Greek in Italy

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The joys of makeshift ultra-violet photography

Last week, I gave a talk to the Merchant Taylors’ School Classics society, at the invitation of a former supervisee of mine (and Girton directee, for that matter).

My talk concerned two papyri that came to the School through the ‘Oxyrhynchus distribution’. The papyri are a fourth-century CE personal letter and six literary fragments, of which three have been joined and were identified long ago as parts of Odyssey I.

These papyri have been looked after very well and it was an absolute pleasure to examine for myself and to use them for their intended purpose — the enthusing of young minds for the study of Graeco-Roman Antiquity, or, at least, of ‘Literature and Life at Late Roman Oxyrhynchus‘.

As I said, three of the six literary pieces have been identified as parts of Odyssey I, while the three others remain tantalizingly unidentified. The metallic ink had faded by the time of discovery from black to a pale brown hardly distinct from the papyrus itself on the photograph or, as it were, in the flesh. (The black carbon ink accents are more visible and facilitate identifying the Greek characters: ‘Greek accents never matter, except when they do’, one might say.)

I wanted to examine the papyrus using ultra-violet light and was granted the opportunity to do so after my talk. At the end of my talk, an excited pupil from a lower form bound up to his teacher to say, ‘Please, sir, do tell me what happens with the UV light’.

At this stage, the jury is still out on the literary papyrus fragments, but here is the demonstration of what UV light can bring out, even using nothing more flashy than a 9 LED 395nm lamp bought through Amazon.co.uk and marketed for locating stains left by pets and for determining whether bank notes are fake or marked.

The first photograph here is in natural light. It shows an envelope that I kept because it had a story behind it. Just before the Financial Crisis, when I was still ‘Mr P. James’ and soon after I had started work for the Greek Lexicon Project, I, then 25, tried to cash in some money that my grandmother had left to me. All knowledge of the account’s existence was denied. The game was afoot. As I recall, I even had to enlist my PhD supervisor to authenticate my signatures.

In time, I succeeded in demonstrating that I was owed money by pointing out the oddity that interest was being paid into a non-existent account in proportion to a non-existent sum of money. An anomaly, to be sure, and my own window into financial services prior to the Crisis. The cheque arrived in this envelope.

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I pinned it to the Greek Lexicon Project’s noticeboard to share my amusement with my colleagues. Traces around two drawing-pin holes are clear to the naked eye (centre, top), but the hand-written address faded through exposure to sun light. You could convince yourself that there had once been writing, particularly by rotating the original so that may catch the light. Or, you could resort to UV light.

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With the aid of UV light and the use of a mobile-phone digital camera, the oddity in the address — the reason why I kept the envelope for display — becomes clear. Who were the ‘Greek Mexicans’? I do not know, but I did laugh all the way to the bank and I am pleased now to have this example of what can be done with UV light.

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Researchfish

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The funding for the Greek in Italy Project is generously provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK and we submit an annual report to them saying what we have been up to, listing our published outputs and all sorts of activities under ‘engagement’. This year, there is a new web-interface for reporting to the AHRC, and our report will be submitted in the next couple of weeks. The web-interface is called ‘Researchfish’ (clear echoes of Douglas Adams’s Babel fish) and designed for use by all Research Councils and other bodies that fund research in the UK. It is on the whole easy to use, and involves much less time than writing a narrative statement of all the different things which we do as part of the project. My only complaint about the system is a peevish grumble that it is so clearly devised by and for research funded by ‘Big Science’: medicine, the physical and chemical sciences, engineering etc.

True enough, there are sections where you can record ‘Artistic and Creative Products’ alongside ‘Medical Products’ and ‘Software and Technical Products’, but the sample answers given in various sections reveal the bias to the Sciences. My favourite is from the section for reporting ‘Engagement Activities’: that is, activities that have ‘engaged audiences other than exclusively your scientific peers’ (strangely, academic conferences which are open to PhD students, as most are in the Arts and Humanities, are included in this section). One box to fill in is headed: “Briefly describe any notable impacts that arose from this activity.” Then they give a sample answer: “a school asked for lab visit (sic) for sixth form pupils and reported higher than expected interest from pupils in GCSE Science”. Although this looks impressive at first sight, it is actually nonsense. ‘Sixth form’ is an older UK term for students in the final two years of school, which follows the national exams known as GCSE. The two years leading up to GCSE are known as Key Stage 4, where the study of Science is a compulsory requirement (unlike languages, which are only compulsory for Key Stages 2 and 3). Hence most students who take the GCSEs have to take a GCSE in science. So the sample answer really seems to be saying ‘pupils expressed an interest in an exam which they had to take anyway, at a stage when they had already taken the exam.’

Mistakes like this are trivial, but they feed into an impression that what is really important in the reporting is the delivery of quantifiable and marketable ‘products’, and that the only valued impact is impact which can be measured in monetary terms. You can fill in boxes with what you tell schoolchildren with any rubbish at all, and no one really minds, because giving school talks doesn’t contribute to the national economy in the way that developing a new patent does. The best result of a school-talk is to encourage more children to become money-spinning scientists.

The AHRC only gets a small fraction of the UK’s annual budget for Science research (around £98 million out of £2.5 billion), and so we are just minnows in a sea full of dolphins, whales, and perhaps some sharks too. It makes sense for us all to share the same system of reporting, and submitting a standard form online cuts down on the work for everyone. But it would be nice to have as an example of the impact a school talk something like the following ‘The pupils learnt something new. Some of them were enthralled.’