From pot-planters to fireplaces: the many lives of ancient inscriptions

Last Thursday, Dr Peter Liddel concluded our 2020-21 lecture programme with a really interesting and accessible talk that uncovered the stories of the ancient Athenian inscriptions that can be found in private collections or on display in the UK, an insight into the work of the ongoing AHRC-funded project on Attic Inscriptions. The project is aiming to publish these inscriptions in PDFs on its website so that they are accessible to everyone as well as producing resources for the KS2-KS3 national curriculum and for GCSE and A Level Ancient History and Classical Civilisation courses.

As Dr Liddel showed, ancient Greek city-states had a longstanding and (very helpful archaeologically speaking) “epigraphical habit”, that is the practice of writing down public records and private transactions on stone as an enduring form of documentation, commemoration or celebration. From sacred texts to inventories of temple possessions, calendars and awards to gifts and decrees, these inscriptions give us direct access to life in antiquity. In Athens, they were predominantly set up in three key locations: the Kerameikos (main cemetery), the Agora (the heart of the city’s economic activity) and the Acropolis (the religious and ceremonial epicentre), although few now remain there.  

To whet our appetite for epigraphy, Dr Liddel introduced us to a few well preserved inscriptions – all of very different shapes and sizes and purposes – including an inscribed plaque in the shape of a shield listing names of ephebes from the second century AD and the tombstone of Choirine, whose name means Piglet (perhaps she had a friend called Pooh!). Choirine is depicted holding a key, suggesting that she was a priestess and a custodian of the home of a god:

Inscriptions tell us about individuals, about occupations and responsibility, but also about city states and their interrelationships since they acted as detailed ways of ensuring that Athens’ allies handed over taxes, such as Kleinias’ decree about tribute collection (425/4 BC, now at the British Museum):
‘Let the city write on a writing tablet the tribute which it is sending, and seal it with the token and send it to Athens; and those conveying it shall hand over the writing tablet in the Council to be read when they hand over the tribute… ‘

Dr Liddel showed a map of where some of these Athenian inscriptions are now held and asked the most intriguing question of all – how did they get here?!

Public and Private collections including Attic Inscriptions currently in the UK

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is that many of those inscriptions that eventually came to be housed in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, were originally taken by aristocratic ‘Hellenophiles’ who toured Greece, buying and bringing back antiquities to furnish their homes. William Petty, for example , was given the licence and funding of his patron Lord Arundel to buy his chosen artefacts and to compete with rival French collectors – such competitiveness fuelled the trade in antiquities, a trade which, to modern eyes, was unethical commerce that was often funded by unethical means (one trader, James Dawkins, had made his money, like many others, from the transatlantic slave trade) and which altered the trajectory and history of many Greek archaeological materials.

One of Arundel’s marbles, a dedication by cadets to Hercules, 158/9 AD. AIUK 11 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) no. 7

Some inscriptions entered the scholarly tradition, by being recorded in the ‘Marmora Oxoniensia’, a seventeenth-eighteenth century series of rather inaccessible volumes, where the translations and commentary were written in Latin, the academic vernacular of the day. Others were placed on public view, for example inserted into the walls in Oxford’s Garden of Antiquities situated between the Sheldonian Theatre and Exeter College, whilst most were kept in private establishments, for decoration more than edification. Thomas Legh adorned his library at Lyme Hall in Cheshire with three marbles, including a tombstone situated above the fireplace, but wasn’t particularly interested in their academic value and import. As well as aristocrats, many industrialists engaged in the antiquities trade as a means of emulating those with ‘old money’: diplomatic links, wealth, connections and the ability to travel were the prerequisites to collecting rather than birth or status.

One of the most curious stories was that of the collection of Lord Guildford, who had 60 crates of marble sculpture shipped from Greece in 1813, intending to display them at his Westminster home. Upon his death, these marbles were acquired by Thomas Wentworth Beaumont and moved to Bretton Hall in Yorkshire for display. However, most of the collection, which included a beautiful ‘Corinthian wellhead’ commemorating the Battle of Actium, was sadly somehow lost by the mid-late nineteenth century. The wellhead was later spotted being used as a pot-planter-cum-litterbin in the 1990s, but the majority of the inscriptions are still missing. Mystery also shrouds the story of the Mount Stewart stele which has uncertain origins, whilst other inscriptions have been found in English gardens, including this exceptional casualty list of Argives from the Battle of Tanagra from the mid fifth century BC which was eventually donated to the British Museum.

There are still lots of questions to be answered about the many lives of some ancient Attic inscriptions and the Project is constatnly publishing new annotated translations as well as videos about individual inscriptions or groups of inscriptions, mostly in UK Collections, on their AIO Youtube channel.

In a great Q&A session after the talk, Dr Liddel explained that epigraphy often reveals things that literature doesn’t, such as the distribution of meat to citizens at sacrifices, or presenting of the peplos during the Panathenaia Festival, as depicted on the Parthenon frieze. He closed his lecture by telling us about two final inscriptions: firstly, a moving epigram to a pig who had been knocked over by a passing chariot (a humorous or sentimental epitaph?), and secondly, a flat piece of marble which contained the casts of footprints, and accompanying names, of Greek youths from Asia Minor once they graduated to become fully-fledged citizens and warriors, which is now on display at the Liverpool City Museum.

The pig-stele of Edessa

Huge thanks to Dr Liddel for a great talk, and to our fabulous audience members for attending all of our online lectures this year. We look forward to sharing our exciting new line up of speakers for 2021-22 with you very soon!