Attic Inscriptions in UK Collections (AIUK)
An AHRC-sponsored project (2017/18-2020/21). PI: Stephen Lambert (Cardiff); CIs: Polly Low (Durham), Peter Liddel (Manchester); Robert Pitt (Athens)
Inscriptions on stone are the most abundant category of written document created by the inhabitants of the ancient city of Athens, collectively and individually, that survives to the present day. Of the 20,000+ such inscriptions extant dating from the 7th cent. BC to the 3rd cent. AD, ca. 1% (ca. 220) are in British collections, the large majority (ca. 165) in the British Museum. The inscriptions currently held in UK collections comprise 33 decrees of the citizen Assembly and other bodies, 14 financial accounts and inventories, 3 sacrificial calendars, 2 leases, 11 name lists (mostly ephebic), 38 dedications, 116 funerary monuments and 2 others (including a sundial: Fig. 1). Many of them are decorated with relief sculpture (see, for instance, the reclining Herakles at Brocklesby Park: Fig. 2). They are a resource of great importance for historians, archaeologists and linguists, providing insight into the political history and institutions of the city, Athenian imperialism, the administration of Attic local communities, religious festivals (both of the city and locally), temple administration and finances, naming and prosopography, the development of ancient Greek in Attica, Attic topography, socio-economic structure and funerary commemoration, both public and private.
We have attempted to visit all the collections across the UK where Athenian inscriptions are currently held (see Fig. 3); where possible, we have undertaken autopsy of the inscriptions in those collections. We have also explored archival materials pertinent to the histories of their collection and acquisition. Some of these inscribed objects are well known; others, such as the sarcophagus for Aelius Epikrates Berinikides (Fig. 4) have fallen out of the modern scholarly discussion.
Over the past 150 years, a number of collections of antiquities, such as those at Marbury Hall (Cheshire), Winton Castle (Scotland), Lansdowne House (London), Doughty House (London) have been dissolved: their inscriptions have been transferred to the British Museum or other collections. Others have been sold to the Getty Collection in California. Some are in an excellent state of preservation; others are damaged or deteriorating. Accordingly, it is high time to produce a comprehensive study of the inscriptions in UK collections.
The stories behind the acquisition of Athenian inscriptions by British collectors reflect significant legacies of 18th and 19th-century power dynamics. They include high-profile aristocratic collectors such as Elgin and his agent Lusieri and travellers such as Thomas Legh of Lyme Park. There were collectors with wide-ranging interests such as the mineralogist E.D. Clarke and the archaeologist, Lady Ruthven (Fig. 5). Hitherto-overlooked collectors include Benjamin Gott of York and Jeremiah Rawson of Halifax, Lord Aberdeen (Fig. 6) and Dr William MacMichael (Fig. 7).
The starting point for research into Greek inscriptions in UK collections (and other ancient marbles) is still A.D.F. Michaelis’ Ancient Marbles in Great Britain. The last systematic edition of the Attic inscriptions in the BM, the majority (ca. 90) of them among the ‘marbles’ collected by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, was published in 1874, supplemented in 1916 as The Collection of Ancient Greek Inscriptions in the British Museum. Its first editor was E.L. Hicks (Fig. 8). It is for the most part this edition that is the basis for the museum’s current online catalogue.
Attic Inscriptions are engaging monuments for visitors in the context of the museums and collections where they are located. However, in recent decades these inscriptions have suffered from neglect. The British Museum’s epigraphical galleries are open only by special appointment. Currently, a handful of Attic inscriptions are on public display in UK collections. Some collections (such as that at Chatsworth: Figs 9, 10) can be viewed by special appointment Other than the British Museum, the best places to see Athenian inscriptions on display are Leeds City Museum, Lyme Park (Fig. 11) the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam.
So far (September 2019) we have published six volumes of scholarly editions of these inscriptions (up-to-date in the light of new discoveries and modern scholarship) on the open-access Attic Inscriptions Online website: these volumes encompass the inscriptions at Petworth, the British School at Athens, the Fitzwilliam, the British Museum, Leeds and Lyme Park. We anticipate publishing two further volumes (Chatsworth and Broomhall) later this year. Our work has generated improved readings and new interpretations of specific points: it has emerged that several inscriptions in UK collections corpora have been mis-identified as Attic (usually because of confusion in their narratives of provenance); conversely, at least one Attic inscription has been mis-labelled as non-Athenian.
We offer our assistance to collections in terms of displaying and making their Attic inscriptions accessible (Fig. 12). Our research will feed in to the updating of online databases which include these inscriptions. We aspire to raise the profile of Athenian inscriptions in UK collections and to promote public engagement with them, for instance by offering public events and developing open-access videos.