Thinking Like Lysistrata: Women’s March 2018

On the first anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington that took the United States – and the world – by storm on January 20, 2017 in the wake of the deeply unsettling inauguration of 45, women everywhere came together once again to protest The Man No One (sane) Wanted in Office.

From Stanford to right here in Ann Arbor, women united to remind everyone that our fight is still not over. Our rights, and the rights of so many other marginalized groups, are still in jeopardy, and we must continue to fight for those rights as we weather this storm of a presidency for the next three years.

Although I personally could not attend the Ann Arbor march today (I did make it out to Lansing last year, which was honestly such a feeling of empowerment, being surrounded by so many other empowered women), I kept an eye on social media and felt almost as inspired as I did a year ago when I saw how many women and allies showed up. I particularly enjoyed an image shared by a friend on Instagram, who was depicted holding a sign saying ‘Public CERVIX announcement, this pussy grabs BACK’ in front of a man defiantly holding up a sign saying ‘Make me a sammich!’

It is so appalling to know that, after everything we have been through in the last year, and all of the headlines that have come out of not just the things that our President has said but also current events – like the systematic disenfranchisement of several prominent celebrity men who have sexually assaulted other members of the community – there are still people out there who think this way.

In the midst of seeing these posts throughout the day from the various Women’s Marches all over the country and spending much of the morning hashing out the inherent problems in Classics as a discipline and with classical reception in media in general, I remembered the days in undergrad, where I was exposed to Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Chi-Raq. A modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, what film could have been more appropriate on a day like today?

By the two Goddesses, now can’t you see
All we have to do is idly sit indoors
With smooth roses powdered on our cheeks,
Our bodies burning naked through the folds
Of shining Amorgos‘ silk, and meet the men
With our dear Venus-plats plucked trim and neat.
Their stirring love will rise up furiously,
They’ll beg our arms to open. That’s our time!
We’ll disregard their knocking, beat them off—
And they will soon be rabid for a Peace.
I’m sure of it.

-Lysistrata, Lysistrata 140-154 (trans. Perseus Online)

Released three years ago, Chi-Raq tells the story of a young woman named Lysistrata who, seeing her city plagued by gang violence and wanting to put an end to it, organizes a sex strike in order to bring peace to Chicago. It’s both heart-wrenching and hilarious, poking fun at a serious situation in much the same way that Aristophanes does in his fifth century comedy. It’s a whopping 2 hours long but it doesn’t feel like it – it’ll keep you engaged the whole way through, thanks to stunning cinematography, witty dialogue (in verse!), the periodic appearances by Samuel L. Jackson (he’s a hoot and he doesn’t even talk to anyone other than the audience), and the ingenious adaptation of such a timeless plot line.

But those aren’t the only reasons I love the film. On the one hand, it’s the representation.


If you had never heard of this film before today, would you have ever thought anyone would adapt Aristophanes in such a poignant way? I certainly never did, and yet years after I watched for the first time, a little shocked and a little intrigued, in a dark classroom in the middle of Virginia, singing its praises.

The film might not be set in fifth century Athens, but it still puts people of color in the roles we as classicists are so familiar with. And that’s something. (It is not, for instance, like the ill-fated Gods of Egypt that disappointed so many by casting white men in the lead roles of Egyptian gods. But that’s a totally different issue.)

Whether you’re a classicist or not, I think that so many people would get something out of this film. If you are a classicist, I think you can see why a film like this is so important. Think of all of the other film adaptations of ancient literature you’ve seen – Cleopatra, Troy, 300 – all attempt to stay true to the story for the most part, taking some creative liberties here and there. But what Spike Lee does here is take Aristophanes’ work and effectively transplant it into a new community, with new personalities and new problems.

But is it really new?

My answer would be a firm no.

Instead of perpetuating the white-washed Classics we have all grown so accustomed to (don’t tell me you don’t imagine the characters in your favorite Athenian comedies as white actors parading around in masks), this forces us to recast the characters, to not ignore just how timely the issues that the Athenians were faced with in the fifth century actually are.

The characters in Chi-Raq are fighting for the same things – peace in their city at a time wracked with violence and conflict – using the same tactics – withholding sex, to the utter, albeit comical, dismay of the men – and are faced with the same challenges – not being taken seriously because of their gender. This is the second reason why I love this film so much, and why I think that it is particularly important on today of all days.

It is – both the film and the fifth century play – such a strong display of the power of women to bring about change. It also, of course, highlights the problems inherent in our society – the fact that women would have to resort to something as ridiculous as withholding sex in order to get what we want because we wouldn’t be taken seriously otherwise. In a similar vein, just short of withholding sex from our male counterparts, the fact that we have to organize and wield signs in the cold for hours to get the men (not people, the men) in power to pay attention to us (not actually change anything, though; just to recognize that we are here and that we do, in fact, care about our lives) is pretty ridiculous, too.

Of course, I know that Lysistrata is a work of fiction. It’s a caricature at best – a play written by a man in a society where he knew pretty well that women would never actually revolt and take over the Acropolis for peace. But so many aspects of that play, whether Aristophanes wanted them to or not, resonate in today’s society.

Whether you apply it to gang violence in Chicago or the sexual misconduct of men in Hollywood or the blatant mistreatment of women all over America by our political system, it’s relevant. So, I implore you all to watch this film, and continue to do the good work that you have been doing. Think like Lysistrata. One of these days – I hope – they’ll finally take us seriously.


MLK Day 2018: Antigone in Ann Arbor

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
“Beyond Vietnam,” Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the snow continued to fall steadily outside on an otherwise deserted campus, dozens of community members gathered in the Classics Library on the University of Michigan campus for this year’s Classics-themed event, which served as only one of many parts of the weeks-long Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium put on by the university and organized by our Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives. However, unlike the event that took place in that very same room almost a year ago, the atmosphere was much more egalitarian, and felt more welcoming than emotionally charged.

This year’s event, in keeping with the spirit of the speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. one year before he was assassinated, quoted above, focused, not on white supremacy (which was very timely last year given several incidents of hate-ridden flyers on and around campus), but instead on issues of patriotism, justice, violence and dissent. And nothing, perhaps, would be better to frame that discussion than in light of Sophocles’ Antigone.

In the spring of 440 BCE, the people of Athens gathered at their annual festival of Dionysus to watch Sophocles’ Antigone – the tragedy of a young woman protesting against the state’s treatment of her dead brother Polyneices.

In a similar way, we had all gathered at our annual MLK Day symposium to hear five students perform several scenes from the play and discuss those salient implications listed above in a town-hall forum. The two-hour event was structured in much the same way as, and perhaps strongly influenced by, ‘Antigone in Ferguson,’ a social justice project organized by the Theater of War, who has, since its inception, put on several ancient Greek plays in different settings to encourage discussion about current political issues. I believe that ‘Antigone in Ferguson’ sparked the most attention – though, to be honest, I had not heard of it until today – because of its obvious connections to the police brutality and the unlawful murder of Mike Brown there in August 2014.

To see a reading of ‘Antigone in Ferguson’ by Theater of War, click here!

Although many people in the audience made the point that our situation and experience of the play was much different from that of the audience in Ferguson, Missouri – the site of so much violence and tension between the police and people of color – I felt that there was still a lot that we could gain from our discussion of the play and its relevance to our greater experiences as citizens in this country.

Several things from the discussion portion of the event struck me as incredibly relevant to our lives, and my life in particular. One of those things was the point raised by one audience member that, in the play, there is a clear tension between what is perceived to be right and what is law. This is demonstrated by the conflict between Antigone herself and her uncle, King Creon, who refuses to allow her to give her brother, Polyneices, the burial he is (according to Antigone) owed by ritual.  What Antigone perceives to be as ‘the right thing to do’ (in terms of familial obligation and religion) is condemned by Creon, on the one hand, because it does not align with what he has set down in law, and on the other hand, because she is of inferior status to him and, so, her opinion does not matter.

This ‘writing off’ of anyone who is inferior (be they gendered, black, or foreign bodies) as unwelcome in society or unworthy of the rights of other, more ‘superior’ individuals, is an especially salient issue, even today. Not only are their voices rarely heard or taken seriously by those in positions of power, but they are often cast aside or disregarded as worthless, or even subhuman. This calls to mind last semester in my Theories of Feminism course, where we talked about the differences in the ways that women of color and white women have been treated throughout history. In short, white women (who’s surprised? anyone?) have been treated slightly less terribly than women of color across the board.

This brings to the fore another issue – Creon’s blatant misogyny. As a Classicist and a feminist, I know and have known for a very long time that the Greeks believed that women were the inferior gender. I mean, it’s pretty obvious when the first thing that anyone ever says about Greek women is that they were ‘secluded’ to the ‘domestic sphere’ (scare quotes because…well…I have opinions). But Antigone (or, perhaps, the translation that was being performed) shocked me at a number of points in the dialogue. There were several times where Creon would say something so unnerving I had to remind myself to keep breathing. But the dialogue illustrated that very stark divide between men and women that I had already known so well.

And, as one of my former Greek professors explained later in the discussion portion of the event, Creon’s misogyny only served as one of the many characteristics (including his disregard of what is ‘right’ in favor of the law and his disdain for the opinions of inferior citizens) which made him an authoritarian character.

It was perhaps all too clear of whom Creon reminded everyone – and this was further illustrated by a small revision to the translation, from ‘fake truths’ to ‘fake news’ – but as far as any of us were concerned, his name did not need to be spoken.  I think, though, that he represents both 45 and his followers, that is, those who subscribe to his brand of authoritarian leadership.

It can even apply to those who wield almost no power at all – the guy who crashed our MLK day event last year, the entire alt-right, the slightly racist girl in your Wednesday class – these people, although not in actual positions of power like King Creon, believe themselves to be superior to others; disregard the opinions of those who they believe to be inferior to them; and are often misogynistic. They thwart the actions of people of color by ignoring them and invalidating their struggles by harping on what they perceive to be ‘law’ – be it the actual law of the land (as in the case of those proclaiming that ‘blue lives matter’ or ‘all lives matter’ in opposition to BLM) or an idea they hold to be wholly true (as white supremacists do).

Those who refuse to behave in the ways that they believe to be right, like Antigone, are condemned to verbal abuse, physical violence, and even death. But unlike the 5th century BCE play, it seems that there is no reprieve, no visible ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ – Creon, after losing everything near and dear to himself, finally realizes that he was wrong.

Of course, as it is a tragedy, there isn’t much hope for Antigone, either. She is ultimately given the choice to sit in a tomb and rot or kill herself, and she chooses the latter, knowing that her fate is sealed. I try to believe every single day that our fates, here in the present, are not as determined. Unlike Antigone, we have more opportunities to challenge those people and laws that wrong us.

Also unlike Antigone, we have strength in numbers. We have the ability to organize in public spaces, to make noise, to wave signs and to (sometimes) get the people in power to think, if not totally change their minds. At the beginning of the event, we were read a scene in which Antigone and Ismene (her sister) argue about the merits of burying their brother’s body and it is clear that, while Antiogone has made her mind up and is set on giving her brother a proper burial, Ismene is much more reluctant, more interested in preserving her ‘proper’ place in society and listening to what the men tell her to do. Later on in the play, when Antigone is condemned by her uncle to death, Ismene tries to stand by her, but Antigone tells her that it is too late and that she must face this alone.

Something that was brought up in the discussion was what are we to make of the way in which Ismene changes her mind? One audience member brought up the fact that she, and her earlier conversation with Antigone, represents a similar internal struggle that we all face when we are called to action in the present day. Another audience member spoke of feeling ‘intimidated’ by the protests that sometimes are organized on campus by other students – intimidated, perhaps, by the feeling of social obligation in conflict with personal obligation to one’s own schedule, work, background, etc. I know many friends who have voiced this conflict in the past, wanting to participate in these big events but being afraid of what might happen if they are arrested.

I feel that, in light of this reading of Antigone, and Ismene in particular, these feelings are validated. It’s okay to not know what to do – like in any other public setting, we, as individuals, should cater to our own needs. There are many ways to participate, to get involved, to make a difference. Do so in a way that makes you feel comfortable.

This is a way that I feel most comfortable voicing my opinions about race and inequality in my field – in writing, on the internet, only slightly exposed. Just a few days ago, I saw a call for papers for next year’s Archaeological Institute of America/ Society for Classical Studies joint meeting entitled “Who ‘owns’ classics? Who is the field of classics for? Defining the field/ diversifying the field.” At first glance, I knew I was interested. But at the same time I knew I was not interested in giving a talk myself. I know that I’m not ready, so I continue to do what I feel the most comfortable doing.

In some ways, it feels good to know that I am still making (albeit tiny) difference in some people’s lives. Although I have no idea how many people have viewed the post, I do know that 38 people have completed the survey on minorities in Classics!! That’s way more than I had ever hoped would contribute their input, and I certainly hope that more of you (especially in graduate school…come on guys…where are you?) will cast your votes and/or reach out to me and share your stories in the future!

Some final thoughts about today’s MLK day event – I will admit that, at first, I had no idea what to expect from it. I had originally only planned on going to find out what it was all about, but even then was on the fence. But after going and experiencing it, I think that it was a brilliant idea and that it went very well – so many people contributed really great insights and I’m proud to say that I am a part of this community at the University of Michigan. I look forward to the coming years!


Surviving as a POC in Classics

Almost one year since my very first post about Being a POC in Classics, I am back to reflect on what I’ve learned in the last year: about being a POC and a woman in Classics.

Last year’s post was prompted by a poignant blog post that brought attention to the fact that, at an annual conference meeting for the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies, there was a sheer lack of diversity among the scholars in attendance. Although I had borne witness to this phenomenon myself, one hell of a winter storm (#BOMBCYCLONE anyone?) kept me from attending this year’s meeting in Boston.

But even as I find myself sitting in my mom’s living room, plans to participate thwarted like so many others, I still can’t shake the feeling that the scene this year is just as dire as the one last year. Not that I’d ever want to – that disparity is a significant one; one that weighs heavily on the minds of many scholars, though not always for the right reasons.

Last year, I made a point to call out the things we shouldn’t be doing – trying to coerce students of color into joining classics departments so as to ease our own minds about the lack of diversity in our classes – and suggest some things that would actually make a different – like hiring more people of color as professors and archaeologists to serve as actual role models for students to learn from; and having more people of color writing about topics concerning people of color – not just classicists from the white majority, like Sarah Bond and Mary Beard (though I’m sure they’re lovely people).

I have found myself becoming more and more inspired by the female scholars I have had the pleasure of working with in the last year and a half, and I can only imagine how much more inspiring it would be to work with a woman of color who did what I did. But, alas, women of color in classics – and archaeology – are hard to find, unless you know where to look (I honestly don’t).

However, not every female scholar I have come into contact with has been as inspiring as the rest. It’s incredible how the brain can block out a terrible incident, a moment that rubbed you the wrong way, until something much later triggers that memory once again. As I was reading the Preface of Reno Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Our Shared Shelf’s pick for Jan/Feb 2018!), I found myself agreeing with almost every word I read, especially:

I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.

Why, oh why, would something like this trigger me? What incident could it have possibly recalled for someone who, apparently, has only ever once experienced a direct, verbal, racist assault in her life (Did I not post about that? It was a pretty traumatic – non-academic-related day…)? Well, let me set the scene: Colleague A gives a presentation on her experience at a school abroad (no to be named) that is known for its institutionalized racism. Someone makes a racist joke, blatantly neglects to learn the names of two girls who are, actually, two different people, but happen to be of the same or similar race, and no one bats an eye. What’s worse is the fact that everyone’s together 24/7 and there’s no way, at all, to get any reprieve from the situation.

As a deeply introverted, socially anxious person of color, you can see where my concerns lie. However, Colleague B did not see it my way. Instead of sympathizing, she shot down my legitimate concerns, saying that it was only one person’s perspective and that it’s probably not always like that and that the experience would be worth it. To her credit, it was only one person’s POV, but who knows how long the atmosphere had been that way? How else would the people there have become so comfortable with saying such things or being so negligent if there weren’t people around them perpetuating the behavior? Who’s to say that it has or will stop?

Speaking with Colleague B was so psychologically damaging that I refused to bring it up with anyone else again afterwards. I had a meeting with a professor about my future plans and, when the program was mentioned, I expressed uncertainty about wanting to attend, but let him ramble on about the merits of the program without speaking about the concerns I had. Why? Why wouldn’t I say anything? Well, because I felt like he, a white male tenured professor, would never understand.

I think that all of this – the surge of racist incidents both towards myself and towards others, the current political climate, and my anxieties – has made things a little clearer than they were a year ago. Back then, I was wide-eyed and hopeful, urging for a change not in the curriculum but in the people teaching that curriculum, the face of classics, but with no plan for the forseeable future.

Now, I find that I was grasping in the dark for something I couldn’t see, couldn’t fully understand. In that first blog post almost a year ago, I quoted statistics about minorities in the Classics, but they are long outdated, and don’t really tell us much of anything. Last year, my blog post gained over 400 notes on Tumblr and here on WordPress, 8 likes. I know that you are out there – I remember reading so many moving responses to the post on Tumblr – and I want this to be the first step for us to come together, to lean on each other, and to find some way to make our voices louder in a discipline that still, to this day, forces us down even when it tries to lift us up.

Minorities in Classics Poll

Minorities in Classics Poll Results

Please vote if you can! It would be really great to see how many of us are out there, but obviously don’t feel pressured to do so. This is just a random social experiment that I thought of while spending Too Many hours at home (is it time to go back to school yet??).

Seeing Diversity in a Dig: Olynthos 2017

I know that my post on my time at Olynthos is nearly a month late now, but I had been struggling to decide what to write about. Sure, I could talk about my experience excavating (with little to no detail) or my experience working with special finds, but I think that what with the state of the world today I felt that this might be a little more pertinent.

Ever since I wrote my first post on being a PoC in classics, I have been more aware of the ways in which I have stood out – in the classroom, in my PhD program, in the field. I actually got the idea of writing about this when I got curious about one of our other projects, and whether or not they had any PoC this year (or ever). It turned out that, at least not at the time of their group photo, there wasn’t a single PoC in sight.

The 2017 team at the Gabii Project

Now I should make some things clear here: first, this post is not about being mistreated or discriminated against in any way. I loved working on the Olynthos Project this year and 100% plan to return in the coming years. Second, as you look at the photo above, you may think that some of these people could be classified as PoC – and maybe they are. I don’t know for sure, because I did not excavate in Italy or at that particular site. But even if there are, the point is that there are not a lot of PoC on excavations in general.

Ethnically, the situation is very different, of course. At Olynthos alone, there were (at least) 16 different countries represented on the project – United States, Greece, United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, and Cyprus. Being run by the University of Michigan, the British School at Athens, and the Greek Archaeological Service, it is no surprise that the word about the project gets out and it gets out widely.

So how come there aren’t more PoC working on it?

I don’t have an answer to this myself, but it is something that I have been thinking a lot about recently. Why aren’t there more PoC in archaeology?

The ‘obvious’ answer – interest

It’s probably not a good idea to assume that PoC are so few in Mediterranean archaeology because of a lack of interest in the subject, and more interest in other types of archaeology, but it’s also probably true. In the list of countries represented on the Olynthos Project, how many of those are European countries? How many of those countries represent other continents in the world? The answer is one – the United States.

There aren’t any African countries, South American countries, or Asian countries – not because people from those countries aren’t interested in archaeology, but because they are probably more interested in the archaeology of their regions. I can imagine that there are far more PoC on projects in Egypt and the Sudan, in Latin American countries, and in China and the Pacific Islands than you might ever see in the Mediterranean. This is because it’s expensive to travel and even more expensive when you have to pay for field schools and room and board on projects you have no affiliation to – so why not work on the archaeology in your own backyard (so to speak)?

The United States is weird and different because, while we have our own archaeology, there are a lot of people who pay the money to go and work in Europe (or in Latin America, Africa, or Asia) because the opportunities for these things are more abundant. PhD students tend to join projects that are associated with their program, and the costs are usually covered. But there are still many anthropological archaeologists at many schools (Michigan included) who continue to work in America because that’s where their interests lie.

On the other hand, sometimes PhD students join the projects associated with their program because the opportunities to work in other places aren’t advertised widely enough. I knew many people at Olynthos who were graduate students in Europe and that either didn’t know how to apply to the Athenian Agora excavations (run by the American School at Athens) or had never heard of it. I have friends now who work on Keros and at Lefkandi but these are both British School excavations and thus I had never heard of them (and they cut into my school year quite a bit).

The numbers

Another crucial factor in why there may not be so many PoC in (Mediterranean) archaeology might be the numbers of PoC in the field. I haven’t been able to locate a survey of archaeologists, but this survey by the Society for Classical Studies speaks volumes about the disparity on all levels.

In 2014, while there were 9% minorities in undergraduate Classics majors in the United States, there were just 7% minorities in PhD programs and 3% in terminal MA programs. (For comparison, the number of minorities in tenure track faculty positions was 5%, with only 2% minority tenured professors!) This is staggering because, with so little PoC in Classics graduate programs to begin with, it’s no wonder that the opportunities for archaeological fieldwork fall on deaf ears.

I can only hope that there are perhaps more PoC in archaeology programs, or even anthropology (or anthropological archaeology) programs, due to the wider range of topics and places covered. If anyone knows of a survey with the numbers, please share!

With all of this in mind as I embark on my second year of my PhD program and look more and more towards the future, I am more determined than ever to work hard and succeed and spread the word about this disparity. As I’ve said in the past, I think that it’s crucial for PoC to have more representation in Classics and in Archaeology programs, and the fact that the numbers for students and professors alike are so low is concerning – but it confirms my suspicions.

We need to show everyone that times are changing, that Classics is for everyone, and the only way to do that is by getting out there and being visible – not just throwing up some slides about slavery or PoC in ancient frescoes.

I hope that as I go into my first year of teaching I will inspire someone – really anyone – to get involved in archaeology or classics. But if they’re a PoC, then that would certainly be a bonus!


I Can Dig It – 3 Weeks for my 3rd Season at the Athenian Agora

At the end of my final week at the Athenian Agora Excavations 2017 in Greece, it’s only just occurred to me the irony of the fact that, in my third season participating as a volunteer on the excavation, I have spent exactly three weeks digging there out of the usual full eight weeks.

The reason for my short tenure is simple: after finishing my first year of graduate school, I felt that it was not only important that I participate in an excavation that the University of Michigan sponsored, but also that I get to work on an excavation where we were digging things that were relevant to my research interests – domestic space and ceramic analysis. Of course, I can study ceramic analysis just about anywhere, and have not missed the opportunity to use the Agora as a place to refine my skills (what little there are). But I look forward to continuing to learn and grow as the summer continues and as I make my way to Olynthos on July 1st.

View of the Acropolis on the morning of my last day at the Agora, 6:45 a.m.

While my participation at the Agora was cut short because of my desire to split my time between excavations this year, I have felt that this season has been my most rewarding season yet and only hope to be able to continue returning in the future – and hopefully move up the ranks to assistant supervisor at some point. Here are some (non-specific) highlights.

Trenches Beta Theta East (foreground) and West (background)

Setting up the total station. One of the biggest transferable lessons I learned this season was something that I had already learned in the past, but had somewhat forgotten during my brief hiatus from the excavation in 2016. However, once I was assigned to help set up the total station one day during my first rotation (in trench Beta Zeta), I quickly recalled how everything worked. I have only had a chance to shoot points with the Leica rod on occasions when we would open and close baskets (or new contexts within the trench), but other uses for the total station included taking points on cool finds that were to-be-catalogued, taking points for cross-sections (which would be used to later draw cross-sections), and other things. Although the Agora is organizationally different from Olynthos (i.e. the Agora is an open-area excavation as opposed to using the 5 by 5 meter squares of the “Wheeler method“), I hope that knowing how to work the total station will be useful on other projects I work on in the future.

Ceramic washing, sorting, and analysis. As someone who is very interested in the analysis of ceramics (as I have probably mentioned in previous posts), this was a very enjoyable part of my three weeks at the Agora. I only was able to do ‘pottery washing’ for a few days out of the three weeks, but I made sure to ask questions about what was happening, what I was looking at, and sometimes even technical aspects of the reading process (which the supervisors/assistant supervisors ultimately do). For example, I asked about how one supervisor chose to save certain pieces out of an entire context of objects. The short answer was that she chose things that could give her a date of some sort, like certain types of decoration, and diagnostic pieces that could be linked to vessels that might be indicative of the date of the context. In addition, she chose to keep things that were generally interesting and things that could serve as a sample of a larger group of ceramics, like tile or marble.

Of course, the same conventions as the Agora might not be followed in other excavations like Olynthos, where the seasons are shorter and the pressure is on to learn as much as we can about the site in a much briefer time frame. Moreover, at Olynthos, there is a ‘ceramics processing team’ that goes through all of the pottery that comes out during excavation, so the diggers might not even be exposed to it except when they pull it out of the ground and when we meet to discuss what has been going on in the different areas (survey, ceramics, excavation) throughout the day. Things like being able to recognize the different glazes (black, red, byzantine) and fabrics (tile vs pottery) of ceramics as well as the appropriate dates for glazes and decorative patterns might be a transferable skill, but I don’t claim to be anywhere near an expert (yet).

And, of course, digging! (Pictured: me sweeping aka 75% of my last week; Not pictured: me actually digging) The first two weeks were great because I actually got back into the swing of things pretty easily – perfecting my scarp, moving loads of dirt, finding some cool stuff (but more often being adjacent to people who were finding cool stuff elsewhere). I can’t disclose what /sorts/ of cool stuff I found myself, but I can say that it was definitely a rewarding experience. Plus, if I actually am going to be on the ceramics team at Olynthos, I can at least say that I got to dig for part of the summer. I definitely have the sore limbs and extremities to prove it…


Even though the work was tough, I started to feel just how out of shape I really was after bending over and squatting far more than usual, the heat was brutal (but we actually got to go home early because of 100+ degree heat on my last two days!), and the dirt was literally everywhere, I can honestly say that there’s probably no place I’ve ever felt more at home than at the Athenian Agora. I’m definitely going to miss it and all of the people – the old and (some of) the new – but now it’s time for the next archaeological adventure.

Trench Omicron Omicron (OO), where I spent week 3
Trench Beta Zeta (BZ), where I spent weeks 1 and 2

Familial Love and Funerary Stelae

On my would-be annual trip to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (‘would-be’ because I wasn’t in Athens in 2016, but visited the museum in 2014 and 2015), I probably spent far too much time looking at funerary stelae.

I can explain.

This past term, while taking a course on Greek Cities and Sanctuaries, I thought that what I wanted to write my final research paper on was sanctuaries of Hera. I worked for several weeks on that topic, ordered dozens of books from the library, and even struggled through German publications, but in the end I had to throw in the towel and pick something else (for various reasons). This led to me choosing to research marble funerary lekythoi instead, and their relationship to marble loutrophoroi and the cultural attitude towards the death of unmarried young men and women. So, naturally, my affinity for funerary stelae was set in stone (no pun intended).

I could probably talk forever and a day about marble lekythoi – I not only have photos from the National Archaeological Museum but also from the Kerameikos Museum (which I refrained from bombarding my Facebook friends with because there are A Lot of photos). But instead, I realized that I found myself thinking a lot about the depictions of animals on funerary stelae. This is probably because there was an entire room full of stelae depicting people holding things – from pyxides to fruits to birds – and accompanied by dogs.

But what intrigued me the most were the birds. In that room alone, there were three funerary stelae depicting scenes featuring a bird being offered by one figure to another.

Funerary stele depicting Mnesagora and Nikochares, ca. 420 B.C.
Funerary stele of Philokles and his son Dikaios, ca. 410 B.C.
Funerary stele of Chaireste and Lysander, ca. 410 B.C.
Funerary stele of Chaireste and Lysander, ca. 410 B.C.

Upon seeing these stelae, my first impression was that it was interesting that all three of them depicted a similar scene involving a bird, but it wasn’t until I got back to my apartment and started looking at them more closely that I could see how similar they really were. In all three of the scenes, there are two people depicted, the figure on the left always older than and offering the bird to a younger figure on the right. What’s more is that I realized that a similar composition had appeared to me before, in my research on marble lekythoi several months ago.

Funerary scene from a marble lekythos, ca. 375-350 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In this scene, there are four figures depicted, but on the left side of the composition a seated older woman, like in the previous three scenes, offers a bird to a young girl to her right. So, if this motif is depicted on so many different funerary monuments, they must mean something, right?

The first discussion of the symbolism of the bird in funerary art was this 2013 blog post entitled “The Symbolism of Birds on Ancient Greek Grave Steles.” In this post, the author discusses the relationship between the bird and funerary stelae for deceased children, emphasizing the bird’s liminal existence and its use as a ‘plaything’ for children both in life and in death. The second half of the post deals with the connection between doves and Aphrodite, explaining that, in this capacity, the dove represents “love, joy, procreation, and sexuality.” However, the author goes on to say that this reading cannot apply because “children are not sexual nor have they procreated.” I disagree with this on a few levels.

First, perhaps this connection between birds on the stelae of children could have been for the purpose of “sad irony” because young girls who had died had not procreated yet and would never be able to, but this seems unlikely in many cases. Several of the examples of stelae that the author of the post uses depict girls far too young to have been able to bear children, so, while it is possible that their parents were always thinking of their duty to the family and to society (as mothers, wives), I can’t bring myself to believe that a parent would have included a bird on the stele of a young girl to symbolize something they would have been more suited for in their early teens.

My second point leads into my main argument: that the birds (perhaps turtle-doves or sparrows), contrary to what the author of the aforementioned post may think, did symbolize love because of their connection to Aphrodite. However, I do not think that this love was sexual at all – I argue that this love was familial, whether representing the love of one’s parent(s) or sibling(s). This is in one part due to the fact that turtle-doves were not only associated with Aphrodite, but also with Demeter.

“White Turtle-doves are often to be seen. These, they say, are sacred to Aphrodite and Demeter.” –Aelian, On Animals 10.33 (trans. Schofield)

Demeter’s love as a mother, especially in the case of the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, is a perfect example of the kind of familial love I am thinking of. In many ways, Persephone’s descent into the Underworld symbolizes a kind of death, which can find parallels with the death of the children depicted on funerary stelae like the ones I have been discussing.

While it is nearly impossible to truly know who the deceased is on a funerary stele depicting several figures, it has often been argued that the deceased is the person or persons who is named in the accompanying inscription. I have argued that the deceased, on stelae which depict seated figures shaking the hand of a standing person, is the figure who is standing. In the case of these stelae (excluding the marble lekythos), I would say that the deceased is in fact the younger figure, depicted on the right side of the composition.

Birds are “metaphors to suggest [the funerary scene’s] emotional message…The bird petted by the boy represents his parents’ love for him…” –A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, ed. Beryl Rawson

The reason for this goes back to the idea of familial love. If the turtle-dove does, in fact, symbolize the love of a family member for the deceased young person as I have suggested, then it should follow that the older (possibly living) figure is offering this symbol of their love to the deceased in these particular scenes. Moreover, all of this is in accordance with the idea that birds are most often depicted on the funerary stelae of children, because in all of these scenes (including the marble lekythos) there is a young boy or girl depicted interacting with the bird.

These are just some thoughts I had, but I am totally open to any other interpretations you all might have! Grad school has made me a much more analytical museum-goer than I was before… I can’t tell if I like it or not…


Classics in Color: A View From the Minority

“Do we make it easy for people of color who want to study the ancient world? Do they see themselves in the ancient landscape that we present to them?” -Sarah E. Bond, Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color

When, almost a week ago, I came across this article, I will admit that I didn’t actually read it. I thought that it was an interesting interpretation of art history, shared it on Facebook, and left it at that. But after a more recent article, entitled “Classicist Receives Death Threats from Alt-Right over Art Historical Essay,” I thought maybe it was time I gave it a look.

Although I agree with many of her sentiments and don’t deny the harsh reality of the racist investigations of early classicists and more recent alt-right groups, I think that the questions that Professor Bond asks (quoted above) all but scream for the perspective of the people she mentions – people of color who want to study the ancient world. People of color who are studying the ancient world. People like me.

Although I agree with her, when the white majority (91%, according to a 2014 survey of undergraduate Classics majors) of the field is the only one speaking and publishing and making their voices heard, it’s hard to fully understand the experiences of the minority and it’s easy for us to be overlooked save for the occasional statistic.

But despite all of that, she certainly does not deserve the response that she got. No one deserves to be attacked with death threats solely because their views do not align with your own.

In her article, Bond focuses on the origins of the white supremacist view that emerged among early classicists that color in sculpture meant barbarism and that the Greeks were far too sophisticated to color their white marble sculptures. It is no secret, at least to art historians and archaeologists, that pigments do sometimes survive on sculpture even today, leading to articles like Bond’s which point out the fact that the Greeks did, in fact, color their sculpture on many occasions, if not all the time. But she misses two important points.

First, the fact that the vibrant colors of sculpture sometimes served utilitarian as well as decorative purposes. Imagine looking at the pediment or frieze sculptures on a monumental temple from the ground – would it be easier to make out those scenes if they were in the same white marble as the rest of the building or if they were in color? Those vibrant colors, though sometimes gaudy and unbelievable, made it easier for the visitors of sanctuaries and public areas to see the magnificent handiwork of the artists who carved and decorated them.

The Archer from the western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aigina, reconstruction, color variant A from the Gods of Color exhibit (photo by Marsyas/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Second, in almost every reconstruction of the colors of marble sculpture, it seems to be the case that, although Bond and others champion the idea of diversity in the ancient world, many of those reconstructions feature people of just one race – white. That is not to say that there weren’t other races of people living in Greece and in Rome and their territories, but the fact remains that those who create these reconstructions of marble sculpture more often than not have an idea in their mind of what a ‘Greek’ or ‘Roman’ looked like.

Painted terra cotta cinerary urn (150–100 BCE), originally from Chiusi, now at the British Museum (photo by Bond for Hyperallergic)

Returning to my original quote, I have to return to a point that I made in a post I made earlier in the year. My sentiment remains the same: I do not think that it’s representation in the classics (that is, the literature, the art, the archaeology) that is the problem. I don’t think that simply knowing or seeing that there were people of color in Greece and Rome would make me more likely to have become a Classics major in undergrad.

I know now that there was, in fact, a lot of diversity throughout the Greek and Roman worlds – take, for example, Egypt and Asia Minor – but that does not necessarily mean that everyone was equal. On the contrary, there was a great deal of disparity between classes almost all of the time, and it was more often than not that the people who were wealthiest were Greeks and Romans in the strictest sense of the word. Even during the Hellenistic period, the first Ptolemy was just a Macedonian Greek who was assigned the kingdom of Egypt while actual Egyptians were more usually of lower status.

Slavery is, of course, another aspect of the disparity that existed. Sure, especially in the Roman period, slaves could be freed, take up trades, and become wealthy in their own right. But it is important not to think of slavery during the Greek and Roman worlds as equivalent to the slavery that occurred, for example, in North America. Slaves were not necessarily of a different race or ethnicity than those who owned them – they were mostly war captives or debtors during the earlier periods. Chattel slavery and slave trade came into play in later periods, but people were not enslaved because of the color of their skin. Difference or inferiority was most often determined based on the way someone spoke (i.e. if they didn’t speak Greek) or for cultural reasons (i.e. barbarians were people who wore pants and hats, rather than the traditional toga).

My point is that diversity existed in the Greek and Roman worlds, but we cannot let that automatically mean that everyone was living in harmony all of the time. We also cannot begin thinking that because there were people of color that they were always living good lives as opposed to the persecution minorities often face today, because ancient POCs were persecuted too, if for different reasons.

This is why I don’t think that representation in the materials we study will bring more students of color to the classics. I don’t think that seeing a statue painted with darker skin in a reconstruction based on some scholar’s interpretation or reading something about the lives of slaves or freedmen will make people of color interested. I stand by what I said when I said that it has to be more about getting more representation in the faculty and, maybe even if we have more people of color in the field speaking out about issues that we only ever see the white majority speaking about.

As someone who is actively experiencing the discrepancy between the majority and the minority, more often than not being the only person of color in a classroom or an excavation team, I think it would be a lot more encouraging to see people who look like me doing the things that I want to be doing. But I know that, with such small numbers, it is a difficult task to accomplish. However, I keep hoping and I will keep making blog posts as I see fit because people of color in the classics need to start speaking up.