Monday, 13 March 2017

Our Mythical Childhood – Celebrating ERC Week

A big Thank-You to everyone who came along to last month's events, whether it was the launch for Military Leaders and Sacred Space, the Iris Project Festival, or my symposium talk at the Pitt Rivers Museum marking the opening of the Out in Oxford Cross-Collections Museum Trail (for which see

This week we're delighted to be celebrating ERC Week, cheering the ten years that the European Research Council has been funding cutting-edge research. We've made a new video to mark the occasion; if you haven’t seen it already, here it is!

We're very grateful to the ERC for funding our latest endeavour: an international multi-part research project called Our Mythical Childhood... The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges. Our Mythical Childhood is looking at the roles that ancient myth plays in young people's lives around the world. A central idea of the project is that myths are not passed on in a vacuum, but influenced and shaped by the conditions in which they are retold. These subtle (or, sometimes, not so subtle) influences include things such as the age of the intended audience, the purpose and style of the re-telling, or the values held by the author and society in which the myths are being retold. Over the next five years, the project will be shedding light on these dynamics and creating wonderful resources for academics, teachers, and members of the public to use, enjoy, and learn from.

Above, this info-graphic lays out the structure of Our Mythical Childhood.

For our part of the project, we'll be creating some new depictions of ancient mythical figures in the form of five new vase animations. You'll see the ancient poet, Sappho, re-creating tales of Troy on her magnificent lyre, and you'll see Heracles on the trail of adventure. Three more animations will give you a slice of the gods' lives, with Dionysus, Iris, Zeus, Athena, and Nike all making an appearance. As well as the vase animations, we'll be making a documentary and all sorts of other supporting materials (whoop!). The animations will be displayed in the National Museum in Warsaw and you'll find them and the other materials online on their own page of the Panoply website.

Above, Prof Katarzyna Marciniak

Our Mythical Childhood is being spear-headed by Prof. Katarzyna Marciniak of the University of Warsaw. You may recall that Katarzyna was the brains behind the Chasing Mythical Beasts project, including the conference that we contributed to last year (there's a reminder video here). As well as keeping everyone on track, Katarzyna is coordinating an array of project publications, annual conferences, and a database, with help from a talented group of scholars and PhD students.

Above, Dr Susan Deacy.

Like us, Dr Susan Deacy is based at the University of Roehampton in London. Susan's Mythical Childhood research is exploring the special potential of classical mythology to engage autistic children. You can keep up-to-date with this fascinating project at:

Above, Prof Daniel Nkemleke.

Another wing of the project will see Prof Daniel Nkemleke and Dr Divine Che Nebe of the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon conducting a survey of traditional African myth. This will include seeking out storytellers and asking elders to put their old tales on record; it's not a million miles away from the work carried out back in the day by the great folklorists Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm!

Sometimes myth appears at home, in our books, and cartoons and in the stories we tell each other, and sometimes we find it in schools as part of our formal learning. At Bar-Ilan University, in Israel, Dr Lisa Maurice and a team of scholars will be examining the place that mythology has in school curriculums around the world. UK curriculums will be researched and represented by none other than Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson, a researcher with specialism in classics in UK education and a friend to Panoply who many of you will know from her sterling work in UK schools through Classics in Communities.

Above, Dr Elizabeth Hale.

If all of this is starting to seem like a lot, you'll be glad to hear that Dr Elizabeth Hale and Associate Professor Marguerite Johnson of University of New England in Australia will be creating Children's Literature and Classical Antiquity: A Guide. Elizabeth, a Senior Lecturer in English and Writing, specialising in children's literature, will lead us through the complex web of myths told, retold, and told again.

Above, Some of the books in the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.

Perhaps you're now remembering the books that had your favourite myths in when you were young. Perhaps you're thinking of a small person in your life who might enjoy a bit more myth. Or perhaps you're feeling curious about the many ways your favourite myth might have been told differently by different authors. If that's the case, start looking forward to the project database: Our Mythical Childhood Survey. It will host summaries of items from children's culture from all over the world (especially children's literature), including details on how each work has represented myths and mythical themes. Many scholars (including me) are contributing to the database, and it's already shaping up to be tremendous. Above and below here you can see some of the books I'm working on.

Above, More books from the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.

Later on this week we'll be talking at An Introduction to Our Mythical Childhood, at the University of Roehampton. We're delighted that people from a wide range of disciplines will be joining us to hear about the project. If you can't make it, watch this space (and Twitter: @SonyaNevin; @OMChildhood ) for Our Mythical Childhood news and updates. Tweet to tell us what your favourite myth book is!

All of this work is made possible by the European Research Council. Long may they keep up the good work :)

EDIT: Thanks to everyone who came to the Introduction to Our Mythical Childhood, making super, and truly inter-disciplinary event. A couple of photos:

Above, Team Roehampton l-r, Dr Katerina Volioti (researching representations of the gods in Greek children's literature), Dr Susan Deacy, and Dr Sonya Nevin.

Above, Team Roehampton, the Panoply wing: Steve Simons and Sonya Nevin.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Upcoming Public Events

There are three fun and interesting public events lined-up for next month, 2 for adults, 1 for children, so, if you're in the UK, come and say hello and enjoy. The first is a book launch, the second a schools' fair, and the third a party at the Pitt Rivers Museum. I'm also giving you advance notice of a super-cool event that will be taking place at the University of Roehampton in March. If you like the sound of any of that, read on....

1) Monday 6th Feb. Launch of Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare.
This book launch will be celebrating the publication of Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare, aka my new book :) (available on the IB Tauris website). The launch will feature an introduction by Prof Hans van Wees of University College London and an opportunity for some ancient history chat over a drink. Copies of the book will be on sale at a discounted price. This event will take place at the University of Roehampton (West London) on Monday 6th Feb, 6-8pm in the Howard Building (room 001). This is a free event, but please book via Eventbrite so we know how many people to expect. All very welcome. You can also find a discussion of Military Leaders below in our previous post.

2) Tuesday 7th Feb. The Iris Project's Festival of Ancient and Modern Science.
The Panoply Vase Animation Project will be amongst a fabulous selection of stalls and talks at the Iris Project's Festival of Ancient and Modern Science. We'll be showing our animations, chatting about them and our new project, and hosting a range of drawing and colouring activities. Bring your nippers to hear more about ancient vases, Greek myth, and ancient and modern science. The festival will also feature Professor Helen King talking about Hippocratic medicine, a QandA with IVF pioneer Professor Robert Winston, and a talk by Professor Anthony Grayling on the Pre-Socratic philosophers. This event is on from 3-7pm at Cheney School in Oxfordshire. It's free. Drop-in, no need to book unless you plan to bring a group. For more information, visit the Iris Project's website. This video might whet your appetite:

3) Saturday 11th Feb. Out in Oxford: Party at the Pitt.
On Saturday 11th February, from 7-10pm, there will be special exhibitions, short talks, and interactive activities led by community groups, curators, performers and artists at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Party at the Pitt is on to celebrate the launch of the Out in Oxford: Cross-Collections Trail, a trail that connects the University of Oxford's museums, highlighting and exploring artefacts connected to LGBTQ history and culture. You can download the Out In Oxford trail, written by LGBTQ volunteers and allies, at I'll be there, giving a short talk about The Symposium - Panoply's 2016 animation created for Oxford Uni's Classics in Communities project. Party at the Pitt is a free event for anyone over 16. Tickets are available via Eventbrite. Hope to see you there!

Museum types interested in introducing more LGBTQ-friendly material into their museums will enjoy this short talk by the Out in Oxford trail's curator, Beth Asbury:

4) Thursday 16th March. Our Mythical Childhood - An Introduction.
And finally, a head's up about an event in March – an introduction to the Roehampton wing of the ERC-funded project Our Mythical Childhood... The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges. I'll be talking about the role that Steve and I have in this project – making a set of new vase animations on mythical themes and a documentary about vases, myth, and animation. There will also be presentations from Dr Susan Deacy on her work on classical myth in the autistic classroom and from Dr Katerina Volioti on gods and other mythical creatures in literature for young children. Last but not least, you'll hear about the survey of classical mythology in children's culture which is being collected by scholars around the world. This is a fantastic new project and this is the first chance to hear how it's unfolding and how it might be of use to you in your endeavours. This event will be of particular interest to classicists and children's literature experts, but all are very welcome. It will be on on the 16th March, 5.00-6.30pm in the University of Roehampton's beautiful Adam Room in Grove House. Booking details will be released closer to the time.

Hope to see you at one of these events. We'll be back soon with more news on our developing animations.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Military Leaders and Sacred Space: An In-House Interview with Dr Sonya Nevin

We're delighted to be celebrating the recent publication of Sonya's book: Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare: Temples, Sanctuaries, and Conflict in Antiquity. Sonya completed her doctorate at University College Dublin before going on to work at the University of Roehampton in London. She is the author of several publications, including 'Negative Comparison: Agamemnon and Alexander in Plutarch's Agesilaus-Pompey', GRBS 54, and 'The Spectacle of War in the Panoply Vase Animations'. Usually Sonya writes our news updates and asks the questions in the Panoply interviews, but today we've turned things on their head to ask Sonya about military leaders, sacred space, and how this book came to be written...

1) What's the book about?
When ancient Greeks went to war, sooner or later they would encounter sacred sites – such as sacred groves, hero shrines, or full-on sanctuaries with temples and valuable offerings. This book is about how ancient Greeks behaved in those situations, and why. The ideas in it mostly come from looking at the sorts of stories that ancient Greeks told about their wars, and the roles that encounters with sacred places played in those stories. To some extent, human societies are defined by how they fight their wars, or rather, by the stories that are told of those wars. Looking at how the ancient Greeks' talked about war is the best way to understand the values that underpinned what happened in their real lives; the values in the stories and the rhythms and motifs with which they're told are very revealing. So the book features some pretty shocking behaviour within an overall pattern of restraint. There's a realisation amongst ancient writers that those episodes of a war that get reported define how most people think about that conflict. Who said what to the priest? Were offerings made; when and by whom? When was the statue taken? broken? – these things make or break the long-term image of generals and their campaigns. There are fantastic stories about the Greeks at war, featuring some of Greece's most famous (or infamous) military leaders: King Cleomenes crushing Argos; the Argives' crushing of their neighbours; sanctuaries in the Persian Wars; doomed Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition; the magnificent Brasidas and his diplomacy in the Peloponnesian War ("not bad for a Spartan", said Thucydides), and Agesilaus of Sparta and his many adventures annoying people all over the Greek world. There's also a whole chapter on the struggles for control of the panhellenic sanctuaries – Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia.

Above, heroes arise for battle, as depicted on a cup (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 1911.615).

2) Have you included any vases?
Oh yes. While Military Leaders and Sacred Space is very much focused on written accounts of history, vase scenes offer a valuable addition. They provide insights into the sorts of things that ancient Greeks could conceive of as happening in conflicts, and of the sorts of images they were happy to have around them. One issue that I explore is what people thought about having sacred places near the battles they fought. Sometimes the presence of the sanctuary was regarded as very encouraging – even for people in enemy territory. Historians frequently describe people praying to the gods and heroes of those sites to come and help; they tell stories of how those gods did come... and of how sometimes they didn't. Heroes seem to have been considered more likely to help, largely because they were closer to human affairs having once been mortal themselves. The wonderful vase above depicts heroes climbing out of their tomb. Their alert postures and readiness with their swords suggests that they're about to join a battle, and it's probably a depiction of heroes coming to join the battle of Marathon. This is a fantastic addition to the written accounts of the battle and descriptions of long gone, large-scale commemorative artwork. The artist has captured the heroes taking notice and leaping into action. This scene reinforces evidence for the belief in heroes' interest in mortals' battles and, as such, it's further evidence that the proximity of hero shrines to battlefields was held to have significance.

Above, close-up of Ashmolean 1911.615. There are further pieces of this vase, depicting more of the tomb, in the New York Metropolitan Museum (1973.175.2).

3) Do mythical vase scenes help? What ones have you drawn on?
Yes, they do. It's not always easy to distinguish scenes indicating myth from those that are meant to be more historical, but in cases where there is a clear motif or – even clearer – labels, you can be more confident. Scenes depicting the Trojan War are an interesting case in point. There was a story that the Greeks were told that they would never take Troy without first removing the Palladium – a statue of Pallas Athena – from the city. When they heard this, Diomedes and Odysseus crept into Troy and stole it. Scenes of this incident appear on quite a few vases, sometimes with Athena looking on approvingly. In Military Leaders and Sacred Space I've discussed the implications that this has for thinking about what happened to sacred statues during historical conflicts.

Above, Athena looks back at Diomedes, who is carrying her statue (amphora by the Tyszkiewicz Painter, Stockholm Medelhausmuseet , 1963.001).

Above, Diomedes clutches the Palladium, (cup exterior, St Petersburg State Hermitage Museum, 1543).

Tales of the sack of Troy also bring us some curious depictions of military conduct. Vase decorators seem to have felt comfortable depicting some of the horrors of war when they were set at Troy in a way that they tended not to for real, contemporary life. One example of this is the rape of Cassandra by Locrian Ajax (not Achilles' cousin, the other Ajax). Vase scenes depicting this event always place emphasis on Cassandra being pulled from the statue of Athena in the sanctuary where she served as priestess. To some extent the statue simply helps to identify the scene, but it also suggests that it was the sacred nature of the site from which Cassandra was pulled that made this act problematic – not the attack itself. This is borne out in the way that the poets tell this story too. It's a subtle yet significant distinction. There are also vase scenes of Achilles killing Troilus in the sanctuary of Apollo... it didn’t work out well for either of them.

Above, Locrian Ajax attacks Cassandra in the sanctuary of Athena at Troy (hydria by the Kleophrades Painter, Naples, Museo Nazionale Archeologico).
Above, Locrian Ajax makes his attack, here with Cassandra depicted as a girl, in contrast to the adult-sized Ajax and statue of Athena (plate, Yale University, 169).

4) What got you interested in this topic?
I've been interested in the conduct of war for a long time. When I was small I was fascinated with Shakespeare's Henry V. During the siege of Harfleur, Henry tries to force the town to surrender by describing all the horrendous things that his soldiers will do to its citizens if they don't submit; he asks if they will surrender or "guilty in defence, be thus destroyed", essentially saying that they will be responsible for the terrible things that will happen to them. Later on in the play, he hangs someone for robbing a church and decrees that the army should behave itself as they march across France, "For when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner." The whole play is full of conflicting messages. I was intrigued by the way that the rhetoric shifts, and also by the fact that this is not an account of medieval warfare, but an Elizabethan thought experiment placed in a campaign fought almost 200 hundred years before. I remained fascinated by the extremes that war pushes people to and, when I became more interested in ancient Greek history, questions about how wars were conducted, how the people participating thought they should be conducted, and how the culture as a whole dealt with these issues and talked about their conflicts remained very significant for me. Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon - these historians and others were pioneers of the genre of history-writing and right from the start they were interested in moral themes and in reflecting thoughtfully on what happens to society and people's ethics during wars; I never tire of exploring their work. During my MA I studied Greek cult and wrote a thesis on the conflicting accounts of the Persian invasion of Egypt. That set me up to pursue a full project on Greek wars for my doctorate. This book is 50% revamped material from my doctoral thesis, combined with 50% new material. War will not be going away any time soon, so questions about how wars should be conducted and how the ways that they are reported and remembered influences society remain a vital part of human culture.

5) Who's your favourite ancient Greek?
Miltiades! Miltiades, son of Cimon, is best known for his leadership at the battle of Marathon. He had an outrageously exciting life prior to that too. He experienced Athens under the tyrants and the emergence of democracy; he was an exile and a tyrant himself; he fought for Persia and for the Greeks; he was a hero and he died in disgrace. Realistically it's hard to be confident of very much about him personally, but he lived an adventurous life during a time of fabulous cultural richness and heady transitions, always in the thick of it, and I love him for that. I enjoyed writing about him in Military Leaders and Sacred Space; he was a controversial figure even in antiquity, so it was great to explore how different writers tried to cast him as good guy or bad guy. Military leaders always upset someone; stories about them doing terrible things in holy places are a sure way of knocking the shine off their image.

Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare can be ordered here, on the IB Tauris website and in all good bookshops and libraries near you.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Death and the Vase: A Panoply Interview with Dr Bridget Martin.

As Sawhain-Halloween sets in, we turn our thoughts to other-worldly matters and talk to Dr Bridget Martin, an expert in death, funerary rites, and the afterlife in ancient Greece. Dr Martin teaches Ancient Greek and Classical Civilisation at University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the dead in Greek tragedy and is the author of 'Blood, Honour, and Status in Odyssey 11', Classical Quarterly, 64.1, (2014). In the interest of transparency and recalling good times I should tell you that Dr Martin and I studied for our doctorates together, at one point even sharing a cheerful office. As such, I had the pleasure some eight or nine years ago of hearing Bridget present a research paper on the topic of winged psychai on funerary vases. That work has since been developed further and published as: 'Cold comfort: Winged psychai on fifth-century BC Greek funerary lekythoi', Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 59.1 (2016), a study that analyses psychai as indicators regarding death, bereavement, and ideas about the Afterlife. Dr Martin is here to tell us about this fascinating topic; read on... if you dare.

1) Your research includes focus on rites around death in ancient Greece; what were some of the more important ones?
Some of the most important rites were performed during and after funerals. The body of the deceased was laid on a couch (kline) for the prosthesis (the equivalent of a modern wake), where mourners sang laments, and the body was then transported by ekphora (procession) to the burial site. Women could be very expressive in their mourning, especially during the prothesis: they could sing laments, lacerate their flesh, pull out or shear off their hair or cover themselves in dust. Such was their enthusiasm that legislation was put in place to limit excessive female mourning practices! Male mourners were usually more sedate, typically stretching out a hand over the body (as often depicted on vases) or offering a lock of hair. The dead were also offered gifts, such as vases, libations and food (sometimes including blood and animal sacrifices), either during the funeral itself or afterwards. Vase paintings show us that the living visited the tombs of their loved ones, sometimes with gifts, in order to mourn, and this also occurred during annual communal festivals, most notably the Genesia. These rites offered honour and remembrance to the dead and also allowed for the ritual separation of the living and the dead.

Above, male and female mourners at a prothesis, funerary plaque, Athens 525-475BCE. New York, Metropolitan Museum (54.11.5).

2) Was this an important part of the culture?
Yes, definitely! For us today it’s very difficult to determine what exactly the Greeks believed about the dead and the Afterlife – there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Greeks believed there was some manner of ‘life’ after death, but also that there was nothing after death. Regardless of individual beliefs, however, it was clearly essential to honour the dead through the rites outlined above. Such was their importance that the denial of burial rites was considered a fitting punishment for terrible crimes, such as temple robbers and killers of their own kin (the denial of burial is an important theme in Homer’s Iliad and in fifth-century tragedies, most notably Sophocles’ Antigone). The rites were preferably overseen by close kin, specifically sons, and, as such, if a man approached the end of his life without a son, he could adopt someone to ensure that he received the customary rites following his death.

3) Your publication focuses on winged psychai; could you tell us what they are?
The dead were depicted as winged psychai on funeral vases, especially lekythoi, from the middle to the end of the fifth century BC, primarily in Athens. They are small, generic, stick-insect-like figures that flit about in the background of images connected with death, most commonly images of the prothesis, images of the god Hermes or the boatman Charon accompanying the dead on their journey to the Underworld, or images of mourning at tombs. The dead are also portrayed as full-sized and very life-like figures on these vases, but the winged psychai are far more fascinating, in my opinion, as they suggest an attempt to capture the dead as they really are in the Underworld – shadowy, flighty and ethereal. The winged figures are often denoted by the word ‘eidolon’ (‘eidola’ in the plural), which means an exact copy or replica, but the word ‘psyche’ (‘psychai’ in the plural) is more fitting as the psyche is what leaves the body at the time of death and travels to the Underworld (our nearest equivalent is the soul, but a direct analogy between the two is problematic), and this is what the vase painters were attempting to depict with the winged figures.

Above, a dead woman (right) is led to the Afterlife by Hermes and met by Charon the boatman and a crowd of winged psychai. Line drawing by Bridget Martin of red-figure white-ground lekythos, attributed to the Sabouroff Painter (475-425 BCE), Athens, National Museum (1926).

4) How do you interpret their appearance on vases? What does it all mean?
Well, there are many meanings, and all or none could be correct! The psychai might merely signal the presence of death, but this isn’t really necessary as they often appear alongside a dead body or a tomb. They might be the tail end of a tradition stretching back to the sixth century BC when winged figures representing recognisable epic figures, such as Patroclus or Sarpedon, were popular. Perhaps the most common interpretation of the winged psychai is that they present a frightening image of what happens after death: you become a flitting shade without individuality or awareness. What I believe, however, is that the winged psychai are comforting figures for both the living and the dead. Firstly, they oversee the performance of the prothesis and the mourners visiting tombs, thus assuring the living that their pious actions are recognised. Secondly, in images in which the newly dead are led to the Underworld or enter Charon’s boat, the presence of multiple psychai gives a comforting suggestion of a guiding hand or even family reunion. Furthermore, the presence of the psychai in images including living mourners maintains a connection between the living and the dead, thus delaying the absolute separation of the two.

Above, 2 women attend a tomb, with psychai flying overhead. Line drawing by Bridget Martin of a red-figure white-ground lekythos attributed to the Woman Painter (Athens, 450-400 BCE), Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum (144).

5) What else can we learn from vases about ideas about funerary rituals and ideas about death?
The ancient Greeks held extensive and often contradictory beliefs about death and the dead, which is not surprising for a complex and evolving society, but the vases tell us that honouring the dead was unfailingly important to the living. Images of the prothesis, for example, appear on vases as early as the eighth century BC and remain very common until the end of the fifth century BC, when funeral vases fell out of popularity. Perhaps one of the most important things we can learn from the vases, specifically those depicting winged psychai, is that the ancient Greeks desired to make the unfamiliar familiar. Death was an unknown and frightening process, but portraying scenes of the newly dead being cared for by mythological guides and the ‘established’ dead in the form of winged psychai could go some way to softening the fear of death.

Above, Two men overlooked by a psyche prepare a body for prosthesis, on an Athenian black-figure olpe (525-500 BC). Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney (NM98.150).

6) Who's your favourite ancient Greek?
My favourite (mythical) ancient Greek is Clytemnestra, the wife and murderer of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks at Troy. I am thinking particularly of Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy the Oresteia, as her character reveals such fascinating insights into interactions and relationships between the living and the dead. In the trilogy, Clytemnestra is a champion of the dead (she seeks revenge for her murdered daughter), an abuser of the dead (she both denies and perverts Agamemnon’s burial rites) and, following her own death at the hands of her son, she is a revenge-driven ghost. As a ferocious figure of vengeance who connives from both sides of the grave, Clytemnestra is in a class of her own!

Thank-you very much for talking to us, Dr Martin!.

If you fancy finding out more about this topic, get yourself a copy of 'Cold comfort: Winged psychai on fifth-century BC Greek funerary lekythoi', Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 59.1 (2016), either by reading it online or by ordering it through your library. And keep your eyes open for signs of mourning rites and the Afterlife next time you're combing through a vase collection.

Regular readers may recall this Louvre vase tomb scene as featured in our interview with Anastasia Bakogianni about Electra mourning.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Summer to Autumn News

This summer we were busy with The Symposium. It was commissioned by the University of Oxford's Classics in Communities project to create a vase animation that teachers can use in the classroom and which Oxford staff and students can use within their outreach activities. We wish them many happy times ahead doing just that!

We hope you've enjoyed some of the things that have accompanied the creation of The Symposium. As well as telling you a bit about symposium culture, The Symposium page has a set of follow-up reading suggestions for exploring the topic further, and you can also find out more through our recent blog interviews, Symposiums in Focus, with Dr Thomas Mannack and On Symposiums and Vases with Prof Sir John Boardman. You may also enjoy this new find, a short video that examines the cup from The Symposium in detail. It's a great way to see the cup's full shape and depth:

Above, as short video analysis of The Symposium cup by Alastair Sooke of The Telegraph (cup comes in at 1.15mins)

We've been delighted to see some of the artwork done with The Symposium activity sheets. A big thank-you to Fairstead House School in Newmarket who have kindly allowed us to use their work as examples on The Symposium page. Here's a detail from one of them:
Above: Detail from a re-working of The Symposium vase on the theme of 'outdoor parties', by Izzy from Fairstead House School, Newmarket.

Feel free to send us examples from your own class' work (or your own!). We always love to see what you've been making. Likewise, let us know what activity sheets you've found most useful and what ones you'd like to see in future. Through helpful feedback from one teacher, we've added a Beginner's Greek activity sheet for The Symposium. It comes with symposium-themed vocab that's set-up for labelling exercises or practice sentences.

Above, The new Symposium Greek sheet (get the download version from

With the start of a new season, we're beginning an exciting new project. Over the next five years we'll be making a series of animations and a documentary about vases as part of a fantastic international project, Our Mythical Childhood... The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges. As the name suggests, this project will be examining the roles of Greco-Roman myth in children's literature and animations all over the world. It will produce a series of publications and reference works on this topic as well as the animations. Contributors from Poland, the UK, Australia, Israel, and Cameroon, will each explore fascinating aspects of this phenomenon under the guidance of the project organiser, Prof Katarzyna Marciniak from the University of Warsaw. This project has been generously funded by the European Research Council to whom we are very grateful. Our first animation will be an adventure with Heracles. Storyboarding has already begun! More on this as the project unfolds.

October means Halloween, so call back at the end of the month for an exclusive interview on a deathly topic. Dr Bridget Martin will be talking about ancient Greek ideas about death and the afterlife and how she has used vases to gain new insights into this important aspect of Greek culture.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Symposiums in Focus: A Panoply Interview with Dr Thomas Mannack

In celebration of the release of The Symposium animation, made for Oxford University's Classics in Communities project, we're talking symposiums and symposium scenes with leading art historian Dr Thomas Mannack, Reader in Classical Iconography at Oxford University. Dr Mannack is the director of the Beazley Archive’s magnificent database of Greek pottery. He is the author of numerous books on Greek vases, including The Late Mannerists in Attic Vase-Painting (Oxford University Press, 2001), volumes of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, and most recently (with Diana Rodríguez-Pérez and Cristina Neagu) Beazley and Christ Church. 250 Years of Scholarship on Greek Vases (2016). Thomas advised us on the creation of The Symposium animation. He’s here today to talk symposium scenes and the joy of ancient Greek art...

1) You have devoted your professional life to the study of Greek pottery – what is it about this art form that appeals to you so much?
Greek vases are fantastically interesting: the painted scenes on Greek pots contain a wealth of information and are second only to the literary sources (and sometimes even better). The shapes suggest a certain use inviting thought about the connections between shapes and pictures. Athenian vases in particular were traded around the whole Mediterranean world and have been found as far north as the Thames near Reading, as far west as Portugal, in Africa in the South, and Iraq in the East; the Etruscans in northern and central Italy were particularly fond of the things. This tells us something about Greeks abroad, the tastes of the indigenous populations, trade routes, and contacts between cultures. The pictures shed light on daily life and show the theatre, workshops, women at home, Greek myths and lost versions thereof, aspects of the funeral and many more. And Greek pots are beautiful.

2) When do the first symposium scenes begin to appear on Greek vases?
The earliest symposium scene appears on an Early Corinthian column-krater, a vase for mixing wine and water for the symposium, painted around 600 BC. The painter has depicted a symposium and turned it into a mythological scene by the addition of inscriptions. 10 to 20 years later the symposium was painted on Athenian neck-amphorae and Siana cups, which were particularly popular with the aristocrats in the Greek colony of Taras, modern Taranto.

Above, The vase featured in The Symposium animation: An Athenian black-figure footed cup (kylix) (AN1974.344), c.500BCE. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

3) Is there anything you consider distinctive about the symposium scene that the new animation has been made from?
The Oxford cup is highly distinctive. The symposium is not set in the andron, the special room for the symposium, but held in the open air since the symposiasts are surrounded by vines and are reclining on the ground, not on couches. All of them wear headdresses, another unusual feature normally connected with Persians or denoting eastern influence. The vase may represent a feast held in honour of a god or hark back to some imaginary idyllic past. The foot is unusual too, recorded coyly as “special foot” it the Beazley Archive Pottery database: it consists of a modelled penis with testicles invoking, perhaps, fertility, but being also quite funny. Other details are typical of the symposium: the participants are reclining and dressed in himatia, they play music and are being served by a young cup-bearer.
Above, the underside of the Oxford cup. Photo: Twitter, @DrMichaelScott

4) What are the pros and cons of using symposium scenes as evidence for real-life symposiums?
Greek vases cannot show the conversations held during the symposium, but they show everything else:
Participants: male citizens.
Furniture: reclining couches, tables, footstools, kottabos- and lamp stands.
Time: lit lamps, therefore after dark.
Equipment: a wealth of different shapes such as cups, skyphoi, and vases moulded in the shape of heads and shoes, mixing vases such as kraters and dinoi on stands, sieves, and ladles.
Food: a leg of meat depicted on a Corinthian krater, cakes or bread and strips of meat shown elsewhere.
Above, courtesans at a symposium, as depicted on a hydria. Munich 2421.

Entertainment: singing denoted by a standard pose and often letters in front of the open mouth of the singer, lyre players and female pipes players, high class prostitutes and the kottabos game and balancing contests.

Above, a symposiast sings, as indicated by the way he has thrown his head back. Musee du Louvre S1435.

...And the regrettable effect of too much drink: symposiasts throwing up.
Vases even show the arrangement of the couches around the special room because the painters occasionally depict the short end of one of the klinai (couches).

Above, A symposiast succumbs to too much to drink, as shown on the interior of a cup by the Brygos Painter, National Museum, Copenhagen.

5) Why do ancient Greek cups sometimes have Gorgon heads inside them?
There is a lot of deep stuff about the Gorgoneion which is apotropaic, that is it averted evil and bad luck, but it would also have appealed to the juvenile sense of humour of the Greeks, since drinking the wine revealed an ugly face. Moreover, the Gorgon head is round and therefore a simple and appealing way to fill the round interior of a cup.

6) What are you researching at the moment?
I am still writing a catalogue of the white ground lekythoi (oil flasks) of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and an article on inscriptions on vases naming Athenians as beautiful (kalos).

7) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
The general and statesman Alkibiades, the last member of note of the Athenian family of the Alkmaeonidae. He was a colourful and difficult character who was first an advocate of the aggressive expansion of the Athenian empire, made too many enemies and had to flee to Sparta, the enemy of Athens, and supported them in the war against his native city. Alkibiades managed to fall foul of the Spartans too and had to flee to Persia, where he acted as an advisor to Tissaphernes, satrap of Lydia and Caria (proving that Persia was not “the other” for aristocratic Greeks) until he was recalled to Athens. Moreover, he owned Greek pots.

Thank-you very much to Dr Mannack for these lively insights into symposium culture and The Symposium's vase. To go deeper into the world of the ancient vase-painters, have a read of some of Dr Mannack's many publications on this fascinating subject.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

On Symposiums and Vases - an Interview with Professor Sir John Boardman.

It's not long now until the release of a brand new vase animation. The animation is being made for Oxford University’s Classics Faculty and Ashmolean Museum, so, in anticipatory celebration, we're talking today to one of Oxford’s leading lights, Prof. Sir John Boardman, Senior Research Associate at the Classical Art Research Centre and Emeritus Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art. Sir John is the author of four indispensable handbooks on Greek vase painting, as well as numerous other works including The History of Greek Vases: Potters, Painters and Pictures (2008) and The World of Ancient Art (2006). He has served as the Assistant Director of the British School at Athens (a wonderful archaeological institute in Greece) and as Assistant Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean. Today he’s sharing thoughts on vases, symposiums, and gems...

1) You have worked with so many vases throughout your career; is there one in the Ashmolean collection that you find particularly interesting?
Yes. In my first days in the Ashmolean I came across fragments of an East Greek black figure vase which I could restore as showing the carriage of the boat of Dionysos. The vase was from Karnak in Egypt where there were similar processions, inspiration for the Dionysiac. I retained an interest and it formed a key element in my short book on The Triumph of Dionysos in 2014.

2) The vase in the new animation depicts a symposium scene of men drinking and playing music together. What values were being expressed through scenes of this sort?
The symposion was an important social event in Greek life – the wine was well watered! Many houses had rooms especially furnished for a symposion although I suspect that most Greek homes were not so well furnished.

Above, the vase that will feature in Panopy’s next animation, out soon. An Athenian black-figure footed cup (kylix) (AN1974.344), c.500 BCE. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

3) Would a vase of this sort have been a high status item?
This example was almost certainly an export model, sent to Italy, possibly for the Greek market but just as probably for the Etruscan where its message might not have been so clear.

4) The people in the symposium scene are depicted drinking from all sorts of shapes of cups. Did symposium culture encourage innovation in vase-making?
Drinking watered wine was an important event for Greeks and the potters were especially ingenious in creating new shapes for the drinking cup, whether practical or not, and often after foreign models.

5) Much of your recent work has looked at carved gem stones. Is there any overlap between the art we see on vases and that on carved gems?
The gem stones were a more personal matter and their subjects could be inspired by various different factors – religion, the name of the owner, or simply display. The idiom and overall style was uniform in the arts of classical Greece so it's a matter of parallels rather than any more positive links, I think.

Above, a carnelian gem, showing a young Heracles, 4th century BCE, Private collection (photo: Beazley Archive).

6) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
It has to be Heracles, for the variety of his adventures and his role in both mythology and the everyday religion of the Greeks.

Above, the hero himself - Heracles wrestles a water god in Panoply's animation of a tiny amphora from the Ure Museum.

Many thanks to Professor Sir John Boardman for talking to us today. If you’d like to hear more, you’ll enjoy the short video below exploring what can be deduced from an ancient Athenian symposium cup, and the podcast below that, which discusses the discipline of Art History.

Above, Treasures of Oxford - Athenian Wine Drinking Cup. Sir John Boardman talks about a wine drinking cup made in Ancient Athens - what we can learn from it about Ancient Greek culture and the kind of lifestyle the Greeks had.

Above, Introduction to Art of the Ancient World. Prof Donna Kurtz and Prof Sir John Boardman talk about Sir John's life, career, and experiences as a classical scholar, and the relationships between the artworks of different ancient cultures.