BMCR 1998.10.06

Greek and Latin Inscriptions in the USA: A Checklist

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This publication is the tangible product of what the authors refer to in the Preface as the U.S. Epigraphy Project, supported by the Magie Publications Fund of Princeton University and the Rutgers University Research Council. Its purpose is nothing less than monumental: “to provide a complete listing of all ancient Greek and Latin inscriptions in museum, university, and private collections in the United States” (x). At present, some 2,300 inscriptions from seventy-eight collections have been listed. The release of the publication was timed to coincide with the XIth International Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy held in Rome in September 1997. Indeed, the authors give 1996-1997 as the working period, John Bodel producing the Latin portion “during the academic year 1996-1997 with the help during the fall semester of the participants in a graduate seminar in Latin epigraphy at Rutgers University” (ix), and Stephen Tracy producing the Greek portion “during a year spent as Visiting Mellon Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton during 1996-1997” (ibid.). These details are important for the identification of what the work purports to be and for the way in which time constraints and the different means of achieving the work affect the publication. It must be said at the outset that Bodel and Tracy have accomplished much in a relatively short time, and that they have made an enormous contribution to epigraphical studies in the United States.

The limitations of the book do become apparent in the first paragraph of the Preface, shortly after the statement of purpose cited above: “The present checklist, then, cannot claim completeness — an impossible goal even under ideal circumstances — and inaccuracies no doubt remain in what we report. We hope, however, that major mistakes have been avoided and that few important texts have been overlooked” (viii). Good reasons are given for the limitations, which seem largely to depend on the range of responses given to the Project by the museums in whose collections the inscriptions reside; the time restraint is also mentioned. A checklist, however, is by definition a factual document, literally an objective list, used for verification purposes. Its principal value lies in precisely these arenas of completeness and accuracy. This is especially true in the museum sense of the word — and it is essential to recognize that this publication is as much museological as it is epigraphical. The difficulty of assembling material from different sources into one checklist is unquestionably formidable. “Checklist,” therefore, may not have been the right word for the publication at this stage. A slight change in the subtitle would have solved the problem, something as simple as “A Preliminary Listing” or even “A Partial Checklist,” with the emphasis clearly on the intent for completeness as opposed, for example, to a selection of inscriptions in the United States.

The Preface contains other statements that are essential for understanding and evaluating the contextual and methodological framework of the endeavor. One of the most valuable is the observation that, in terms of quantity, the significant epigraphic collections in America are found in a few major research universities, where Latin inscriptions prevail; and in a few major art museums, where Greek inscriptions prevail (x). It would be helpful for the authors to enrich this dichotomy with some pertinent examples of reversals to the “rule,” as for instance, in the case of the Art Institute of Chicago, which holds a fine Latin inscription on a rectangular cinerary urn not given in the publication. While it has no Greek inscriptions on stone, Chicago does hold a number of inscribed vases. According to the Introduction, however, Greek vase inscriptions could not be included, not only because of the scope of the publication but also because they form a different class of inscriptions, “primarily the province of the art historian” (xi). This is a telling methodological decision, especially since an entirely different stance is taken towards the Latin material: “In contrast to the procedure followed with the Greek inscriptions, an attempt has been made in registering the Latin texts to record individually the various stamps and writings found on the implements of daily life — the so-called instrumentum domesticum — which increasingly in recent years have drawn the interest of Latin epigraphists and students of ancient economy” (ibid.). Yet the same kind of interest, amplified by prosopographical studies, has long been shown by scholars of Greek vase inscriptions. Certainly art historical concerns are not incompatible with epigraphical expertise, as the work of Henry Immerwahr and François Lissarrague has abundantly shown. The methodological disparity between the treatment of Greek and Latin inscriptions on ceramic material is therefore disjunctive since the Latin instrumenta, also abundant in number, were included.

Of particular concern is the unequivocal statement that, “There has been no attempt on the part of museums in this country to collect ancient Greek inscriptions” (ibid.). At least one highly significant attempt, however, was made by the former Curator of Antiquities of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Jiri Frel, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Frel’s intentions were very serious in terms of building a scholarly research collection with pieces representative of all major genres of Greek and Roman epigraphy. He was encouraged by his close friend, Georges Daux, in this project, and plans were laid for a major publication of the Getty inscriptions in the form of a Latin corpus, introductory material for which was actually written. Daux wrote extensively on what must be judged the most important inscription in the collection, the religious calendar from Thorikos including an article for the J. Paul Getty Museum Journal. Although the corpus project was never realized, this period at the Getty was characterized by the acquisition of major epigraphical material for its own sake, the effort grounded in the recognition of the mainstream, historical importance of Greek epigraphy to the whole of classical antiquity, not only its capacity to “adorn sculptures and other ‘art’ objects” (xi). The purpose of the Getty collection becomes especially important to clarify since the publication names the Getty as sixth in a list of seven of the major holders of epigraphical material in the United States; indeed, between them these collections are responsible for more than two-thirds of the publication’s entries (p. 243).

It is these entries for individual inscriptions, notable for their abbreviated comprehensiveness and overall excellence of their organization, that constitute the bulk of the publication. They are arranged alphabetically, first by state, then by museum. A short description of the collection and its background is offered at the beginning of each museum entry, and these descriptions are valuable for setting the context of a collection. Unpublished and published texts are the first major subdivisions found under a given museum code, with Greek and Latin entries then listed for each. Provenance may furnish a further subdivision, and this notation is offered in bold face in the margin for easy reference; instrumentum as a division is also indicated in bold face. A diagram of the entry format, offering both an expanded description and a physical exemplar of the entry format, is a welcome aid to the reader (xv). Briefly, the entries themselves are listed in a wide horizontal format across each page; on the left is given the description of the object, usually with a date; on the right is a description of the inscription. With the latter information always on the right side, it is very convenient to see the generic spread of a particular institution’s holdings or to make quick visual search for a class of inscription, one of the most useful features of the publication. Bibliographic information and the U.S. Epigraphy Number assigned by the Project are given on the left. No transcriptions are given, and this is commendable since the concept of a succinct checklist would have been severely hampered. However, The dimensions of the object, although a standard feature in a museum checklist, are not given.

Ordering of entries does not depend on museum accession numbers. An explanation of the publication’s arrangement appears on xii, but the entries do not always hold to the outline given there. Material appears to be a major consideration in the sequence, but while stone objects, for example, precede metal in the Getty Greek section, the opposite is true in the Latin section. Epitaphs and funerary inscriptions, representing the heaviest concentration of holdings, invariably appear as the last grouping on stone within a given provenance; but the ordering of the other genres is not so clear, despite the publication’s intention basically to follow the typology of the Corpus (xii). Examination of entries before and after the Thorikos calendar will provide one example: a votive, then the sacrificial calendar, followed by another votive.

Bibliographical abbreviations, the list of codes assigned in the course of the Project, and an explanation of editing conventions precede the entries; at the end, a concordance between entries and major epigraphical publications and an index of the holdings of larger collections to be used with the concordance are all specific tools supplied by the authors for the tracking and study of inscriptions in America. These tools are not ancillary: they are fundamental to the epigraphical strength of the publication. Through them, the need for the entire compilation becomes absolutely apparent, and completeness becomes a worthy and necessary goal. Another major strength lies in the function of the publication as a sourcebook, a generator of ideas for research or epigraphy projects based on the holdings to be found in this country. Not incidentally, it is of considerable interest to know that the Xerox Corporation Headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, has a gold foil phylactery inscribed to Eugenia (p. 19). While such a reference might be immediately useful to some research project already underway, combined with references to other lamellae it could also lead in any number of different educational directions. Certainly the volume can be seen as an important new resource for any course in Greek epigraphy, particularly one offered at an American university.

Since the publication is so museological in its orientation, its potential for success lies in the willingness of museums and other collections to participate fully in the Project; the ability to generate that cooperation and to verify the accuracy of the contributions is the burden assumed by the authors. Certainly the role of assigning a U.S. Epigraphy Number to each inscription, a critical activity from a museum’s point of view, manifests the seriousness of the Project. The concept of a checklist, in this particular case, actually begins with a list of the museums and collections contacted. At some point, the publication should have printed this list and whether or not a response had been received. It is not sufficient to report the number seventy-eight for the “collections surveyed.” Seventy-eight is a small number of collections compared to the total number in the United States, therefore the basis of the survey identifying the museums included also needs to be explained. Finally, for such a checklist, dependent on many different institutions and intended for scholarly use, it is necessary to inform the reader where the data for each inscription is coming from: whether supplied by the museum or garnered from other publications, which are the two principal sources mentioned in general terms by the authors in the Preface (viii). Since reference is made to the unevenness of the replies, this documentation becomes requisite if the publication is to be used knowledgeably. One obvious area of concern is that of dating: where do the dates come from in the entries? Does a question mark indicate a museum notation or is it supplied by the authors?

For the future, Greek and Latin Inscriptions in the USA: A Checklist would translate very well into a database format, making it a powerful research as well as reference tool for all of classical studies; it could even serve as a model for other such efforts outside the United States. An electronic format would also aid in the updating process, making the goal of completeness reasonably within the realm of possiblility and manageability; perhaps vase inscriptions could eventually be included as a supplement. Some statements from the first publication will need to be changed or reworked; for example, it is not necessary to point out, “None of the ancient Greek and Latin inscriptions now in the the United States originated in the new world” (x). One would hope not, not even the fakes. But the cover with its bilingual Greek and Latin epitaph from the Getty is absolutely fitting, the best choice that could have been made, and should be kept for any home page; and the memorial dedication to Sterling Dow and Arthur Gordon, two of the giants in Greek and Latin epigraphy respectively, is truly beautiful, both in wording and visual layout, and should not be changed by one interpunct.

The ongoing nature and integrity of the Project could not be better evidenced than in the recent “Call for Help” printed in the American Society of Greek and Latin Epigraphy Newsletter for July 30, 1998. In that column, Project Director John Bodel asked for assistance from anyone knowing of material that might have been left out of the Checklist or additional information on inscriptions referenced therein. A website where communication can take place is under construction, and the database for Latin inscriptions, including images, is already being formulated as part of the long-range planning. Clearly, the work of the Project and its authors is best characterized as a process: one that seeks to illuminate a rare and rich confluence, that of epigraphy and museology, and one that has ramifications far beyond the publication under review here.

Reminiscent of the more descriptive catalogue raisonné, the checklist is a specific genre of museum writing. Many collection or exhibition catalogues will contain a separate checklist of items comprising the collection or appearing in the exhibition. While it frequently is not possible or desirable to present an extended commentary or photograph for each entry (only selected items receiving such treatment), the checklist functions above all as proof that a particular object was part of the complete contents of a given grouping at a certain point in time. Typically, checklists are furnished with the bare minimum of accompanying information. Chicago Acc. No. 1923.969, a and b. See H. Immerwahr, “A Projected Corpus of Attic Vase Inscriptions,” in Acta of the Fifth International Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy, Cambridge, 1967 (Oxford 1971), pp. 53-60; also Attic Script: A Survey (Oxford 1990) and his well-known studies on Attic book rolls. In Un Flot d’images: une esthétique du banquet grec (Paris 1987), F. Lissarrague draws on vase inscriptions to explicate the full meaning of the vase itself; his technique is exemplified in “Epiktetos egraphsen: the writing on the cup,” S. Goldhill and R. Osborne, eds., Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture (Cambridge 1994), pp. 12-27. Both Immerwahr and Lissarrague have engaged themselves with issues of lettering on stone monuments, as well. I am grateful for discussion with the present Curator of Antiquities, Marion True, on this subject. The original draft in Latin prepared for the formal introduction to the Getty corpus still exists. Getty Acc. No. 79.AA.113. The publication’s entry for the inscription is found on p. 6. Daux’s publications begin with “Recherches préliminaires sur le calendrier sacrificiel de Thoricos,” CRAI (1980): 463-470, followed by “Sacrifices à Thorikos,” GettyMusJ 10 (1982): 145-152. Bodel and Tracy incorrectly give the citation as GettyMusJ 12 (1984): 144-152. Daux wrote an even more substantive article in 1983 for L’Antiquité classique ( AntCl 52 (1983): 150-174). An article relevant to the inscription did appear in 1984 by Robert Parker: “The Herakleidai at Thorikos,” ZPE 57 (1984): 59. An excellent example is that for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (p. 35). Of particular interest are the group of inscriptions from Assos and the role played by the Archaeological Institute of America in donating them to the Museum. Mention is made of the project underway for a publication of the entire epigraphical collection. At least one bibliographic reference is offered in the case of published inscriptions; whenever possible the reference contains a photograph or drawing of the inscription (xiii). Getty Inv. No. 80.AA.52., U.S. Epig. No. CA.Malibu.JPGM. GL.80.AA.52. The entry for the epitaph appears on p. 8 under Greek inscriptions. This is puzzling since the Latin text appears on the stone before the Greek (the name of the deceased, Hygeia Divi Augusti, however, is Greek). There is no bilingual category per se in the arrangement of the publication. The Newsletter gives the following address: U.S. Epigraphy Project, Department of Classics, Rutgers University, 131 George Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901.