This week my colleagues, Dr Javier Martinez Jimenez and Sofia Greaves and I were thrilled to launch an exhibition we have been collaborating on for quite some time at the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology: “Illustrating Ancient History: bringing the past to life.” The exhibition is now fully online!
As a way of reconstructing the past in Vita Romana, which I’ve discussed on this blog before, I worked with the specialists on-site whose scientific background in the materials I was representing informed much of the illustration work. Intersecting with the aims of the exhibition, the work done at Roman Aeclanum exemplified the way that collaboration between artists and different archaeological specialists can be translated into artistic work that help the public understand the archaeological site and material culture more contextually. I have recorded a podcast with my co-host, Liam, for Two Friends Talk History which allowed me to discuss the public outreach programme I coordinated and created in Aeclanum.
Sofia’s work brought together ancient spaces with exploration of the layers of building over time through water-colour and mixed media. Sofia and Javier work together on the Impact of the Ancient City project at the University of Cambridge which is a project that has involved a lot of site visits to ancient cities that have inspired her work.
The opening of the exhibition was scaled-down due to Covid safety protocols, with numbers carefully regulated through registration. The exhibition will be in-place until January 30th, and with luck, as many people as possible will be able to explore the museum’s famed collection of plaster statue casts which frame our exhibition images. With these considerations in mind, the museum moved quickly to create a fully online version of the exhibition which you can see here: CHECK IT OUT!
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Two Friends Talk History is a podcast where public historian, Zofia, chats with scholars, archaeologists, researchers and more to explore fascinating histories, look behind the scenes and ask the big question that’s missing in much academic discourse: so what? Why is this relevant today?
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Carrying on from season 1 in which Zofia and Liam explored the ancient world through stories and interviews, season 2 invites new friends to Two Friends. Find me on Instagram at Two Friends Talk History and Patreon at ArchaeoArtist.
In this week’s episode, Zofia is joined by Alexandra Swann for a deep dive into Stoicism the implications of what this philosophy meant in antiquity, and how we can benefit from it now. With the upcoming 1900th birthday anniversary of Marcus Arelius, we ask ourselves (WWMAD?) ‘What Would Marcus Aurelius Do?’ And explore how stoic wisdom guided the Roman Philosopher Emperor.Tangents include Youtube spirals, online conspiracy theories, ancient schools of philosophy, “what ancient philosopher are you?” quiz. Find us on InstagramSupport us through Patreon Buy our merch on RedbubbleExplore more resources and topics about the ancient world on ArchaeoArtistMusic by the wonderfully talented Chris SharplesIf you'd like to get in touch, email at email@example.com Follow this link for Marcus Aurelius my webshop: WWMAD? and Philosopher King
Two Friends Talk History Art
I have been challenging myself with creating the mash-ups in my own digital drawing style but, where appropriate, using the historical style the original image was made in. These episode images are available as mugs, tees and postcards on our Two Friends Talk History Redbubble Shop!
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For anyone who has had to go to Mykonos on their way to Delos, I’m sorry. Mykonos in the modern period has been blessed with Instagrammable vistas, from its white-painted walls with brightly coloured doors, to the overpriced meals, it is every social media influencer’s dream. However, when one is traveling to the nearby island of Delos, a brief stay in the tourist labyrinth awaits.
Thankfully my time in Mykonos, while conducting field work, was brief. To ensure we would be able to catch a ferry crossing to Delos, we planned a day and a half in this little seaside area. With ferry tickets and a frappe in hand, my colleague and travel buddy Ms King and I, set off to the sacred island of Delos!
Legendary birthplace of the ancient world’s deadliest twins, Apollo and Artemis, the island was a sacred site well into antiquity. A historically important trade hub for merchants crossing the Aegean, Delos was a crucial point for the exchange of ideas, art, goods and slaves. The island of Delos itself drew many cults from across the ancient world. Of particular interest to me were the several temples to Serapis and Isis located fairly high up the hill. These newcomers to Delos were part of the expanding religious landscape of the island in the Hellenistic period.
Delos’ sanctity was ensured during the Peloponnesian wars when under oracular guidance the island was required to divest itself of the dead. That is quite uncommon. As is the case now, communities are very connected to their dead. Disturbing graves and reburying the remains on another island seems extreme. Under the guidance of the Delphic Oracle, and just like Disneyland, all of your prayers could be answered; but you couldn’t die or give birth on Delos any longer.
Various leagues were created and centered here to deal with military and political threats, the Delian league during the Persian Wars, and the Nesiotic League during the wars of the Successors of Alexander the Great. It is at this point, during the 3rd century BCE that the island was in the hands of the Ptolemaic Empire and the influence of the Alexandrian kingdom, and its gods was most pronounced on the island.
With more temples to Egyptian gods in one city anywhere outside of Egypt, save Rome, Delos is an interesting location to try to understand the ways in which religious integration occurs and the role in which the urban landscape is a factor.
In 167/166 BCE Delos’ political fortunes changed with the growing influence and meddling in the Aegean of Rome, the island was handed over to the Athenians, who expelled the Delians. As a Roman free port, Delos benefited from the Italian aggression towards competitor cities, until an enemy of Rome sought to disrupt the Republic’s income by sacking the little holy island full of people making money from slaves. The Mithradatic Wars had two waves of destruction in Delos, coming to a head in 69 BCE.
No longer the safest outpost for ensuring Rome’s transportation of slaves and non-human trade goods, Rome made the southern Italian city of Puteoli the new port-de-jour. With that decline and depopulation Delos turned into a relic.
The temples of Isis and Serapis in Delos are built across several phases and interestingly took different forms while they thrived. One associating itself with a more ‘authentically’ Egyptian-style, and another with a more Hellenic-Alexandrian form, they co-existed though not always in perfect harmony.
It was a perfect day to explore this incredible UNESCO World Heritage site, and as I continue with my research, it is always an enriching experience to go to these spectacular sites with my research questions in mind. After a decade passing since my last time here, much remained the same, but due to increased interest in the cults of the Egyptian gods and their relationships with Hellenic and Italic deities, the deities I study tend to get highlighted! The archaeology museum was equally worth the trip to see, with excellent mosaics and gorgeous statues.
With the 2019 Open Day at Roman Aeclanum, this post reflects on the last three years of public outreach development I have worked on in Passo di Mirabella, southern Italy.
Frequently, I am asked what on earth I am doing in Italy. Why all the cartoons? What’s it all for?
In 2017, I was given the opportunity to work on an excavation with the Apolline Project and the University of Edinburgh in Passo di Mirabella, Roman Aeclanum, as the Public Archaeology Coordinator. This was an new direction for my work with a lot of exciting potential. The hobbies that I naturally gravitated towards ( included travel photography and illustrating, blogging and other forms of social media) coupled with the subject matter I enjoyed (archaeology and art history) formed a useful starting point for conceptualizing how to approach outreach for an archaeological site with minimal public exposure. Over the next three years, I worked towards creating interconnected projects that were designed to start a narrative of the history of the site and began the groundwork for Vita Romana: at the baths of Aeclanum. With support from the University of Edinburgh’s History, Classics and Archaeology department and the Institute of Classical Studies, I have been fortunate to share these public archaeology activities with the wider academic community working in Classical engagement.
Public Archaeology: why does it matter?
“Public archaeology is really just public relations. It is getting the public interested enough to care and those who care interested enough to engage.”
– Dr. Jody Steele is the Heritage Programs Manager at Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.
The role of public archaeology, within the umbrella of specialisms of archaeology, is finding relevant and interesting ways of communicating the research objectives and material remains of the site. The sub-discipline is still new, and as such, still strives to justify itself and the importance of the work. Future funders, archaeologists, politicians and so on learn about the importance of heritage as children in most cases and as such, continuing to hone and develop how we deliver these messages about the importance of heritage management and research is fundamental to its continuation. With no exaggeration, if people are not engaged and well-informed about the importance of archaeology, it simply won’t happen nor will it receive funding.
Running a public archaeology programme or project requires marketing and public relations work, it also is heavily reliant upon the skills, expertise and historical knowledge of the individuals behind the work. By focusing first on the relationships within the local community then translating those interactions and efforts more broadly, we managed to do some pretty cool and unique things!
These ideas were articulated by our site supervisors this summer in a video made by one of our student volunteers, Jazz Demetrioff. The research objectives set at the onset of the excavation shape the direction the excavation and thus outreach will take. The research questions are answered over the season through the material culture and structures discovered. I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about and trying to articulate why public engagement matters, and how the projects I have had the fortune of working on in Italy are helping me plan future outreach projects.
Public Archaeology in Aeclanum: 2017-2019
First Year: 2017
The formative work with the archaeological site of Aeclanum was a mixture of reconnaissance and coming up with a cohesive set of materials we could begin presenting to the local community. When we arrived there was one pamphlet in Italian with very technical (scarce) archaeological maps, and no site signage or historical narrative for the site. The first steps, then, meant creating some basic materials for young visitors!
Second Year: 2018
We produced outreach materials that focused on the multi-phase bath complex and the role of public bathing in Roman daily life. This included posters for adult audiences and young visitors to the site which reflected the finds that were excavated in earlier campaigns and the current research. A particular favorite was the marble map game, which encouraged kids to explore where the marble in Aeclanum came from! We updated the game in 2018 to include further details like marble traders across the Mediterranean!
Neratia’s Lost Ring: at the baths of Aeclanum
Emily Johnston, an excavation supervisor, worked on a public outreach project with the Apolline Project for 2018, Neratia’s Lost Ring: at the baths of Aeclanum. This exploration of Roman baths in a short-story format, allows the reader to get to know the space and customs as experienced by Neratia (wealthy patrician’s daughter) and Caius (freedman’s son). As the narrative follows the youths trying to find Neratia’s missing ring, the mechanics of the bath complex are explained. I supplied a few illustrations for her story, which were linked into the graphic novella! We are hoping to launch this short story for winter, 2019.
The graphic specialists on site, Lucia Michielin and Josef Souček, worked with me across almost every peice of art that was used for outreach. Their talents were widely appreciated, like finding a pretty rock but not realizing it was a gem till it was polished. Their skills with creating scientific panels based on the research, articulating the architectural findings and included 3D reconstructions of the significant archaeological structures reconstructions were essential to my comic renderings for Vita Romana: at the baths of Aeclanum. Due to the topography of Aeclanum, the bath excavated bath complex straddles a sloping hill and as such has distinctive buttresses, which when digitally rendered, provided helpful insight on how to include the city scenes around it.
Third Year: 2019
With the first two phases of outreach work at Aeclanum complete (panels, the short story, scavenger hunt and educational games), the next phase I was most interested to explore was getting feedback from the community and channeling this into a project that could capitalize on the knowledge of the team of specialists on-site and include up-to-date site interpretations, woven within the comic narrative. By concluding the 2018 outreach season with a survey and vote by the children from the local community who decided which style I would be drawing the comic in, I had my marching orders to get to work on the comic!
With Vita Romana, I wanted something that might help spark imaginations about how big and interesting this city was during its heyday through a stand-alone story, but grounding it in the real-world buildings and materials of Aeclanum. Also, I had never completed a comic book before and this was a challenge I wanted to dive into!
Vita Romana: at the baths of Aeclanum
Getting the gang together remotely meant that there was revisions and frequent dialogue. Ambra Ghiringhelli was like a fish to water getting the text written with care and historical consideration! Using an a-typical approach of having the storyboard roughed out and the text done afterwards, it was fascinating to see what joke she would come up with to match one of Neratia’s smirking faces or the right tone for a teenage daughter giving her mom some sass.
As this was my third year working with Josef, I couldn’t be more grateful for his ongoing collaboration. With his eye for details and in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, I could rely on him spotting all sorts of tiny details (and errors) that improved the whole project immensely. All of the images were sent to him to do his digital magic, fixes and formatting. You would be surprised how much work goes into making a comic look like a comic.
The breadth of things to consider when trying to create a graphic novella attempting to be rooted in archaeological and historical accuracy is astounding. This project has taken me on some really exciting turns which inevitably has meant that I am always learning, always questioning and trying to find evidence for the scenes I am creating.
The majority of influential imagery or material culture references were derived from the collections at the Museo Nazionale, Naples and the frescoes contained in the archaeological parks of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Social media outreach for these sites has been invaluable! With new discoveries coming all the time from Pompeii all the time, by following their Twitter and Instagram, I was able to integrate some of these exciting new finds into Vita Romana. Though Pompeii was covered by Vesuvius by the time our story in Aeclanum would have taken place, the tastes and styles used in decorating homes in these cities could easily be replicated by artisans in communities like Aeclanum. Indeed, the riches of Aeclanum could be much more akin to those at Pompeii due to their size and places along the road networks.
We had a great turn out this July at the comic launch, with hundreds of people visiting the archaeological park! The children’s scavenger hunt activity led them around the site using our third version (a self-directed version) of the archaeological passport as their guide. With Ferdinando crafting the texts and dealing with the translation needs, these materials will hopefully get English versions for download on Archaeokids!
They were asked to find the significant landmarks on the site with general information about their use, and fill out a letter which would lead them to the office piazza that contained the lost doll of Neratia Secunda, completing the narrative in the real world which is introduced in the passport. Once the children completed their scavenger hunt, they received a copy of Vita Romana: at the baths of Aeclanum, whose printing was generously funded by the Institute of Classics Studies (ICS).
The Road Ahead & Archaeokids.com
Seeing this stage of the journey come to a successful conclusion was pretty amazing. I’ve worked with some amazing people and had an incredible opportunity to have so much freedom to explore the ancient world in my favourite medium. The next steps ahead will involve working with the data collected from the launch, and an article which will be interesting to write this winter.
As always, I look forward to challenges and adventures ahead! Ferdinando and I are continuing to find new avenues to create and highlight the public archaeology work that started in Aeclanum and is expanding to other sites!
Change in life, travel and work are always inspiring to me. With this excavation season, there were several developments in the programme which have already opened many doors. Pushing ourselves towards new skills and challenges, the team that came back together this year is working harder than ever to support the students and in our research. The 2018 dig season at Passo di Mirabella kicked off several weeks ago and for returning students and staff, and after an intense first year in my PhD, it was a pretty great feeling to get back to the site. With a few of us in different positions this year and including a new field project manager (Allison Kidd), and myself moving into project managing off-site alongside the Public Archaeology coordinating. The organizational flow appears to be working well already! The ethos of this excavation is generally oriented away from hierarchies but having people in place to provide additional support in a few key areas has made a big difference!
Getting back to work
The expansion of the programme offers a broad array of activities, and this year we have even more students coming for specialist training in pottery, osteology, epigraphy and, of course, longer-term excavation training. Public Archaeology appears to still be a bit of a mystery to students, but maybe one day I’ll have my own little troop to work with, but until then, I am always grateful for the occasional drop-in helping with drawing, activity planning and brainstorming. My youngest volunteer was arguably the most focused and enthusiastic public archaeologist yet! New teams of students and supervisors are working hard, but also trying to share their experiences via social media. Posting about their experiences on Facebook, Instagram and through personal blogs, students are engaging with the work from a digital perspective while keeping it interesting for their audiences!
Research and Public Archaeology
This year marks my third season with the project, and second in a Public Archaeology role. It is another ambitious year. I have been working on new activities which aim to bring the participants closer to the daily life of Ancient Romans. This year we have been able to jump ahead towards more sophisticated engagement materials, since we are able to build on the work from last year.Through regular social media updates, my work has been in part illustrating, but the overarching plan for the Open Day and further research is focused on asking questions relating to pedagogical approaches that will be answered via through educational posters and games during the Open Day. The data collected will be assessed in a follow-up project I am working on in the last fortnight of the excavation season. The games and learning materials bridge modern audiences (specifically children but also to encourage adults as well) wtih themes like international trade and community within the urban spaces of Aeclanum. Through a close collaboration between myself (project development and art direction) and the brilliant GIS and digital graphics team (Josef Soucek and Lucia Michillen), and our field directors, Dr. Ferdinando di Simone and Dr. Ben Russell, we are producing materials at a rapid pace entirely in-house, which is unique in my experience and really allows the Aeclanum project to break new ground in terms of outreach. By linking our outreach materials to new research we are undertaking on the site annually and adapting our creative materials to reflect the developments in these research questions, we can integrate students with related research and skills into the work we are doing.
The Open Day is a few weeks away still, but at the rate the students are excavating, we are certain to have an even clearer image of the stratigraphic processes in the trenches, and what this seasons’ research will be able to elucidate before the end of the season.
Deciding to listen to the good advice I was given at the onset of embarking on my PhD, I opted to follow the rule: once you’ve submitted something substantial, take a week and decompress.
The first few months of my PhD have been a whirlwind of new ideas, late nights and piles of reading. It had been three years since I’d written anything so formal, and the gap in between was noticeable. Like an unused muscle, my writing felt crampy and good for only one lap or two around the court. Though working old muscles can be exhausting, diving into the subject that you love is enjoyable and invigorating. After several years of wanting to spend my daylight hours working on something interesting and challenging, the last two months have sped by. With the completion of my first review submission, there was no shortage of things to work on and develop.Deciding to listen to the good advice I was given at the onset of embarking on my PhD, I opted to follow the rule: once you’ve submitted something substantial, take a week and decompress. That can mean many things of course. Understandably, long train rides and walking many miles might not be someone’s idea of decompression, but hey ho.1. Go Find Your Chill
Normally, I am the last person to take advice relating to self-care and relaxing (shudder), but I thought, ‘why not’? Four hours after submitting my work, I jumped on a train to Manchester to visit a couple of wonderful friends who I met during my MSc at Edinburgh. My wonderful hosts, both a current and future PhDs, welcomed and showed me their adopted city. Manchester was a beauty. With plenty of time to explore the downtown and no particular agenda, other than seeing what they love about it, I could relax and take it all in.
2. Take in a Bit of Culture
There is something restorative in going to art galleries, museums or creative performances. Even if you don’t necessarily like the art on display, just seeing what creative minds have been/are up to can take you outside of yourself for enough time to relax a bit. At least until the next “BREAKING NEWS” alert on your phone goes off. When needing to feel some inspiration, or just wanting a quiet space to draw, museums and galleries tend to be my preferred space to do so. Popping into the Manchester Art Gallery allowed me the rare privilege to see one of my favourite paintings in the flesh – Charles Auguste Mengin’s ‘Sappho’ – which was breath-taking and significantly larger than I’d imagined.The depth of the darkness in Sappho’s gown cannot be done justice with a digitized image, and the highlights looked iridescent in some spaces. Sappho, so often presented longingly and wistfully, is shown powerful, dark and mourning. Her angst and colour palette was a natural favourite for me in my high school goth years.3. Nightime Walks and Christmas Markets
Walking around at night when travelling alone isn’t always the safest choice, so when I have the opportunity for company, it is an excellent way to see another side of a city. As this was my first time in Manchester and it coincided with Christmas festivities, strolling around the streets at night was especially lovely. While making me homesick, one of the perks of living in the United Kingdom is the on-point Christmas markets. The smells of meat, waffles and mulled wine were amazing. It required all the will-power I possessed not to buy adorable kitsch ceramics, and eat all the treats.Onward through town we went, eventually settling into a pub near the university. Ample political debates, methodological discussions and general nerdiness ensued.
4. Treat Yo SelfThis might seem fairly obvious, but taking 30 minutes out of the day to have a leisurely coffee or popping into a print shop and finding Liam Gallagher greeting cards (nailed it, Manchester) is sometimes the treat you need to clear your head. It doesn’t have to be a big production, but leaving the to-go cup behind and just sitting in nice spaces with friends (or alone) is one of my favourite parts of a solo journey. Seldom do I plan a trip without packing as much as possible into the schedule, but trying it out this month was really rewarding and relaxing.
5. Reflecting Taking stock and heading home, I was thoroughly impressed by the juxtaposition between new and old buildings in the city. There is a lot of effort to create dynamic visual landscapes, which living in the historic neighbourhoods of Edinburgh, I occasionally forget that skyscrapers, tower block flats and vivid colour are normal to see. Shaking off the last few weeks of 14+ hour work days, and stress that ate normal stress for breakfast, I definitely came back feeling more refreshed, and through that, optimistic. Though only a few days, it was a wonderful stop.Next stop: BRUSSELS! 48 hours later, my partner and I jumped on a plane and were en route to Eindhoven for a week
“I divided the earth from the heaven. I showed the paths of the stars. I ordered the course of the sun and the moon”. (Kyme Aretalogy in honour of Isis)
Since backpacking in Europe in 2001, I have been drawn to images and archaeological sites relating to Isis. There are some things that just strike the right chord for you. My first experience with Isis (in a Greco-Roman style) was at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
The statue fit my understanding of what classical sculpture was, and simultaneously had something a bit unusual. The features were so exquisitely carved, and the goddess’s accoutrements were unlike anything I had seen before. While visiting Pompeii during the same trip, I didn’t quite make the connection between the figure in the statue that I’d seen in Rome and the temple in which I had been standing.
During my undergraduate studies, I came across her again while reading Lucian’s ‘Metamorphosis (The Golden Ass)’. My attention was drawn to the way that Lucian described the power of this mysterious foreign goddess. What was so brash about Lucian’s novel was how much he subtly revealed, through winks and nods, about the mystery cult. He described esoteric celebrations, events and magical healing, all the while saying, ‘but it’s a secret, so I can’t really talk about it’. The story is familiar, in a Shakespearean kind of way, through all the hubris, metamorphoses, changes of fortune, and bawdy humour.
I was fascinated by this religious movement and how it functioned within the religiously pluralistic Roman society. Isis and her cult would ultimately provide some of the foundation of early Christian practices such as baptism, in addition to the depictions with Horus (the infant nursing on her lap is a dead ringer for the baby Jesus), presaging the metamorphosis into the Virgin Mary.
Jumping in with both feet, I was excited and wanted to understand more about this deity. However, my introduction to the topic began at a much later point in the history of the Cult of Isis; to understand the cult and its significance, I would need to go farther back and approach it more broadly.My Masters at the University of Edinburgh was spent exploring the Greek and Hellenistic routes of the cult, from multiple angles, to start filling in the picture (and creating many of my own pictures).
Isis’s power as a deity in Egypt rested in being the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. She bridged the continuity of kingship from one king to his descendant. Her original function as the literal and symbolic role – as the throne and king-maker in Ancient Egypt – changes quite dramatically once the cult is exported into Greece and Italy.
While the period of Isis worship in the pre-Hellenistic era (before 323 BCE) is interesting, what has captivated me more specifically is what happens with the cult in the Hellenistic-to-Roman period. Like a character from Sailor Moon, she gained many headdresses, wands, tools, and visual associations with other deities (Demeter, Aphrodite, Athena, Nike).
This is the period that I focused on during my MSc, researching the symbols and iconography over time, with an emphasis on the tiny figurines used in her worship. What I discovered was that her strength was in her flexibility. Her image could be adapted to all needs, wants and interests. She could be a local or international deity. She could be closely affiliated with a particular ruling dynasty, or one specific location.
Another investigation looked at the cult’s relationship with Athenian government in Delos, and some of the territorial quarrels that occurred between temples run by different factions on the island. The evidence of a push and pull scenario between Delos’ new overlords (the Athenians) and the previous residents, in the mid-second century BCE. Running cults was big business and politically useful to establishing ones career, and the Athenians had no interest in allowing an Alexandrian ‘Egyptian’ to maintain a monopoly on the worship of Isis in this economically powerful port.
While few temples of Isis remain in even remotely good shape, Pompeii possesses on of the most famous examples.
Pompeii had one of the best-preserved temples (though most of the decorations were long since removed and put in museums). It was fascinating to see the spread of Egyptian-looking artefacts which tend to denote cult membership. The items that were recovered from Pompeii are varied and showed decorations and materials of incredibly high quality that were made for, and used by, the Temple of Isis.
Another leg of the journey in my first large research project involved a trip to Palestrina (ancient Praeneste), some 40 km east of Rome. Part of what I wanted to see was the Egyptian artefacts, which remain some of the most exquisite examples of mosaic work from ancient history.
The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina was breath-taking in person and represented an interesting fusion of culture and appropriation of the Hellenistic Alexandrians and the native Egyptians. Although it is an uneven cultural balance, with the prioritising of the Macedonian elite over the native Egyptians.
It is a rare gem of the exquisite mosaic work that was part of art market in Italy, before the Rome dominated the Mediterranean. It highlighted aspects of Egyptian cult which would find its way into Italy, though altered for Italian tastes.
So, what is next?
This September I will be stepping into the subject and delving deeper into urban design, Egyptian architecture and the art styles that appear in Roman cities. There are so many aspects and angles to investigate with this topic, and being able to work on a PhD toward this end is like a dream come true. There are still so many sites, statues, and sistrums to see in my journey into my studies of this Cult of Isis!
There is something breathtaking about the shores, mountains and harbours around Lesbos. Mithymna is a gem of a town, with all the fine features you hope for as a tourist destination, but a significant amount of history is embedded in every corner. As one of the largest Greek islands, and the nearest to Turkey, there is a remarkable amount of cultural fusion and warmth that shaped my experience of living in Mithymna (Μήθυμνα / Molyvos) for several months, some years ago.
While being housed during the spring months in Mithymna, I explored the winding cobblestone streets, photographed dangling flowering plants and occasionally sampled the vibrant restaurant scene at the harbour.
These elements, along with adorable roaming stray cats and dogs (some of whom we adopted), formed idyllic scenes that made it a beautiful and tranquil location to study some Byzantine History and Reception Studies (in effect, the study of modern interpretations of the ancient world) during my undergraduate degree.
What a draw for a historian!Like many ancient city centres, Mithymna has a foundation story whose characters possessed the very names of the location – in this case, Mithymna (daughter of a mythical son of the god Helios) who was married to the personification of Lesbos. Hard to prove, so I’ll take the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World’s word for it.
The history of Mithymna is actually the stuff of legends, literally. The Bronze Age warrior Achilles was said to have breached the fortifications of Mithymna due to the amorous machinations of King Peisidikis’s daughter.
The city fell to the Achaeans, as the events of the Illiad take place not far away across the water (you can see Turkey from the shores of Mithymna).
Mithymna had been an important location in the Classical period as it was caught between the Athenians, their ally, and the Spartans throughout the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE). To and fro, the balance of power shifted from Athens to Sparta, and back again throughout the war; and smaller allied cities were caught in the fight, or served as proxies for the conflict. Mithymna and Mytilene had a solid rivalry throughout this conflict and beyond, which I will go into when I post about Mytilene. But for the time being, some dark business went down during this three decades long war, and Mithymna and Mytilene had some serious issues to work out afterwards.
Remaining significant throughout the Hellenistic period, Mithymna played politics as it was captured by Macedonian forces and Persians, with tyrants ousting and aligning themselves with the conflicting superpowers when they gained control of the island cities. With the division of Alexander’s brief empire by his successors, King Lysimachus and later Ptolemy would control the island. With the influence of the Ptolemaic ruler, my academic obsession, the cults of Isis and Sarapis were introduced and worshiped.
Which brings us neatly to the Roman period.
Sprinting through so much history, I can barely touch on how many fascinating moments in ancient history in which Mithymna has played a part, but one of the elements which leaves a physical trace, which I was thrilled to see, was the Roman archaeological remains dispersed throughout the city.The formal alliance between Rome and Mithymna was dated by an epigraphic source to 129 BCE. The Roman poets and writers spent many words to describe the quality and superiority of Mithymnian wines.
While staying in Mithymna, I was fortunate enough to meet a local archaeologist who gave us a small tour of the closed excavation.
At that point, they had a great deal of pottery and many interesting rubbish dumps from the Roman period. It appeared that they were producing pottery, and likely distributing the wines in vessels made at this centre.With the political upheaval in the 5th century AD of the western half of the Roman empire, Lesbos fell into the orbit of political authority from the Byzantine power-base of the eastern empire. This orientation affected the flavour and practices on the island as Christianity became the prevalent belief system and religious power throughout the empire. Thank you for reading my blog!