SGSAH Student Development Fund – Summer of Epigraphy: 4th June – 4th August 2017

Ambra Allison Ghiringhelli is a 2nd year Classics PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Ambra is originally from Italy, where she graduated from the Università degli Studi di Milano before obtaining an MSc in Classics from the University of Edinburgh. The focus of her PhD are the religious practices of Greek and Roman slaves, and her research investigates to what extent and in what ways slaves were involved in cult activities, in order to assess how religion affected their lives and identities. More generally, she is interested in ancient literature and art, literary translation, comparative history, and gender studies.

As the title may suggest, I have started referring to the summer of 2017 as my “summer of epigraphy”, because I have spent most of it studying that very subject. Epigraphy, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the field of study concerned with inscriptions: namely, texts inscribed onto a surface. The text can be carved, scratched (graffiti), or painted (dipinti); the surface may be stone, metal, wood or virtually anything else that falls under the loose definition of a ‘hard surface’ (which excludes, for instance, papyrus).


An example: the Greek inscription I worked with closely for the final assignment of the Greek epigraphy course

I had never studied epigraphy before, nor had I ever needed to, since both my BA thesis and my MSc thesis were on literary subjects. For my current research project, however, knowledge of inscriptions is essential: I study the religious activity and participation of slaves in ancient Greece and Rome, and most, if not all, literary works of that time were written by free men of the elite, whose accounts would have reflected their own experience of slavery. Therefore, to try to gain a fuller picture of the situation of slaves, it is vital to incorporate any alternative sources of information.

I was aware of this necessity when I started my PhD, and was also aware of my own dire lack of epigraphic skills: hence my decision to undertake, as soon as possible, courses in both Greek and Latin epigraphy. To be able to do so, I applied to the SGSAH Student Development Fund, and I received enough to cover both course fees, and some of the travel expenses I would incur.


I spent a lot of time on planes this summer, and the Student Development Funding enabled me to cover my flights to and from Greece. This was the view on my flight to Athens.

The first half of my epigraphic training took place in Greece. I had previously successfully applied for the Greek Epigraphy Post Graduate Course offered by the British School at Athens, and that is where I headed in early June. Learning opportunities aside, I was positively thrilled: I had only been to mainland Greece once before, precisely a decade ago, in 2007, and had been hungering to go back ever since. I am pleased to say, in retrospect, it did not disappoint at all.


A view of the Athenian acropolis from the Areopagus hill. Tip: visit it shortly before sunset – less heat, and wonderful lighting!

The Greek epigraphy course spanned two weeks, integrating theory lessons, practice sessions – both on the field and in the Epigraphic Museum in Athens – guest speakers, and even a couple of field trips. The other attendees and I were housed in the British School hostel, mercifully air conditioned against the Greek summer heat and surrounded by a garden. The British School also provided us with passes granting free access to most sites of archaeological and cultural interest in and around Athens, including the sanctuary at Delphi. Being able to learn while immersed in such an environment was priceless, and almost all the time not spent in the library or working on inscriptions was devoted to exploring our surroundings (a few of us even went on an impromptu day trip to Cape Sounion, to enjoy the beach and sea – after visiting the temple, of course!).


The view from the beach at Cape Sounion, with the temple to Poseidon in the distance. One of the things academia has taught me is the importance of taking time off research now and then to avoid burning out

After the course in Athens, I returned to the UK briefly, to work on my research, attend a workshop, and participate in the SGSAH Summer School, before leaving for Italy. I am fortunate enough to have family there, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone, as the saying goes, and flew back home well in advance of the start of the second half of my training – this time in Latin epigraphy.



The inscription I worked with for the final assignment of the Latin epigraphy course.

As holiday time ran out and the end of July approached, I drove down to the site of the course I had signed up for. Unlike the course in Greek epigraphy, where most of the lessons took place in the secluded British School building, the Summer School in Latin Epigraphy was housed right next to an active archaeological excavation, in the small town of Mirabella Eclano, near Avellino. The site is part of the Apolline Project, the main focus of which is Aeclanum, an ancient Roman town which was part of the district of Hirpinia.

Working so close to a multi-disciplinary fieldwork project provided a very different, yet equally formative experience. Those of us in the epigraphy course shared communal accommodation with people on two other courses, both connected to the Aeclanum excavation site, and we had theory lessons in the same building. Rather than going to study inscriptions in a museum, we would simply walk over to the archaeological dig and examine them in situ – which, despite the shorter duration of the course, still enabled us to familiarise ourselves with many different types of inscriptions, and to view them in their “natural habitat”, so to speak, before they are categorised and put on display in a museum. We did, however, take a trip to the museum in nearby Benevento as well, to pick an inscription for the final course assignment.


The museum courtyard was mercifully cool and shaded – and a gorgeous place to work in, to boot.

By the time I left, my epigraphic adventure had lasted almost exactly two months, albeit with interruptions: I started the course in Athens on June 4th, and left the Aeclanum field site on August 4th, tired but happy, and thoroughly cooked by a whole summer of Mediterranean sun. And here I am, one month from the end of that experience, trying to gather my thoughts on it. I knew when I started my PhD that I would have to train further in some areas, but I could not have imagined that undertaking said training would turn out to be so rewarding.

In building up my epigraphy skills, I have also had the opportunity to travel and meet other students from all over the world. I visited archaeological sites, both world-famous ones and ones still undergoing study and work. And last but not least, I discovered things about myself: that I absolutely love pita gyros, that I have a keen eye for inscriptions but mosquitos have a keener eye for me, and finally, that working in the field is rewarding and exciting, but when it comes down to it – especially in 40 degree heat – I am, and very much remain, a museum epigraphist. After all, we can’t all be Indiana Jones: some of us, let’s face it, are Marcus Brody… and that is just as good.


Sure, Professor Jones might be charming with his students, but have you ever seen him try to preserve the archaeological context? Disgraceful.

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