Blog Post #40: Graduate Student Feature with Justin Lorenzo Biggi

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you study?

I have recently completed my Masters by Research at the University of Edinburgh. I am interested in what epigraphy can tell us about identity, and how epigraphy, both public and private, plays into the performance of said identities. My research is based on recent scholarship which posits the existence of an “epigraphical landscape”, a reading of inscriptions as intrinsically tied to their places of publication, whether these be an agora or a cemetery. I therefore approach epigraphy as a unique medium which connected the written word with the physical, embodying ideology and identity through language, art and (where possible to reconstruct) the object’s positioning within physical space.

I have two main areas of focus within this field: funerary epigraphy, which my Masters dissertation focused on, and the epigraphy of healing sanctuaries, which I will touch on in my PhD thesis as part of a larger project exploring disability in relation to ancient citizen identity. In both cases, the inscriptions and their associated art act as representations of bodies: those of the deceased, in the case of funerary monuments, and disabled bodies (both chronically disabled and temporarily) in the case of healing sanctuaries, chiefly the Asklepeia.

A large stone stele with raking light from top left to bottom right. A person in flowing garments rides a rearing horse; both are facing right. The rider's right arm is raised in a smiting pose. Underneath the horse is a naked person bent over, looking up at the rider who is about to strike. The person on the ground has their right arm over their head.
Figure 1 – Dexileos Monument in the Kerameikos Archaeological Museum, Athens – photo by Templar 52

What sources or data do you use?

As my focus is chiefly on the epigraphical, the inscriptions themselves (their contents and language) are my primary source. However, as the approach I take is, for lack of a better word, a “holistic” one, I also take into account their place of publication, the associated art (if there is any) and any historical context that may have surrounded them. This comes into particular play when looking at funerary inscriptions of soldiers, for example, where very often their deaths are given further context in the inscription itself by mentioning the battle they may have died in. Another important aspect is any grave goods that may have been associated with the deceased, and at times the objects found in association with a certain inscription enrich our reading of the epigraphy considerably, such as democratic imagery associated with an otherwise elite grave.

Conversely, the epigraphy of healing sanctuaries such as the one at Epidauros give us insight on how ill and disabled people spoke of themselves, were spoken about, and how the ill and disabled body was represented. Inscribed objects at healing sanctuaries were not limited to accounts of the god’s (often miraculous) intervention, but also included representations of body parts, offered as votives. These objects have often been read as a “fragmented” representation of ill bodies, focusing on a view of disabled identity as inherently broken. My aim is to bring disability theory in to the interpretation of said anatomical votives, drawing important thematic parallels between the reading of epigraphy as an embodied text and the multifaceted importance of the physical in the study of disabled identities.

A photo of a terracotta plaque which is sculpted to represent the intestines of an individual
Figure 2 – Anatomical Votive Offering from Central Italy 4th C BCE TC 1333 by Anagoria CC-BY-SA 3.0
A photo of a paved roadway running off into the distance. The roadway is lined by broken stone columns. The ground rises to the right and left and is covered with green grass. A single tree stands ot the left.
Figure 3 – Roadway at the Asklepeion at Pergamon by Dosseman CC-BY-SA 4.0

How does your work shed light on real people in the past?

The types of epigraphy that I look at, those inscriptions which deal closely with the lived experiences of ancient Greeks (as opposed to, for example, state decrees or legal documents) offer a snapshot into the nuanced and complex ways in which different parts of their identity were expressed in different ways, across a multitude of “descriptors” such as class, social status, gender, dis/ability. Reading epigraphy as an emotional document, instead of just a simple didactic or mnemonic object, means acknowledging the incredibly rich and diverse information it can give us about ancient lived experiences. Privately-commissioned inscriptions especially lay at the intersection of personal identity and public performance of said identity. By looking at the language, objects and places of publication, I ask myself not only what the text itself says, but what it tells us about who wrote it, who erected it and why.

Photo of a grass-grown roadway with stone retaining walls lining either side. Atop these walls are several grave monuments - one looks like a sarcophagus; a few look like columns; one looks like an urn. There are trees on either side of the roadway. In the distance there are more clusters of trees and the Athenian Acropolis.
Figure 4 – The Kerameikos Cemetery with the Acropolis in the Background by George E. Koronaios – Public Domain

Two of my favourite funerary examples are the graves of Ampharete and Melitta. These women found themselves in quite different civic situations: Ampharete was a citizen of Athens, whereas Melitta was a resident non-citizen who, thanks to her father’s economic status, was granted the status of isoteles, and therefore no longer needed to pay the residency tax, but however was not considered a member of the citizen body, and was therefore precluded from expressing any political power. Both funerary monuments represent them in the company of children: Ampharete with her grandchild (who also died) and Melitta with Hippostrate, the girl she took care of as a nurse (and who also paid for the funerary monument, as the inscription explains). Both inscriptions rely on emotionally-charged language to convey the importance that these women had within their family and households. It lets us, the audience, know how deep these bonds ran, not only because of the language itself, but of the imagery it’s accosted to: Ampharete holds her grandchild, and Melitta and Hippostrate reach for each other’s hands.

Useful readings + links:

https://www.atticinscriptions.com/

http://www.epigraphiclandscape.unito.it/

Arrington, N. T. (2018), “Touch and Remembrance in Greek Funerary Art”, in The Art Bulletin100.3, 7–27.

Błaśkiewicz, M (2014), “Healing dreams at Epidaurus. Analysis and interpretation of the Epidaurian iamata” in Miscellanea Anthropologica et Sociologica 15.4, 54–69. 

Breckenridge, C. A. and C. Volger (2001), “The Critical Limits of Embodiment: Disability’s Criticism”, in Public Culture 13.3, 349–357.

Draycott, J. and E.-J. Graham, eds. (2018), Bodies of Evidence. Ancient Anatomical Votives Past, Present and Future, London.

Edelstein, E. J. and L. Edelstein (1945), Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, Baltimore.

Higbie, C. (2010), “Epigrams on the Persian Wars: monuments, memory and politics”, in Bambauch, Petrovic and Petrovic, eds, Archaic and Classical Greek Epigram, 183–201.

Hughes, J. (2008), “Fragmentation as Metaphor in the Classical Healing Sanctuary”, in Social History of Medicine 21.2, 217–236.

Hurwit, J. M. (2007), “The Problem with Dexileos: Heroic and Other Nudities in Greek Art”, in AJA 100.1, 35–60.

Lasagni, C. (2018), “Il progetto «The Epigraphic Landscape of Athens» e l’ELA Database: caratteristiche e risultati preliminari per uno studio semantico della topografia ateniese”, in Historika 7, 53–82.

LiDonnici, L. R. (1992), “Compositional Background of the Epidaurian ‘Iamata”, in AJP 113.1, 25–41.

Vikela, E. (2006)., “Healer Gods and Healing Sanctuaries in Attica”, in Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 8, 41–62.

Williams, K. J. (forthcoming), “Towards a Theoretical Model of the Epigraphic Landscape”, in E. H. Cousins, ed, Dynamic Epigraphy: New Approaches to Inscriptions, Oxford.

A person sits at a wooden table and smiles straight at the camera. They are wearing sunglasses and a gray and black t-shirt. Behind them to the viewer's right is a fence and a large wooden box. To the left, a paved road runs into the distance, with a long building running along the side of the road. It is about four storeys high and grave and brown in colour. A few parked cars and some trees can be seen in the distance.
Photo of Justin Lorenzo Biggi

Justin Lorenzo Biggi graduated from Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio with a BA in Ancient Greek. He recently was awarded his Masters by Research at the University of Edinburgh. Their research interests are on the ways in which epigraphy acts as a conveyor of identity, both individual and systemic, and on what this tells us about gender, disability and citizenship in the ancient world. They are passionate about outreach and accessibility as well, and he has written for the blog of the Society for Classical Studies, and will be part of an outreach project on neurodiversity in Classics in 2022 with the collaboration of Asterion. You can find him on Twitter @justinbiggi, or write them an email at justin.biggi@gmail.com.

Interested in learning more about disability in the ancient world? Check out our Peopling the Past video with Dr. Debby Sneed and our blog post interview with the creators of a short film for the Biennale exhibit, “An Archaeology of Disability”.

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