This tablet contains a curse directed at a Roman senator named Fistus, possibly the only known case of a curse targeting a senator. An eight-point star covers the deity’s genitals and snakes project out of its head. The curse is written in Latin with Greek invocations. CREDIT: Photo courtesy Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna
Heard about this on Twitter. Had to reblog, considering my recent article on curse tablets.
By Alice Leiper
As modern initiatives attempt to encourage bees and beekeeping to return to our cities, I look back at other examples of urban beekeeping from the past.
Following a drop in honeybee populations in Britain, in 2009 Natural England encouraged the residents of cities to keep bees in their gardens, on roofs and balconies (BBC 2009). Quoted in that article, Johannes Paul, of Omlet, a company which produced an urban beehive, claimed that “those in the know have been keeping bees in towns for a long time.” Longer, perhaps, than he might realise.
Traditionally considered a rural occupation, there is evidence for beekeeping in urban centres going back three thousand years. In 2005 eight hives were discovered at Tel Rehov in Israel, a city occupied between the 12th and 8th centuries BCE; during excavations two years later a further 17 hives were excavated (Mazar and Panitz-Cohen 2007, 204-205). These are the earliest known archaeological remains of beekeeping in the world.
The hives were cylindrical, roughly 80cm long and 40cm in diameter, with one end blocked but for a flight hole and the other end covered with a removable lid. They were made of rough unfired clay; their preservation is thanks to a fire which destroyed the apiary (ibid, 205).
While the excavated hives number 25, Mazar and Panitz-Cohen posit that there were originally many more. The hives were found in rows and are believed to have been stacked three high, with aisles between the rows to enable workers to tend to the hives. Thus based upon what was excavated, an possible additional rows where no hives have survived but where they may have been, there were probably at least 75 hives in this apiary, and possibly as many as 180 (ibid, 207). The quantities of honey and wax these hives therefore produced must have been economically significant, on a commercial level rather than for individual use (ibid, 211).
But why would this apiary be in a town, and not out in the countryside where the bees have better access to plants and are less of a nuisance to residents. Mazar and Panitz-Cohen suggest that the apiary’s location may have been for security (ibid, 218); if true, this would further suggest that beekeeping was an important activity, the products valuable enough to the people of Tel Rehov that they would endure the inconvenience (ibid, 207, 210). Indeed, it is likely there was very little inconvenience – honeybees reportedly fly some 5 metres above the ground, well above pedestrians on the street (BBC 2009).
In classical Greek agriculture, beekeeping was certainly considered a rural occupation. Contemporary Greek authors such as Aristotle discuss the nature of bees, how they produce honey, how they reproduce and so on (Aristotle, Historia Animalium 5, 9), but do not specify that it is a rural pursuit, probably because it would be stating the absolute obvious. However, other evidence demonstrates that beekeeping was rural – the Hymettus region, a mountainous rural area in Attica, was famous for the honey produced there by the Roman period (Strabo, Geography 9.1.23); evidence of beekeeping has been excavated from that region, at a rural house near the town of Vari (Jones et al, 1973).
But archaeological remains of hives have also been found in Athens itself, including in the Athenian agora (Jones 1976, 91). More recently, a hive of a type which enabled the beekeeper to tend the hives from the opposite end from the flight hole has also been found (Rotroff 2002, 297). Rotroff suggests that the practice of urban beekeeping began in Athens during the Peloponnesian War in the late 5th century BCE, when the rural population took shelter in the city, and brought the only form of agriculture they could with them – their hives (ibid). In Athens there is no sign of large scale commercial apiaries as at Tel Rehov, but rather it appears that a family might own one or two hives and produce honey for their own consumption and sale (ibid).
Beekeeping, though usually rural, has always been possible in urban centres. The attempts to encourage it in modern cities are founded on ancient precedents going back three thousand years. By examining the not immediately obvious facets of ancient life, unexpected realities can be revealed.
The above article is based on research conducted in summer 2011 as part of my Masters dissertation. I have previously published online another article based on part of that dissertation, Bees in Greek Mythology.
BBC. 2009. ‘Urban dwellers “should keep bees”.’ 5 July 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8184655.stm Accessed 6 May 2012.
Jones, J. E. 1976. ‘Hives and honey of Hymettus: beekeeping in ancient Greece.’ Archaeology 29 (2), 80-91.
Jones, J. E, A. J. Graham, L. H. Sackett and M Ioannes Geroulanos. 1973. ‘An Attic country house below the cave of Pan at Vari.’ The Annual of the British School at Athens 68, 355-452.
Mazar, A. and N. Panitz-Cohen. 2007. ‘It is the land of honey: beekeeping at Tel Rehov.’ Near Eastern Archaeology 70 (4), 202-219.
Rotroff, S. I. 2002. ‘Urban bees.’ In ‘The 103rd Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of Archaeology.’ American Journal of Archaeology 106 (2), 297.
By Alice Leiper
In this article I’ll be looking at two particular, related types of inscriptions from the ancient world, and examining what they can tell us about how people viewed the moral authority of the gods.
What are curse tablets?
According to Pliny the Elder, fear of curse tablets was universal in the ancient world (Natural History 28.4.19). Curse tablets – defixiones in Latin or katadesmoi is Greek – were pieces of writing, often inscribed on lead but also other metals and materials, which were intended to compel supernatural forces to do harm to a human or animal target (Gager 1992, 3; Jordan 1985, 109). The choice of materials – lead being popular – and the way they were written were believed to determine their power.
Indeed, it is thought that the very act of writing these curses down gave them a potency beyond merely saying them aloud, by giving them a physical, perpetual presence in the world (Thomas 1992, 80). The form these written curses was not straightforward, but letters were deliberately moved around, particularly in names, which were spelled wrong or written backwards (Thomas 1992, 80).
The choice of lead for the vast majority of curses is down to several factors. It was common and cheap; it was easy to manipulate; and its nature – cold, heavy and common – made it suitable in later periods as a means of portraying what was intended to happen to the victim (Gager 1992, 4).
Over time, curse tablets changed from the earlier, simple form – “I bind X” (Gager 1992, 5) to more complicated forms. Formulae in which parts of the victims body were stated as being bound emerged in the Greek period, and into the Roman period curses became longer. In later examples, curse tablets included palindromes, mystical symbols, made-up words thought to be magical and repeated formulae (Gager 1992, 7-8).
Tablets were deposited in particular locations – they were dropped down wells, thrown in streams, or buried in the graves of those who died violently or particularly young (Gager 1992, 18-19). But tablets also existed which were intended to cause harm to those who sought to bury curse tablets in graves, and thus protect graves from being disturbed (Gager 1992, 177-178).
What are judicial prayers?
Judicial prayers were written to the gods as an appeal by those who had been wronged for the perpetrator to be punished appropriately, and in the case of thefts, for the stolen items to be returned (Versnel 1991, 68). Versnel quotes an example in which a woman, Artemisia, appeals to Oserapis. Artemesia states that her daughter has been denied her burial goods by the girl’s father, and calls for him to be punished by being unable to bury his parents, and to not be buried by his children.
Judicial prayers are often considered a sub-category of curse tablets. Like curse tablets, they are often inscribed on lead, and some were buried in graves or down wells (Gager 1992, 177). But H S Versnel – who coined the term “judicial prayers” – points out significant differences. The tone used is one such difference. Curse tablets are forceful; they state that the victim is bound, or demand that the gods or ghosts of the dead act to harm the victim. By contrast, judicial prayers have a supplicatory tone. They petition the gods, and promise that, should the injustice be rectified, the petitioner will make an offering to the gods in question (Versnel 1991, 61-62).
The author of curse tablets – that is, the person who wrote it or commissioned someone else to write it – is rarely named. Curse tablets probably didn’t include the names of their authors because it was socially unacceptable, and in the Roman period at the least illegal, to use spells and curses to cause others harm (Versnel 1991, 63). Judicial prayers, however, frequently did include the name of the petitioner.
While some judicial prayers, like curse tablets, were deposited out of sight in graves or wells, others were placed in public locations such as temples (Versnel 1991, 81). A particular judicial prayer found near Corinth and dating to between the first and third centuries AD, was found in a family chamber tomb (Faraone and Rife 2007, 141). It was probably visible to those who visited the chamber tomb to bury the dead and pay respects to them, and knowledge of it may have filtered into the wider community by being spoken of by the family who owned the chamber tomb (Faraone and Rife 2007, 155).
Cases of people appealing for supernatural help for the return of stolen items are very common. Tablets appealing for justice or revenge represent the largest proportion of known curse tablets, with roughly 300 from Britain alone, and most of them refer to thefts (Gager 1992, 177). Many of these promise the gods they have called upon a proportion of the value of the stolen item should it be returned (Gager 1992, 195-197; numbers 97, 98, 99). The punishment the authors call for is often some form of illness, which the thief can only escape or end by returning the stolen goods (Versnel 1991, 85).
It was believed that these written judicial prayers worked. This is evidenced by the existence of inscriptions, often dedicated in temples, in which people either claimed they were innocent of a crime and thus a curse working against them was unjust, or they admitted to crimes, returned the stolen items or in other ways made reparations, and praised the power of the gods who had brought them low (Gager 1992, 176-177).
Ancient Gods: arbiters of divine justice?
So with so many judicial prayers in existence petitioning the Greek, Roman and even Egyptian gods for the return of stolen goods or punishment for wrongdoers, surely the gods were seen as morally superior, just beings? Well, no.
The people of the ancient world did not believe the gods were arbiters of an objective morality, but rather that they would influence human life in any way someone desired if people offered an appropriate incentive, such as worship or a dedication (Goodman 1997, 290). We can see the evidence of this in the existence of the curse tablets. One calls for supernatural beings to “attack, bind, overturn, cut up, chop into pieces the horses and the charioteers of the Blue colours” (Gager 1992, 55, number 5). Another, from fourth century BC Athens, binds some bronze-workers, along with what they produce (Gager 1992, 163, number 71). These aren’t about justice. The former was probably written by a supporter of the Green faction of chariot racers, who may have bet money on his team winning and thus sought to ensure this by supernatural means. The latter may have been written by a dissatisfied customer or a rival bronze worker.
Indeed, Plato records that beggars and soothsayers would go door to door offering their services in making curse tablets to the wealthy. They would use their charms and binding spells against their clients’ enemies, “whether he deserves it or not” (Plato, Republic 2.364c). The gods could be called upon to inflict harm upon the innocent and the guilty alike. The moral distinction between judicial prayers and curse tablets was a human one alone, manifesting in whether the authors chose to name themselves or not; whether they chose to place the inscriptions in public locations or hide them in graves or wells; and whether the inscriptions were permitted or tolerated in graves, like the judicial prayer from the family chamber tomb, or if rather families took measures to guard against their loved ones’ graves being disturbed.
Since it’s been a while since I last posted and I’ve only posted two articles so far, I thought an update was in order to make it clear I’ve not just got tired of this already. I am continuing with this, I’ve just been very busy lately.
I did have an article on Greek tyranny in the archaic period lined up, but during my research I read something which made me question the validity of such a topic, so that’s on hold until I work out an angle which neither parrots the article I read, nor ignores it altogether.
What I’m working on now is an article looking at curse tablets and the related-but-not-the-same judicial prayer tablets in the context of the moral authority of the Greek and Roman gods. I’ve almost finished with the research on that, so should have it up fairly soon. I’m aiming for this weekend.
I don’t have a specific plan, because I prefer to research what I feel is interesting at the time, and because sometimes getting hold of research materials is tricky, but topics I intend to cover in the near future include a look at sporting events at Greek sanctuaries, some time before the London Olympic games start, and an examination of ceramics - how they’re made, used, deposited and studied.
I’m also going to start an article series I’m calling the Ten series. These will be articles in which I look at ten things from a particular category that every ancient historian should know - the first of these will be Ten Dates in Classical Greek History that Every Ancient Historian Should Know, and I’ll also cover other things like major battles, Roman statesmen, scientific advances, festivals, and so on. Each of the things on the lists will be described or summarised in a few sentences. The aim is to provide a background, a few nuggets of interesting information, and a context to the rest of what I write.
The Ten series articles shouldn’t take as long to research as the other articles, because no analysis is required, but I don’t want them to overwhelm the more thorough articles, and so will be spacing them out to the order of one Ten series article for every two to four non-Ten series articles. The reason for this is that I want this blog to be suitable for a general audience with little or no prior knowledge of ancient history, but also interesting and useful to those with prior knowledge or educational foundation, such as undergraduate students and historians whose focus has been on other periods of history or cultures.
As for a schedule of publication, I can’t give one. These articles take as much time as they take to research, and my free time is limited by my full time job. I will try to get them done in a timely manner, but a gap between articles of three to four weeks shouldn’t shock anyone.
And so that I’m not just boring people with an update they may not care about, have a picture too. It’s the temple of Poseidon at Sounion, the one where the Romantic poet Byron wrote his name, in southern Attica. This was taken by me in mid April last year.
The badass female pioneers of archaeology.
From left to right, top to bottom:
1. Gertrude Bell: was a writer, archaeologist, political officer, traveller and administrator, who helped shape British policy in the Middle East and the creation of the modern state of Iraq. She was described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection.”
2. Mary Leakey: developed a system of classifying the tools she and her husband excavated from the Olduvai Gorge. She was responsible for the discovery of the Proconsul skull, the Zinjanthropus skull and the Laetoli footprints.
3. Amelia Edwards: was a novelist, journalist, traveller and Egyptologist. Through her travel writings, she greatly increased public awareness of archaeology and the importance of conserving monuments threatened by tourism, looting and development.
4. Dorothy Garrod: was the first woman to hold an Oxbridge chair, the first female professor at Cambridge, and her work pioneered research in the field of palaeolithic studies. She contributed greatly to the understanding of prehistoric sequences of occupation in Palestine.
5. Mary Anning: was a fossil collector, dealer and palaeontologist, whose work radically changed scientific thinking about prehistoric life. She’s most remembered for discovering the Ichthyosaur.
6. Ruth Benedict: challenged the traditional views held by anthropologists and folklorists by shifting the focus away from culture-trait diffusion and towards theories of performance as central to understanding and interpreting culture. Her work emphasised a holistic view of culture, questioning relationships between different elements.
7. Gertrude Caton-Thompson: worked as an archaeologist in Egypt, and undertook the first archaeological survey of the northern Faiyum. She later undertook the first systematic excavation of Yemen, and excavated at Great Zimbabwe. She was also influential in helping Mary Leakey start her career.
8. Hilda Petrie: worked as a copyist under, and later became the wife of, Flinders Petrie. Hilda made herself invaluable as an excavator and archaeologist, her work taking her into cramped uncomfortable quarters. Petrie was so impressed with her skill, that she often was given excavations of her own.
9. Hetty Goldman: was the first woman professor at the School of Humanistic Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She is well known for her excavations in Turkey and Boetia, and she sponsored the escape of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
Two masked armed robbers tied up a museum guard at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece and made off with dozens of artifacts, authorities said Friday.
Greece’s Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos submitted his resignation after the robbery at the antiquities museum in Ancient Olympia, but it was unclear whether it had been accepted by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. Geroulanos was traveling to Olympia on Friday.
Police set up roadblocks in the area as part of a broad search to try to locate the robbers, who wore ski masks.
Museum authorities and police did not have an immediate account of the items taken from smashed display cases, but local authorities and police said about 60 artifacts are estimated to have been snatched.
“According to the results of the investigation so far, unknown persons, this morning, at about 07:34 a.m., immobilized the guard of the museum and removed bronze and clay objects from the displays, as well as a gold ring,” a police statement said.
Olympia Mayor Efthimios Kotzas urged authorities to improve security at the site.
“The level of security is indeed lacking,” Kotzas told state-run NET television. “These are treasures. A piece of world heritage has been lost thanks to these thieves … I think (authorities) should have been more mindful and the security should have been more serious.”
By Alice Leiper
Before I begin let me explain where I stand with this and why I’m writing it. I have studied ancient history and archaeology for four years, first in an undergraduate course and then a masters in the Classical Mediterranean. Over that time I have developed as a student quite considerably, such that, in reading through an old second year essay I wrote on a topic similar to one I hope to write about for the Perpetual Past, I was gobsmacked by the mark I received for it. With an extra two years of experience as a student, I look back on that essay and I cannot imagine why it received a mark of 63 and not one two grades lower.
Though I cannot remember the specific circumstances surrounding the production of this essay, knowing myself and reading the essay have enabled me to establish this: I was lazy. I clearly hadn’t read some of the primary sources, but cited them because the books I had read had cited them. Yet I got 63. The mind boggles; and I am persuaded that had I actually attempted this essay with any effort I could easily have scored in the 70s; and perhaps ended up with a first class degree instead of the upper second class degree I ended up with, had I been similarly more eager in all my essays.
So that is my situation: I have, fairly recently, been an undergraduate, and with the benefit of hindsight I feel I am able to dispense appropriate advice to those who follow in my footsteps. So here are my top tips to writing a good essay, many of which it took me four years to learn. I hope those of my readers who are current undergraduates take my warnings and learn far more quickly than I did.
Top tip number five: Formatting
This might seem dull, but formatting and referencing correctly from an early stage is important. You need to check and double check what your department prefers in terms of formatting – if they prefer particular fonts or sizes, what format of referencing they prefer (Harvard method or footnotes), how to format the bibliography, and so on. Why is this important? Because the less time your tutors spend telling you how to do it right, the more time they have to spend telling you how you can make the flesh of your next essay better.
Top tip number four: Read widely
I know, your tutors have been saying that too, right? But you only need ten or fifteen references in the bibliography, right? Well, yes, but your essay will be stronger if you have read more perspectives, more analyses of your topic than if you have relied on just one or two. The more you know, the better position you are in to judge the core issues of your topic.
The tendency, in first and sometimes second years, is to rely largely on books and neglect articles. Books are generally on the recommended reading lists, and often libraries will have more than one copy of them, whereas they will generally have one copy of an edition of a journal. But journals are online a lot now, and easily accessible to students through websites such as JSTOR. Articles tend to be more focussed on a single topic, while books are often more general. They also represent the latest research, while books tend to collect accepted conclusions on a topic to one place.
As an aside to this tip, be aware of the date of publication of any book or article you are using. Anything older than 1960 is almost certainly out of date, unless the topic has not been studied much since. Be aware that older studies may have been challenged or disproven since, or that they may represent out-of-date attitudes to the ancient sources or discoveries. Where possible, rely on the most recent articles and books you can find; my general rule, by the time I reached third year and certainly during my masters, was to be cautious of anything older than me. That’s not to say older texts cannot be used at all; excavation reports, for example, are invaluable regardless of when they were written. And some essays will call for you to assess older attitudes. But be wary.
Top tip number three: Ask why
When I say “ask why”, what I mean is: think. You’ve studies something, learned about how people did things, drawn conclusions about whatever your essay question was. But now think about those conclusions and ask why ancient people acted in a certain way, or how they did, or whether the attitudes of modern scholars surrounding this topic are valid, and where they are coming from. To get the best marks, you need to have an extra layer of analysis that most people miss. Ideally, finish the essay soon enough before the deadline that you can think about it, let it stew, reread it and thus discover afresh what that extra analysis could be. It’s very difficult to be specific about this point, because each essay is different, and its aims are different, but one starting point, for some questions, is to ask why that question is important.
Top tip number two: Start early
This is definitely one your tutors have told you time and again by the time you get to your second week, let alone second year. And I am sorry to say it is one I ignored repeatedly, though with the occasional attempt to begin early.
The thing is, if you’ve only got a week to write an essay, you’re going to come up against trouble: for a start, you’ll probably have trouble getting hold of books on the recommended reading list, and you really should try to start with those, even if you continue with articles. So starting early means less stress in getting hold of what you need to start your research. It also means you have more time to do research, and thus greater opportunity to read widely.
The problem I had, during my first and second years, was that I started later and later with each assignment, knowing I could still produce something which – from the second year tyranny essay I have just read – scored fairly well regardless. I became complacent, and in the third year, and during my masters, my marks suffered for this, because I hadn’t developed a technique which would help me write good essays.
It also meant that in my third year in particular I spent quite a lot of nights in the library; by this stage the library was open 24 hours during certain times of the year, so I could easily pull an all nighter without having to leave campus, but I have charted my third year and masters year essays, and those with the lowest marks are invariably those I did exactly that on: left to the last minute because I didn’t think much of the topic, and then had to work through the night before the deadline to complete them. All that sleep lost, for marks that brought down my average, could have been avoided if I had started working on essays sooner.
So start early, get the research in, and don’t write essays while sleep-deprived.
Top tip number one: Use primary sources
I can’t state enough how important this is. Primary sources are what you are basing your research on. They are what the modern sources based their research on, and trying to read those without some grounding in the primary sources will not help you write well.
For the ancient history side of things, this means texts such as Thucydides, Herodotus and Aristotle (for the Greek side of it; I am less familiar with the Roman sources, but Plutarch, Caesar and Suetonius would be appropriate examples).
For the archaeology side of your studies, this means excavation reports; technically speaking the archaeology itself is the primary source, but generally the excavation report is the closest you’ll come to it. These could be articles covering a year’s campaign, volumes examining all finds of a particular type from one site, collections of transcribed and translated inscriptions, or articles discussing a single object or small group of objects.
Sourcebooks are also useful; they tend to collect texts, inscriptions and objects which cover a single theme, such as Greek religion, into one volume, sometimes with comments from the editor.
Often secondary sources discuss primary sources in detail, or even quote them. It is tempting, if you are short on time, to use these to write your essays without looking at the primary sources yourself; after all, the gist is captured in the secondary source’s paraphrasing. But you should not give in to this temptation. If possible, you should find the primary source and read it. For me, it was a worthwhile investment to buy copies of Thucydides, Herodotus, Aristotle, and others; indeed it is Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and Aristotle’s Politics which I used most throughout my time at university. If you buy any books at all, make it the primary sources which cover the topics you are interested in.
By Alice Leiper
The excavations at Corinth provide a strong case study for examining attitudes and approaches in archaeology in the early twentieth century. It is important to understand the biases of the excavators at the time in order to correctly study the excavation reports and articles produced at this time, as knowing what was considered important at the time enables discerning analysis of what was found.
The site was first occupied around 6500BC. It found influence in the archaic period through trade and a strong navy. In the classical period Corinth had some political influence, though it was overshadowed by Athens and Sparta. It was destroyed as part of the Roman annexation of Greece in 146BC and refounded as a Roman veteran colony in 44BC. Corinth again saw prosperity in the first century AD, before natural disasters and invasions saw it decline in the late Roman period. Under Byzantine and later Frankish control in the middle ages Corinth experienced periods of both growth and decline. It was destroyed by the Turks during the Greek War of Independence in the early 1830s. The modern city is situated a few miles away from the ancient site.
Excavations at Corinth began in 1896, carried out by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The Greek government allows two excavations per country for foreign excavations, thus the American School’s decision to excavate Corinth is not insignificant. The School’s other excavation is at the Athenian agora, begun in 1931.
There are three key topics relating to the early excavations which I wish to discuss: the focus on the classical period, the reliance on Pausanias and other written sources, and the attitude towards objects of artistic value.
Focus on the Classical
Being as Corinth was chosen as an excavation site because of the length of its occupation, and given that it produced no surviving written accounts in the classical period, one would not expect the classical period to be the primary focus of excavators. Corinth’s political and economic heights were in the archaic period and the first century AD. Yet in spite of this the approach of the early excavators was very much focused on finding and exploring the classical level.
The earliest excavations were largely unrewarding, but once excavators had found the classical theatre, and identified the above-ground remains of an archaic temple as that of Apollo, they used the account of Pausanias (more on whom later), to conjecture the location of the classical agora – the economic and social centre of the city. The early excavations focused heavily on discovering public monumental structures, an approach mirrored when the American School began excavations at the Athenian agora in 1931.
Several articles specify that the excavators were looking for classical works and buildings, or hint at this attitude when describing the lack of classical objects or bemoaning the destruction of works from the “best Greek period” (Gardiner 1908, 158) by later residents of the city. Other articles unashamedly proclaim that the excavators were looking deliberately for classical archaeology. During the 1926 campaign, for example, “no attempt was made to go below the classical level” (Hill 1927, 71); similarly in the 1938 campaign excavations went as deep as the classical period at the South Stoa in the agora (Weinberg 1939, 592).
The assumption in these early excavation reports is that the classical is what is important. This attitude is reflected at Athens, which was chosen as Greece’s new capital in 1833 despite being, at that time, only a small town, because of the monumental classical architecture clearly visible on the Acropolis, where excavators deliberately removed any later archaeology that masked the classical archaeology or any other key public spaces in the classical era.
While non-classical periods are not completely ignored, with articles also on prehistoric Corinth (such as Blegen 1920) or Latin inscriptions (e.g. Dean 1918), the classical period is central to the excavations; Roman structures and objects were excavated on the way down to the classical level, and Roman sculpture was compared unfavourably to what excavators expected to find at the classical level.
Pausanias and the written word
Pausanias was a Greek geographer writing in the second century AD, when Greece was under Roman rule. He travelled to Greek cities and described some of the buildings and items of sculpture he saw there, explaining the historical significance of them and exploring local myths in the process.
The early excavators relied heavily on Pausanias. As mentioned above, early excavators located the classical agora using Pausanias’s account of what he saw in Corinth after finding the theatre; it was also by using Pausanias’ account that the above-ground remains of an archaic temple were identified as having been the temple of Apollo. Pausanias was very exact in describing where structures were in relation to one another. Because of this, those excavating cities and sanctuaries he recorded have used his accounts from the birth of classical Greek archaeology in this way to locate monumental architecture and establish the identities of particular structures – for example at Delphi, where the treasuries of various cities have been identified based on the order Pausanias puts them in and the sculpture he describes as belonging to them.
Similarly, excavators also noted when they had discovered something not described by Pausanias, using this lack to conjecture that the structure in question was no longer standing by the second century AD. Pausanias is seen as infallible by these early excavators, despite the fact that there are known to be things Pausanias did not consider noteworthy enough to describe – such as the sculpture on the exterior of the Parthenon, which he can hardly have missed but did not mention. Furthermore, structures discussed by Pausanias such as the Peirene fountain were given more attention in excavation reports than other finds.
This reliance on Pausanias is a symptom of a wider attitude in archaeology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: that archaeological investigation served written history. Archaeology was expected not to provide new insights, but to fill the gaps in knowledge left by the ancient texts, to prove the accuracy of such texts, and to locate objects and buildings recorded by ancient authors as a visual context for the texts.
One particular article – Richardson 1898 (see sources, below), stands out as being very typical of the attitudes towards non-architectural finds in the early excavations. The article is about a vase of the Corinthian style – a specific style of ceramic decoration which was produced in Corinth in the archaic period and widely exported.
At about the time Richardson was writing, archaeology was becoming a profession rather than the rich man’s hobby it had been a century earlier. Thus the focus on being professional and scientific at this time led to very detailed observations of those finds considered worthy of it. Richardson supplies exact measurements and additional details, such as noting that sand grains disturbed the otherwise smooth surface of the vessel. He describes the painted decorations in similar detail, and accompanies this with several drawings of relevant sections, and one of the entire vessel. This approach anticipates Sir John Beazley and the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum a little over a decade later. Indeed, Richardson goes further than most of his contemporaries, in that he records fairly precisely where the vessel was found – an attitude not widely adopted until several decades later.
However, typically for the time, Richardson does not engage in much analysis. He makes no attempt to suggest method of production, decoration or firing based upon his detailed observations, or to hypothesise what the vessel was used for or how and why it was deposited. Though the vessel itself is described, the focus is on the art: the quality of the decoration is assessed and compared to other similar objects.
Both the focus of this article on a vase, and the way the vase itself is examined and assessed, demonstrate the trend in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries towards finding and displaying examples of ancient art, a relic of archaeology’s antiquarian past in which collections of decorated vases and sculpture were collected and displayed in private homes.
Two further things Richardson wrote in the article betray the attitudes of his time. First, he calls Greece the “home of ceramic art” (203), suggesting that decorated ceramics found elsewhere are of inherently lesser value. Secondly, he states that the vessel would assist in “discriminating between genuine and spurious Corinthian vases” (204). This obsession with the original crops up in other articles examining finds at Corinth (e.g. Tucker 1902, 422). The focus is on what is original, and the belief, very typical of an art historical approach: that the originals are of inherently greater worth than copies; the idea that imitations might have archaeological and anthropological value in tracking ideals and fashions had not yet occurred to the archaeological profession at this stage.
Another article (Young 1922), which describes a sarcophagus found at Corinth, further illustrates attitude towards decorated finds. Young examines the sculpture on the outside of the sarcophagus in great detail, and even suggests possible identities of the figures depicted. Yet he fails to mention whether there were human remains inside the sarcophagus, let alone any details such as the completeness, pose or sex of the remains, or whether there were any burial goods. The perception of value of the find is based upon the quality of workmanship, completeness of the work and who or what it depicts, rather than what it can tell scholars about life – and death – in a given period.
The excavations at Corinth serve as a solid case study for the state of archaeology in Greece in the early twentieth century. They demonstrate the ways in which archaeological investigation was still very strongly reliant on the previous hobbyist approaches of the nineteenth century – such as the attitude towards decorated wares and the reliance on written texts, rather than scientific analysis, to tell excavators about finds. But at the same time there are hints of archaeology as a profession moving forward and becoming more scientifically rigorous, in the detail with which Richardson describes the Corinthian vase.