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Archaeologists uncover rare 2,000-year-old sundial during Roman theatre excavation

By sjr81 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Nov 08, 2017.

Not only has the sundial survived largely undamaged for more than two millennia, but the presence of two Latin texts means researchers from the University of Cambridge have been able to glean precise information about the man who commissioned it.

The sundial was found lying face down by students of the Faculty of Classics as they were excavating the front of one of the theatre’s entrances along a secondary street. It was probably left behind at a time when the theatre and town was being scavenged for building materials during the Medieval to post-Medieval period. In all likelihood it did not belong to the theatre, but was removed from a prominent spot, possibly on top of a pillar in the nearby forum.

“Less than a hundred examples of this specific type of sundial have survived and of those, only a handful bear any kind of inscription at all – so this really is a special find,” said Dr Alessandro Launaro, a lecturer at the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge and a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College.

“Not only have we been able to identify the individual who commissioned the sundial, we have also been able to determine the specific public office he held in relation to the likely date of the inscription.”

The base prominently features the name of M(arcus) NOVIUS M(arci) F(ilius) TUBULA [Marcus Novius Tubula, son of Marcus], whilst the engraving on the curved rim of the dial surface records that he held the office of TR(ibunus) PL(ebis) [Plebeian Tribune] and paid for the sundial D(e) S(ua) PEC(unia) (with his own money).

The nomen Novius was quite common in Central Italy. On the other hand, the cognomen Tubula (literally ‘small trumpet’) is only attested at Interamna Lirenas.

But even more striking is the specific public office Tubula held in relation to the likely date of the inscription. Various considerations about the name of the individual and the lettering style comfortably place the sundial’s inscription at a time (mid 1st c. BC onwards) by which the inhabitants of Interamna had already been granted full Roman citizenship.

“That being the case, Marcus Novius Tubula, hailing from Interamna Lirenas, would be a hitherto unknown Plebeian Tribune of Rome,” added Launaro. “The sundial would have represented his way of celebrating his election in his own hometown.”

Carved out from a limestone block (54 x 35 x 25 cm), the sundial features a concave face, engraved with 11 hour lines (demarcating the twelve horae of daylight) intersecting three day curves (giving an indication of the season with respect to the time of the winter solstice, equinox and summer solstice). Although the iron gnomon (the needle casting the shadow) is essentially lost, part of it is still preserved under the surviving lead fixing. This type of ‘spherical’ sundial was relatively common in the Roman period and was known as hemicyclium.

“Even though the recent archaeological fieldwork has profoundly affected our understanding of Interamna Lirenas, dispelling long-held views about its precocious decline and considerable marginality, this was not a town of remarkable prestige or notable influence,” added Launaro. “It remained an average, middle-sized settlement, and this is exactly what makes it a potentially very informative case-study about conditions in the majority of Roman cities in Italy at the time”.

“In this sense, the discovery of the inscribed sundial not only casts new light on the place Interamna Lirenas occupied within a broader network of political relationships across Roman Italy, but it is also a more general indicator of the level of involvement in Rome’s own affairs that individuals hailing from this and other relatively secondary communities could aspire to.”

The ongoing archaeological project at Interamna Lirenas continues to add new evidence about important aspects of the Roman civilization, stressing the high levels of connectivity and integration (political, social, economic and cultural) which it featured.

The 2017 excavation, directed by Dr Launaro (Gonville & Caius College) and Professor Martin Millett (Fitzwilliam College), both from the Faculty of Classics, in partnership with Dr Giovanna Rita Bellini of the Italian Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Frosinone, Latina e Rieti, is part of a long-standing collaboration with the British School at Rome and the Comune of Pignataro Interamna and has benefitted from the generous support of the Isaac Newton Trust and Mr Antonio Silvestro Evangelista.

Inset image: The find spot near the former roofed theatre in Interamna Lirenas

A 2,000-year-old intact and inscribed sundial – one of only a handful known to have survived – has been recovered during the excavation of a roofed theatre in the Roman town of Interamna Lirenas, near Monte Cassino, in Italy.

“Not only have we been able to identify the individual who commissioned the sundial, we have also been able to determine the specific public office he held in relation to the likely date of the inscription”
Alessandro Launaro
The sundial pictured after excavation

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Postgraduate Pioneers 2017 #4

By ta385 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Oct 31, 2017.

Yesim Yaprak Yildiz, PhD student

Fourth in the series is Yesim Yaprak Yildiz, a sociologist exploring the relationship between political violence, truth and reconciliation with a focus on Turkey.

My research sets out to 

My passion is to understand the relationship between truth and justice, more specifically whether revelation of truth about an atrocity would lead to justice. I set out to answer this question by examining the social and political effects of public confessions of state officials on past atrocities against civilians. I focus on Turkey and state violence against the Kurds in the 1990s. 

My motivation

I have been working on human rights violations in Turkey, particularly on torture and impunity, for over ten years. Turkey’s failure to account for the collective political violence in its history has been one of the main reasons which motivated me to pursue a PhD on this topic. Questioning approaches that establish a linear link between confession, truth and justice, I have sought to understand the workings of power in the confessional form of truth telling.


I am currently in the final year of my PhD so I spend most of my time either at the library or at home writing my thesis. When I visit the department to meet my supervisor and fellow PhD students, I usually study at the ‘Attic’, the study space provided for PhD students in the department. It provides quite an appealing atmosphere thanks to student initiatives including writing groups and coffee breaks. Due to my part-time job at the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study at University of London, I also commute between London and Cambridge.
My best days 

Cambridge is a unique place not only to indulge in solitary intellectual work but also to socialize with fellow academics in a wide range of events. As one of the conveners of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network, a research group at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, I also organise seminars on performance and performativity related themes. One of the seminars I recently organised featured Professor Leigh Payne from the University of Oxford. It was a particularly special occasion for me as I decided to study confessions after I heard her talk at a workshop in Denmark.
I hope my work will lead to 

I want to contribute to the academic literature on political violence, truth and reconciliation, and thereby inform decision makers, scholars and broader public on some specific aspects of achieving and keeping peace by addressing the need for justice. More importantly, I hope my research will make people reflect on the roots of denial not only caused by forms of silencing but also by certain forms of speech. 

While I am planning to pursue an academic career, I would like to continue working in grassroots movements and NGOs on human rights violations. My future projects will involve both elements of research and art. Through interactive and creative projects, I aim to reflect upon alternative ways of working through the past.  

It had to be Cambridge because

The best part of studying at Cambridge has been its fulfilling and vibrant intellectual environment. In addition to the wide-ranging academic events featuring renowned scholars and research methods courses, I also had the chance to attend a short film making course which enhanced my digital story-telling skills. I have been very lucky to have an inspiring environment in the department thanks to the encouragement and support of my supervisor, Professor Patrick Baert.

With our Postgraduate Open Day fast-approaching (3 November), we introduce five PhD students who are already making waves at Cambridge.

I'm planning to pursue an academic career while continuing to work in grassroots movements and NGOs on human rights violations.
Yesim Yaprak Yildiz
Yesim Yaprak Yildiz
Postgraduate Open Day

For more information about the University's Postgraduate Open Day on 3rd November 2017 and to book to attend, please click here.

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Postgraduate Pioneers 2017 #3

By ta385 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Oct 27, 2017.

Draško Kašćelan
Third in the series is Draško Kašćelan, a linguistics researcher hoping to help children with language development.
My research sets out to
I’m investigating figurative language understanding in bilingual children. Nowadays, speaking more than one language is becoming a norm worldwide. Similarly, using metaphors in everyday speech is more frequent than one might assume. This frequency of use helps the development of figurative language comprehension but since bilinguals don’t have equal exposure to both of their languages as corresponding monolinguals, there is a question of whether this lack of input affects how they understand metaphors. 
I am also looking into the level of autistic traits in children, since these traits are often related to the difficulties in figurative language comprehension. Hopefully, this research will give insight into how language understanding develops in bilinguals, but also offer directions for future investigation of language development in clinical populations. 
My work is split between office work and data collection. At the moment, I spend most of the time in my department but I sometimes prepare experimental tasks in a cafe. But when I’m collecting data that involves visiting primary schools outside of Cambridge which gives me a really interesting change of scene. This would typically include a session with a student in which he or she does a series of computer-based cognitive or language tasks designed to look like games. Some of the sessions also include act-out tasks with toys, which makes the whole data collection quite fun.
My best days
The most interesting day I’ve had so far was during the pilot of my study when I got to talk to several children about the work that I do. Explaining to primary school kids what linguistics actually is ended up being quite a challenge, especially when I was asked how long it takes to learn a language and why I don’t speak Elvish.
I hope my work will lead to
The improvement of support that bilingual children get when it comes to maintaining the use of their languages. Together with other experimental work in the field, I expect to make an impact on educational policies regarding foreign language learning, which is currently far from optimal in the UK. I also hope that the findings of my investigation will offer directions for future research of language development in both typically and atypically developing individuals.
It had to be Cambridge because
Apart from academic and financial support that Cambridge offers, one of the most valuable parts of this experience is the student community. Specifically, the college system offers opportunities to socialise with people from other academic fields and from various backgrounds. This is quite different from my undergraduate experience outside of Cambridge where I would mostly only interact mostly with people from my field, which sometimes makes engaging with other areas of interest harder.

With our Postgraduate Open Day fast-approaching (3 Nov), we introduce five PhD students who are already making waves at Cambridge.

I was asked how long it takes to learn a language and why I don’t speak Elvish.
Draško Kašćelan
Draško Kašćelan
Postgraduate Open Day

For more information about the University's Postgraduate Open Day on 3rd November 2017 and to book to attend, please click here.

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Innovative stadium will be the home of cricket in East Africa

By ag236 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Oct 27, 2017.

Some 1,500 people –including Rwandan president Paul Kagame— are expected to attend the opening of the country’s first international standard stadium on Saturday 28 October. The event will feature a match between teams led by former England captain Michael Vaughan and South African record-breaking cricketer Herschelle Gibbs.

Although cricket is one of the fastest growing sports in Rwanda, the country has not had, until now, a pitch that was appropriate for hosting international matches. Rwandan teams could only compete internationally by travelling to other countries, while Rwandan fans were unable to watch their own teams in action on home ground.

The new cricket grounds in Gahanga, a southern suburb of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, are the result of a partnership between the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation –a British charity—, the Rwanda Cricket Association, the Government of Rwanda, and architectural firm Light Earth Designs (LED), co-founded by Cambridge lecturer Dr. Michael Ramage.

One of the new grounds' most recognisable features is a pavilion consisting of three vaults constructed with 66,000 handmade tiles made by local workers using locally-sourced materials. The vaults’ shape mimics the parabolic geometry of a bouncing ball, and echoes Rwanda’s hilly topography.

These instantly recognisable vaults are the final product of research carried out by Dr. Ramage, from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation, with Ms Ana Gatóo and Mr Wesam Al Asali. They build on Dr. Ramage’s earlier work alongside Dr. Matt DeJong (Cambridge) and Prof. John Ochsendorf (MIT).

Dr. Ramage and Prof. Ochsendorf had pioneered the pavilion’s characteristic soil tiled vaulting with architect Peter Rich of LED, at the Mapungubwe Interpretative Centre in South Africa. Adapted for the Rwandan context with Mr Tim Hall, LED co-founder and project lead, the vaults rise out of the cut soil banking formed as the pitch was levelled, integrating seamlessly with the landscape. The banking creates a natural amphitheatre with views over the pitch and the wetland valley beyond.

The project is part of a 5-year initiative led by Light Earth Designs to assist Rwandan development. It aims to encourage the use of home-grown, labour-intensive construction techniques, thereby lowering the carbon footprint of local building projects, enhancing local skills and helping to build the local economy.

Speaking ahead of the opening ceremony, Dr. Ramage said: “the Rwanda Cricket Stadium embodies not only the spirit of cricket in Rwanda, but also that of the men and women who crafted and constructed the building over the past few months.”



Cambridge architectural engineer is part of the team that has built Rwanda’s first international stadium

View of Rwanda Cricket Stadium

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The man who tried to read all the books in the world

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Oct 26, 2017.

129,864,880. That’s the number of books in the world, according to an estimate by Google Books, which since its launch in 2005 has been trying to scan them all, convert them to searchable text using optical character recognition and then make them publicly available online. Although Google Books’ hopes have been slowed by wrangles over copyright and fair use, if it succeeds it could become the largest online body of human knowledge ever available.

Half a millennium earlier in Seville, Spain, Hernando Colón (1488–1539) had the same ambitious aim: to create a library that would be universal in a way never before imagined because it would contain everything. And Colón really did try to collect everything: from precious manuscripts to books by unknown authors, from flimsy pamphlets to tavern posters, from weighty tomes to throwaway ephemera.

Colón’s bibliomania took him back and forth across Europe for three decades. According to Dr Edward Wilson-Lee, from the Faculty of English and the Centre for Material Texts, he bought 700 books in Nuremburg over Christmas in 1521, before passing on to Mainz where he bought a thousand more in the course of a month. In a single year in 1530, he visited Rome, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Turin, Milan, Venice, Padua, Innsbruck, Augsburg, Constance, Basle, Fribourg, Cologne, Maastricht, Antwerp, Paris, Poitiers and Burgos, voraciously buying all he could lay his hands on.

Wilson-Lee has been working with Dr José María Pérez Fernández from the Universidad de Granada to research the life of Colón, the natural son of the great Italian navigator Christopher Columbus. In addition to creating his library, Colón accompanied his father on explorations of the new world and wrote the first biography of Columbus; he was also a ground-breaking mapmaker and gathered unparalleled collections of music, images and plants.

“Colón had an extraordinary memory and an obsession with lists,” says Wilson-Lee, whose research on Colón was funded by the British Academy. “Each time he bought a book, he would meticulously record where and when he bought it, how much it cost and the rate of currency exchange that day. Sometimes he noted where he was when he read it, what he thought of the book and if he’d met the author. As pieces of material culture, each is a fascinating account of how one man related to, used and was changed by books.”

This almost obsessive activity makes what now remains of his library – the Biblioteca Colombina, housed in a wing of Seville Cathedral – an incredibly important material resource to explore book history, travel and intellectual networks. “When pieced together,” he adds, “they give an account of one of the most extraordinary lives in a period filled with entrancing characters.”

Wilson-Lee describes Colón as having lived at the time of an “event horizon” of exponential change, in the same way that the advent of the internet has been for us today; only in Colón’s case it was the move from written manuscript to printed book.

“It simply became impossible for one man to read everything,” says Wilson-Lee. “Maybe in his youth, it would have been possible – there would have been few enough printed books. But as his library grew, he realised he needed to employ readers to work through each book and provide him with a summary – in effect the forerunner of the Reader’s Digest.”

As Colón’s vision of amassing all knowledge grew, so did something else: the need to add structure to the information he gathered. “It was one of the first ‘big data’ challenges,” says Wilson-Lee. “You might have the information but how do you make sense of it all?

“One of the fascinating aspects about the library is that it shows that sometimes the way in which knowledge becomes divided up is not in response to some kind of grand abstract reasoning, some kind of Eureka moment, it’s sometimes in response to a practical problem. In this case, ‘I’ve got 15,000 books, where do I put them?’” On a shelf seems reasonable, but even in this respect Colón was pioneering, says Wilson-Lee.

“In essence, he invents the modern bookshelf: row upon row of books standing upright on their spines, stacked in specially designed wooden cases.”

And a material problem of how to store things very quickly turns into an intellectual problem of which things belong together. It forces certain decisions. “As anyone who has walked through a library will know, order is everything,” explains Wilson-Lee. “The ways in which books can be ordered multiplies rapidly as the collection grows, and each of these orders shows the universe in a slightly different light – do you order alphabetically, by size or by subject?

“Hernando was acutely aware of this. He referred to unordered, or ‘unmapped’, collections as ‘dead’.”

He wanted his library not only to have everything but also to “provide a set of propositions about how the universe fits together,” he adds. “He viewed the Universal Library as the intellectual counterpart – the brain – to the world empire that Spain was aiming for in the 16th century. It was a fitting extension to his father’s grand ambitions to explore the globe.”

One of Colón’s innovations to make sense of his library was a vast compendium of book summaries, called the Libro de Epitomes. To create this, he set a team of sumistas – digesters of the thousands of books in the library – to work distilling each volume, leading towards his ultimate vision that all the knowledge in the world could be boiled down into just a few volumes: one for medicine, one for grammar, and so on.

Another was a blueprint for the Library using ten thousand scraps of paper bearing hieroglyphic symbols. “Each of the myriad ways they could be put together suggested a different path through the library, just as a different set of search terms on the internet will bring up different information. In some respects, the Biblioteca Hernandina, as it was then called, was the world’s first search engine.”

How these systems worked will be uncovered in books that Wilson-Lee and Pérez Fernández are writing about the man and his library, and also about how his accomplishments resonate with our own fast-changing networked world.

“For all that he died nearly five centuries ago, Hernando’s discovery of the world around him bears striking, sometimes uncanny, resemblance to the world that we are discovering today,” says Wilson-Lee. “The digital revolution has increased the amount of information available but how do you discern what’s useful from what’s useless? We are wholly reliant on search algorithms to order the internet for us. Hernando was just as aware that how you choose to categorise and rank information has immense consequences. It’s easy for us to forget this sometimes – to sleepwalk our way into knowledge collection and distribution.”

Today, just over 3,000 books of Colón’s library remain. Until now, the life of this extraordinary man has largely escaped notice; it’s taken another revolution to grasp how visionary he was in recognising the power of tools to order the world of information.

Edward Wilson-Lee’s biography of Hernando Colón, ‘The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books’ will be published by HarperCollins in 2018, and the study of the library, co-authored with José María Pérez Fernández, will be published later by Yale University Press. 

Inset image: Hernando Colón. Credit: Wikipedia.

One man’s quest to create a library of everything, 500 years before Google Books was conceived, foreshadowed the challenges of ‘big data’ and our reliance on search algorithms to make sense of it all.

In some respects, the Biblioteca Hernandina, as it was then called, was the world’s first search engine.
Edward Wilson-Lee
Old book wall

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Animating objects: what material culture can tell us about domestic devotions

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Oct 24, 2017.

It’s an enduring irony of history that the most commonplace objects from the past are those least represented in today’s museum collections. The more precious and expensive an object, the more likely it is to have survived. As a result, our perceptions are skewed towards items that belonged to the rich and powerful – objects that were perhaps rarely handled.

During Madonnas and Miracles, a recent exhibition of religious material culture at the Fitzwilliam Museum, one of the most ‘stopped at’ items of the objects on show was an exquisite rock crystal rosary. It was clearly crafted for an individual of outstanding wealth and status. Each bead features a scene from the New Testament; the drawings are incised into a layer of gold. Not surprisingly, the rosary is today one of the treasures held by the Palazzo Madama Museum in Turin.

But also attracting attention was a much less eye-catching slip of paper printed on both sides with prayers in Latin. This breve would have been sold cheaply on the streets of Italian cities. Its frayed edges suggest that it was folded and worn close to the skin in the belief that the prayers would protect the wearer from a host of disasters – from earthquake to plague. Thousands of brevi were produced, and carried as talismans against misfortune, but few have survived.

In 2013, three Cambridge academics from different fields of scholarship came together to throw fresh light on the ways in which Renaissance Italians worshipped within the privacy of the home. Historian Professor Mary Laven, literary specialist Dr Abigail Brundin and art historian Professor Deborah Howard were determined to explore material culture from modest as well as wealthy households through their ambitious research project, Domestic Devotions: the Place of Piety in the Italian Domestic Home 1400–1600, funded by the European Research Council.

During the research, which informed Madonnas and Miracles and a forthcoming book, the three stepped out of the ‘golden triangle’ of Florence, Rome and Venice, the major hubs of cultural activity in the Renaissance, to look at material culture from further afield – in Naples, the Marche and the Venetian mainland. In doing so, their study makes an important contribution to our understanding of domestic religious practice across the Italian peninsula.

The Renaissance is often seen as a secular, less religious age in which interest in antiquity encouraged a more rational way of seeing the world. But the evidence from material culture paints a different picture. “The wealth of devotional images and artefacts that we have discovered in Renaissance homes encourages us to view the period 1400–1600 as a time of spiritual revitalisation,” says Laven.

Household inventories show how even a relatively modest family could create a special place for prayer and meditation by setting objects such as a crucifix, candlesticks, holy books and rosaries on a table or kneeling stool. As a reminder of divine protection, religious pictures or statues might be found almost anywhere in or around the house.

“Acts of devotion, from routine prayers to extraordinary religious experiences, such as miracles and visions, frequently took place in the home and were shaped to meet the demands of domestic life with all its ups and downs – from birth to death,” adds Laven. “The tight bond between the domestic and the devotional can be seen in the material culture of the period – in paintings, ceramics and more. These objects tell us how closely daily life intersected with religious belief.”

Young women often asked the Virgin Mary for intercession during childbirth. Representations of the Madonna embracing her healthy son were a feature of many bedchambers – and not just those of the wealthy. The Fitzwilliam Museum holds an example of a rustic terracotta figure of a solemn-looking Madonna and Christ child who is portrayed holding his mother’s naked breast. This rare object exemplifies the type of lower-end production available to less well-off consumers.

Household objects acted as reminders to Renaissance parents of their duties, and the Holy Family was a powerful model of how a devout family should live. An early 16th-century maiolica inkstand in the Fitzwilliam collection, for instance, takes the form of a nativity scene: the infant Christ lies before an adoring Mary and Joseph while a cow and ass look over a stable door, their placidity testament to the wonder of the moment.

In Renaissance paintings, the Madonna appears as an ideal mother and educator – a compelling role model. “A painting of Virgin and child with John the Baptist by Pinturicchio, held by the Fitzwilliam, is a wonderful example,” says Howard. “It shows the Madonna teaching the young Jesus to read. Seated on her lap and encircled by her arms, he is perfectly absorbed in a book. Meanwhile, a boyish and pious John the Baptist provides a model for devotion by young children.”

Everyday objects could literally incorporate the sacred. An earthenware bowl in the Fitzwilliam Museum decorated with an image of the Madonna of Loreto bears around its rim the inscription: CON POL. DI S. CASA. This abbreviated Italian text tells us that the clay from which it was made contains dust (polvere) from the ‘holy house’ of the Virgin Mary, supposedly carried from Nazareth to Italy in the 13th century. Behind the Madonna is an outline of the Santa Casa with its tiled roof and bell tower.

At a time when much of the population was illiterate, owning devotional texts was important for surprisingly large swathes of the population. Even when closed, or unread, they exuded beauty and spiritual value within the domestic sphere. Brundin explains: “Sacred words, by their very presence, could provide protection. Some authors even advised writing the words of certain psalms on the walls to keep the family safe and as a reminder to pray regularly.”

Texts can offer clues to their owners. Cambridge University Library holds a stunning hand-illustrated printed copy of the Meditation on the Life of Christ. Hand-written notes in its margins show that in 1528 it was given to a nun, Sister Alexia, by her uncle. Alexia’s annotations indicate that she read the work closely. She even added manicules (pointing fingers) next to passages of particular importance. The book was later owned by another nun, Teofila, whose own reading would have been guided by Alexia’s marks.

Objects accrue deeply personal meanings that are impossible to unravel fully. Careful investigation across disciplines can, however, offer a glimpse of the very human and very fragile hopes and fears embodied by objects, as Brundin explains: “A humble scrap of paper marked with a cross or a brief prayer, of no obvious artistic or literary merit, comes alive when we’re able to marry it with an archival record in which a devotee explains what it means to them.”

‘The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy’ by Abigail Brundin, Deborah Howard and Professor Mary Laven will be published by Oxford University Press in 2018.

Inset image: This breve was probably folded and worn close to the skin around 500 years ago in the belief that the prayers would protect the wearer; Breve di S. Vincenzo Ferrerio contro la fibre, Civica Raccolta Stampe A. Bertarelli. 


Rustic figurines of a resigned-looking Virgin clutching her child may have no obvious literary or artistic merit to us today. But understanding what they meant to the spiritual lives of their owners can offer a glimpse of the human hopes and fears that people have, for centuries, invested in inanimate objects.

The tight bond between the domestic and the devotional can be seen in the material culture of the period – in paintings, ceramics and more. These objects tell us how closely daily life intersected with religious belief.
Mary Laven
This down-to-earth, glazed terracotta figurine of the Virgin could act as the focus of family prayers in a modest home

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Living in a material world: why 'things' matter

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Oct 18, 2017.

From the tools we work with to the eyeglasses and dental implants that improve us, our bodies are shaped by the things we use. We express and understand our identities through clothing, cars and hobbies. We create daily routines and relate to each other through houses and workplaces. We imagine place, history and political regimens through sculptures and paintings.

Even when we think we are dealing with abstract information, the form it takes makes a huge difference. When printing liberated the written word from the limited circulation of handwritten manuscripts, the book and the newspaper became fundamental to religious and political changes, and helped create the modern world.

Studies of material culture focus upon things not just as material objects, but also on how they reflect our meanings and uses. Throughout the humanities and social sciences, there is a long tradition of thinking principally about meaning and human intention, but scholars are now realising the immense importance of material things in social life.

At the core of material culture studies is the question of how people and things interact. This is a simple, sweeping question, but one long overlooked, thanks to historically dominant philosophical traditions that focus narrowly on human intention. In fact, it’s only in the past decade that scholars have posed the question of material agency – how things structure human lives and action.

Material culture studies have emerged as central in many disciplines across the University of Cambridge. In archaeology and history, scholars see material objects as fundamental sources for the human past, counterbalancing the discourse-oriented view that written texts give us. Should we use historical sources to see what people think they ate, or count their rubbish to find out what they really consumed? Combining the two gives us answers of unprecedented scope.

Geographers ask why it makes a difference whether workplaces are organised into separate offices or open-plan cubicles. Literary scholars draw attention to how experience and meaning are built around things, like Marcel Proust’s remembering of things long past as a madeleine cake is dipped in tea; even books themselves are artefacts of a singular and powerful kind. Likewise, studying anatomical models and astronomical instruments empowers an understanding of the history of science as a practical activity. And anthropologists explore the capacity of art to cross cultures and express the claims of indigenous peoples.

Material things are also at the heart of new fields such as heritage studies. Memory itself is material, as we’ve seen recently in the USA, where whether to keep or tear down statues of historic figures such as Confederate generals can polarise people.

Unlike most newly emerging fields in the sciences, material culture studies are grounded in a sprawling panoply of related approaches rather than in a tightly focused paradigm. They come from a convergence of archaeology, anthropology, history, geography, literary studies, economics and many other disciplines, each with its own methods for approaching human–thing interactions.

The reasons for this interest are not hard to find. The University offers a rare combination of three essential foundations for the field. One is world-class strength in the humanities and social sciences, sustained by institutions like the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), an essential venue for interdisciplinary collaboration as shown by its 'Things' seminar series (see panel).

Most human dilemmas are material dilemmas in some way

The second is the capacity for a huge range of scientific analyses of materials. The third is our immensely varied museum collections: the Fitzwilliam Museum’s treasures; the Museum of Classical Archaeology’s 19th-century cast gallery; the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s worldwide prehistoric, historic and ethnographic collections; and many others. Where else can scholars interested in the material aspect of Victorian collecting study Darwin’s original finches or Sedgwick’s and Scilla’s original fossils, boxes, labels, archives and all?

Whether it’s work on historic costume, craft production, religion or books, the study of material culture offers unparalleled insights into how humans form their identities, use their skills and create a sense of place and history.

But it is not only a descriptive and historical field. Most human dilemmas are material dilemmas in some way. Where did our desire for things come from and how did the economics of consumerism develop? How can we organise our daily lives to reduce our dependence on cars? Should we care where the objects we buy come from before they reach the supermarket shelves? How do repatriation claims grow out of the entangled histories of museum objects?

The shape of this new field is still emerging, but Cambridge research will be at the heart of it.

Professor John Robb is at the Department of Archaeology, Professor Simon Goldhill is at the Faculty of Classics, Professor Ulinka Rublack is at the Faculty of History and Professor Nicholas Thomas is at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Things structure our lives. They enrich us, embellish us and express our hopes and fears. Here, to introduce a month-long focus on research on material culture, four academics from different disciplines explain why understanding how we interact with our material world can reveal unparalleled insights into what it is to be human.

Studies of material culture focus upon things not just as material objects, but also on how they reflect our meanings and uses.
John Robb, Simon Goldhill, Ulinka Rublack, Nicholas Thomas
All the things
Curious objects and CRASSH courses

You’ve had a difficult time lately. You’re thinking that all this bad luck might be more than coincidence. You trim your nails, snip some hair and bend a couple of pins. You put them in a bottle with a dash of urine, heat it up and put it in a wall. That’ll cure the bewitchment, you say to yourself.

Making a ‘witch bottle’ like this would be an entirely reasonable thing to do 400 years ago. It would also be reasonable to swallow a stone from a goat’s stomach to counteract poisoning and hide an old shoe in a chimney breast to increase the chance of conceiving.

“All of these objects took on layers of meaning for their owners, and the fact these strong connections existed at all gives us glimpses of people’s beliefs, hopes and lives,” says Annie Thwaite, a PhD student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. She is also one of the convenors of a seminar series on ‘Things’ at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH).

“Material culture was a crucial part of medicine in the 17th century. Objects like witch bottles are often dismissed as ‘folkish’. But by investigating the bottles’ architectural and geographical situation, their material properties and processes, you start to look through the eyes of their owners. Fearful of supernatural intrusion into their homes and bodies, people would go to great efforts to use something they regarded as a legitimate element of early modern medical practice.”

Charms and amulets, votives and potions, myths and magic will be discussed as this year’s ‘Things’ seminars begins a new focus on imaginative objects.

“Like material culture studies, the seminar series is broad and varied,” she explains. “We might just as easily examine the skills required to craft objects as the power of objects to become politicised.

“Things matter greatly to humans. We have short lives and our stuff outlives us. While we can’t tell our own story, maybe they can.”

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Into the woods with Shakespeare

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Oct 02, 2017.

Fear and forests, writes Shakespeare scholar Professor Anne Barton, go hand in hand. Forests are where we get lost and meet wild men, where chaos rules and anything can happen. Shakespeare uses forest settings, sometimes magical, sometimes menacing, in many of his plays. In As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is a place of freedom, transformation and love – but also hardship for the shepherds who work there. When in Macbeth Birnam Wood does come to Dunsinane, Macbeth knows he is doomed.

Barton, who died in 2013, was Professor of English and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Her many published works included Essays, Mainly Shakespearean (1994) and Ben Jonson, Dramatist (1984), and she was also an influential editor of Shakespeare’s plays. She was vitally interested in performance and staging, and her work has substantially altered and enriched the ways in which Shakespeare and other early modern dramatists have been understood and performed.

Now Cambridge University Press has published The Shakespearean Forest, Anne Barton’s final book, based in part on her Clark Lectures in 2003. It has been prepared for publication by Dr Hester Lees-Jeffries, a former research assistant to Barton and now a Shakespeare scholar herself, and a University Lecturer in the Faculty of English. In an editor’s note, Lees-Jeffries describes Barton’s seminars, held in her beautiful rooms at Trinity College, as often intimidating but always with a sense of occasion.

Woods and forests in the English language

The six chapters of The Shakespearean Forest set the playwright’s work within a historical, social and literary world of forests, as well as exploring the surviving evidence for the ways in which forests might have been staged in the early modern theatre. The opening chapter reminds us how big a part woodland plays in the story of the British Isles. The English language is rich with references to wood and woods. We talk about ‘not being able to see the wood for the trees’ and ‘not being out of the woods yet’. We ‘touch wood’ to forestall ill fortune.

If Britain is wooded today, it was much more so in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The names of these forests and woods entered the lexicon. The maiden name of Shakespeare’s mother Anne was Arden. His birthplace, the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, was once surrounded by the ancient woodland of the Forest of Arden. It was even said that a squirrel could jump from tree to tree right across the county of Warwickshire.

But this forest was already in decline in Shakespeare’s time. Trees provided timber for house and ship building, fuel for cooking and heating. In his Description of England in 1587, William Harrison commented that both England and Wales “have sometimes been very well replenished with great woods and groves, although at this time the said commodity be not a little decayed in both”.  

Shakespeare wrote for the ‘wooden O’, as the open-air, timber-framed Globe Theatre is described in the Prologue to Henry V. The origin of many of our current environmental anxieties can be found in the early modern period, and in the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries; they too were concerned by deforestation and pollution. Like the theatre itself, the forest is a place of transformation, growth and change.

Hunters, poachers and wild men of the woods

Forests were all about hunting – a pastime seen as preparation for warfare. Complex laws gave royalty rights and privileges to hunt deer and boar. Elizabeth I was a keen hunter, as well as being readily associated by poets in her courtly cult with Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt. Her successor James’ passion for the chase, writes Barton, “verged on the pathological”. He even insisted on being lowered into the gaping bellies of dead stags in the belief that the blood would strengthen his ankles.

Poaching was widespread and, though illegal, was not regarded as socially disreputable. The gentry, and even nobility, engaged in poaching – either for fun or to pursue family vendettas. Popular tradition holds that Shakespeare, too, may have been a poacher in his youth. Barton paints a vivid portrait of a group of poachers as a motley crew of unruly thrill-seekers united by blood-thirsty machismo.

“Heavily armed […] accompanied by a remarkably democratic mixture of friends, eager household servants, and people from the local village (sometimes including the vicar), men who had deer parks of their own, regularly broke into those of their neighbours, viciously assaulting keepers and killing more game than they could carry away.”

More benignly, green men and woodwoses (wild men of the woods) are key characters in the dramatis personae encountered in fields, woods and forests. In medieval churches and cathedrals, leaf masks are carved into stonework as decorative motifs, stubborn leftovers from a pagan past. They are, observes Barton, “reminders that forests are places of transformation, where the boundary between human life and that of animals, plants or trees are likely to become confused, or even obliterated”.

While for other dramatists, wild men were “a vogue that peaked and faded”, writes Barton, “Shakespeare’s interest in wild men seems to have extended throughout his writing career, taking in Oliver [As You Like It], Timon [Timon of Athens], the dancers in Bohemia [The Winter’s Tale], Caliban [The Tempest], Cardenio [The History of Cardenio] and (in a sense) Herne the Hunter in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Elsewhere in the book she explores the various traditions of Robin Hood and Merlin the enchanter, both of whom make appearances in plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Ben Jonson.

How did Shakespeare bring the forest to his audiences?

A central question of Barton’s work is how Shakespeare might have brought the physicality of forest and woodland to the stage. There is no documentary evidence to show how early performances of Shakespeare’s plays led audiences deep into the woods. The only clue comes from the Netherlands in form of an engraving, dated 1635, which shows an elaborate indoor stage at a fair. In the background two tall trees are visible, perhaps waiting their moment in the next scene.

To exemplify the effort and expense invested in creating spectacular entertainment, Barton describes in detail the extraordinary artificial forest commissioned by Henry VIII for a pageant performed to celebrate the birth of a son on New Year’s Day 1511. ‘La Forrest Salvigne’ took the form of a rolling stage (requiring 40 men to propel it) complete with a magnificent forest from which the king and three companions appeared, mounted on horseback and fully armed.

According to meticulous accounts kept by an official, this forest comprised 12 hawthorns, 12 oaks, 12 hazels, 10 maples. 10 birches, 16 dozen fern roots and branches, 60 broom stalks and 16 furze bushes. Also present were 6 fir trees, holly, ivy, fennel stalks and 2,400 acorns and hazelnuts. Most of these items (including the nuts and acorns) were not gathered from the countryside but man-made. As Barton writes: “The individual shapes and sizes of its myriad leaves, for instance, were delicately cut from fine sarsnet, a fine silk material, and then backed with stiffened paper.”

Barton’s interest in the staging of Shakespeare’s plays reflects the way her own life brought together the worlds of theatre and academia, not least in her marriage to the director John Barton. In an afterword to The Shakespearean Forest, Shakespeare scholar Professor Peter Holland writes that many of Barton’s students became actors and directors and that many of her research students (including Holland himself) wrote dissertations centrally concerned with the questions of performance in early modern drama.

Holland writes: “Performance inflected her approach to plays and nothing in her writing […] allowed plays to be analysed as if their narratives could be divorced from the rhythms of performance.”

The Shakespearean Forest by Anne Barton is published by Cambridge University Press.

Inset image: map of Warwickshire from 'The theatre of the empire of Great Britaine' (1611) (Atlas 2.61.1, Cambridge University Library)


The Shakespearean Forest reimagines the real forests that our greatest playwright evoked in his works. The final book of renowned scholar, Anne Barton, it explores the changeable and sometimes sinister presence of the forest in literature and culture.

Forests are places of transformation, where the boundary between human life and that of animals, plants or trees are likely to become confused, or even obliterated.
Anne Barton
Henry Peacham, 'Silvius', from Minerva Britanna (1612)

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University of Cambridge supports BBC Short Story Awards

By ps748 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Sep 28, 2017.

These awards highlight the BBC’s commitment to the short story form and to bringing it to a wider audience. The University of Cambridge will support all three of the awards and the charity, First Story, will become a partner for the BBC Young Writers’ Award and the Student Critics' Award. The partners replace BookTrust who have been working as a partner with the BBC since 2006.

Dr Sarah Dillon, lecturer in English Literature and Film at the University of Cambridge, said

‘The University of Cambridge has a rich heritage of investigating storytelling for eight hundred years and in that time we have produced many acclaimed creative writers including those who excel at the short story form such as A.S. Byatt, Helen Oyeyemi and Zadie Smith. The BBC shares more stories with more people than any other organisation in the world, and both organisations have an outstanding reputation for excellence and literary merit. The combined strengths of Cambridge and the BBC with First Story will make this a powerful and productive partnership.”

The new partnership heralds an expanded programme of activity around the awards. A short story symposium will be hosted by the new University of Cambridge Centre for Creative Writing at Madingley Hall, the Institute of Continuing Education’s campus. The symposium is aimed at new writers and anyone interested in short stories and creative writing and will include writing workshops and talks by established authors. Cambridge will host the 2018 prizegiving, with a special short story edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row which will be broadcast live from the University Library. The Cambridge School of Arts and Humanities will also host First Story’s Young Writers’ Festival for 600 young people in 2018.


Bob Shennan, Director of BBC Radio, said:

“I’d like to warmly welcome both of our new partners as we continue to champion brilliant storytelling across the BBC, including these awards on Radio 1 and Radio 4. We are the biggest commissioner of short stories and these awards are very much part of our commitment to bring our listeners the best new writing both from established and emerging talent. We greatly appreciate the support of our new partners, and I’d also like to thank BookTrust for their work with us over the past decade.”

The BBC Young Writers’ Award and the BBC Student Critics’ Award enhance the offering for young people, with the aim of inspiring the next generation of readers and writers of short stories. Entrants to the Young Writers’ Award will have the opportunity to write their own short stories inspired by a treasure trove of literary artefacts, as the Cambridge University Library opens up its digital archives for writing prompts. Through the Student Critics’ Award selected 16–18 year olds around the UK will read, listen to, discuss and critique the five stories shortlisted for the NSSA and have their say. They will have access to discussion guides and teaching resources created with BBC Learning, and in-school events with writers, judges, First Story networks, and staff and students from the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.

Di Speirs, Books Editor for BBC Radio said: “The launch of our new three-way partnership with the University of Cambridge and First Story is a hugely exciting moment. The BBC National Short Story Award and the BBC Young Writers’ Award have made a genuine difference to individual writers and to the literary landscape over the past twelve years. The Student Critics’ Award will foster a new generation of readers alongside our exciting plans for writers of all ages. We share with our partners a commitment to inspiring new writers and readers and to championing the very best short story writing in the UK.”

The prizes for both the BBC National Short Story Award and the BBC Young Writers’ Award remain the same. The five writers shortlisted for the BBC NSSA will all be celebrated individually on Radio 4: as in previous years, the stories will be read on Radio4 and the authors will be interviewed on Front Row, followed by a live edition of the programme where the winner is announced. For the Young Writers’ Award, the shortlist will have their stories published on the BBC Radio 1 website and the winning story will be broadcast on Radio 1. The awards will open for entry in December 2017.

A creative writing course at the Institute of Continuing Education

The University of Cambridge Centre for Creative Writing offers a wide range of part-time and short courses, from one-day classes right up to a part-time Master’s degree. Students from all backgrounds and levels of experience can take part. For more information about the Centre go to:

More information about the Awards can be found at:


The University of Cambridge is partnering with BBC Radio to promote the BBC National Short Story Award, the BBC Young Writers’ Award and the BBC Student Critics’ Award in a three year collaboration starting in 2018.

The launch of our new three-way partnership with the University of Cambridge and First Choice is a hugely exciting moment
Di Speirs, BBC
Writing example

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A rare discovery will shed new light on Mycenaean funerary practices

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - School of Arts and Humanities. Published on Sep 14, 2017.

For the first time, archaeologists have uncovered and carefully documented an intact burial in a monumental chamber tomb of the Mycenaean palatial period, around 3,350 years ago. Research into the material uncovered has only just begun but the discovery will expand our knowledge of Mycenaean funerals – from the treatment of the body to the selection of objects placed for burial.

The tomb is approached by an impressive rock-cut passageway, 20 m long, which leads to a deep façade some 5.40 m in height. A doorway gives access to the burial chamber. Its area of 42 sq m makes this the ninth largest known to date out of 4,000 examples excavated in the last 150 years in Greece. The partial collapse of the original chamber roof has helped to preserve the burial layer intact.

“Mycenaean chamber tombs are generally found by archaeologists to have been disturbed or looted. Most contain many burials, making an association between individual people and objects very difficult or impossible,” said Dr Yannis Galanakis of Cambridge’s Faculty of Classics, co-director of the five-year Prosilio project and an expert in Aegean archaeology.

“Finding an intact burial, let alone in a monumental tomb of the palatial period, 1370-1200 BC, makes our discovery all the more special for the knowledge we can now acquire about the tomb-using group and the practices they performed during and after the funeral.”

Once huge quantities of soil and rubble had been carefully excavated, the archaeologists found in the chamber the remains of a man, aged 40 to 50 years. He was accompanied by a selection of fine objects: jewellery made in a range of materials, combs, pins, a pair of horse bits, arrowheads, a bow, a sealstone, a signet ring, and a group of tinned clay vessels of various shapes.

“The size and quality of construction of the tomb correlates well with the discovered objects, all of which speak of a man from the upper echelons of the local society,” said Galanakis.

“Initial examination of the finds suggests a conscious selection by the tomb-using group responsible for the burial’s preparation of the objects interred with the body. The impression we get is that the tomb was built during the man’s life. It is indeed astonishing, and a very rare instance, to be able to excavate the remains of the man for whom the tomb must have been constructed.”

Galanakis was struck by the placement of different shapes and types of jewellery with a male burial, which challenges the commonly held assumption that jewellery in Mycenaean Greece should be chiefly associated with female burials. “It also chimes with the discovery of considerable quantities of jewellery by the University of Cincinnati in 2015 in the burial of the ‘griffin warrior’ at Pylos, which is older by a century than that of the man at Prosilio.”

Striking too is the absence of painted pottery, with the exception of two painted stirrup jars, often taken to contain aromatic oils and which may be associated with the final use and closure of the tomb around 1300 BC. Painted pottery is very common in Mycenaean tombs. Its absence from the initial burial is further confirmation of the conscious choices made in the selection of objects placed alongside this man’s burial at Prosilio.

The Prosilio team believes that this monumental structure, known as tomb 2, is associated with ancient Orchomenos, a major centre which controlled northern Boeotia, a region of Greece. Orchomenos, which is only 3.5 km away, oversaw in the 14th and 13th centuries BC the partial drainage of Lake Kopaïs – once the largest lake in Greece – a project that yielded a sizeable area of land for agriculture.

At its peak (1350-1250 BC), Orchomenos’s power is reflected in its most famous monument, the tholos tomb ‘of Minyas’, first excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century and comparable only in size and refinement to the tholos tomb ‘of Atreus’ at Mycenae.

“Despite the tholos ‘of Minyas’ and some earlier important discoveries by Greek and German teams in the area, we still know very little about ancient Orchomenos. We hope that the continuation of our project will help us understand better Orchomenos’s position in the region and learn more about its population and their practices,” said Galanakis.

“The discovery this year enables us to ask questions such as why certain objects were selected for burial while others were not – and what kind of rituals were performed as part of funerary and post-funerary practices. The finds will spark new discussions about the role of burials in Mycenaean life during the palatial period.”

The five-year Prosilio project is in its first year. In subsequent years, the team aims to excavate more tombs and study and publish the archaeological data collected. The initiative is a collaboration between the Ephorate of Antiquities of Boeotia and the British School at Athens. Its directors are Dr Alexandra Charami (Director of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Boeotia) and Dr Yannis Galanakis, (Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Classics and Director of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, University of Cambridge).

The Prosilio team also includes Kyriaki Kalliga, archaeologist of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Boeotia, Dr Panagiotis Karkanas, geo-archaeologist and Director of the Wiener Laboratory at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Dr Ioanna Moutafi, bio-archaeologist and senior researcher at the Wiener Laboratory, Emily Wright, field supervisor and PhD candidate in Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, and Professor Ann Brysbaert of the University of Leiden and Principal Investigator of the ERC project SETinSTONE. Some 25 students, specialists and workers helped in this year’s fieldwork.

The Prosilio project was conducted with permission from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Sports and Ioannis Papadopoulos, the owner of the land. The project was generously funded by, among other sources, the University of Cambridge (Faculty of Classics, the McDonald Institute, the Cambridge Humanities Research Grant scheme, and Sidney Sussex College), the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP) and the British School at Athens.

Inset images: entrance to Prosilio tomb 2; horse bits found with the burial (Yannis Galanakis).


The discovery this summer of an impressive rock-cut tomb on a mountainside in Prosilio, near ancient Orchomenos in central Greece, will shed new light on Mycenaean funerary practices.

Finding an intact burial, let alone in a monumental tomb of the palatial period, 1370-1200 BC, makes our discovery all the more special.
Yannis Galanakis
Excavation of a Myceneaen tomb at Prosilio in central Greece, summer 2017

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