By now, many classicists have begun to recognise and to think about how the study of ancient Greece and Rome has contributed to promoting and upholding structures of white supremacy and other forms of racism. Part of the discipline of Classics’ role in supporting white supremacy has been in the elevation of ancient Greece and ancient Rome above other ancient societies, as something distinctly glorious and worthy of study. By lumping the diverse societies of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds together, a myth of a White, Western civilisation took shape, allowing those invested in such a myth to draw a straight line between, for example, fifth-century BCE Athens and the twentieth-century United States of America. Such narratives also serve to exclude societies constructed as non-White or non-European from the myth of civilisation. However, challenging such narratives remains controversial. A recent episode of ‘Horrible Histories’ was accused of reinventing history when it highlighted the fact that people with dark skin have been present in Britain since prehistory and that African soldiers in the Roman army were stationed in Britain. Such controversies serve to show that there remains an urgent need for a conversation on the assumed whiteness of the ancient world.
For several decades now, academics at the University of Reading’s Classics Department have been working to unpick this side of the discipline, thinking about how Classics has been used to promote ideologies of racism and colonialism, how those subject to racist and colonialist uses of the Classics have formulated their own responses to and resisted such uses, and how the legacies of ancient Greece and ancient Rome have been felt beyond the so-called West. Relatedly, Classicists at Reading have been turning to the idea of interconnected Global Antiquities, in order to decentre ancient Greece and Rome from perspectives on the ancient world. In 2023, two new undergraduate modules bring the research of staff in this area to the undergraduate syllabus, contributing an already diverse and boundary-pushing offering of modules.
In the Spring Term of 2023, Dr Sam Agbamu introduced a third-year module on ‘Race and Ethnicity in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds’. Taking students from the earliest texts of the Greco-Roman literary canon right up to contemporary Classical Reception, the module focuses on how ideas of race and ethnicity took root in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and how such ideas continue to shape the worlds we live in today. One of the aims of the module is to challenge the biological reality of race, by showing just how changeable conceptions of race in the ancient world were. As well as looking at how race was thought about in antiquity, students also study how authors, artists, and scholars racialised as ‘non-white’ have encountered the constructed whiteness of classical antiquity. The module encourages students to draw on their own experiences and perceptions of race and ethnicity in order to formulate personal responses to the texts and material studied. Part of this involves creative elements of coursework, in which students can respond to module material in a medium of their choosing, whether that be a piece of visual art, creative writing, or a film. The module is running again in the 2023/2024 academic year, and will be updated to take into account the rapidly developing scholarship in the field, as well as the changing global context in which the module situates itself.
In Spring 2024 Professor Rachel Mairs will be teaching a new second-year module on Ancient Ethiopia: The Aksumite Kingdom. This module looks at the city of Aksum, in modern Ethiopia, and its empire in the third and fourth centuries CE. Spectacular monuments remain at Aksum today: tall stelae used to mark the graves of kings, stone inscriptions, the ruins of palaces. All of these speak to the Aksumite kingdom’s sense of its own power and place in the world. Aksum is mentioned in a small number of ancient Greek and Roman historical sources, but this module takes a different angle by focussing on Aksumite accounts of their own history: whether inscriptions from the period of the empire itself, or later Ethiopian and Eritrean written and oral histories which give the memory of Aksum a special place in local identities in the northern Horn of Africa.
Written by Sam Agbamu and Rachel Mairs
We were thrilled to see the opening session of this years’ Garth Hill College Military History Society being led by University of Reading’s Professor Eleanor Dickey.
The session was designed specifically for the society, and saw pupils learning how people living in Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s wall, wrote letters to each other. Pupils were able to use replica tools to write out their own letter, which they could then take home.
It was great to hear how much the students enjoyed the session, and we thank Garth Hill College and of course Professor Dickey for hosting.
You can read the full bulletin from Garth Hill College here.
Greek and Roman tragedy has served as a platform to explore and discuss central issues regarding politics, identities, and societal issues, ranging from feminism, race, fascism, and communism to abortion, generational tensions, and national identity. LGBTQI+ issues of identities, desires and politics have also found a useful tool in ancient tragedy as a channel for exploration, discussion, and vindication. Tragedy has been queer, queered, and queering for many a decade now.
The international and interdisciplinary conference Tragedy Queered, which took place at the University of Reading on the 6th and 7th of July 2023, precisely explored the dialogue, relationships and cross-fertilisations between Graeco-Roman tragedy and queer culture. The conference developed substantial and consistent insights into a phenomenon that has remained almost untouched in scholarship. All fifteen speakers, from provenances as diverse as L’Aquila, London, Santa Barbara, Philadelphia, Oxford, and New York, and ranging in academic positions from postgraduate students to full professors, explored and analysed the use of ancient tragedy in queer culture in a vast array of media, including novels, drag, theatrical stagings, poetry, dance, film, multi-media performance, and biography. The papers, headed by the keynote speech on Judith Butler, Freud, and the house of Oedipus by Professor Orrells (KCL), exhibited a diverse plethora of queer-tragic receptions and dialogues. Among other issues, they explored the importance of the tragic character and plots of Helen and Philoctetes regarding the loss and struggles of AIDS in novels and drag, queer love and loss in dance and multimedia performance, how Athena is a good or bad example for trans experience, the tragic in pre-Stonewall poetic writing and the translation, tragic structures, plots and characters in film and theatre, and what can queer theory bring to ancient tragic texts and performances.
The conference and its speakers managed to do far more than I expected as organiser. It was able to establish points of departure for many aspects in the study of the relationship between tragedy and queer culture and also of the tragic and the queer; it was able to pay attention to queer culture before and after the Stonewall Riots, the historiographical starting-point for queer liberation; it was able to attest to queer lives, queer history and queer theory and the interweaved presence of tragedy in them; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, it was able to further consolidate and multiply a community of queer scholars, students, artists and people, past, present, and future. Keep your eyes peeled for the volume that will result from the conference, so you can see with you own eyes what Tragedy Queered was able to reveal, explore and unite on two summery tragic-queer days in Reading.
Special thanks to the Tragedy Queered sponsors: Institute of Classical Studies (SAS, UoL); The Department of Classics (UoR); Dean for Diversity and Inclusion (UoR); Research Dean for Heritage & Creativity (UoR). I am very grateful to Matthew Knight for his excellent and indispensable work in designing the poster, programme, and name tags and to Josh Ison for his essential help in guaranteeing that the conference ran smoothly and enjoyably. Thanks also to colleagues in the department for their support and encouragement.
Written by Dr. Oliver Baldwin
Reading’s Department of Classics held a memorial for the late Professor Emeritus Jane F. Gardner on April 26th. Jane was a landmark of the Department for many decades, not only because of the length of her employment (from 1963 to her retirement in 1999), but also because of her strong character and her utter commitment to the Reading Classics community on all its levels, from undergraduates to professors. Long after her retirement, Jane continued to come in to visit colleagues and attend research seminars, even when her declining mobility necessitated the use of a wheelchair. It was therefore wholly fitting that members of the Department – including those who have moved on to other posts, or retired – came together to celebrate her life, work, and many qualities.
The programme from the event (designed by Ure volunteer and graphic designer Matthew Knight), which can be found here, combined personal reminiscence with academic reflection, and covered the many facets of Jane’s long career: Roman historian, specialist in Roman law, Curator of the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, and expert referee of book manuscripts for Cambridge University Press. It opened with a Latin encomium, written and beautifully read by our Professor Eleanor Dickey, a distinguished practitioner of spoken Latin. The text of the encomium is included in the programme; Jane would have much enjoyed its combination of deep respect and affectionate levity.
This combination marked the whole event, especially the drinks reception which followed the formal presentations, an opportunity for reminiscence and for people to swap their favourite Jane stories. I overheard many laughing accounts of her irascibility, but also even more numerous stories of her generosity – with her time and her expertise, directed into helping students, junior colleagues, and Classicists in other Universities who approached her for advice on Roman law.
The success of the gathering was greatly enhanced by the help of our student volunteers, Shona Carter-Griffiths, Jacinta Hunter and Daisy Roffe. Also essential to the smooth running of the whole memorial was doctoral researcher Edward Ross, who provided IT support and also arranged the music which played quietly at the start of the gathering and during the reception. It was Mozart, at Jane’s own request: ‘Not too frivolous … but not too gloomy either!’ was her not-entirely-helpful stipulation. Finally, it is important to note that the presentations were recorded by Daisy Roffe; once the recording has been edited and captioned, we will make it available for those unable to attend the event, or indeed wishing to relive it.
Finally, there was a third element to the event: the launch of a temporary exhibition on Jane’s life, in the Ure Museum (where it can still be viewed), whose creation was led by Assistant Curator Jayne Holly. Central to this exhibition was a number of pictures from Jane’s not unimportant collection of art, on temporary loan. These include works by Jenny Halstead and Terry Frost, reflecting Jane’s commitment not only to art (she was a longstanding Friend of the Royal Academy, and a great lover of galleries and exhibitions while her health allowed her to visit them), but also her interest in Reading’s life and culture. Many UoR academics live in Oxford or London, justifiably drawn to the proximity of first-rate libraries, but Jane settled in Lower Earley and stayed there until the day before she died. For this reason, we were especially glad that several of her neighbours were able to join us for the memorial.
This week, PhD student Summer Courts will be collaborating with Dr Sophie Beckett and Cranfield University’s Forensic Institute to continue her research on the two Early Medieval individuals from Lowbury Hill. These two people, one male and one female, have had vastly different stories told about them. The man, who was buried under a mound with a variety of weapons and other grave goods has been interpreted as an Anglo-Saxon warrior, as displayed in the Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock. Conversely, the woman who was buried in the line of the Roman-period enclosure wall on the site has been viewed as a human sacrifice or a victim of facial mutilation.
During a previous visit to Cranfield, Summer studied the bones of the Lowbury Lady in order to create a biological profile (sex, age, stature, and health assessment) and investigate claims surrounding her death. Careful analysis revealed that the Lowbury Lady may not have been as old as initially reported, with several aging methods revealing an age between 30 and 45-years-old. Additionally, we learned that the woman would have stood between 5’ 3’’ and 5’ 5’’ tall. Examination of skull revealed no traces of a violent death, but did show that many of the fractures to her cranial bones would have occurred after death due to the compressive force of the earth beneath which she was buried. This is evidenced by the angle of the fractures and the staining of the bone exposed by the breaks, which is the same colour as the external bone surface. Fresh breaks are usually lighter in colour than the external bone surface and peri-mortem fractures have a different appearance than older fractures.
This week will see Summer continue her work on the Lowbury Lady by selecting samples for destructive analysis. Samples from the woman’s teeth will be sent to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasgow for strontium and oxygen isotope analyses which will reveal where she grew up and answer questions about whether or not she was local to the area around Lowbury Hill, Oxfordshire. Summer will also send bone samples for carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis to gain insight into the types of food the woman was eating. Finally, the Lowbury Lady’s temporal bone (the part of the skull near the ear) will be sent to Germany for a DNA analysis in collaboration with Dr Stephan Schiffels at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology so that we can find out more about her ancestry and any diseases she may have had.
Over the next week Summer will also be selecting samples from the Lowbury Man for destructive analysis. Previous analysis by Cranfield University MSc student Harriet Bryant-Buck has shown that Lowbury Man was 45+ years of age at death, stood between 5’ 5’’ and 5’ 10’’ and grew up in Western Cornwall or the somewhere along the western coast of Ireland. Summer will also be sending a portion of the Lowbury Man’s temporal bone (the part of the skull near the ear) to Germany for aDNA analysis. The temporal bone has been selected for sampling as the bone that forms the petrous portion of the temporal is extremely dense and is more likely to retain traces of DNA than other, less dense bones.
This research, which has been generously funded by the AHRC via the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership, will give us a wealth of new information about the Lowbury duo and will begin to allow us to tell their stories in a more holistic and nuanced way than before, providing a window on the real lives of these two individuals from our early medieval past.
I returned from the AIA-SCS 2023 Annual Meeting in New Orleans (a.k.a. NOLA), just in time for the new term, glad to have seen old friends, learned new things, and enthused about the future of our academic field. This is the Joint Meeting of North America’s big professional organisations for (old world) archaeology—Archaeological Institute of America—and Classics—Society for Classical Studies.
This annual meeting traditionally hosts up to 3000 scholars, teachers & others, from across the world. The numbers were hard to judge this year because it was a blended meeting, with all papers accessed online whether or not they were delivered ‘in the flesh’. Reading’s Classics department chose both options, with Prof. Aston & me each delivering papers, Aston’s online, in Insiders and Outsiders in Ancient Thessaly’ (no surprises there!) and mine in person, in a double-session, Phenomenology and the Painted Vase. One of our recently minted PhDs, Jessie Feito, spoke on the results her postdoctoral project, with Koç University—’Fields of Gold: Lydian Diet at Sardis’—in a session on the Social Life of Landscapes. They also caught up with Signe Barfoed, who has just finished her Norwegian Research Council postdoctoral fellowship with Classics@Reading but is now in Oslo.
In between academic meetings participants had to dodge contestants in the Miss Universe contest, with which we shared the hotel, and of course their photographers! NOLA treated us to four days of perfect sunny weather and amazing food (once we escaped the hotel). Our former colleague and friend Katherine Harloe (now Director of the Institute of Classical Studies) beckoned us to an award-winning Trinidadian restaurant and I even escaped long enough to attend NOLA’s first parade of the year, the ‘Maid of Orleans’ Parade celebrating Joan of Arc’s 611th birthday, on 12th Night! It is clear in any case that NOLA is a great place to meet and think about lessons from the past!
Written by Professor Amy Smith.
The work of two of our PhD students concerning the mystery surrounding the remains of two Early Medieval persons buried at Lowbury Hill, Oxfordshire, has come to public prominence this month as we prepare for a full osteological analysis of their remains. The Lowbury duo were discovered by Donald Atkinson, a research fellow from Reading’s Classics Department, in his 1913-14 excavations at the site, which inspired the Ure Museum’s curator Annie Ure, then a student. The pair—a woman and a man—were then displayed together in a two-part glass case in University College Reading’s Museum of History and Archaeology, a precursor to the Ure Museum. Since the 1920s their remains fell into obscurity. Subsequent analysis of the male, discovered within an Early Medieval barrow, suggests he was a seventh-century warrior who lived in Cornwall or western Ireland before being buried on Lowbury Hill. Since 2017 his remains, along with his elaborate grave goods—including a sword, shield, enamelled spearhead, knife, shears, a bronze hanging bowl and a bone comb—have been on display at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock. Remains of the woman, who had been buried in line with the wall of a Roman-era enclosure on the hilltop, are normally stored in Standlake. A partial analysis suggests she reached the age of ca. 40 and was buried between 550 to 650 AD. Because she was buried without grave items, little else is known about her.
The Oxfordshire County Council has announced the removal of the male from their museum, in preparation for Summer Courts’ osteological analysis of both individuals, to be undertaken at the Cranfield Forensics Institute, under the supervision of Dr Sophie Beckett, one of her PhD supervisors. Her research is co-supervised by Reading’s Professor Amy Smith and Angie Bolton (Oxfordshire Museum Service) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership Collaborative Doctoral Award. Then the team will send samples to Germany for analysis in collaboration with Professor Stephan Schiffels at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Look for another press release in the coming days as Summer begins her analysis.
At the same time the local community has now become interested in the project through a display at the Goring Public Library, accompanied by a series of public events. Seongmee Yoon, another one of our PhD students, co-supervised by Prof. Smith and Dr Rhi Smith (Museum Studies, UoR), has taken this opportunity to study public perceptions of the site, the mysterious duo, and Anglo-Saxons, as part of her museological research. The entire team enjoyed the hospitality of Goring’s Catholic Church this Wednesday night when a sold-out audience heard presentations by Summer and Angie, followed by a poetry reading by Amy. As Summer said, “The study has given us the chance to explore a fascinating site with a thrilling history while applying several archaeological approaches and working with an invested and excited local community.”
More information on the research can be found at the project website: research.reading.ac.uk/mymerian
Last Thursday we were delighted to entertain some alumni who had come to take part in a careers event. Every year we invite alumni to come and talk about their careers to our Part 2 students, giving ideas about what paths are possible. As well as museum and teaching careers, these alumni spoke about the police, archaeology, and clinical trials.
Two of our alumni, Alex and Jon, comprise the Classics Department at Henley College, and Alex has recently won the Classical Association’s award for Outstanding New Teacher (https://classicalassociation.org/classical-association-teaching-awards/). We could not be more proud!
Reading Classics celebrate the International Women’s Day 2022 with an exploration of the variety of female presence in ancient texts and their receptions as well as in authorship around mythical stories. Professor Barbara Goff, whose research has thoroughly examined the role of women in ancient Drama and beyond, in different contexts, historical circumstances, and societies, has recently delivered a public lecture at the Belfast Hellenic Society on three contemporary women writers engaging with ancient tradition. Keep reading for her account of the ways in which women rediscover their place in the long and ever-changing course of literature.
In early March I went on a plane for the first time since 2019 and flew to Belfast, where I was hosted by the Belfast Hellenic Society. I am indebted to the Society, and especially Maureen Alden, for their wonderful hospitality. It was fitting that I gave my public lecture in the Canada Room and Council Chamber, in the imposing Lanyon Building, because it is adorned with a big mural of women from the University, titled ‘Out of the Shadows’. My talk was on three of the recent novels by women writers that channel, and challenge, the Homeric tradition: Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018), Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (2018) and Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships (2019). Although these are very different from one another, they all experiment with the idea of a ‘new song’, a version of the well-known epic story that is made different because told by a woman or women, and from a female perspective.
The Council Chamber at Queen’s University Belfast, Lanyon Building
Classicists will know that the idea of a new song sung by women is not straightforward. The chorus of Euripides’ Medea claims that for women to sing, the whole world has to be turned upside down:
Upwards flow the streams of holy rivers
and justice and everything is turned backwards.
The plans of men are tricky, and oaths
to gods no longer hold firm.
Speech will change to hold my life in good repute.
Honour will come to the female race;
The muses of old singers will cease to hymn
For not to our mind
did he grant the divine music of the lyre
Apollo, the leader of songs; then I would have sung a song
in answer to the race of men.
Now women can sing, say the chorus; but as we know, they are men, in costume. And we don’t really know what the new content of a women’s song would be; just before this song, Medea says, in perhaps somewhat misogynistic vein:
In addition we were born
women, most helpless for noble things
but of all sufferings the most clever artificers.
The new novels, I suggested in my talk, do not make things very much simpler.
The first-person narrator of Circe makes it very easy for readers to question her telling of her own story; she regularly tells us that she leaves things out and changes the story as she goes. The ending of the novel – spoiler alert! – throws into doubt the precise identity of the narrator.
In A Thousand Ships, the Muse Calliope engages in a long-running battle with ‘the poet’ (he’s unnamed, but he is blind…) over exactly what song he will sing. So, when the novel relays all the stories of the women caught up in the Trojan War, is that the song of the poet, or of Calliope, or is it something else entirely? Calliope herself seems a bit confused, because although she wants to memorialise all the women of the war, she gets fed up when the poet wants to sing about Helen.
In Silence of the Girls, Briseis is the first-person narrator, but the novel sets up a long-running contest between her ‘song’ and the epic songs that celebrate men’s victories and sufferings. Thus she remembers a song that Achilles sang before his death:
The words seemed to have got trapped inside my brain, an infestation rather than a song, and I resented it. Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy…worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.
But even having sung that new song, Briseis is unsure that it will work. At the very end of the novel, she concludes that future audiences will not want to hear her side of the story; they won’t want to hear ‘about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls’ and instead will want to listen to something much less challenging. When the novel concludes ‘now my own story can begin’ it is ironic at least, because these are the last words of the novel.
So rewriting the Homeric tradition from the female viewpoint is not necessarily a straightforward enterprise, but the critical and popular reception of these novels shows that it is a highly resonant undertaking that has won over huge audiences. My audience in the Canada Room was inspired to do more reading, which is always encouraging – the poet Michael Longley, whom I met at the event, said he would rush back to reread the Medea. As classicists we can relish new works, as well as celebrating the ways in which the ancient texts provoke responses – among men as well as women!
‘Out of the Shadows’, Michelle Rogers, b. 1966. This work over three panels hangs in the Council Chamber at Queen’s. The 25 women depicted represent female staff, students and alumni of Queen’s, and was commissioned by the Queen’s Gender Initiative which works to improve the profile and position of women within the University.