of classical subjects in state schools. We have been overwhelmed by the interest and the thirst for events such as these.  Ninety Year 8 and 9 pupils signed up to come with their teachers and participate in a wide range of sessions, including learning about Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Roman maths and Ancient Greek language. This was a much larger scale event than on previous occasions. It was an event with wide ranging impact, involving sessions for the teachers where we could promote the teaching of classical civilisation and the ancient languages in schools, particularly for those whose schools are in areas of social deprivation. It gave some of our PGT and PGR students the opportunity to teach on the day and our current students the chance to act as student ambassadors. Above all we hope to have inspired the school pupils themselves and encouraged them to aspire to be our students, widening their horizons and giving them a glimpse of the delights of the ancient world.

Jackie Baines, Lecturer in Classics and Departmental Admissions Tutor and Outreach Officer

Summer Term 2022 Reading Classics Research Seminar Series

We are pleased to announce the launch of our Reading Classics Seminar Series for Summer Term 2022, which will boost our Wednesday afternoons with constructive and stimulating lectures and discussions on various aspects of Classics research!

In this series of lectures, starting on 27 April, we welcome a diverse group of speakers from both the UK and abroad in our Departmental seminars, which will explore a variety of topics and periods of Classical studies. All seminars will be livestreamed on MS Teams; tune in every Wednesday at 4pm! Attendance is free and open to all! To attend please follow this link: bit.ly/3K8h5lg! Below you can find a poster with all titles and a QR code leading to the attendance link!

For more information, please contact hod-classics@reading.ac.uk.

Full list of titles

27 April

Marion Meyer, Institut für Klassische Archäologie, Universität Wien, ‘Worshiping Athena in Athens: the Panathenaia, the peplos for the goddess, and Some Open Questions’.

4th May

Bernardo Ballesteros Petrella, Corpus Christi College Oxford, ‘Comparing early Greek, Babylonian and Sanskrit epic: the overburdened earth motif’.

11th May 2-5pm, a symposium on ‘Rome: city and country’, in honour of Professor Annalisa Marzano. NB this is an all-afternoon event.

18th May

Carol Dougherty, Wellesley College, ‘ “I’m a strange new kind of in-between thing aren’t I?”: Antigone and the Question of the Foreigner’.

25th May

no seminar

1st June

Michelle Zerba, Louisiana State University, ‘Eleusis at the Intersection of Antiquity and Modernity: The Mysteria, Altered Consciousness, and the Neuroscience of Transformational Experience’.

LGBT History Month: queer presences, kisses and storms

Dr Oliver Baldwin is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Classics, currently researching internationally for his project Queer Tragedy”. He has kindly provided us with an account of his research trip in various European countries below.

LGBT history month began and ended with me doing precisely LGBT history by roaming European archives for my project Queer Tragedy, a performance history of LGBTQI+ stagings and versions of Greco-Roman tragedy, from 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots in New York, to its fiftieth anniversary in 2019. The objective is to analyse an array of gay Bacchaes, lesbian Oedipuses and trans Medeas that have taken place in several countries at several historical junctures.  I use the verb doing because LGBT history involves precisely labour, action and involvement in mapping a constellation that has been darkened, ignored, shunned or dismissed. In archives (gradually specialised but always imperfect) one must construct queer history, reconstruct queer lives and deconstruct normative prejudice. Queer (hi)stories often appear in the periphery of the focus, as blurred images, as distorted echoes, as reflections of phobias, or, contrarily, as direct addresses, looking one straight in the eye claiming: I am here and I am queer. Consequently, the doing in queer history is also a process of being visited by voices and presences, of being haunted, driving you further into the (re/de)construction. The doing of LGBTQI+ history is the work of historians hand in hand with queer (hi)stories.

My European archival doing began in Paris. Queer Tragedy’s archive is a complicated one to construct: often institutions do not have a queer tag in their catalogues for a given performance; many of these performances have taken place in theatres of the off (off) circuit and are therefore unlikely to appear in mainstream (or even in specialised) media; queer issues in these plays are often coded, veiled or even rejected by their own creators. All these issues I faced in France, but at the centre of my labour was the ever-present dictation and conditioning of heteronormativity. This not only influenced the reticence of some theatre makers to have their work described as (fully or partially) LGBTQI+ when I contacted them—a queer play may label a theatre maker as “just queer” and therefore potentially limit their future prospects. It also influenced the very queer portrayals on stage. By chance—an inescapable component of archival work, however rigorous one strives to be—the plays I came across while in France portrayed trans people as essential characters. One may, on the surface, see this as a positive sign. But on closer inspection (and this is my impression), it is rather the opposite. Firstly, none of these trans characters were performed by trans people, but by either cis women or cis men. Secondly, these trans characters are constructed on the normative (and transphobic) understanding of trans people as portents, as beings transiting through maleness and femaleness, as extreme androgyny personified, but never as fully man or woman. One only has to dig into our social (and personal) memories to understand this has been (and continues to be) the norm.

Let me briefly explain with an example. In the staging by Pierre Notte of Stephane Guerin’s Kalashnikov (2013), a disenchanted retelling of Oedipus, we find a character called Le Trans (always referred to as she/her). This character appears as both guide and challenger of the Oedipus-character, mostly on the margins of the action, as if an informed onlooker, an ironic commentator on bourgeois reality. Le Trans stands as a fusion of two ancient personages of mixed identities: the Sphinx, at once woman and lion, and Tiresias, the blind seer who has experienced being both man and woman. In the play, Le Trans is thus a character of special knowledge, mystery and insight precisely for her (allegedly) gender-marginal identity as man-woman, but never fully woman, as the use of transphobic slurs in the play testify–one of which, travesti (a term often used transphobically framing trans people as cross-dressers), is ever-present in describing many other trans characters I have come across. Le Trans, and other trans characters, appear in these plays as sexual/gender portents, as other with para-human insight, as the queerest carrier of knowledge; but never fully woman. The almost impossibility for many in French and Western society of calling a trans-woman a woman and treat her as one is blatant in the cases I have researched so far. Beware of good intentions bearing gifts.

Queer themes in versions of Greco-Roman tragedy do not only reveal the prejudices, phobias and conceptual impossibilities of heteronormativity; they also reveal the resistance, strength and endurance of their queer creators. This is most clearly the case in the performance I researched while in Brussels, the next step after Paris: Jan Ritsema’s Philoktetes-Variations (1994), used different versions of the Philoktetes story to tell (among other issues) of the battle its main actor, Ron Vawter (Philoktetes), was waging against AIDS. The story of the Greek commander abandoned by the Troy-bound Greeks because of his gangrenous snake-bite wound only to then be reclaimed for self-serving interests resounded at a time when AIDS had been ravaging the lives of many gay men for over a decade—men who had also been relinquished, forgotten and repudiated by families and communities. The cries of pain Sophocles wrote to be howled by Philoktetes were now being performed by an internationally-recognised gay actor with HIV, whose nakedness on stage revealed his own Kaposi sarcoma, the wounds caused by snake-like AIDS on the bodies of many. This was central to the whole production and is echoed in the struggles the production team had to face when ensuring the well-being of Ron Vawter: on tour, hotels with a bath and a connected room for a nurse were arranged and contracts specified the potential suspension or the cancellation of the production due to Vawter’s health. AIDS was made even more present by a screening of the film Philadelphia, in which Vawter starred, telling the story of HIV-positive Andrew Becket (played by Tom Hanks), and his legal battle against his employers for discrimination. The screening took place at the same theatre where Philoktetes was being performed, and its revenue was destined for several Belgian AIDS charities. It is difficult to describe how disheartening it is to go through the documents explaining the deterioration of Ron Vawter that contrast with his own adamant intention of making the production happen. Although I knew it was coming, I could not contain myself from shedding more than a tear when reading the note by Kaaitheatre informing the team that Ron Vawter died on his return to New York to prepare the American tour of Philoktetes-Variations. Archival haunting is real and extremely heart-wrenching at times.

 

Philotetes-Variations. Kaaitheater. Maarten Vanden Abeele (photographer)

But the queer-tragic stage is also a place for hope as well as of endurance. In Orestes in Mosul (2019), theatre director Milo Rau’s global-collective Oresteia in Gent (where I went to next), the bloody and horrendous family story of the Atreids is told through scenes from the plays (including the Iphigenia story and different versions of Orestes’ matricide), mixing live performances at NTGent and recordings of the production in Mosul (Iraq), alongside reflections, memories and testimonies of the production process and the personal and acting experiences of the Moslawi and European casts. At one point Risto Kübar (playing Orestes) from Estonia and Duraid Abbas Ghaieb (playing Pylades) of Iraqi heritage, tell the audience how they both escaped their homes to find queer refuge in theatre. After this, they both kiss passionately, signifying their union, endurance and hope in the future. They (actors and characters) will kiss twice more, once in the tower from where DAESH executed gay men in Mosul, just after Orestes and Pylades have been put to trial by the chorus. As they kiss, they defiantly and lovingly embrace, resisting the insistent attempts to separate them by the chorus (whose actors had been unsure of the scene during rehearsals). The kiss, in joining the actors’ stories, the loving bond of Orestes and Pylades and the deadly connotations of its location, stood as an act of defiance in building a queer future in which every Orestes and every Pylades can kiss and embrace without their integrity being threatened, echoing Pylades’ line in Euripides’ Orestes: ‘I will take care of you’.

Orestes in Mosul is the play that closes the Queer Tragedy project chronologically, as the receiver of the echoes, hauntings, endurance, celebration, love, hopes and promises of its predecessors, symbolically opened in this performance history by another kiss, that between Dionysus and Pentheus in Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in 69 in New York in 1968. The end of the project appears at the beginning of my LGBTQI+ archival doing, and its beginning towards the end in a few months’ time. But there is never a linear way of doing history, particularly LGBT history, however linear it may later appear in books. I write to you from my hotel room in Berlin, where I arrived after a 9-hour odyssey through the Netherlands and Germany catching three trains and one replacement bus. A good but long victory over storm Eunice. Now in Berlin I find myself jumping chronologically, dramatically and queerly to another kiss, that between Dionysus and Pentheus in Grüber’s Die Bakchen (1974). This ‘highly homoerotic ceremonial’, as a critic described it, will lead me on to other destinations and queer tragedies as I hope it will lead you on to celebrate, vindicate and share LGBT histories beyond this month too. Queer tragic kiss to you all.

Dr Oliver Baldwin (BA/UoR). Queer Tragedy project

European Festival of Latin and Greek Returns in Reading Classics

The European Festival of Latin and Greek returns in Reading Classics after two years of pandemic, and we gathered the most exciting info about it in a Q&A covering all you need to know!  Enthusiasts of Classical Literature are more than welcome to participate! Find out below what the European Festival of Latin and Greek is and how you can sign up! 

What is it?

An international (not just European!) event when people celebrate the ancient world by getting together in a public place to read aloud a text from Ancient Greece or Rome.

Are they mad?                 

No, they are just really enthusiastic!

How does the Department come into this?          

The Department is going to participate in the Festival again, as we did pre-Covid; we are going to meet in the Edith Morley Quad, at 1pm on Wednesday March 23rd , to read Sophocles Oedipus the King!

Oedipus the King? That’s the one about mums and dads, yes?    

And about human striving and its limits – about our understanding of our own identity – about plague and recovery, blindness and insight, life and death!  People have been fascinated by this play for centuries, and always find something important in it.

Have you done this before?         

Yes, the Department participated in the 2019 Festival in 2019 when colleagues gathered in Edith Morley Quad to read book 6 of the Iliad in various languages. You can have a taste at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=na3odYx9CXU! In the pictures, you can see us reading Homer Iliad 6 in 2019, along with the Chinese translation that one of us used.

OK, I’m convinced.  But do I have to speak Greek?            

No, the whole point is that people can read in whatever language they like.  Across the world, the Festival is celebrated in Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Mandarin, Afrikaans, English, French – you get the picture.  And, we don’t have to read the whole thing, just the juicy bits. 

Where do I sign?             

Try https://forms.office.com/r/Bq84DfPb3z to sign up: https://festival-latingrec.eu/english-2/ for more information.  And feel free to email Barbara Goff at hod-classics@reading.ac.uk to tell her how keen you are.  

Food archaeology at Reading Classics

At the Ure Museum we’ve been celebrating Heritage Open Days for a long time: our events usually included opening the museum on a Saturday and hosting activities for adults and families, but during the pandemic we had to go virtual. Thus, in 2020, we launched a much-successful series of short videos created by our staff and our colleagues at the Department of Classics on ‘9 lives of the Ure’s mummified cat’s head’. You can watch the videos here. You can read more about it in one of our previous blogs.  

Our approach received great feedback and thus, we decided to hold our 2021 HOD Events virtually once again. In addition, our museum was just reopening in September with a much-anticipated joint exhibit with the British Museum, and we preferred those two events not to clash. If you missed our British Museum Spotlight Loan or if you wish to visit it again, please follow the link for an online version of it: https://collections.reading.ac.uk/ure-museum/https-collections-reading-ac-uk-ure-museum-troy/

This year’s HOD theme was “edible England” and reminded us of the importance of food – well more than food itself, of the habit of eating and drinking together – in antiquity. Through a series of videos by our members of staff who have examined the relevant area of research from various points of view, we explored ancient diet, depictions of food in our collections, how people used to share food with gods (sacrifices and libations) and their communities (banquets), how important food was in funerary contexts, and even created cook-along videos to eat like an ancient Egyptian, Greek or Roman. All videos are available on our YouTube channel and website https://collections.reading.ac.uk/ure-museum/home/whats-on/hod-2021-eat-pray-love-in-antiquity-at-the-ure-museum/

Poster of the event, provided by Dr Claudina Romero Mayorga 

Although museums and galleries have noticed certain virtual fatigue in the last months of lockdown, people were becoming more and more anxious to visit the real places and interact face to face, and thus, we can happily claim that our virtual HOD was a success! We had 412 views on our YouTube channel and our webpage visits increased a 84%; most of our audience came from the UK, but also from USA, Singapore, Australia and Europe!

It’s amazing how food – a topic that engages most of our senses – can be addressed from afar: by evoking the smells of burnt meat in a sacrifice, the delicious fragrances of baked pastelis, panis focaccias and cakes, the strength and energy provided by Spartan dishes, the beautiful representations of Egyptian food and Greek fish plates, all accompanied by sweet Greek wine. Let’s toast for more opportunities to come together.

The event was organised and held by the team of the Ure Museum under the guidance of the Curator, Prof. Amy Smith, and the Education Officer, Dr Claudina Romero Mayorga.

In fact, this year’s HOD topic was a great match for our Department’s long and strong record of research on the field of food archaeology. We are delighted to have been the academic home for various projects, among which an outstanding position is occupied by the work of Dr Jessie Feito, whose doctoral thesis focussed on the relevant area of expertise. Dr Feito was recently awarded her PhD by the Department of Classics at the University of Reading under the supervision of Prof. Annalisa Marzano, and she has been accepted as a postdoctoral fellow in…

Dr Feito has kindly provided us with a short introduction and summary of current research trends in food archaeology. We are truly thankful to her for sharing her knowledge, and we wish her all the best in the new and exciting steps of her career.

Recent decades have seen a notable increase in interest in the archaeology of food. Food was, and is, more than just a means of achieving the necessary caloric intake for survival; it had social and political significance in antiquity and was highly important culturally and economically. Food is at once a necessity to all, while also being unique to particular peoples and populations, shaped by preferences and cultural practices. This makes the study of food an exceptionally interesting and versatile research topic.

PhD students at the field. Picture retrieved from https://www.reading.ac.uk/classics/phd/department-life-for-phd-students. Dr Jessie Feito is at the front. 

Scholars of the ancient world have explored food and dining habits in a variety of ways. Ancient literature describes food and dining events with texts such as Petronius’ Satyricon, for example, satirising lavish Roman dinner parties, and Apicius’ De re coquinaria providing a glimpse into recipes used in antiquity. Archaeological evidence also offers significant insight into dietary practices. This can be in the form of structural remains of kitchens and dining rooms, such as those famously preserved at Pompeii, or in artistic representations of food and dining in frescoes as well as in mosaics. Ceramics and vessels associated with food preparation and consumption can reveal how meals were cooked and eaten, while the remains of transport containers such as amphora, can shed light on the production and transport of important commodities such as wine, olive oil, and garum. Archaeologists also study the remains of the foodstuffs themselves: zooarchaeology, or the study of animal bones, can be used to explore the consumption of animal products and archaeobotany focuses on the plant remains.

My research utilises the latter, examining plant remains in order to explore food production and consumption in two parts of the Roman world: Italy and the Near East. In using regional case studies, I am able to explore the ways that the Roman Empire impacted diet and agricultural practices in regions of different historical, socio-cultural, political, economic, and even environmental contexts.

The potential for archaeological evidence to shed light on food in the ancient world is vast, and, despite the significant advances that have been made, there is certainly room for our understanding to be improved with further research—this only serves to makes the archaeology of food more exciting! We now know that while dietary practices and preferences varied across the ancient world, just as they do today, the importance of food was universal.