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Lawrentians Complete First-Ever Translations for Institute for Advanced Study

Students studying ancient Greek usually spend their time translating works by Homer, Aristophanes, and Aristotole – classics, but those stories have been told over and over. Imagine being able, as a beginner in the language, to resurrect stories that haven’t been heard in centuries! Partnering with the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), students in Scott Barnard’s Introduction to Ancient Greek class are doing just that, resurrecting stories of forgotten men and women from ancient times.

Their work is part of the IAS Krateros project, where scholars are digitizing squeezes (three- dimensional, mirror image inscription impressions) of third and fourth century B.C. steles found at historic sites in Greece, Macedonia, and Turkey. The translations make it possible for scholars around the globe to study the writings. IAS has some 25,000 squeezes in its repository, the second largest collection in the world.

“I can't exaggerate, there's nobody else in the world who's doing this kind of thing,” said Barnard. “We're really lucky to have this connection with the Institute, and it's totally exclusive.”

Amelie Devine ’21 agreed, stating, “It's hard to process that we are really the first people to ever translate these squeezes. These translations will serve as resources for developing our understanding of Greek culture.”

Working on a translation

The work comes with a big responsibility. “To be the first person to translate something, you have to think really, really hard about how you're going to connect the modern audience to another ancient voice. Because there's no support system underneath, it's just you and your understanding of the facts,” said Barnard. “You have to be very careful and think in multiple dimensions about what something means, and decide how you're going to transmit that.”

Unlike most examples of surviving Greek literature, Hannah Welsh ’21 pointed out, “squeezes may have been written by women, slaves, and other people whose low social statuses prevented their words from being studied and remembered. Translating the squeezes fills in gaps in our knowledge of ancient Greece and enables us to gain a more complex understanding of the culture.” Victor Park ’22 concurred, remarking, “I hope to learn more about the traditional Greek citizen's life and what that says about Greek culture. Many classical authors come from aristocratic backgrounds that are not representative of the majority of the citizens, so translating a piece about standard Greek life will enhance my understanding of ancient Greece in general.”

Lawrentians have started their studies by translating long-lost funerary monuments and statuary dedications which, as Barnard points out, were created by “somebody who someone loves a person enough to carve, in many cases very beautiful words and images into a stone. That stone was ultimately thrown into a heap of stones just like it and forgotten. And now this person will be remembered in some entirely different way.”

A group working on a translation projected onto a screen

The class is working with Aaron Hershkowitz (IAS Research Associate & Project Coordinator for Krateros) to do the translations. He recently introduced them to a rather special pig, who lived and died more than 2,000 years ago in Greece. This pig was so beloved by its owner that, after it lost its life in a cart accident, the owner had a funerary stele carved for his porcine companion.

I, the Pig, beloved of all, a four-footed youngster, am buried here. I left the land of Dalmatia, when I was given as a gift. . .But now I have departed the light on account of the violence of the wheel. . . I am buried in this spot, without having reached the time to pay my tribute to death.

Why study a pig’s obituary? “To understand someone's love for a beloved pet is something that we can all sympathize and empathize with,” explained Barnard, “It's not just somebody who had an idea and wrote it on the wall. Think about the effort that goes into carving stone. You have to be really serious and dedicated to whatever message it creates.”

The translations will be posted online as part of the IAS archives. Previous Lawrentians have presented their work at the Classical Association of the Atlantic States, an extraordinary accomplishment for a high school student. “The fact that I will be introducing new knowledge into the scholarly field makes the project even more exciting,” said Welsh.

Ultimately, Barnard said, he wants his students to understand that “that people who lived 2,000 years ago were not in any way primitive. They are not one dimensional. It's just really, really hard to find [their stories] but, when we do, we realize that they're people just us. They have loved ones and fears.”

For additional information, please contact Lisa M. Gillard Hanson, director of Public Relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.