Lawrentians Team with Institute of Advanced Study to Translate Ancient Greek

Kallias, son of Lysimachos of Hermos, had a proposal. He wanted the Athens city guardians to carry out their management of the sanctuary of Aphrodite Pandemos according to “ancestral custom.” This involved, among other things, whitewashing the altars, putting pitch over the doorways, and washing the statues.
How do we know this? Because students in Lawrenceville’s Introduction to Greek class have teamed with scholars at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) to translate ancient writings found at archaeological digs in Greece. Their translations breathe life back into messages that haven’t been heard in more than 2,400 years.
Fifth Former Stephanie Yoon said she’s been “ecstatic” about doing the translations. “Taking Greek in high school is rare in itself, but being about to expand our Greek knowledge and get our hands dirty with ancient inscriptions is incredibly cool. I couldn’t wait to see how our Greek skills would be translated in a real-life setting.”
Their work is now 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. The translations make it easier 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.
Lawrentians are working with Scott Barnard (Classics Master) and Aaron Hershkowitz
(IAS Research Associate & Project Coordinator for Krateros) to do the translations. Since IAS, home to the world’s most prestigious and innovative scholars, is less than six miles from campus, it has been easy for Hershkowitz to visit the School and for students to work at the Institute.
The proclamations, Barnard said, are perfect translation material for beginner students. “The language is very simple and meant for an audience that wasn’t going to understand any highfalutin rhetoric.”
At a recent class in Pop 125, Jax Floyd ’20 carefully translated a message whose intended audience was walking through Greece over 2,400 years ago. Floyd puzzled over one word and looked to Hershkowitz for guidance. “Is it a month? Or the end of a festival?” he wondered as they looked through a dictionary together. It turned out to be ancient Greek for what modern readers consider to be the month of June. “Now we know the exact date this decree was passed,” Hershkowitz explained. Some of the squeezes could be dated depending on what ancient nation (Athens? Or Macedonia?) was mentioned as being in control of the port of Piraeus.
Some of the translations were especially tricky, with words written as they sounded when spoken, rather than using correct spelling. “Excellent!” said Hershkowitz. “I was hoping we would get one of these!”
Messages gave praise to individuals who fought “with honor” against enemies and of rivals who “contended together fairly for the good intentions of the city and the freedom of all of Greece.” Other messages sought to remove stigma from immigrants, proclaiming that if you were living in Athens, you should have the rights of a citizen of Athens.
By resurrecting the messages, students are getting a true, interdisciplinary education about life in ancient Greece as well as learning the language. “Classicists, as a profession, are trying to bring the classical world into the 21st century,” explained Barnard. “We can connect ancient to modern in more ways that you might expect.”
He is excited that Hershkowitz is using the Krateros Project as a teaching tool for high school students. Lawrentians, he said, are doing “the kind of work that would happen at the advanced college or graduate level. But since we have access to opportunities at IAS, it’s feasible for our students.”
Barnard and Hershkowitz will give a joint presentation at a classics conference in October to share their collaboration. “Aaron is going to be [at IAS] for three years, so I’m hoping we can get another cycle of Greek students involved in the project,” he said.
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