Weekend Reading: Volcanic Eruptions

I hate to be predictable – but this week’s news has been dominated by Pompeii and classical controversy, and I just can’t resist jumping in! For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the past week, here’s a round-up of what’s been going on.


The discovery

A discovery was made in Pompeii of a charcoal graffito which mentioned a date of 17th October, and it was posted on Instagram earlier this week. It’s a lovely little graffito which commemorates someone’s special binge-eating day – but that’s not what has drawn attention. No, we’re all fixated on the date: what are the implications, how much does it matter and can we agree to disagree?


Image: Parco Archeologico di Pompei


What are the implications?

Pliny, our source for the dramatic story of the eruption of Vesuvius, tells us that the eruption took place on the 24th of August, 79CE. At least, he probably told us that: some people dispute the manuscript’s reliability. But if a charcoal graffito from 17th Oct was still preserved on a wall when the volcano blew, it suggests that the date of the eruption must have been later, presumably sometime in the autumn. This fits with some other evidence, like the presence of pomegranates (an autumn fruit) and the warm clothes that people were wearing. It’s a theory that has been around for a long time (I mentioned it myself, back in August), but this new evidence adds a little more weight to it.


How much does it matter?

The popular press have been enjoying this one: the story has appeared in numerous papers and news outlets around the world, as “a discovery that will rewrite history”. As far as the press is concerned, this is a revelation. You can read some of the UK’s press coverage here:

Outside the mainstream media, some academics have questioned the value of the graffito: the main arguments are summed up by Peter Kruschwitz, who points out (among other objections) that charcoal marks indoors could have lasted a while. Scholars have also criticised the excitement around the discovery, asking whether the precise date of the disaster really makes any difference to anything. Prominent among those are Mary Beard, who concludes that the date doesn’t matter, and Neville Morley, who comes to the conclusion that perhaps it does matter. Reasons why it might matter have been presented by Kristina Killgrove in an article for Forbes and explained further on Twitter; the shift from summer to autumn can make a difference to interpretations of seasonal diseases, for instance.




Can we agree to disagree?

Unfortunately social media, as it often does, has turned nasty over the debate, raising questions about attitudes within the discipline of Classics. You can read a forceful critique of Mary Beard’s response in this thread by Kristina Killgrove, which contrasts the disciplines of Classics and Anthropology in terms of their entrenched attitudes and openness to new people and ideas. It also raises the issue of how we should use social media responsibly, and questions the status of junior female academics within Classics (an issue which Neville Morley picks up in the update to his original blog post, by exhorting people to read Killgrove’s piece as well as his). Whatever side you find yourself on in this debate, it certainly raises some important questions about scholarship.


Some final thoughts

There’s one thing about the press coverage which I find fascinating: the popular acceptance that the history books can be rewritten, and that knowledge is not fixed. As a Classics teacher, I spend a lot of time trying to teach people that the transmission of history should be treated critically: but perhaps, in these days of ‘fake news’, that’s become an obvious truism. People today approach information not with ‘humility’ (as the Italian Minister of Culture has said); instead we delight in the overturning of traditionally accepted ‘facts’. I see that as a good thing – although I may be in the minority!

I also may be in the minority in experiencing the almost irresistible urge to write something on my wall in charcoal and see how long it lasts. Is that just me?!


vesuvius-200805_1280 (2)

This week in other news…



Not all loot at the British Museum – The Guardian 

… and British Museum Twitter takedown – RT 

… and more on the British Museum – Forbes 

Early Jerusalem – Live Science 

New Orestes project – Institute of Classical Studies 

Misusing Socrates – Huffington Post 

Roman remains in Cumbria – Gov.uk 

Graveyard of ancient ships – Neos Kosmos 


Comment and opinion

Homer’s influence – TLS 

Translating Homer – TLS 

… and more Homer – TLS

… and Homer in Turkey – TLS 

Advice on distance learning – Classical Fix 

Pandora and technology – Project Syndicate 

Animals and drinking vessels – Hyperallergic 

Ares and misogynists – Pharos 

Interpreting ancient music – Greek City Times 

The Aeneid’s time warp – Medium 

Experiencing the ancient world – Le Temps Revient 

The difficulties of studying Carthaginian warfare – Ancient World Magazine 

Ancient vampires? – New Atlas 

When coins become counters – Coins at Warwick 

Walpole the antiquarian – Strawberry Hill House 

Using the EAGLE portal – Society for Classical Studies 

What to do with an Ancient History PhD – Game Fragger 

Sensory conference experiences – OU Classical Studies Blog 

The Roman Brexit – The Conversation 

How Latin got woke – The Nation 

The number of the beast – Kiwi Hellenist

Prehistoric music? – New York Times 

Reading Linear B – e-ni-jo-te 

The myth of the Great Library – Ancient World Magazine 

Himmler, white supremacy and the state of Classics today – LA Review of Books 

Gladiator and The Bachelorette – GQ 

What is ‘Classics’? – Quentin Broughall 

Ancient middle-age spread – Greek Reporter 

Visiting Plato’s Academy – Donald Robertson 

Want to learn Sanskrit? – All Things Sanskrit 

Latin Thriller – Medium 


Podcasts, videos and other media

Returning to the Roman Baths – Archway Project 

Propertius and his time – Literature and History 

The history of language teaching – The Endless Knot 

Fakes and forged antiquities – Ipse Dixit 

Race and ethnicity – The History of Ancient Greece 

Roundup of podcasts – The Partial Historians 

Talking about Tiberius – Life of Caesar 

Shakespeare’s Romans – BBC Radio 4 

Appius Claudius takes centre stage – The Partial Historians 

Tragedy music – Ataraxia Alpha 


And finally…

What does Virgil want to tell you? Think of a problem you’re dealing with, and see what the Sortes Virgilianae have to say about it.

5 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Volcanic Eruptions

  1. There’s nothing wrong with being predictable! I suspect this material will remain blog fodder for sometime to come. In all honesty, you beat me to it as I’d considered writing a piece about it but I couldn’t find a new angle. I like this piece because it focuses on the social media uproar that ensued. I’ve always believed and still do believe that platforms such as Twitter are excellent tools for spreading information and engaging in debate. That being said I do think that we all walk a fine line when we engage in such debates on social media. So many things can be misconstrued or misinterpreted. Disagreement is fine but as we’ve seen this week they’ve caused significant uproar in certain instances.

    On another note I’ve seen many individuals leaping to Pliny’s defence! I was particularly amused my one post (I think it came from Valerie Hope) who proclaimed ‘Pliny in the wrong? Never!’ Although I’d be inclined to agree, I’m open to new interpretations as much as the next ‘open minded’ individual!

    As to those who claim that the date doesn’t matter? Well, I don’t really feel strongly either way about that but any evidence that sheds new light and raises new questions has to be a good thing does it not?


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry to jump on the bandwagon in front of you, Tony! And I confess I’m also in the ‘let’s defend Pliny’ camp. My opinion is not based on careful examination of the evidence, but on the fact that, ever since I was a kid, the 24th of August has stuck in my mind as Volcano Day – probably because it’s the day before my birthday! So I have no intention of abandoning one of the few dates I actually remember, purely on the basis of a pile of evidence to the contrary…!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Cora, Dr. Killgrove’s thread came up just as I was reading the course materials on bioarchaeology, so I reassured her that her area is being taught on at least one classics course. Do you know if that’s the norm on other classics MAs these days? Sofaer’s work (among others) has really opened my eyes to new methodologies that can be used to expand our knowledge of the past.

    By the way, we have a chalk IOU list on our home blackboard and it has lasted quite a long while!


    1. Leigh, I think this MA is particularly cutting-edge – and the use of The Body in Antiquity as an overarching theme lends itself to all kinds of new techniques, of course.

      Yes, I’m a bit dubious about the ‘charcoal doesn’t last long’ argument. In my regular mural-painting days I would use charcoal or chalk to sketch on walls, because they could be rubbed out without leaving grooves in plaster: but sometimes rubbing them out took considerable effort!


  3. Reblogged this on ClassicalFix and commented:
    Nothing from me personally this week, but please do take the time to have a read of this great article by Dr Cora Beth Knowles on the recent debates surrounding the dating of the eruption of Vesuvius!


    Agree or disagree this is certainly a hot topic at the moment and many people have waded into the discussion particularly on social media.

    What do you think? As always, comments and opinions are more than welcome.



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