Friday, 23 October 2020

Black History Month – Black and White Andromeda

This month I had the opportunity to contribute to an Our Mythical Childhood discussion of black history and classical reception in young people's culture, organised by the University of Roehampton's Professor Susan Deacy. It was an easy choice for me to decide what to focus on – Olympians – a series of graphic novels by New York artist George O'Connor – a series which has been one of the highlights of my work on the Our Mythical Childhood database of antiquity in modern young people's culture. And within OlympiansAndromeda!
Andromeda is a mythical Ethiopian princess, making her one of the explicitly non-Greek named characters of Greek mythology. She's best known for being offered up as a sacrifice to the sea monster, Ketus, and being rescued by Perseus. Andromeda features quite frequently in modern children's literature, but it is noticeable how often she is depicted as being white. In this post we'll look at the dual traditions of black and white Andromeda and at George O'Connor's refreshing depiction of her.
Above, one of many white Andromeda's in modern children's literature - this one from Usborne's Sticker Greek Myths, fair-skinned and red headed.

Above, Tom Kindley's Heroes of the Night Sky is hugely creative although nonetheless Andromeda is depicted as very fair-skinned and blonde.

Depicting Andromeda as a white woman can be seen as a missed opportunity to feature a diversity of skin tones and ethnicities in the representation of ancient Greek culture. Modern illustrators are not alone in doing this however; it's part of a long tradition of white Andromedas, largely begun by ancient Greek vase painters. In this example below, we can see that the vase painter has prioritised the convention of depicting women using white slip, even when applying it to Andromeda, princess of Ethiopia. The ancient Greeks' concept of Ethiopia does not exactly correspond to the modern nation state of that name. They imagined Ethiopians living at the far regions of the earth in both Africa and Asia – where the sun sets and rises. Nonetheless, they did conceive of the Ethiopians as dark skinned (and extremely attractive) - even the name 'Aethiops' implies dark skin.
Above, a 6th century BCE Corinthian depiction of Andromeda (far right) rescued by Perseus (centre), with Andromeda's skin picked out in white slip as it would be for other women in that period. Vase now in the Berlin Altes Museum, F 1652

Ancient Greek vase painters were more than able to depict black Africans when they wanted to. Numerous vases include depictions of black Africans. Sometimes they're shown doing something; sometimes the vase maker focuses on the person's head, drawing out contrasts in appearance. Some of these approach caricature and are not very nice, sometimes they're more respectfully done and rather beautiful.
Above, an Athenian kantharos, c.500BCE, Boston Museum of Fine Arts 98.926. This form of cup with two heads is known as 'janiform', here two women.
Above, an Athenian jug featuring the head of a male African youth, 4th century, Metropolitan Museum
Above, an Athenian pelike featuring a black African youth leading a camel, executed in red figure. Vase in the St Petersburg Hermitage.

Despite this ability to depict black Africans, Andromeda is not the only Ethiopian who Greek artists seem to have avoided depicting with that appearance. Memnon, King of Ethiopia, who fought at Troy is typically depicted as looking like the other lighter-skinned heroes, or his face is avoided altogether. The master painter Exekias depicts him on this vase with his helmet obscuring his face, standing between two African servants.
Above, a black figure amphora by Exekias, helmeted Memnon with black African servants, British Museum 1849,0518.10, © The Trustees of the British Museum

We can also see that even once black figure went out of style, and with it the use of white slip to depict women, Andromeda is not represented as a black woman although she is dressed in Asian trousers:
Above, an Athenian red-figure hydria (shoulder section) c.440BCE, preparations to sacrifice Andromeda, who is sporting Asian clothing. British Museum 1843,1103.24 © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Above, an Athenian red figure pelike by the Niobid Painter, c.440BCE. Andromeda offered for sacrifice, clothed in Asian trousers, accompanied by Africans depicted in black slip with white slip clothing. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 63.2663.

Vase art and the art of mosaic makers, painters, and writers all influenced how people thought about Andromeda. By the time we reach the 1st century CE, the Roman poet Ovid was referring to Andromeda's white 'marble statue' body (Metamorphoses, 4.676). Heliodorus in the 3rd century CE went even further – the entire plot of his novel hinges on the Ethiopian princess being unexpectedly white. Heliodorus' Aethiopica and Ovid's Met were to have a huge influence on Renaissance painters and their vision of white Andromeda shaped later traditions around the princess. These are the origin of the white Andromedas in modern children's literature.
Above, one of many white Andromeda's, this one by Volpato after an earlier painting by Polidoro Caravaggio (c.1497-c.1543). As is frequently the case in images of this subject, Andromeda's white body is contrasted with the dark background of the rock.
Above, Edward Burne-Jones in the 19th century followed the same tradition, making much of the contrast of light and dark in his Perseus Series. Southampton City Art Gallery.

This is not the only tradition available to follow. Traditions around black Andromeda are however a bit of a mixed bag. In antiquity, we find a writer discussing black Andromeda and that writer is.... Ovid! The writer who contributed to traditions of white Andromeda also wrote about her elsewhere as a beautiful black woman. In Heroines and The Art of Love she is explicitly said to be dark skinned. This was not always taken up in a positive light, however. The Christian Fathers, early writers on Christian theology and philosophy, followed this tradition but used it to establish a connection between Andromeda's dark skin and human sinfulness. Dark Andromeda is human sin; fair Perseus is the symbol of Christ coming to the rescue with salvation. So far, so racist. Some Renaissance artists were also aware of this tradition, yet they didn't adopt its racist implications and instead they depicted a black Andromeda without the symbolic baggage of the Church Fathers. They were, however, inclined to hark back to the early idea of dark skinned Andromeda being Asian rather than African. We can see this not through the Persian clothing that we saw from Greek vase painters (Renaissance artists prefer a nude); we see it in her conspicuously long, straight hair.
Above, A dark skinned Andromeda, contrasted against the pale rocks, by Abraham van Diepenbeek, 1655.

This look at the background provides a context for thinking about the depiction of Andromeda in O'Connor's Olympians. She features most in the second volume, Athena - Grey-Eyed Goddess. When we first see Andromeda, she's chained to the rocks with the monster approaching. She's a beautiful dark skinned black woman, with her curly hair cropped short and a white dress on – the colour Ovid says that she preferred to wear because the colour looks good against her skin. She is frightened then, out of the corner of her well-lashed eye, she spots Perseus flying in to the rescue. The sea monster is turned to stone, and from just behind Andromeda we see Perseus politely introduce himself to her. Then we get the close-up of her endearing radiant smile, accompanied by a flash of gold from her earing. This is a positive depiction of her as a beautiful black African woman. The framing of the myth is also very positive. The narrator notes that while Perseus had a lot of help to carry out the Medusa mission, his decision to help Andromeda was his own choice and it proved his genuine heroism. We get an update that they fell in love, married, and moved to his homeland. She's not an automatic prize; it's a love match.
Above, the first glimpse of Andromeda in George O'Connor's 'Athena', 2010.

Above, scenes of Andromeda's rescue in George O'Connor's 'Athena', 2010.

Andromeda also features in O'Connor's Hera - The Goddess and Her Glory, the third installment of the Olympians series. Hera focuses largely on the Labours of Heracles. In discussing Heracles' origins, the narrator notes that Heracles' mother, Alcmene, was the granddaughter of Perseus and Andromeda, who are depicted at the famous rocky shore. While this is mythologically true, it's a connection within Heracles' background that is very rarely drawn attention to. You could read an awful lot about Heracles without finding reference to the Ethiopian element of his ancestry. This aspect of Heracles' background is also framed very positively in the text. There is explicit reference to Perseus and Andromeda founding many of the great cities of ancient Greece and forming 'the mightiest royal family in antiquity'. The greatest hero owes plenty of his greatness to his fantastic great-grandmother, Andromeda. Nor is Heracles white-washed in the Olympians series; it’s a series that features a wide range of skin tones and Heracles is amongst the darker toned heroes, presumably in reference to his part-Ethiopian heritage.

Above, Heracles' lineage includes his mighty great-grandmother, Andromeda.

This whizz through art history has been a reminder that the ways in which we think about ancient figures are influenced by long and complex historical processes. All artists have agency, however, and choices get made. George O'Connor's Olympians series gives us a positive interpretation of Andromeda which celebrates her legendary beauty, her blackness, and her legacy within Greek mythology. When we think about diversifying the Classics, whether in the classroom or in children's publishing, one simple yet powerful step is to honour the Ethiopians who have always been part of it.

Some references:
Elizabeth McGrath, 'The Black Andromeda', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 55 (1992), pp. 1-18.
George O'Connor, Athena, FirstSecond, 2010.
George O'Connor, Hera, FirstSecond, 2011.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Tracing the Potter's Wheel! A Panoply Interview with Dr Jill Hilditch

In this latest interview we're delighted to be speaking to Dr Jill Hilditch, Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Amsterdam. We're getting super up close with pots! Dr Hilditch is the Principle Investigator on a research project at the Amsterdam Centre for Ancient Studies and Archaeology (ACASA): Tracing the Potter's Wheel. Investigating Technological Trajectories and Cultural Encounters in the Bronze Age Aegean (2500-1200BCE) You're in for a fascinating read finding out how archaeologists go about their analysis of the world of pots...

1) How can an archaeologist tell where a pot came from?
Whether it’s your favourite tea mug or a 5000 year old wine goblet in a museum, all ceramic pots are essentially made from clay and water (with a few occasional additives!). These clays are the naturally occurring weathering products of many different types of rocks and sediments, and it's this link to the geological environment that allows us to study where a pot came from. We use microscopic and elemental analysis techniques developed within geology to identify the tiny bits of weathered rock and minerals within the ceramic paste and try to see if these components match the geological environment where the pot was found. By establishing local compatibility with the sediments and rocks at a site, we have a solid basis for making our interpretations on whether that pot was made locally or was imported. Finding out where potential imports come from relies upon finding a suitable match with published ceramic fabrics from other sites. Of course, humans always complicate things and making a clay paste suitable for producing a pot often means altering the geological sediment. This can be done either by adding temper to the clay, or fining the natural clay through crushing, sieving or water settling (levigation). All these human behaviours affect the appearance and contents of a ceramic fabric but, luckily, we’ve also got quite good at identifying these important behaviours in the manufacturing process!

Above, Jill getting stuck into some microscopic analysis.

2) How did people make pots before the invention of the potter's wheel and what is it that the wheel offers that tempted potters to make the switch?
Before the wheel, ceramic pots were built by hand. Perhaps the most ‘low-tech’ method of all is the pinch method, where a potter takes a lump of clay, makes an indentation with their thumb and then uses a pinching motion with their thumb and forefinger to push the clay into the desired form. Several other hand building methods use this pressure principle but achieve it with a range of different tools, such as paddles and anvils, or you can shape or mold the vessels around other pots to create similar shapes or standardise the size of the pots. One of the most common hand building techniques we see in prehistory is coiling, where coils or snakes of clay are rolled out and then stacked on top of each other to build the pot. These coils are then joined together by pinching before being smoothed to create the wall.

Studies by Valentine Roux and colleagues working on the Near East from the 6th and 5th millennia BCE show that the use of a rotating device for potting first appears in combination with coils. This use of rotative kinetic energy (RKE) would have helped with the addition of coils, as well as the thinning and shaping of the walls of the vessel, allowing the potter to be stationary rather than ‘orbiting’ the vessel. This is why we refer to early pots as ‘wheel-fashioned’ because the invention of the potter’s wheel did not go hand-in-hand with the innovation of wheel-throwing: the first use of rotating devices was not to ‘throw’ a pot from a solid lump of clay but to help fashion or finish a coiled rough-out of a vessel. The rough-out was placed onto a wheel head (those that have survived in the archaeological record are made from stone or fired clay) which could rotate in a socket in the ground or a raised pivot. Unfortunately, there is scant material evidence for most of the devices used for potting in the past, probably because many of the components for the wheel device were made of wood and other organic materials that have not survived in the material record.

Above, Dr Caroline Jeffra from Tracing the Potter's Wheel transforming coils into pot ( )

So, we're left with an interesting puzzle – why did potters switch from hand building to wheel-fashioning techniques and how did the innovation of wheel-throwing emerge from these beginnings? A common argument is efficiency: simply put, the potter’s wheel allows potters to produce more vessels in a shorter timeframe than hand building techniques, thereby laying the foundation for increased production levels and labour specialisation. This is perhaps true for wheel-throwing, but the use of a wheel to fashion or finish a coil-built rough-out is remarkably difficult and would have, initially at least, represented a greater investment of time for skill acquisition and tool creation by the potter. There is also an argument that the wheel afforded the production of better-quality vessels too, though anyone who has ever seen the eggshell-thin vessels of Kamares Ware alongside the crudest of wheel-coiled conical cups on Crete may disagree! Our project decided that it was perhaps a good idea to investigate which shapes were made using the wheel, as well as which wheel-based method and by whom (were these locally trained or itinerant potters?), in order to shed new light on this puzzle.

3) Your project is examining the transmission of knowledge of the potter's wheel – how was knowledge of the potter's wheel transmitted?
Our Tracing the Potter’s Wheel (TPW) project focuses on the use of the potter’s wheel within the forming stage of the ceramic production sequence. This sequence, known as the chaîne opératoire, is used by archaeologists to consider the choices (deliberate or unconscious) made by the potter throughout the entire manufacturing process. The chaîne opératoire goes from raw material sourcing and processing to create a suitable paste, through to the forming technique, the surface treatments applied to the formed pot, and the final firing process. The choices made by a potter are a window into their social and cultural context, as the gestures, skills and know-how the potter needs are learned by watching, copying, and participating with their peers in the production process. This group is called a community of practice and they are identified through the similarities in the production sequence, which are materialised in the pots they produce. Archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware that these shared practice-through-knowledge groups can be traced in the material record, opening up new possibilities for tracing technologies such as the potter’s wheel.

Above, a charming example of Minoan pottery.

Some of this know-how is easier to learn than others; for instance, decorative styles can be transferred by simply watching another potter at work, or even recreated from seeing one of their finished pots. For the forming stage this is often a much harder process: not only is the method of making the pot invisible in the finished vessel but so are necessary physical gestures and the tool-kit too. For this reason, the transmission of the potter’s wheel is one of the surest indicators we have for potting specialists interacting with one another for sustained periods of time. This is why it is so crucial to determine if a wheel-made pot was produced locally, or simply imported from another production unit, because we need to establish if a person with that skill-set was working at the site where the vessel was found. If we are ever to explore how the wheel emerged as a technological innovation, and how it spread between these communities of practice through time, then we need a clearer understanding of who was using it, where and in what way.

Above, Minoan pottery with bonus octopus.

In the case of the Bronze Age Aegean, the appearance of the wheel was considered as two potentially independent events, connected to two different horizons of intensifying cultural contact. The earliest identified horizon of wheel use appears during the later Early Bronze (EB) II period (c. 2500-2100BCE), known as the Lefkandi I/Kastri phase, widely thought to indicate increased trade in metals between social groups in the Aegean and (predominantly) western Anatolia, where the potter’s wheel is known to have already been in use. In the later transition, from the Middle Bronze (MB) to the Late Bronze (LB) period (1800-1600BC), the potter’s wheel is considered as a technology of the Minoan culture of Crete, spreading beyond the shores of Crete as part of a package of technologies indicating growing Minoan power and influence, the so-called ‘Minoanization’ of the southern and central Aegean region. Our project has recently reassessed diagnostic traces of wheel use within late MB and early LB Cretan, and non-Cretan but ‘Minoanized’ ceramic assemblages (collections of ceramics found at the same site) – we've shown that the combination wheel-coiling technique continues to dominate the ceramic record. This would indicate that wheel-throwing is necessarily a later technological development than LB I within the Aegean. This transition from wheel-coiling to wheel-throwing remains poorly understood in Aegean archaeology and beyond, yet is critical for investigating how knowledge of the potter’s wheel was transmitted between communities of practice.

Above, Jill introduces the project in a short video.

4) What approaches have you taken to find that out?
The TPW project has brought together an experimental archaeologist (Dr Caroline Jeffra), a digital archaeologist (Loes Opgenhaffen) and me, a ceramic fabric specialist, to investigate the transmission of the potter’s wheel in the Bronze Age Aegean. Caroline has carried out a systematic programme of experiments to explore the macrotrace evidence for wheel-coiling and wheel-throwing in the Bronze Age Aegean. She designed and produced a ceramic type set to improve our ability to differentiate between these two specific wheel use strategies and then applied the results to the study of archaeological ceramics from the Bronze Age Aegean. This enabled her to establish the range of diagnostic traces associated with each specific wheel-forming technique. Using a Dino-Lite digital microscope, I recorded the ceramic fabrics of the wheel-made vessels (identified by Caroline) to determine which vessels were compatible with local production and which were imported to the site under study. Loes has also been busy using a DAVID structured light scanner to make 3D models of the experimental pottery typeset and reproducing some of these vessels in macro form through 3D printing to serve as teaching aids. Loes’s 3D models, alongside Caroline’s macrophotographs of wheel traces and production videos of the experimental pots, as well as my fabric photomicrographs, form the core of our dataset that we want to share with other archaeologists interested in studying the potter’s wheel.

Above, Caroline Jeffra (l) and Loes Opgenhaffen (r) at work on Tracing the Potter's Wheel.

Sharing really is the key word here because we quickly realised that no single research team would be able to generate enough data within the timeframe of a government-funded project to fully understand the trajectory of the wheel in the Bronze Age Aegean. Faced with such a dilemma, we decided to focus our efforts on creating a tool-kit for other archaeologists so that they could generate their own datasets and contribute to a collaborative effort to address this large question of the potter’s wheel. We're going to publish instructions for our methods, and user manuals for the equipment we have used, to ensure compatibility of results generated by different individuals and teams in different places. In this way, we want to start a crowd-sourcing effort to solve the potter’s wheel puzzle.

Above, Minoan pottery from Akrotiri on Santorini once again showing command of shape and a flair for decoration featuring the natural world.

5) Tell us a bit about how your research is being visualised.
One of our main goals is to produce an open-access digital resource that enables other archaeologists to use our visual data, not only for learning how to recognise wheel traces but also guidelines on how to produce their own visual datasets which can then be uploaded and shared. As none of our team are database experts, and our data is so visual in nature (and also large in size!), we are working with a data consultancy team to build our own tailor-made digital data platform. We've already generated massive amounts of photographs of the archaeological pots we're studying, as well as production videos, 3D models, and more photographs of the project’s experimental pots. If we manage to secure the appropriate permits from the Greek Ministry of Culture, we also hope to supplement our platform with 3D models of key archaeological vessels, to highlight the challenges in spotting and interpreting macrotrace and ceramic fabric information, and to create a useful research resource for everyone interested in the potter’s wheel.

For now, we've been posting our annotated 3D models of the experimental pots on SketchFab , as well as discussing many methodological aspects of our techniques on our project website. Last autumn we were invited to take part in the Heraklion Museum’s Daedalus exhibition, which focused on the technologies associated with this mythical craftsperson, including the potter’s wheel. Our team designed a series of installations exploring the visual aspects of our techniques and created a hands-on touch table filled with experimental pots and 3D printed replicas to allow museum visitors to engage with our research. Without a doubt, it was one of the hardest but most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had, both as a team member on the TPW project and as an archaeologist – after all, who puts on an interactive exhibition with no archaeological material in possibly the best archaeological museum in Greece?!

Above, Tracing the Potter's Wheel at the Heraklion Museum’s Daedalus exhibition.

6) You've done some fascinating jobs in some interesting places. Could you tell us a bit about that and about what subjects you'd recommend for people interested in getting into archaeology?
I started off with a joint degree in archaeology and geology and soon found that ceramics were the perfect mix of both fields. It also helped that ceramic petrography (laboratory-based microscopic analysis of ceramics) was a valuable skill to have, as I could work in any period and region that had ceramic objects as part of the archaeological record. For my PhD I worked on ceramics from the amazing prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri on Santorini, a site with an unbelievably rich material record preserved by metres of volcanic ash (think Pompeii but 1500 years earlier). I've also been privileged to take part in the excavations and surveys of the island of Keros and the major Early Bronze Age settlement and maritime sanctuary of Dhaskalio-Kavos. Since 2006 I have been trying to work out where all the pottery on that tiny marble islet came from and it remains one of the most important and enigmatic sites in the Aegean. Working at so many projects over the years has given me an enviable perspective on the ceramic fabrics of the Cyclades and my mobility as a researcher (hello Greece, Canada, the Netherlands, the UK and then finally back to the Netherlands again) has meant that I've rarely struggled to find research projects, for which I count myself extremely lucky. I can already hear several colleagues thinking loudly about where the results of some of those projects are, but it will all come out eventually, I hope!

Above, Jill checks ceramic finds at Akrotiri on Santorini in Greece.

For those wishing to enter archaeology today, it is difficult to offer a one-size-fits-all solution. There's no doubt that modern archaeology straddles the sciences and humanities fields, which means from social science, anthropology, classics, linguistics and sociology to materials science, biology, ecology and chemistry, not to mention computing technology and heritage studies – there's a path into archaeology for almost anyone! The best archaeological science is undertaken by those who not only understand the potential and limitations of their techniques, but can also anchor their methodology within archaeological theory, which means studying archaeology at university should be considered as an option by anyone interested in the field. Commercial archaeology is also growing in a number of countries to supplement local and national government sanctioned work. In some cases those companies offer valuable on-the-job training and support those who'd like to supplement their skills with further and higher education archaeology courses. Maybe as a university lecturer I'll always see the value of this environment for awakening curiosity and developing systematic research skills. Did I also mention that most Dutch universities teach in English and are substantially cheaper to attend than some UK universities?

7) What's your favourite ancient Aegean artefact?
Besides pots?! Hmm, this is too difficult to answer definitively so I’ll mention an object category I’m excited about at the moment – textile loomweights made from clay. Some of these objects occasionally look like owls, snakes or smiley faces (especially the discoid ones) but where they really interest me is their composition, of course! Weaving and textile production has long been assumed to be a locally-based domestic industry in prehistory, yet if we study these objects from a ceramic fabric perspective, we can see that they, like pots, have been made in different places, from different clay pastes, and were moving with people across the prehistoric landscape. I had exciting plans to work with a good friend and colleague, Joanne Cutler, on her ideas about textile worker mobility in the Bronze Age Aegean but sadly she passed away a couple of years ago and those plans were postponed. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to picking up this thread again (pun intended) with other colleagues in the future and showing the importance of Jo’s work in this area.

Above, a collection of ceramic loomweights from Late Minoan Crete (c.1600-1200BCE).

Many thanks to Dr Hilditch for sharing these insights into how ceramic analysis is done and how it can illuminate wider social behaviours. It's also been inspiring to see how the Tracing the Potter's Wheel is combining different expertise and creating resources that will enrich the whole archaeological community. Below you'll find some short videos by Tracing the Potter's Wheel featuring pots being made, an introduction to petrographic analysis, and a presentation by Dr Hilditch describing the work of the project in a bit more detail. You might also enjoy visiting the Tracing the Potter's Wheel blog , which features all sorts of interesting discussions, including Why Do Archaeologists Study Pottery?.

Above, throwing a pyxis pot.

Above, Petrographic analysis explained.

Above, a short talk in which Dr Jill Hilditch introduces the exhibition 'Tracing the Conical Cup' at the Netherlands Institute at Athens.

Monday, 4 May 2020

New Animation! Iris - Rainbow Goddess

Animation time vase fans! We're delighted to share the first of five cracking animations made as part of the Our Mythical Childhood project . Below you'll find some info on Iris and on how the animation was made, but first, buckle-up for Iris – Rainbow Goddess!

Iris is a messenger goddess. She carries messages from one god to another, especially messages from Zeus and Hera. She has wings so that she can fly fast and far. When she flies, she leaves rainbows in her wake, streaking across the sky! That's where rainbows come from. Awesome!

The ancient Greeks were always on the look-out for unusual natural phenomena – they could be a sign sent by a god. In sunny Greece, rainbows are even more unusual than they are in rainy northern Europe. Iris was often called 'storm-footed' , because storms came with her as well as rainbows. As rainbows are unusual and linked to the coming of rain and storms, ancient Greeks thought that they could even be a sign of war approaching (e.g.Homer, Iliad, 17.547 ). The poet Hesiod said that Iris was a sister of the terrible Harpies (Theogony, 265)! Still, she had a job to do and you don't hang around when you're carrying a message for Zeus or Hera! In an age when we can send messages near and far so easily, it's good to be reminded how amazing the idea of super-fast messages would be.

Above, the pot that Iris – Rainbow Goddess was made from - a hydria in the National Museum in Warsaw, in Poland (number 142289).

The pot that we made the animation from is an Athenian hydria, or water carrier, from c.450BCE. Iris is shown as if she has just landed, or is just about to take off - her knees are slightly bent, her wings up. In her hand she carries her herald's staff – the sign that she is a messenger. Her wings have been positioned very cleverly so that they fit onto the shoulder of the vase.

Above, Panoply animator Steve gets a good look at Iris at the National Museum in Warsaw.

You may have noticed – the animation also features a first for us – it's a 3D vase! We measured the dimensions of the vase carefully, then re-created it in 3D. Once we had the digital vase, the animation - made from the original vase's decoration the way all our vase animations are made - was added as a layer onto its surface. The cracks that the vase has suffered and had repaired over the years were also added back onto the vase as a layer.

Above, the vase began life as a pillar.

Above, the pillar was manipulated to match the vase dimensions. A room was created to house it.
Above, Iris is invited to the vase! Note the rainbow in her eye to draw out the Iris-eye iris connection that exists in English (and some other languages) - the iris is the coloured part of your eye which controls how much light gets in.

For the soundscape of the animation, we hear rain and the beginning of a storm – perfect conditions for Iris. With it you hear the sound of aulos pipes, played by ancient music specialist, Prof. Conrad Steinmann.

In the future, Iris will have her own page on our website along with the other Our Mythical Childhood animations. We're in the process of making some changes to the website, so for now, if you'd like to download some fun activities to do with Iris, please head on over to her page on the Our Mythical Childhood website:

Create your own Iris with the activity sheets on the Our Mythical Childhood page.

Friday, 20 March 2020

New Animation! Hide and Seek with Locus Ludi!

Good news, animation fans! We're serving up a fresh animation for all your animated antiquity needs!

Here is Play Hide and Seek in Herculaneum. You may notice something a bit different... oh my goodness – it's not a pot! This is our first adventure in an animated fresco! It's been created as part of the Locus Ludi project (Locus Ludi: The Cultural Fabric of Play and Games in Antiquity, It's made from a wall-painting (fresco) in a house in Herculaneum. The fresco shows a hide and seek style game being played by little eroti, mini love gods, winged children, also known as 'putti'. Locus Ludi project leader, Professor Véronique Dasen, has chosen this time to launch the animation as a gesture of solidarity with all our friends, colleagues, and everyone else in Italy and to give us all something cheerful while we're staying in and avoiding non-essential contact. You can find out more about the animation below, but let's jump straight in. Here's Hide and Seek!

Hope you enjoyed it!

Above, the fresco from which Hide and Seek was made (House of the Deer, Herculaneum).

Above, Panoply's animator, Steve, gives a sense of scale beside a fresco from the same series in the House of the Deer.

The House of the Deer (Casa dei Cervi in Italian) is a large and beautifully decorated house right in the heart of Herculaneum. The house, like the rest of the town, was badly damaged by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE, but much of it survived, offering us fabulous insight into the living environments of well-to-do Roman citizens.

Above, Steve checks out the deer statues that gave the house its name.
Above, this interior shot gives a further sense of the house's extensive decoration.
Above, a look across the court-yard towards the main area of the house
Above, an information board from the house that tells you a bit about it and gives an impression of how massive the house is.

What's going on in the animation? We can see in the fresco that the eroti are playing a hide-and-seek style game. What kind of games did the Romans play? That is one of the key questions of the Locus Ludi project. To explore the answer, Véronique turned to an ancient author called Julius Pollux . Pollux was a Greek philosopher from Egypt and a Roman citizen – very international! He lived in the 2nd century CE. He studied in Athens and eventually opened a school there. He wrote ten books, one of which survives – Onomasticon – an encyclopaedia. Among the entries in his encyclopaedia, Pollux listed the different rules by which children played hiding and chasing games. As you can see in the animation, there were different ways to play. Some of them are still played one way or another, others not so much:

Myinda is much like the game which in English we call 'Blind Man's Buff', where one player wearing a blindfold hunts the others. Pollux lists two ways of playing this game – in one version the blind-folded player simply tries to catch the others, in the second version the person who's 'it' has to guess the name of the person they've caught – a bit trickier.

Apodidraskinda has many different names in English, such as 40:40, 1-2-3 In, and Pom-Pom 40. Players start at a base. They hide while one counts, then the hiding players try and get back to the base without being caught. Have you played this game? What did you call it?

Chalké Muia has not survived so well. It's a chasing game. Two players must try and poke the third with slim strips of papyrus. Fun times!

Visitors to the House of the Deer would have found it amusing or at least sweet to see the fresco of the little eroti playing games that they all knew well from their own childhoods. Perhaps there were children living in that house who still loved to play them!

It was an interesting challenge to make the animation. It's not quite like animating a pot. One of the big differences was dealing with colour. Greek vases use quite a simple colour palette. Frescoes, on the other hand, were painted onto walls using a much wider range of colours. Shading was used to help create the shape of the limbs and the sense of depth. In order to have the figures turn and move their limbs, Steve took spots of colour from all over the figures' bodies to recreate them using the same tones. Once there were versions of their limbs pointing in all directions, the figures were manipulated like puppets, just as the vase figures are. One other geek-tastic detail – perhaps you've already spotted it – the font used for the game names and as speech captions: Steve created that font from the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. A Roman font for a Roman house!

Above, an eroti prepped for animation.

Above, Steve at Pompeii in front of the font that he extended to use in the animation.

We say a big thank-you to Locus Ludi for inviting us to make this animation. A big thank-you to Francesco Sirano and his team at Herculaneum. And a big thank-you to project funders, the European Research Council.

If you've finished watching the animation seventy times and are still hungry for more, there are lots more videos about ancient games and gaming on the Locus Ludi website, so have an explore. Stay safe, people! all the best, Steve and Sonya x

Above, Sonya, Veronique, and Steve, Oxford 2019.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

In the News - New Publications

Good news, vase fans! We've published two short items about the joys of vase animations.

The first is called ' Sappho 44: Creativity and Pedagogy with Ancient Poetry, Pottery, and Modern Animation'. It describes a new animation that we've made – Sappho 44. Hector and Andromache: A Wedding at Troy. You'll be able to see the animation later on this year. It features the poet Sappho playing her lyre and telling a story that's a prequel to the Trojan War. The article tells you about the animation, its ground-breaking music, and what sort of things you might do with it in a classroom or lecture-hall.

Above, the new Sappho animation has been made from this vase featuring the poet Sappho (late 6th century hydria decorated in the Six Technique, National Museum in Warsaw 142333 MNW).

The article has been published in a relatively new online journal called Clotho , which is published by the University of Ljubljana. It's free to read; simply go to: and click on 'PDF' under the image. You can read it online or download it. Hope you enjoy it!

Above, rather nice, a shot of Ljubljana in Slovenia, where Clotho is published.

The next publication is a blog post for the US Society for Classical Studies. 'Making Greek Vases Come to Life Through Animation' is available at: It gives a run through of who we are, what we make, and why, with some bonus material.

Above, plenty of good reading to be found on the Society for Classical Studies blog, not least the new article by yours truly on vase animations

Up next on the calendar is the Mythology and Education conference that we're organising with Frances Foster and Susan Deacy at the the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education. Many thanks to the Institute of Classical Studies and the Centre for Research in Children's Literature in Cambridge for their support (financial as well as moral!). To those of you who have booked – looking forward to seeing you there. To other readers – we'll have a write-up of the day soon.