Thursday, 16 June 2022

Constructing the African: A Panoply Interview with Najee Olya.

We’re delighted to have the chance to speak to Najee Olya, a PhD student at the University of Virginia, USA, working on the dissertation, Constructing the African in Ancient Greek Vase-Painting: Images, Meanings and Contexts. Before beginning doctoral study, Najee earned a B.A. in Anthropology and Classical Civilization at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an M.A. in Classics at the University of Arizona. In the field, he has participated in archaeological excavations in Italy at Etruscan Populonia at Poggio del Molino, and since 2018 at Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia, Greece. Najee is currently a William Sanders Scarborough Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, researching vases in Greek collections and their archaeological contexts. The next academic year will see him take up a post as the Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In this interview, Najee offers insight into his research on Africans in ancient Greek pottery…

1) What contexts do you think ancient Greeks and ancient Africans are encountering each other in?
I think that the primary context would be in Egypt. Given that there are Greeks in Egypt in the Archaic period as mercenaries and at Naukratis, it must be there that Greeks are encountering not only Egyptians but people from elsewhere in Africa, especially from south of Egypt itself—what the Greeks generally referred to as Aithiopia (not to be confused with the modern state). I also suspect that major hubs of maritime trade would have been the sorts of places where Greeks encountered people from Africa, at various ports and emporia – trading posts - around the Aegean and the wider Mediterranean. Conversely, I’m inclined to think that direct contacts on the Greek mainland were somewhat limited. That said, in a major city like Athens, for example, the interest in Africans among potters and vase-painters seems to indicate at least some kind of familiarity with what Africans looked like that doesn’t appear to come from just seeing artistic depictions. Moreover, there were almost certainly foreigners and people of foreign descent working in the Kerameikos in Athens, so it's impossible to rule out that at least one or two may have been from Africa. There’s also Athens’s port at Piraeus, which saw a lot of traffic from a variety of traders and merchants.
Above, a janiform cup (ie. two heads back-to-back like the god, Janus), showing an African and a European, Attic c.500-450BCE, The Art Museum, Princeton University: 33.45.

2) Who are the Africans depicted in Greek pottery – what trends are there?
There are three categories, as far as I can tell, into which the Africans depicted in Greek pottery can be grouped. Two of these are fairly straightforward mythological episodes and scenes of daily life. The third is more difficult, and consists of imagery that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the two other categories.

In terms of the mythological episodes, the main figures from Africa are Memnon and Andromeda. The pair are both said to be royalty from Aithiopia in the mythological tradition. Memnon was king of Aithiopia and an ally to Troy in the Trojan War, where he led a huge army from Aithiopia before eventually being killed by the hero Achilles. Andromeda was an Aithiopian princess who was offered up as a sacrifice to appease the ketos serpent, a sea monster sent by Poseidon to ravage the coasts of Aithiopia after Andromeda’s mother Cassieopeia had boasted that she (Cassieopeia) was more beautiful than the Nereids. Andromeda was rescued by Perseus, and the two married. In vase painting, Neither Memnon nor Andromeda are shown as African themselves, but there are instances in the iconography where Memnon is shown preparing to depart for Troy attended by African warriors.

In the Andromeda scenes, she is shown being bound between stakes for the ketos monster, sometimes in Persian dress. There are Africans on a number of the Andromeda vases. There are some mythological traditions which associate Memnon and Andromeda with the Near East, so this might explain why they are not depicted as African themselves.
Above, Andromeda with African attendants, Attic pelike c.475-425BCE, Boston Museum of Art, 63.2663.

Next, there are depictions of the hero Herakles in Egypt and Libya. In Egypt, he encounters the pharaoh Busiris, who wants to sacrifice the hero to end a drought. On pottery Herakles is shown routing Busiris and his priests, who are always depicted as African men. In Libya, Herakles is accosted by the earth giant Antaios, who waylays strangers, forces them to wrestle, and then adorns the temple of Poseidon with their bones after he has killed them. Herakles defeats Antaios by lifting him from the ground as they wrestle and cutting him off from the Earth, from which he derived his strength. On pottery, physical contrast is shown between the two as they wrestle—Antaios has a long unkempt beard and hair, similar to Egyptian depictions of Libyans.
Above, Heracles fights Busiris, Attic pelike c.500-450BCE, Athens, National Museum: CC1175.

As for images from daily life, we have African stable-hands, warriors, and some attendants at the grave. These figures can generally be identified by their very curly hair and prominent noses. The last set of objects includes things like plastic vases, which show either full African figures or African faces alone or paired with women, satyrs, Herakles, and Dionysos. Finally, there are alabastra, a shape that rather circuitously made its way to Greece from Egypt, used for perfumed oil which depict African warriors.
Above, An African groom cares for a horse, Attic kylix c.490, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989.281.71.

3) Some Africans seem to be represented rather beautifully; other depictions feel a bit… off. What’s the balance between realism, idealism, and hostile caricature in ancient Greek depictions of Africans?
On the whole, I would say that most of the depictions are not hostile caricature. I can think of one example, a lekythos in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, which shows what seems to be an African woman being tortured by satyrs. There is also at least one image of a figure who may be African shown wearing shackles and is unambiguously an enslaved person. I do not think, however, that it is possible to definitively call either instance caricature.

Plastic vessels made in the form of African youths being attacked by crocodiles have sometime been interpreted as cruel, mocking images, but one can just as easily say that these show interest in the river Nile and awareness of its dangerous fauna. Aside from these examples, however, I think that many of the images are either ambiguous or benign. It is difficult to know what the representations were meant to convey to ancient Greek users. When it comes to realism, the images are realistic to a degree, but as with all ancient Greek art, it is superficial and illusory. Especially when it comes to pottery, I think that one has to remember that the medium and its convention limit just how true-to-life the representations can be. The end result is something of a pastiche of reality and imagination—the vase-painter selects the subject matter and then executes it in his own way, but the final product will always be constrained by things like the limited colour palette and the curving surface of the vase.

Above, an African youth attacked by a crocodile, Attic rhyton, c.350BCE, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge GR.58.1865.

4) Overall, what does pottery add to our understanding of ancient Greek ideas about Africans and Africa?
First and foremost, I think it reminds us that ancient Greece was part of an interconnected ancient Mediterranean. Also, that “ancient Greece” spanned three continents, with settlements and poleis not just in Europe but also in North Africa and Western Asia. Pottery tells us that ancient Greeks were interested in depicting foreign people such as Africans, and while it is difficult to interpret all of the different representations, it is clear that potters and vase-painters found Africans an intriguing subject, and that the purchasers of Athenian vases did too. The representations, in a general way, seem to indicate that Athenians were thinking about North Africa in particular, especially Libya and Egypt, where there were permanent Greek settlements. What they specifically thought about Africans is harder to determine from the pottery itself, but it does not seem to be the case that Africans were viewed any differently than other foreigners. Certainly, there was a general chauvinism toward non-Greeks, but Africans do not appear to have been singled out more than other groups, such as Persians or Scythians.
Above, An African in trousers, Attic alabastron, c.500-450, The J. Paul Getty Museum: 71.AE.202.

5) What would you like to see improved in terms of using pottery to increase general understanding of Black people within ancient Greek culture?
One thing that could use some improvement is the terminology used to describe the artifacts, which is often simultaneously both outdated and anachronistic. In scholarship this is due in part to the rather small corpus dealing with Africans on Greek pottery, much of which is several decades old now. Also, you will often see in museums or on museum websites descriptions that assume the depictions of Africans on vases are slaves, without any explanation, or descriptions that make use of discredited race-essentialist anthropology to discuss their physical characteristics.

I think that it’s extremely important to rethink how Greek vases with depictions of Africans are presented in museums, as those are the spaces where the wider public is most likely to encounter the artifacts. Some museums are already making efforts to rethink their use of language for the objects, such as the J. Paul Getty Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art. I was recently asked by a curator at the latter to write a new label for an Athenian black-figure vase in their collection which has a depiction of Memnon and one of his African warriors. Hopefully the number of museums revamping their descriptions will increase going forward.
Above, King Memon with African attendants, Attic amphora by Exekias, c.575-525, British Museum, B209, previously 1849,0518.10.

6) Perhaps you could tell us a bit about your Fellowships – what they are, how they work?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been awarded several fellowships that allowed me to study in Greece — from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) and the American Philosophical Society (APS). I started out at the American School in 2017 with a scholarship for the Summer Session, which is a six-week course involving travel around Greece to archaeological sites and museums. I came back to the ASCSA two years later in 2019 with a fellowship to participate in the Regular Program, which is an academic year spent in Athens, travelling around Greece more than the Summer Session. Now, I’m wrapping up my third stay at the American School with a fellowship as an Associate Member. This time, I’m focused entirely on working on my dissertation and taking the opportunity to revisit artifacts in museums relevant to my research, in addition to obtaining special permission to photograph many of the vases outside of their displays.

I received a Lewis and Clark Grant from the APS in 2019, which allowed me to do field research in Greece. I travelled to archaeological sites that are documented as having had material from Egypt excavated there, created an archive of photographs, and got a better sense of the sites and their topography from first-hand observation. Finally, in September 2022 I’ll be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a year as the Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art. The fellowship will allow me to complete my dissertation and to access a number of the vases included in it, as well as the Met’s libraries. It’s worth keeping your eyes open to see what opportunities and funding are available.

7) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
It might be an obvious answer, but I will say Herodotus. I first read the Histories almost fifteen years ago as a Classics undergraduate, first in translation in a course taught wonderfully by Nanno Marinatos, and then in ancient Greek language courses. I think that it must be Herodotus’s interest in different cultures and his efforts to understand and make them legible for his readers that resonated with me, especially as someone who had already studied a bit of anthropology and archaeology before I came to Classics. As much as I enjoyed Herodotus years ago, I had pretty much left him behind until I selected my dissertation topic at the end of the first year working on the PhD. Since then, I’ve been revisiting him, as he famously writes about both Egypt and Aithiopia. I still read the Histories with a sense of wonder, but now I appreciate the complexity and sophistication of the work even more. Herodotus is one of the people from antiquity that I’d love to have a chat with if time travel were possible!

Many thanks to Najee for sharing his expertise!
If you enjoyed this topic, you may enjoy our previous blog post, Black and White Andromeda.
We'll have more news soon regarding a new Iris video!

Friday, 1 April 2022

Marathon Adventures

Good news! Panoply’s Sonya Nevin has a new book out: The Idea of Marathon: Battle and Culture . Published by Bloomsbury, it’s a rip-roaring ride through 3000 years of history. In this post we’ll be talking to Sonya about the book, including where ancient vases fit into all this. Sonya also had the pleasure of talking to podcaster Ancient History Hound recently, so you’ll find a link to their podcast chat here too.

1) What’s the book about?
The Battle of Marathon has had a huge impact on culture ever since it happened. The Idea of Marathon introduces all the players and gives you the build up to the battle. We get the battle itself – what kinds of weapons are being used, what kind of wounds do people get, what we can and can’t know about an ancient battle. We get the fall-out – how ancient armies deal with the wounded and the dead. While a battle takes place over a short time, the fall-out is forever – so the second half of the battle takes a look at how the battle quickly began to influence politics, art, education and all sorts. It then follows that thread, and look at how and why Marathon remained significant for all the generations that followed – from ancient Greeks looking back at their past, to other ancient peoples comparing their own conflicts to Marathon, and then the way that it remains relevant post-antiquity – still influencing art, education, rhetoric, and shaping how people talk about struggles, whether you’re in the Renaissance, the wars of the 18th century, or you’re running a marathon in the 21st century. In a way it’s a big story, but I’ve also kept a human quality to it – we see what the battle means to some of the people who participate and their families. So we get to know the commanders of the Persian force – Artaphernes and Datis the Mede, and we follow what Marathon means to the Athenian Miltiades and his children Cimon the general, Elpinice, and Metiochus – a Greek who lived his life as a Persian. They’re a fascinating bunch who lived through a fascinating era.


2) Did anything surprise you while you were researching it?
The Greco-Persian Wars are something I’ve been interested in for many years, so it was a pleasure to get so stuck into them. Surprise-wise – this was the first time I had read much about the importance of spells in relation to healing wounds – that was interesting. I had always known about Metiochus, Miltiades son, going off to lead a Persian life, but I was surprised to find out more about how he and Miltiades became the protagonists an ancient novel, and from there persisted in Persian poetry. There’s a section in the book called The Colonels and the Shah, which looks at the ancient past under regimes in 20th century Greece and Iran. The stuff about the last Shah of Persia and how he tried to make use of the ancient past – that’s a wild ride.

3) How did ancient pottery contribute?
Ancient pottery is often a great compliment to literature and to other material culture. We can see through pottery, for example, that the ancient Greeks took an interest in what was happening in Persia. The earliest surviving vase depicting a satrap or perhaps the Great King was made in around 520BCE – it shows attention to detail regarding the clothing specific to an elite figure of that culture.

There’s also attention to detail regarding the Scythians – a nomadic people who lived to the north east of Greece. A ceramic plate survives that actually names Miltiades. It’s a ‘kalos vase’, so there’s an inscription on that says ‘Miltiades kalos’ – ‘Miltiades is beautiful’. It depicts a Scythian, probably because Miltiades was going to an area where the Scythians often were. So the plate shows the Athenian interest in other cultures and there’s a sensitivity to the Scythians’ distinctive wearing of trousers, their use of the bow and of horse equipage.

Above, Miltiades kalos, Miltiades is beautiful. Plate made in Athens, c.520-510BCE, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, AN1879.175.

Pottery also shows us how Greek attitudes towards the Persians changes over time. From scenes of Greeks versus Persians fighting as equals, depictions of them begin to be less respectful, there is less sense of them as an equal, formidable foe. On the other hand, we see the persistence of interest in the era of the Greco-Persian Wars. We had an adventure to Italy just before the pandemic took off in Britain, and in the fabulous Archaeological Museum in Naples we saw the famous Darius Vase. That was made around c.340-330BCE, yet it depicts a play which features Darius, the Great King of Persia.

Above, The Darius Vase, made in Apulia, c.340-330BCE, Naples Museo Archeologico Nazionale H3249.

4) What are you working on now?
Oh, there’s always plenty going on. On the Panoply front, we’re making two new mini-documentaries to accompany the Dionysus and Iris Rainbow Goddess animations. These join the About Sappho 44 and About Heracles and the Erymanthian Boar documentaries which you can fin don the Panoply website. I also have a year-long post as an Assistant Professor at the University of Warsaw. That’s enabling me to put together a volume of activity and lesson plans that go with the Our Mythical Childhood animations. There are contributions from teachers at the top of their game all over the world, so I think it will be a really useful and fun collection. There will also be a chapter of mine about the Panoply vase animations in a collected volume edited by Anastasia Bakogianni and Luis Unceta G√≥mez; Classical Reception, State of the Discipline and New Directions will be a great read, so it’s exciting to be part of that.

5) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
When I did a Panoply interview for my first book, Military Leaders and Sacred Space, I gave Miltiades as my favourite ancient Greek. That’s still my answer. Maybe he’s not entirely a good man, but he is a great man, and his life is such an adventure – I love that kind of thing in ancient history. I’m also tempted to give a second answer, which would be quite different – Plutarch. We can know more of Plutarch's mind than we do of Miltiades, as we can read so much of his work. He was a wise man and I’ve learned a lot from him in all sorts of ways; he’s been a very positive influence on my life and I’m very grateful for that. Still, Miltiades for the win – what a life!

You’ll find The Idea of Marathon on the Bloomsbury website here and in all good bookshops. To check out Sonya’s Marathon chat with the Ancient History Hound, take yourself to: https://ancientblogger.libsyn.com/the-idea-of-marathon-with-dr-sonya-nevin