Ancient World Seminar

Erechtheion, Acropolis, Athens
(Photograph: Andrew Stephenson)

The Ancient World Seminar is held at 1-2 pm usually on Monday during semester for presentations and discussions of papers from students and academic staff on all aspects of the ancient world.


Brent Davis:


Old Arts 107 (William Macmahon Ball Theatre), unless noted otherwise.

2019 Programme

4 March

Laura Pisanu, University of Cagliari, Sardinia

The Nuragic Landscape of the Montiferru Region (Western Sardinia): The Territory of Narbolia

Montiferru is a region of western Sardinian whose most ancient human presence dates back to the Neolithic. Mountains, valleys, wetlands, sea and desert created a unique landscape whose resources produced wealth during the Nuragic period (17th-6th c. BCE).  Wood, stone, watersources and metals were the main resources that this territory offered. Access to these sources was strategically controlled through widespread Nuragic occupation of the territory and control over its main routes. During the Bronze age (17th-10th c. BCE), the Nuragic people demonstrated their possession and control of this region by building several Nuragic towers.

The modern municipal territory of Narbolia is situated in the lower part of this region. Today it is still possible to feel the imposing nature of the buildings that are present in its countryside: 15 complex nuraghe, 7 simple nuraghe, 15 villages and 8 ‘giants’ tombs’.  Using methods of landscape analysis, my aim is to understand the cultural and economic relationships between these Nuragic communities and the territory in which they lived.  In this seminar, I give particular attention to the relationship between these communities and the mineral deposits present in Montiferru, whose name means ‘Iron Mountain’.

5 March - Tuesday - Special Seminar

Arts West, North Wing, Room 353 (Interactive Cinema Space)

Associate Professor Pierre Destrée, Université catholique de Louvain

Aristotle on the Value of Comedy

When dealing with Aristotle’s Poetics, scholars usually take tragedy to be the most valuable of poetic genres; Aristotle’s analysis of comedy would either be marginal to his whole project, or a sort of foil to better assert the value of tragedy. I claim that such views are mistaken. In this seminar, I review the passages dedicated to comedy in the Poetics, as well as some jokes Aristotle reports from (now lost) comedies in his Rhetoric. I argue that (under certain conditions) comedy fulfils a typically human propensity to laugh, thus being part and parcel of human eudaemonia.

11 March

Ashleigh Green (PhD completion seminar)

Birds in Roman Life and Myth

Food. Companions. Quarry. Prophets. Satellites of the gods. These are just a few of the roles fulfilled by birds in the ancient world. Although there has been extensive research into the place of birds in Ancient Greece and Egypt, no similar comprehensive study exists for the impact of birds on Ancient Roman life and myth. This seminar will provide a window to the past, where chickens were ritual birds first and food-producers second, where time was measured according to the migration of cranes and swallows, and where bird-keeping was considered an essential part of a young child’s upbringing. Firstly, the seminar will explore birds in augury and auspices to show how they impacted the functioning of the state. It will then consider poultry-farming and fowling to reveal how birds were hunted, farmed and fattened intensively under the Empire to help feed their growing urban population. Finally, it will look at pet birds and how an exotic or talkative avian friend acted as a status marker, and how and why birds were especially beloved of children. By studying these key areas, we can then ask whether the Romans have any wisdom for us today, especially as our culturally-iconic birds are now under threat. Animal welfare concerns, the need to produce food for a growing population, and the need to adapt farming to a changing climate are all issues that the Romans faced, and developing a comprehensive understanding of ancient poultry-farming may well help us to devise solutions to our own dilemmas.

18 March

Professor Andy Gleadow, University of Melbourne Earth Sciences

Explorations in Time: The Kimberley Rock Art Dating Project

The Kimberley contains some of the greatest concentrations of indigenous rock art in the world, with innumerable sites showing figurative and engraved art of extraordinary richness and beauty. These sites are of great cultural importance to the Traditional Owners, and also of enormous scientific interest, the significance of which to a broader narrative has been constrained by a lack of quantitative dates. The Kimberley Rock Art Dating Project, which began in 2014, is a major research collaboration involving scientists from five different institutions supported by the Australian Research Council and the Kimberley Foundation Australia in partnership with Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation. The project is uniquely focussed on developing a deep-time framework in which to better understand the art and the people who have lived in this vast region from the Pleistocene period to the present day.

Dating rock art in the ancient sandstones of the Kimberley is extremely challenging. and most pigments used are devoid of datable constituents.  However, bracketing ages can be obtained by dating natural materials that have formed in association with the different rock-art styles, and four independent dating methods have now been successfully adapted to this purpose.  These include cosmogenic radionuclide dating of rockfalls and other processes of landscape evolution; radiocarbon dating of organic constituents within mud-wasp nests and oxalate mineral layers; optically-stimulated luminescence dating of large mud wasp nests; and uranium-series disequilibrium dating of surface mineral accretions. In addition to dating, the project is also providing insights into natural changes to rock surfaces that lead to degradation of the rock art over long periods of time. In this way the project will also help inform future strategies aimed at conservation and preservation of this important part of our national indigenous heritage.

25 March

Professor Dr Stefan Pfeiffer, Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg

The Cultural Appropriation of Egypt in Hellenistic Alexandria: The Ptolemies and the Heritage of the Pharaohs

Alexandria of the Ptolemies is often interpreted as a purely Greek city, a foreign body that did not belong to Egypt, as witnessed by the fact that in later times the Romans spoke of Alexandria ad Aegyptum, i.e., Alexandria by Egypt. Concerning the self-presentation of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Alexandria, scholars have asserted that ‘to preserve and protect their Greekness, their Hellenic identity, the Ptolemies embarked on a policy of cultural “apartheid”, and the foundation of the Mouseion with its Library was an essential part of this... This cultural defensiveness explains a number of things, including, first of all, the exclusion of anything Egyptian that was not also a part of the Greek heritage’. In this seminar, I would like to question such apodictic assumptions and postulate that Egypt played a role in Alexandria. In my view there are two faces to the city: alongside Alexandria ad Aegyptum there also existed an official Alexandria in Aegypto. Given the limited time available, I focus on the Ptolemies themselves. I will interrogate the role the cultural heritage of the pharaohs played in the representation of the dynasty in Alexandria and by so doing not only investigate Alexandria in Aegypto, but also Egypt in Alexandria.

1 April

Dr Tamara Lewit, University of Melbourne

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Resilience Theory: Bouncing Back from “Sword, Famine and Plague” in Late Antiquity

Late antiquity (3rd to 7th centuries CE) was a time of warfare, breakdown of the Roman state, threats to food supply, and natural disasters including widespread plague, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In examining the effects of these shocks on society, some archaeologists have applied the currently popular concept of the Adaptive Cycle, derived from Resilience Theories used in Ecological Science. This paper argues that a more fruitful analysis can rather be derived from the social science approach of Community Resilience Theory, which investigates the mental, social, and economic capacities that allow a community to successfully bounce back from crisis. In particular, I ask whether this theory is useful in explaining the dramatic divergence between Western and Eastern Mediterranean communities in this period. Material remains which attest social capital, economic resources, and technological innovation can be used to explore the immaterial capacities of these communities, and thus how ordinary people might have acted as historical agents in determining their own fate.

2 April - Tuesday - Special Seminar

Arts West, North Wing, Room 353 (Interactive Cinema Space)

Dr Rocco Palermo, University of Groningen

Landscapes of Imperial Durability: Archaeology of Mesopotamia from the Iron Age to the Seleucid Period

Hellenistic Mesopotamia has been largely studied from the point of view of textual evidence (i.e. classical authors, cuneiform records, etc.), but its archaeological panorama—intended as a whole—has been cloaked in darkness for a long time. We know little of capital cities (i.e. Seleucia), and small settlements and landscapes have been only superficially examined. One one hand, this might be due to the troubling political scenario in modern Iraq, which has prevented extensive archaeological research; but on the other hand, Near Eastern Archaeology has not traditionally focused on the periods that followed the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (late 7th c. BCE). And yet the period between the late Iron Age and the Roman-Persian conquest saw the formation, development, and collapse of the world’s first empires, great experiments in centralized power, territorial expansion, and social control. Interestingly, however, past studies have not investigated the impact of such empires on the rural landscape of Mesopotamia, thus resulting in a disproportionate interest in imperial capitals and the propagandistic scenarios that these cities presented, in contrast to the imperial countryside and rural peripheries. Fortunately, things have radically changed in recent years.

This renewed interest in the archaeology of Mesopotamia in its late periods stems from the sudden outburst of projects that have been relatively recently initiated in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Large-scale and intensive surveys as well as targeted excavations are helping to enrich Near Eastern Archaeology through studies of periods that have too often been overlooked, thus creating an unprecedented bridge between the Mesopotamian World and Classical Archaeology, while simultaneously contributing to the re-evaluation of past legacy data.

In this seminar, I will focus on the archaeological evidence that I have collected in the past years while carrying out fieldwork in Northern Iraq with the Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey (Harvard) and the Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project (Udine, Italy). I will discuss settlement patterns, land use and demography of the transitional phase between the fall of Assyria and the rise of the Parthians, with particular attention to the Hellenistic period and to processes of imperial durability in the region.

8 April

Associate Professor Rachel Mairs, University of Reading

Greek Gods in Central Asia

The Greek-ruled kingdoms of Central Asia in the Hellenistic period used to be one of the most obscure sub-fields of Classical studies. Dramatic archaeological and documentary finds from the mid-twentieth to the early twenty-first centuries have changed this picture completely. This is particularly true of our view of the religious landscape of the region. We now have the remains of a number of important Hellenistic temples (from places such as Ai Khanoum in Afghanistan, and Takht-i Sangin and Torbulok in Tajikistan); numerous depictions of deities and religious symbols on coins; and even mention of Greek gods in inscriptions. Scholarly debate over the cultural and ethnic affinities of ‘Greek’ gods in Central Asia, however, continues. This paper will survey religious practice in Hellenistic Central Asia with an emphasis on the versatility of apparently ‘Greek’ religious imagery and cult practices. Behind a ‘Greek’ veneer, we find a culturally diverse set of religious practices.

9 April - Tuesday - Special Seminar

Arts West, North Wing, Room 353 (Interactive Cinema Space)

Professor Costas Panayotakis, University of Glasgow

Slavery and Beauty in Petronius

The purpose of this paper is to consider the ambivalent relationship of master and slave in the Satyrica, and to focus on the portrayal of physical beauty, sexual attraction, and power with regard to free men and slaves, especially male slaves, or characters who pretend to be slaves in the novel of Petronius. In the first part of the seminar, I support the view that the protagonists Encolpius and Giton are neither slaves nor freedmen but free men, and I show that their free status brings them mostly disempowerment, danger, and trouble, whereas their disguise as (Eumolpus’) ‘slaves’ provides them (albeit temporarily) with safety, opportunities for erotic pleasure, and material goods. In the second part of the seminar, I argue that the vocabulary of male slavery and physical beauty in Encolpius’ sophisticated narrative is socially and intertextually nuanced, and reveals Petronius’ linguistic originality, the narrator’s haughty personality, Trimalchio’s influence on him, and the destabilization of societal norms and authority figures in the text.

15 April

Emeritus Professor Ronald Ridley, University of Melbourne

Talking Sense about Herodotos

This is the sixth and last chapter of the book I have just finished: The Birth of History, which traces the way historical records were made in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Assyria, by the Hittites and Persians, the Hebrews, and finally Herodotos, proving (to my utter satisfaction) that he is, indeed, the 'Father of History'. His History is the only one of the six great histories of the Graeco-Roman world to survive intact, and the bibliography constitutes a small library in itself. Yet, in the last generation or so, his amazing achievement has been subjected to the most fantastic attacks by those who make the most unhistorical demands on him and find their own obsessions much more important . I will try to explain exactly what constitutes his epoch-making achievement.

29 April

Dr. Gijs Tol, Classics and Archaeology

A First Century AD Crafting Community in Inland Tuscany: Excavations at Podere Marzuolo 2016-2018

This paper presents the results of three years of excavation (2016-2018) at the site of Podere Marzuolo by the Marzuolo Archaeological Project, a collaboration between the University of Melbourne, Cornell University and The University of Arkansas. Work conducted over the last three seasons highlights the potential of the site to function as a paragon of the varied nature of Roman rural settlement. Situated ca. 40km away from the coast and from the nearest urban settlement of Roselle, the site finds itself in a landscape populated by small-scale peasant activity sites. The site itself is of a type undocumented to date for the Roman world: excavations reveal a purpose-built artisanal community that centres around a large complex (to date ca. 1500m2 of it has been excavated) that existed for only a few generations before it burnt down and was abandoned. It consists of a central courtyard flanked by a sequence of large cells dedicated to artisanal production. Excavated features include a blacksmith workshop (with a complete set of tools and instruments) and a room containing collapsed piles of ca. 400 vessels in terra sigillata, the iconic red-slipped tableware of the Early Imperial period.

6 May

Carissa Kelly, University of Melbourne (MA completion seminar)

Cruelty in Roman Civil War

Through a diachronically organised analysis of case-studies from the civil wars of the late Roman Republic period, I aim to define how cruelty was perceived by the ancient Romans during this period of civil strife. Since studies into the Roman view of cruelty are scarce, and modern scholars tend to focus on their own contemporary perceptions of cruelty instead, this seminar will offer a fresh look at the topic.

13 May

Professor Robyn Sloggett, Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation

Truth and Authenticity

What happens to truth when people cannot access their cultural, historic and scientific record?

The verification of histories, the development of identity and the iteration of the culture all require the existence of, and access to, the authentic cultural record. The right to know is enshrined in the basic principles of democracy but the ability to access information is framed, supported and in many instances privileged by race, region and socio-economic status.

In this seminar, Professor Sloggett explores the ways in which risk to the preservation of cultural, historical and scientific records is situated within broader issues of climate change, regionalism and post-colonialism.

20 May

National Archaeology Week: Dr Gijs Tol, Jacob Heywood, Dr Christopher Davey, Dr Claudia Sagona, Dr Heather Jackson, Professor Louise Hitchcock, Dr Brent Davis, Associate Professor Andrew Jamieson

From Rome to Georgia to Philistia II: Snapshots of Recent Fieldwork by University of Melbourne Archaeologists

This seminar will feature six short presentations by University of Melbourne academics and students on current archaeological fieldwork projects, including the Pontine Plain Project (Italy: investigation of a Mid-Republican land division scheme), the Sissi Archaeological Project (Crete: excavation of a Minoan settlement), the Kourion Urban Space Project (Cyprus: excavation of part of a major Classical-era city), the Georgian-Australian Investigations in Archaeology Project (Georgia: excavation of a multi-period fortified settlement), the Australian Mission at Jebel Khalid (Syria: excavation of a Hellenistic settlement), and the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project (Israel: excavation of a Philistine city). The seminar will end with a brief presentation on a new Winter Intensive subject that will be run in Georgia in July: ANCW30025 Field Archaeology, designed to provide fieldwork and training opportunities for the next generation of archaeology students.

27 May

Brent Davis, University of Melbourne

The Phaistos Disk: A New Way of Investigating the Language Behind the Script

In this seminar, I outline a new, linguistics-based method of analyzing the behavior of signs in the Aegean family of pre-alphabetic scripts (Linear A, Linear B, Cypro-Minoan, the Cypriot Syllabary, and the script on the Phaistos Disk).  Using this method on two scripts at once results in metrics expressing the likelihood that both scripts encode the same language.  As the method is based solely on the behavior of the signs (not their phonetic values), it can be applied to the undeciphered scripts as well as the deciphered ones.

When this method is applied to the two deciphered scripts (Linear B and the Cypriot Syllabary, which both encode Greek), the results indicate a 97% probability that the two scripts encode the same language, without the analyst needing to know the phonetic values of any of the signs.  When the Cypriot Syllabary and Linear A are analyzed together, this probability falls to 55%, indicating that Linear A does not encode Greek.  A similarly low result (45%) is obtained when Linear B and the Phaistos Disk are analyzed together.

When Linear A and the Disk are analyzed together, however, the probability that both encode the same language rises to over 98%.  This is new.  Though it has long been recognized that both scripts are Minoan inventions, no one has yet been able to demonstrate in a convincing way whether or not they encode the same language. This is an important step forward in the study of both scripts, with implications for eventual decipherment.

This is the research that led to the 2019 Michael Ventris Award for Mycenaean Studies.

Brent Davis received his undergraduate degree in Linguistics from Stanford University, and his doctorate in Archaeology from the University of Melbourne; his doctoral thesis on Minoan ritual vessels and Linear A, the undeciphered script of the Minoans, was published as a book in 2014.  With a background in both archaeology and linguistics, his interests include not only the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, but their scripts and languages as well. He has published numerous articles and chapters on ancient cultures and scripts, as well as on archaeological theory, and he has undertaken several years of archaeological fieldwork in Israel at Tell-es Safi/Gath, the site of a major Philistine city. He teaches archaeology, ancient history, and Egyptian hieroglyphs at the University of Melbourne.

28 May -Tuesday - Special Seminar

Arts West, North Wing, Room 353 (Interactive Cinema Space)

Associate Professor Steven Green, Yale-NUS College, Singapore

Animal Love after Virgil: Teaching Marital Propriety in the Age of Augustus

This paper looks at instructions given by Virgil in the Georgics on how to manage animal mating, before examining how this teaching is received and repurposed in later Roman didactic texts from the Augustan age. It is argued that post-Virgilian didactic poets employ discussions of animal (or animalised) sexual relationships as a means of negotiating Augustan moral legislation on (human) marriage and adultery. In this way, the familiar narrative that pits Ovid against Augustus on matters of marriage and adultery obscures a debate among a wider set of contemporary teacher-figures.