Greek in Italy

Project Research Blog


Leave a comment

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.

20180321_090947

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.

20180321_090923

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.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Remembrance and Greek Lyric in Italy

The approach of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and the association of poppies with the fallen is an opportunity to comment on that association in the poetry of Stesichorus (c. 630-555 BCE), ‘the first great lyric poet of the West‘. He was born in Calabria in South Italy and died on Sicily.

A papyrus published in 1967 preserves some of the Geryoneis of Stesichorus, a lyric narrative of Heracles’ Tenth Labour: stealing Geryon’s cows. This takes Heracles to the far west of the Greek known world and on his return to the Aventine Hill (in Rome to be).

Column ii lines 14-17 of S15 are pictured below, the point at which Herakles kills the giant Geryon with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the Lernaean Hydra (Greek δρα is cognate with English ‘otter’, a ‘monster’ on a much smaller scale…).

P.Oxy. 2617 epode Stesichorus S15

ἀπέκλινε δ’ ἄρ’ αὐχένα Γ̣α̣ρ̣[υόνας
ἐπικάρσιον, ὡς ὅκα μ[ά]κ̣ω̣[ν
ἅτε καταισχύνοισ’ ἁπ̣α̣λ̣ὸ̣ν̣ [δέμας
αἶψ’ ἀπὸ φύλλα βαλοῖσα̣ν̣[

‘and Geryon dropped his neck
to one side, like a poppy,
which spoiling its tender beauty
suddenly sheds its petals…’.

The eighth book of Homer’s Iliad also contains such a comparison, when Priam’s son, Gorgythion, died from an arrow wound (Iliad VIII 306-308):

μήκων δ’ ὡς ἑτέρωσε κάρη βάλεν, ἥ τ’ ἐνὶ κήπῳ
καρπῷ βριθομένη νοτίῃσί τε εἰαρινῇσιν,
ὣς ἑτέρωσ’ ἤμυσε κάρη πήληκι βαρυνθέν.

And he dropped his head to one side like a poppy that in a garden
is laden with its fruit and the rains of spring;
so bowed he to one side his head, laden with his helmet.

The fields of FlandersThe fields of Flanders, strewn with poppies, might remind epigraphers and dialectologists of the poppy ‘plantations’ of Hellenistic Pharsalus in Thessaly (IG IX, 2 234 / C.D. Buck, The Greek Dialects, no. 36), later the battlefield where Pompey the Great was defeated (09.08.48 BCE).

Similes that have fallen warriors and/or youths in correspondence with poppies continued in Latin literature, whether directly from Homer and/or Stesichorus or not: famously the weary poppy weighed down by rain in Vergil, Aeneid IX 435-437 (drawing also on Catullus 11.21-24, itself thought to have ‘echoes’ of Sappho 105c) and Ovid, Metamorphoses X 190-193.