Last weekend we welcomed a number of scholars to Cambridge for a short conference on Migration, Mobility and Language Contact in Italy and the Western Mediterranean. The idea behind the meeting was to get linguists talking with archaeologists, historians and literary specialists to try to put the speakers back into our understanding of language contact. What circumstances brought together speakers of different languages? How do we find migrants and speakers of foreign languages in the historical and archaeological record? Who was it exactly who was doing the migrating?
Nick and Katherine had brought together a fantastic mix of speakers to address these problems, with four carefully planned sessions in which speakers addressed aspects of movement, migration, interpretation and language choice (and, it must be said, Oscan spelling). We enjoyed a splendid dinner in Peterhouse, preceded by drinks in the Deer Park (thankfully, the deer were not in evidence), and ample opportunities for interaction and conversation.
One theme that emerged from the conference echoed a point made by Emma Dench, who gave Cambridge’s annual Gray lecture series last week. Migrants and other outsiders in the ancient world were good at putting on a Roman or Greek costume, and blending in to ancient societies; the title of Elena Isayev’s talk ‘Elusive migrants of Ancient Italy’ sums it up very effectively. From our standpoint, it takes clever detective work to unearth clues (which may have been more obvious to an ancient bystander) revealing the backstory behind the Oscan mercenaries of Messina, or the Italian slave-traders in Delos, or the interpreters of the Roman Army in the eastern provinces. What is more, some evidence we might think of as reliable, such as a distinctively ethnic name, might not tell us the whole story about how someone spoke. Daniele Maras discussed an even more difficult case: an archaic inscription that has been read both as Greek and Etruscan, arguing persuasively that it was Etruscan. You can see the text below and see what you think!
(Image taken from G. Colonna “Gli Etruschi nel Tirreno Meridionale: tra Mitistoria, Storia e Archeologia” Etruscan Studies Volume 9)