Making Old Inks & New Connections

Dispatches from the TransPositions Summer School: Sensible Objects, Material Engagement, Skilled Expertise, Utrecht, 21-25 August 2017

Ianto is a third year SGSAH-funded PhD student in Classics at the University of Glasgow, but he will stubbornly insist that he is, in fact, a medical historian and temporarily retired scientist. He is working on a translation and medico-historical commentary of Scribonius Largus’ Compositiones medicamentorum (Recipes for Remedies), a first century CE medical recipe book. When he is not excitedly talking about old medical treatments and new interdisciplinary research, or despairing about the ambiguities of medical Latin, he can usually be found in the vicinity of anatomical preparations or scientific museum collections. Occasionally he tweets/links to blog posts  @iantotjocks

As a side effect of doing a PhD, I have adopted the odd unexpected hobby, one of which is an interest in professional identity and how I explain what I do to different audiences – collecting research “elevator pitches” rather than stamps, if you will. One of my well-loved “stamps” that resonates with both academics and non-academics is to explain my PhD as working on a cooking book for medical recipes. Granted, it’s in Latin, a good millennium old, and I’ve written an entire Masters dissertation on why it’s more than “just” a medical cooking book, but there is something about recipes and the making of things that brings together the academic, the professional, and the everyday in a way that is relatable (and occasionally entertaining).

Fig 1 Ancient Medicine Cake.jpg

Sometimes even edible: my 2015 Research Bake-Off contribution representing ancient medicine, including some ancient medicinal ingredients.

This interest in the many benefits of researching – and making – recipes is at the heart of exciting work done across many disciplines, from ancient medicine to art history, and I recommend the brilliant Recipes Project as a starting point for exploration. Two projects I have been following with particular interest are the “Making and Knowing” project and the ARTECHNE project, both of which work on technical artists’ manuals. While resulting in rather different products, these have lot in common with practice-oriented medical texts, not only in terms of the way processes are described and knowledge is transmitted, but also in the materials and activities involved. Making ink following a historical recipe, for example, includes many techniques (weighing, grinding, heating, stirring, filtering) and materials (oak galls, iron sulphate, gum arabic) which are also found in medicinal recipes.

Fig 2 Ink-making.jpg

Making historical inks – with anachronistic heating plates and gloves – at one of the summer school workshops.

Imagine my delight, then, when all of this came together at the “TransPositions: Sensible Objects, Material Engagement, Skilled Expertise” Summer School organised by the ARTECHNE project, and I managed to not only apply successfully for one of the places, but also for an SDF grant to cover the summer school fees! I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity – it was an amazing week full of thought-provoking discussions, exciting hands-on workshops, and wonderful people.

The summer school incorporates lectures, text-based masterclasses and discussion sessions, and opportunities for presenting, discussing, and exploring challenges and solutions to research questions. All of these were incredibly stimulating and really helped me to get a better idea of how material culture and reconstruction, materials and “things” were studied across different fields and where my own work fit in. But my favourite part were the reconstruction workshops – we made historic inks, cut quills from goose feathers, and ground, mixed, and painted with ochre. As a trained lab technician and a historian of practical recipes, I was in my element: trying to make sense of historical instructions, weighing iron sulphate, grinding gums and gall apples, and pipetting linseed oil onto mortar-ground ochre, turning it with palette knives and patience into paints.

Fig 3 Making Oil Paint.jpg

I enjoyed mixing paints in the Ateliergebouw labs in Amsterdam even more than I enjoy overusing alliterations.

The location – a conference centre near Utrecht, surrounded by nature – was an ideal venue for focussing on academic discussion and talking to participants and organisers during the breaks, without any need to worry about how to not get lost on the way back to the accommodation or when to get the bus to arrive in time for the first lecture. It was an intense week with a full programme, but the atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming, and while I usually struggle a bit with conferences because there never seems to be enough time to both network and allow the introvert side of me to recharge, I didn’t feel I was missing out on either conversations or taking care of myself.

Fig 4 Woudschoten Horse.jpg

One of the more intriguing decorations in the Woudschoten Conference Centrum.

I’m stressing this “remember to pause and breathe” aspect because no matter how much I felt I should have been working on my PhD or catch up on article writing instead, the summer school provided a much needed “break” for me. I’m glad that there is now more discussion of mental health challenges in academia and the available support because it has helped me realise that it’s not just me who is struggling, and how important it is to be able to openly talk about less delightful sides of doing a PhD. Going to the summer school allowed me to step away from my desk, my thesis, and my associated worries and day-to-day challenges, and to focus again on the aspects of academia I love most: finding out about exciting work outside my own field, presenting my research to different audiences, and those conversations over coffee which unexpectedly turn into plans for research collaborations or the potential of collections access.

Fig 5 Ancient Remedies.jpg

Even more intriguingly, there were conversations over historic medicinal beverages: here an early modern remedy for “nightmares and heavy dreams”.

You always take yourself wherever you go, and unfortunately, the early modern medicinal beverages didn’t cure me of all academic worries with a single treatment, but I got a nice break from my crippling impostor syndrome and rediscovered my enthusiasm for my research (which had been a bit worse for wear after three years). My plan for some actual days off while in Amsterdam were less of a success and  mostly turned into a “PhD vacation” of reading and annotating articles in cafés, but I did manage to visit the Rijksmuseum and Bodyworlds Amsterdam. Both are worth both a visit and their own blog post, and reviving my blogging and “museum road trip – history of science/medicine edition” aspirations has been another positive and unexpected side-effect of this trip. All in all, it’s been a fantastic experience, and I’d definitively recommend to make time for international academic experiences – and the non-academic ones as well. And on that note, I’ll conclude by sharing with you one of my favourite Dutch foods – Kruidkoek or Ontbijtkoek, a spiced rye cake, and one of my favourite Dutch word, bromfiets (a “buzzing bicycle”, i.e. a moped), and leave you with an entirely research-unrelated photo of the Spiegelgracht in Amsterdam.

Fig 6 Spiegelgracht.jpg

Don’t be mislead by the cars – Amsterdam is a city for fietsen, cycling.

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