Puella Incognita: On Remembrance.

Remembering the past, in ancient and modern contexts, is crucial way in which society passes a legacy of knowledge and values from one generation to the next. Voices from the past continue to speak in monuments, in literature and in symbols, such as the Remembrance Day poppy. Inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields, written by a Canadian physician John McCrae who served in World War I, the poppy commemorates fallen soldiers, whose voices encourage the living to carry on of the fight “To you from falling hands we throw/ The torch; be yours to hold it high”. If this bond is broken, the voices cry, “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields”.

The poem connects the importance of perseverance with the act of remembrance of the terrible sacrifices of battle; to remember is to carry the torch, the illumination of the past event, into the present and to guide our future.

Memorial Inscription to John McCrae in bronze his hometown in Guelph, Ontario.

Connections between the ancient and the more recent past are difficult and often discouraged by academics for a number of good reasons. There is, however, a danger in regarding the ancient past and its inhabitants as isolated and hallowed objects, to be displayed, labelled and approached as a distinct entity from the present. This way of approaching history can limit the fundamentally human connections and interactions that make history so poignant and illuminating.

Modern Monuments To Ancient History: Puella Incognita – Who’s That Girl? 

One beautiful illustration of our modern reverence for the past is the tomb of the unknown teenage girl, adjacent to the London office building affectionately known as “the Gherkin”. The bones of this young lady, unearthed during excavations in 1995, were kept at the Museum of London until 2007, when the monument was dedicated. She was given a proper burial procession, from a service at nearby St. Botolph’s (Aldgate) Church to the burial site, where a dedication and libations were made, accompanied by music. The event provided a unique opportunity for a modern audience to step into history, connecting with the differences and similarities between ancient and modern burial practices. The grey stone tomb, which stands as a permanent memorial (and a welcome seat along the bustling Bury Street), is almost certainly more grand and prominent than her original burial monument would have been (although none was found).

Girl 1

But what do we know about this puella incognita (unknown girl)?

Carbon dating associated burial pottery suggests that she had been buried there since 350-400 AD, and studies of the bones indicate that she was 13-17 years old when she died. The orientation of the body in the original burial was in a supine position (with the head facing south) with her arms crossed over each other. Apart from her gender, estimated lifetime, and location of burial, we know very little. Was she was a Roman, a native Briton, or from another part of the world? After all another Roman era tombstone found on Tower Hill RIB 9 belonged to a native of Athens.

Puella Incognita’s modern tombstone, inscribed in Latin and English with a characteristic laurel wreath decoration at the top, echoes with language that is recognizable in epitaphs across history. DIS MANIBUS “to the spirits of the dead” records the subject of the dedication (the Manes were deities of the underworld), followed by the name of the deceased PUELLA INCOGNITA LONDINIENSIS “the unknown girl from Londinium”, is a standard formula in ancient and modern funerary monuments. HIC SEPULTA EST “lies buried here”, is a bit more unusual, especially in Roman Britain (there are only 5 examples of this term in Roman Britain, none from London). I would have preferred HIC SITUS EST “here lies”, as there are 260 examples of this term in Roman Britain (a handful from London) and it has remained as a common term in burial monuments throughout history, providing a further point of connection with a modern audience.

Less frequently noted is the inscription painted in red on the top of the tomb, a quote from the neoclassical poet Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Images from the Arcadian Dream Garden, which combines references to ancient and more recent ruins (e.g. Panzer tanks). The text commemorates the connections between and ancient and modern worlds through a common experience of humanity: death and commemoration, monuments and remembrance.

As a whole, this memorial combines past and present voices in a cohesive and quite beautiful way. The dedication was a thoughtful gesture, which illustrates a poignant connection between past and present worlds in the heart of London. It reveals our best possible intentions towards ancient history: a retrospective memorial for an unknown teenage girl. Although we don’t know who she is, whether she was a good or bad person, we know that we should treat other people in a way that mirrors, if not exceeds, our own expectations. What we have created for an unknown girl is a testament not only to her but also to the value of a modern society: the continuity of culture, humanity, and respect for the departed.

Remembrance, and the monuments which embody it, are not universally seen in a positive light. Recent protests have called for the removal of monuments to confederate generals from the American Civil War. These monuments are not burials, but they are memorials; they represent a voice from the past, a moment in time. They commemorate not only the individual depicted but also those who considered that individual worthy of honour. To the protestors, the history which these memorials preserve and evoke is painful; the remembrance of slavery and the society which sought to preserve it.

As observed with our unknown girl, the dedication of a monument is not only an honour for an individual, but a statement on behalf of those carrying out the act of commemoration. Good or bad, these monuments are part of our history and, to many Americans, a national legacy. So what do we do with contentious monuments?

Roman Attitudes to Monuments and Commemoration

Rome and her Empire have left an unparalleled legacy of monuments, as well as some illuminating lessons about monumental culture. Romans were masters of re-inscribing history and reusing monuments. Without Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, Romans, like many successive generations, relied on public monuments and imagery to define and shape their recorded history and their collective sense of self.

Roman monuments had their share of socially awkward moments down the years. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in the theatre of Pompey in 44BC, Caesar’s supporters  found themselves in a difficult situation: one could not get rid of the massive monumental building or the statue of Pompey (Caesar’s rival) at whose feet Caesar is claimed to have fallen (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 66). Instead, the later historian Cassius Dio (who has been known to “sex up a dossier”) claimed that Caesar’s successors (the Truimvirs: Octavian, Antony and Lepidus) turned the Curia room (the site of Caesar’s slaughter) into public latrines; the unhappy memory of that space being defiled by daily ordure (Cassius Dio, History 47.19). The emperor Augustus (formerly called Octavian)  later moved the statue of Pompey to the theatre stage, where it was associated with Pompey’s victory rather than Caesar’s downfall (Suetonius, Augustus, 31.5). While all historical sources have their limitations, many of these accounts appear to corroborate one other, especially Plutarch and Suetonius, who wrote a century after the event in question. Their descriptions of public buildings and monuments, which were still in use at the time of their writing, are likely to contain at least some element of truth.

Augustus, a political mastermind, was careful to be respectful of commemoration. After the defeat and death of Marc Antony, despite a Senate initiative to condemn him and his monuments (Plutarch, Antony, 49, Dio, History 15.19), Augustus demanded that Antony’s name be reinscribed. According to his own account (Res Gestae), Augustus also ordered the restoration of over 80 buildings and monuments in Rome, retaining the name of the original dedicator rather than adding his name; amongst these was the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, one of Rome’s most sacred sites. These restorations reflected an outward show of respect for history (for more see S. Walker’s chapter in, Jon Coulston and Dodge Hazel (eds.), Ancient Rome – The Archaeology of the Eternal City (2000), 61-75 and A. Cooley’s chapter in Cooley (ed.) The Afterlife of Inscriptions (2000)).

Destroying a monument violated a number of Roman principles: it was a waste of resources, it drew attention to the individual being dishonoured, and showed a disrespect for fundamental Roman values: pietas (respect for ancestors) and clementia (forgiveness). Antony was not to be forgotten but remembered as a loser to a more glorious opponent (for more on Augustus, Antony, and damnatio memoriae, cf. a recent article by Nick Ackert).

This is not to say that the Romans left all their monuments unharmed. Suetonius (Domitian 23) describes how senators violently beat a statue of the condemned emperor Domitian in the Roman Forum. Suetonius is not an infallible source but, in this case, is corroborated by accounts of violent statue mutilation in Pliny, Panegyricus, 52.4-6.

Domitian’s name was hacked off of bases and building dedications across the Empire, not as a means of removing his memory but as a means of transforming the message of a monument: from “Domitian was a great man” to “Domitian was a bad man”. Recarved statues bear visible traces and their bases carried unsightly gashes where names had been removed (see below). This practice became known as damnatio memoriae – a posthumous condemnation of a person’s reputation by defacing their monuments. Crucially, damnatio memoriae involved the alteration but not the wholesale destruction of a monument. It conveyed a very public censure, a way of remembering (not forgetting) a fall from grace. Roman monumental culture seems to have recognised that destroying a monument also destroyed an opportunity for subsequent generations to learn from the past. Their progression as a society could only be appreciated by comparison with the past, glories and failure alike.

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(Above left) The recarved face of Domitian as his successor Nerva, looks like a gimlet eyed man with a wig (from the Cancelleria Reliefs in Rome).(Above right). Reinscribed base from Ephesos, note the deeply cut gashes in the stone, making recarving very difficult.

Approaching Modern Commemoration: What We Can Learn from the Romans

In light of past and present attitudes towards the Romans, consider what we can learn from them, particularly in our approach to contentious monuments. If memorials are destroyed wherever the individual concerned has flaws, or beliefs that are unacceptable by modern standards, then only monuments for puella incognita “unknown girl” or an unknown soldier, are guaranteed to stand the test of time. Whatever the merits of the Confederate cause in the Civil War, and the subsequent decision to erect a monument commemorating a general who fought for it, the removal of such a monument is a step towards erasing a memory, which would in turn preclude learning from it. If we use monuments, as the Romans did, as a barometer or our progress as a culture, how will modern society be able to gauge its development from racial, religious and sexual intolerance? These are lessons worth learning, these are events worth remembering.

Statue of Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, NC. Commissioned in 1917, dedicated in 1924.

Reinscribing history by relocating monuments, adding additional figures, or writing a postscript, are all options that worked for the Romans, and they have been applied in modern culture with success. For example, monumental statues from the Communist regime in Hungary have been moved to a special park outside Budapest, appropriately named “Memento Park”.   Here public artworks and monuments of the past live on, but in a different context outside the main civic spaces of the modern city.


Reinscribing monuments with postscripts is another a successful way to alter the monumental message. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a monument commemorating those fallen in the US army’s campaign against Native American tribes in 1868 was altered in 1970; offensive terminology (“savage”, “rebel”) was removed from the original marble plaque and postscript was added. This monument illustrates how additions can transform the message of a monument, in a manner that is respectful to the original context whilst demonstrating how society has progressed.

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One final example is a contentious statue, from a similar time (1880’s), on the facade of the Natural History Museum in Vienna. Allegorical figures represent the continents (or perhaps the races) of the world. Europe is represented by two figures carved in the Classical tradition, a male youth and a seated woman bearing a resemblance to the (contemporary) Statue of Liberty. Another statue features figures representing America and Australia; the seated figure of a mostly naked Native American embodies the concept of the “noble savage” whilst a semi-nude aboriginal woman clutching a child sits at his feet, her face contorted in an unhandsome grimace.

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Statues from outside the Natural History Museum in Vienna

This latter statue invokes a visceral response but, rather than get my chisel out, I went inside the museum, and learned about the context in which it was built. The imperial imagery it employs is not so different from the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London (1872). These contentious figures weave a narrative of Empire, dominance and superiority that is as illuminating as it is uncomfortable for a modern audience. They reveal how differently people viewed the world and globalization in the past.

There are no protesters in Vienna, presumably because these statues are not directly in the faces of the individuals they characterize. But would it be so terrible if they were? An encounter with the attitudes of the past will in many cases be a confrontation, but through this dispute we can develop a deeper understanding of both the attitudes of that time and the fundamental social changes that have taken place since. Should we destroy these statues or should we accept monuments for what they are; crucial records of events and voices in history?

The next generation is not only looking at history, their gaze is fixed keenly on the present: how will the current generation treat its heritage? Rather than trying to remove what is considered a negative historical message, why not embrace it and add a voice to it? Don’t erase history: reinscribe it. Create a positive message. Add to the narrative with a text or statues of the people whose roles and sacrifices should have been recorded. Another solution could be to move contentious statues to different locations, where they could be visited as a collective. As the Romans demonstrated, preserving the past was an essential part of learning from it.

The architect of Memento Park, Ákos Eleőd, observed: “Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages. Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyse it, and think about it!”

As in John McCrae’s poem, remembrance is holding the torch high and illuminating the past. Whether or not we like what we see, this approach brings the greatest benefit to those who will follow.







Writing on the Wall at Pompeii: Gluttony & Media Sensationalism



Writing on the Wall at Pompeii: Gluttony & Media Sensationalism.

A new message flashes across the screen “Pompeii graffiti changes historical narrative… may rewrite time line of Vesuvius eruption”. How exciting. In ancient and modern worlds alike, isn’t it delicious when people have to admit that they are wrong? This gripping intro is designed to attract attention and the date of the inscription is the same day the story breaks; is that merely a coincidence? The coverage of this event is a good example of how information can be distorted by the media and the sources: this does not make the discovery less valid, but it can detract from the way the information is presented and understood by a broader audience. Perhaps the most important role ancient history can play in a modern world (apart from learning through past mistakes) is the development of a critical thinking process. The difficulty of sorting truth from assumption is a problem endemic in the human experience, and never more so, than in the present day, where we are constantly bombarded with information on social media, rife with claims of “fake news” propaganda, exaggeration, and  blatant political bias. Now may be the most important time in the history of humanity to develop and employ a critical approach to the information that arrives on our screens from so many different sources and places, regardless of what side the political aisle you stand on.

In studying History, there is a good reason why academics can be “hedgy” about setting dates or making definitive statements: proposed dates have been proven wrong many times and the more certain a person is about an event, the more likely he/she is to dismiss contradictory theories, no matter how compelling they may be. This approach is captured in the famous quote attributed by Plato to the Greek philosopher Socrates: “All I know is that I know nothing.” I’ve never been happy with this translation because the sentiment it conveys is not a lack of knowledge but a knowledge of what is unknown and/or unproven. Socrates appears to have understood what modern neuroscientists have proven: once the brain accepts something as truth, it tends to dismiss any information that contradicts this truth. Surely it’s better, Socrates is saying, to reject the concept of an incontrovertible truth altogether, than to close our minds to new evidence and arguments.  The aim of this blog to illustrate how materials from the ancient world transform our understanding of ancient and modern culture. Discussions will not provide “answers” but will explore how we approach sources, ancient and modern, in social media.

So back to the exciting new find from Pompeii: the story of the find comes Massimo Osanna and Antonio Varonne associated with the Parco Archeologico in Pompeii in an Instagram post. While they are a verifiable source, they also have an agenda, increased public interaction with the site and its objects provide crucial opportunities for funding and media exposure, both of which the site needs. The pictures show a text, sometimes a translation, but more often, the news covers the date in implications of the debate: October 17th and often a year (79 AD:  although the year is not in the text). The image of Roman handwriting in the photo, which presents challenges to classically trained scholars, promotes the image of writing but prevents a detailed interaction: the text, it seems, is secondary to the date. In a “Socratic” approach (acknowledging what we don’t know), there are significant exclusions: what did the text say? How visible was the writing? Where it was on the wall? How big it was it (letters are generally less than 1cm high)? Where in the house was it? These omissions fundamentally distort both the text and how we approach it. The force of nearly all the articles is not the text but a sensational possibility: the modern consensus date for Vesuvius’ eruption might be wrong.

The contentious date aside, the text is actually quite interesting. My favourite translation is part of    Prof. Peter Kruschwitz’ s blog entry (itself a thoughtful and critical assessment), which offers a number of nuances: not assuming the author of the text is male, and using a word like hunger, which may not refer to food (based on the number of graffiti in Pompeii which refer to a different kind of corporal craving).

XVI (ante) K(alendas) Nov(embres) in[d]ulsit 
pro masumis esurit(ioni).

On the 16th day before the Kalends of November [i. e. on October 17th] s/he gave free rein to her/his hunger to the max.

Crucial to understanding graffiti is the knowing context in which it was written. Not knowing if this room was close to a kitchen or a bedroom, could fundamentally alter how it was read, in both ancient and modern contexts. Someone had a very good time on the 17th of October in room in Pompeii, that he/she thought worth inscribing for posterity; surely this itself is an interesting item of news, but probably not enough to go “viral” in social media. A reading of the text also raises questions about whether this is written by a builder, rather than a person who was living, visiting the house. We don’t know who wrote this, but having the full text can at least help us understand why and in what context, it may have been written.

Coming back to the focal point of the publications, the accuracy of the eruption date, there were numerous responses by different scholars, from intellectual heavyweights like Mary Beard, who initially dismissed the two month differential as insubstantial (to be fair, this is likely to reflect not only a quelling dismissal of the claim, but also of the way the sensational way in which the find had been published) to a compelling piece in Forbes by    Dr. Kristina Kilgrove, a bio archaeologist, on how the chronology impacts the study of archaeological remains. Dr. Kristina Kilgrove

Different people have different perspectives on this evidence, and not one of them is necessarily wrong, but as modern archaeologists and historians come to a crossroads, one witnesses and a key issue in the disciplines of History and Anthropology: the approach to material evidence. Quite often, inscriptions and archaeological evidence, which come directly from antiquity, are interpreted as being more factual than literary accounts, which can be affected by the manuscript tradition. In ancient or modern contexts, are accounts written directly at a time more factual? Based on modern media sources, the response seems to be: not necessarily.


Fruits of Discord? Carbonised pomegranates from Oplontis

To assess the date for eruption of Vesuvius, which is not a new subject of debate, one needs to look at both types of sources carefully, considering both their strengths and their limitations. For the archaeological evidence, we have a date that has been written in charcoal. What are the practical implications? While it is not a permanent medium, there is not necessarily a reason to assume it could not survive for 10 months on a wall, especially if it were low to the ground and not clearly in view. Modern pencils may fade, but without external weathering elements, they remain visible for years. There is also the possibility that it was written later: dead bodies were found above the eruption layer in the House of Menander at Pompeii, it appears that looters had tunnelled in for treasure when the roof caved in. Bad luck. There have also been questions of authenticity, but this is hardly something that a broader audience can be expected to assess critically.

Other material evidence, such as pomegranates, are more likely to fit a date in October. However, with a harvest season that begins in September, the prospect of a ripe pomegranate a week before (August 24th) is not exactly earth shattering, especially given the climatological events the preceded the eruption, such as the drying up wells and minor earthquakes, all of which could have impacted the harvest date by a week or two. Finally, the question of extra clothing, this may be the most interesting point, as anyone who was ever been to Italy in August would understand, layers are not necessary. However, in the context of a volcanic eruption, when the ash covers the sun and there is falling ash, hot cinders and pumice, layers do not seem so unusual, as they would have offered a level of protection from the elements.


How do we know what it was like during the eruption of Vesuvius? Because Pliny the Younger (ca. AD 61-113) wrote about it, recording the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who died bravely taking a ship in the Bay of Naples to save his friends. Quite unusually (e.g. Livy writes of the founding of Rome 700 years after it happened), Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption is a direct report by someone who observed it and interviewed survivors. He wrote about the event 25 years later in a letter to the Historian Tacitus, one of the most respected and exacting historians in the Roman World (the kind of person for whom one would be sure to get the date correct!) Catastrophic events, particularly those where a family member dies, tend to be remembered correctly, especially when they impact an entire nation. So, despite having a rare first hand account of an event, issued to a famous historian in a published letter (which would probably have also been edited and checked for accuracy before publication), should we overlook this source because of a problematic manuscript tradition (sneezing monks and all that)?

While manuscripts do often impose limitations with large chronological gaps, the manuscript for Pliny’s letters (the Pierpont Morgan text) has been dated to the 6th c. AD, which is quite early for an original manuscript (ca. 450 years from the original text) and studies of its framework have lauded its accuracy and possible resemblance to the original manuscript. While scholars can observe a “butterfly effect” of mistakes in manuscripts where a small error is compounded in future editions, the suggestion that a potentially bawdy scrawl on a wall in Pompeii, a pomegranate and some extra layers of clothing are grounds for reversing the Pliny’s literary account, seem equally fluttery. It does not help that many modern news articles on the graffiti simply refer to “Pliny”, not setting out which Pliny (the younger) or the source (his letters).

The new find is certainly a basis for further enquiry and for keeping an open mind about dates for historic events in general. Pondering the evidence on the way to lecture on October 17th, I slipped on a patch of wet leaves. Inspired by Dr. Kilgrove’s account of how biological information can impact a survey, it struck me that there is a fundamental biological difference between August 25th and October 17th: leaves. It may not have been a “eureka” moment where I conceived the idea for the flux capacitor, but it did cause me to pose one question (which may be incredibly facile and naïve). If the eruption took place in the third week of October, would one expect to find clusters of leaves on the ground, with corporal remains or even as impressions?

The question of when Vesuvius erupted cannot be proved conclusively with the evidence we have, and alas, this conclusion is not nearly as exciting a story. However, the process involved in critically assessing and questioning the information we are given, as well as the motivations of its source, are crucial to understanding all news reports, ancient and modern. This is why studying ancient history is as important as studying politics or biology. From agendas of reporters to the interests of bio-archaeologists in this study, one should be able to observe how innately connected these fields are within the human experience.

The promotion of this graffiti find is not “fake news” but in terms of revealing the nature of the object, where it was found, or the complexities of the debate, these reports show more interest in sensationalising evidence than in providing an informed report of the find. Promoting an international debate and news reports are a positive result for the team at Pompeii, whose name and find has gone “viral” overnight. As long as readers are aware of these parameters, particularly, how agenda and approach can impact interpretation of evidence, then we are less likely make assumptions about the information we are given. The key to finding the answer, as Socrates suggests,  lies in admitting both what we know and what we don’t.