I am very lucky to be able to spend a few months in the British School at Athens (BSA) and to travel around Greece to do some epigraphic fieldwork for my Thesis. But when I was organising my stay here, many friends and relatives asked me what it is exactly that I was going to do here and why I needed to see the inscriptions for myself if there are editions and photographs. I write this post to answer those questions and to explain the whole process of the epigraphic fieldwork before, during and after the visits to the museums.
The reality is that sometimes there are no photographs for the inscriptions that you work with. The edition may be old and, if no one else cared to take photographs, you are left with only a drawing that may be more or less trustworthy. Even with some photographs it is difficult to see the text clearly and that is precisely why they are accompanied by a drawing (not the other way around). The importance of epigraphic photographs and drawings is that they show what the editor sees, so they are in the end an explanation to how he reads and interprets the inscription. However, I was taught not to trust drawings or photographs (if you keep reading you will see why), so I decided to go and see for myself some of the most problematic and important inscriptions of my Thesis.
Archaeological site of the Athenian Agora.
Before going to Greece, I had to liaise with the BSA so as to send applications for permits to examine the inscriptions and to take photographs. In theory, once I had received the permits, I just needed to fix a date to visit the museum, organise the trip and finally get there and do my work. But things do not always go so smoothly. Sometimes the objects have been moved or rearranged and the authorities cannot locate them, the communication with the museums and sites does not go well and they did not expect you, all the archaeologists are away on an excavation that week, etc. Fortunately, this is Greece and, although you may find lots of problems, if you talk to enough people, you will find a solution to them.
Once the problems are sorted, the person in charge will open the case for your or bring the object from the store and you finally get to see your inscription. You realize then another reason why it is important to see the inscriptions for yourself: even if you saw photographs or drawings, the inscribed object is not as you had imagined. Most of the times, I find that they are much smaller than I thought, and I feel amazed by the detail and precision needed to write on such a small object.
My working table during the autopsy of an inscription in the Samian Heraion.
After that first contact, it is time to read the inscription. I normally bring with me a magnifying glass and a flashlight as equipment to work with the inscriptions. I use them whenever the writing is not totally clear. The magnifying glass needs no explanation, but the flashlight is much more useful than it may seem, even under normal light conditions. By changing the direction of the light source, it allows you to see the difference between letter strokes and damages and can sometimes uncover strokes that are not seen at first sight. This is precisely why previous photographs and drawings can be contested in some cases. Sometimes the photographs lie or keep secrets, and we can see much more when we work with the object itself. For this reason, we should not trust completely some of the previous editions and we must revise the readings and perform new autopsies.
It is recommended to do a first draft of the drawing while we are still in front of the inscription. We can also add details of the measures of the object and the letters, if we’re expecting to publish an edition of the inscription or if it’s relevant for the research. Finally, we can take general photographs of the object and more detailed ones for the text, so that we can continue the research from the library.
A beach on the island of Samos.
After the work with the specific object(s), there is always plenty of time to visit the museum or site where we’re working (and a good opportunity to do that for free). Sometimes, if you look carefully, you can even find inscriptions that are not yet published.
Also, in the Greek islands there is time to go to the beach as well. Although the aim is to relax and forget about all the puzzling issues of the inscriptions you were working with during the day, I was really excited when I found modern epigraphy among the rocks of the beach. The epigraphical work continued even when I had left the museum!
Modern graffito on a stone found on the beach on Samos.
~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (PhD student on the CREWS project)