This April distinguished scholars on death and the afterlife in antiquity were invited to the Bryn Mawr College symposium Crossing Over: A Multidisciplinary Exploration of Death. Graduate students enrolled in the graduate seminar Death and Beyond in Ancient Greece and China and Professor Jennie Bradbury’s Interrogating the Dead were also invited to talk. The two-day symposium (April 27 & 28) was convened to look at cross-cultural attitudes towards the treatment and conceptualization of death and the afterlife in antiquity. The conference was part celebration, and part response, to a growing field of scholars and public audience in what is colloquially termed as “death studies”. As a multidisciplinary conference, the meeting brought together a range of perspectives on death and the afterlife that reflects the diversity of this surge in interest. The event was organized by Professor Jennie Bradbury (Archaeology), Professor Radcliffe Edmonds III (Classics), and Professor Jie Shi (History of Art).
Some of the world’s foremost scholars on death in antiquity spoke at the conference - Dina Katz (Leiden), Marissa Stevens (UCLA), Anthony Barbieri-Low (UCLA), Suzanne Lye (UNC, Chapel Hill), Ioannis Mylonopoulos (Columbia), and Karina Croucher (Bradford).
Professor Dina Katz opened the event with perspectives from Ancient Mesopotamia. Her talk was a look at the philological problems with reading ritual lamentation texts written in cuneiform. She noted the many issues scholars faced when attempting to find the word intended by ancient scribes, who were often students, writing in Sumerian and Akkadian – two languages that often share the same signs but for different words. Professor Katz opened up a new line of argument by looking at the ancient Iranian Elamite language as a third avenue for meaning in deciphering cuneiform signs for lamentation.
Professor Marissa Stevens brought the conference to ancient Egypt, where she investigated issues of social identity in graves using both an archaeological and philological approach. Her talk focused primarily on gender and social status differences reflected in the burial practices, rituals, and texts of papyri placed with interred bodies in Egyptian antiquity.
Professor Barbieri-Low opened the conversation up to comparative perspectives between China in the 9th c. BCE and Egypt in the 13th c. BCE. His talk presented materials from the excavated graves of a Chinese scribe and an Egyptian scribe whose grave goods shared many similarities reflecting their professions in life. Professor Barbieri-Low used this comparative evidence as a baseline for cross-cultural comparison of the funerary ideologies related to communities in the scribal profession.
Professor Suzanne Lye’s talk took the group from China and Egypt to Ancient Greece. Her talk “Underworld Scenes as Hypertextual Commentary in Ancient Greek Literature” focused primarily on scenes of the underworld in Homer and Plato. Professor Lye utilized the exciting literary theory of hypertextuality as a way to explore new byways of connection between texts beyond genre, chronology, and geographic limitations. In “hyper-linking” nodes of information from one text with similarly contextualized nodes in other texts, Professor Lye finds that one can better explore the social context in which ancient authors were writing. In particular, she analyzed scenes of the underworld as commentaries on the social context of ancient Greece.
Professor Ioannis Mylonopoulous followed with a look at representations of emotions and death in Ancient Greek art. Professor Mylonopoulous investigated the connections between image and word to question a common notion read into Greek funerary art – that of an “emotionless” individual in mourning. In his talk he noted that there is no consensus on what “normative” expressions of emotion looked like in ancient Greece, in fact finding a variety of “micro-expressions” depicted by artists within various genres of ancient Greek visual culture
Karina Croucher looked at the contemporary impact of mortuary archaeology in modern Britain and America. In particular, Professor Croucher shared many of the lessons learned from various public archaeology projects she is involved with in the UK, with a focus on engaging communities in thinking about death and dying both in the past and in the present day.
The second half of the conference featured talks by graduate students enrolled in Professor Radcliffe Edmonds III and Professor Jie Shi’s co-taught graduate seminar Death and Beyond in Ancient Greece and China (GSEM 619 ) and Professor Jennie Bradbury’s Interrogating the Dead (ARCH 613). The following talks were given:
Tracey Cian (Archaeology) presented her paper "The Middle and Late Bronze Age ‘Royal Tombs’ of Byblos: local and international interactions of the deceased as seen in the grave goods", which was a new look at mortuary finds from the archaeological site Byblos in Lebanon. Whereas previous scholarship focused primarily on Egyptian and Levantine interactions represented by grave goods from the site, Tracey sought to identify more local Phoenician traditions. In particular, she focused on evidence for Phoenician funerary ideology and ideas on the afterlife, as well as contextualizing some goods within the broader context of eastern Mediterranean trade during the Bronze Age.
Stella J. Fritzell (Classics) gave the talk “Lamentation as Performance in Ancient Greece and Pre-Qin China”, which looked at funeral rites of lamentation in both Pre-Qin China and Ancient Greece. Stella addressed cross cultural aspects of lamentation addressing the place, form, and function of lament through the lens of performance, and seeking in particular to identify the audience of funerary lamentation. She argued that while lament in both cultures is clearly addressed to the deceased, additional audiences can also be understood in the consideration of the supernatural expressed in Greek ritual, and in the concern with self-cultivation found in Confucian practice.
Jenni Glaser’s (Classics) talk “Tragic Tears and Raucous Laughter: Lucian’s Theater of Life in the Underworld” was a look at the theatrical simile that Menippus enounters during his underworld journey in Lucian’s Theater of Life. Jenni focused especially on costume changes in the text as a metatheatrical device to frame how Lucian appropriates material from Aristophanes’ Frogs and Plato’s Gorgiasto poke fun at the tragedy of death - and to show that life is best lived in making light of the seriousness of tragedy or philosophy.
Yusi Liu’s (Archaeology) talk “Viewership and Futurity: Examining Death Through A Comparative Analysis of Pictorial Representations in Proto-Attic Greek and Eastern Zhou Chinese Vessels,” was a comparative study of Greek Proto-Attic amphora and a Chinese Eastern Zhou bronze pan (盤) ;– which are typically found in graves. Yusi observed that the Proto-Attic and Eastern Zhou vessels were both placed in comparable settings during transitional periods between artistic trends. Representations in China from Shang to Zhou evolved from mythical figures to more elaborated ritual scenes whereas Greek practices shifted from Geometric to Proto-Attic was the opposite – which Yusi compares to argue different cultural attitudes about the viewership of mortuary grave goods.
Danielle Perry (Classics) gave the talk “Slave Death in the Epigrams of Anyte". Danielle’s talk was an examination of a poem attributed to the Hellenistic poet Anyte in the Palatine Anthology, but now with an authorship questioned by some modern scholars. Danielle argued that the poem in fact reflected Anyte’s poetic corpus and that this poem was paradigmatic of themes she engaged with in other poems.
Graduate Students Mengtian Bai (HART), Katie Breyer (Archaeology), Kaylee Verkruisen (HART) also presented.
The conference was rounded off with a roundtable discussion and lunch in Wyndham.