Comfort Classics: Helen McVeigh

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Helen McVeigh

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

The Phaistos Disc

When did you first come across this source?

I first saw the Phaistos disc on a holiday with my husband David. I’d heard of the Phaistos disc, I knew what it was, but was blown away when I saw it in the archaeological museum in Heraklion. Since then I have brought my parents to Crete, and later took my daughter. I think my enthusiasm for this object has been seen as a bit OTT, and perhaps my parents’ expectations were for something more dramatic and exciting than a 15cm diameter circle embossed with strange markings.

Phaistos

Can you tell me a bit about the disc and its context?

Discovered by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in 1908, the disc has been dated to 1700 BC. The disc is 15cm in diameter and contains 241 pictorial symbols, of which there are 45 different signs, unlike other known writing systems. The writing appears to begin at the outside of the disc and reads inwards in a spiral pattern.

By C messier – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The disc is mysterious: we don’t know what it says, and rather than the usual form of writing systems of the time (Linear A, Linear B or hieroglyphics), the Phaistos Disc symbols are not hand-written but stamped with some sort of seal into soft clay, and are therefore an early form of printing. There have been many attempts at translation, and scholars have proposed numerous theories: for example, some believe that the symbols contain a poem, a prayer, some sort of sacred text, a funerary record, a court list, a list of soldiers, a board game or musical notes. Some scholars assume that the symbols represent an alphabetic language, but do not agree which: possibilities suggested are Greek, Hittite, Luwian or an unknown language. Unless another text with the same symbols is discovered, we will never know for sure.

What is it about this source that appeals to you most?

I learned ancient Greek with the Open University in the mid-1990s and during that first Greek module, I took a holiday to Athens to visit all the places I’d been learning about.  On a day-trip to Delphi, there was a large stone with an inscription and I traced the letters with my fingers. It was magical and mysterious, and I felt like I was making contact with the sculptor himself. I realise that this sounds rather eccentric but, in my view, there is nothing more intriguing than “old stones”. Ever since that visit to Delphi, I’ve been fascinated by writing and language. My other favourite source is the Rosetta Stone, an absolutely priceless find because, without it, we would never have deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics. I particularly love that the translation of a Linear B tablet demonstrates that a particular farmer named his oxen Blackie and Glossy. 

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

I live on the edge of east Belfast and behind my house there is a wooded area and open fields: this is where I take my dog Snowball (this was her name when we rescued her!) for a walk. Snowball needs a walk, rain or shine, and of course we’re no stranger to rain on the island of Ireland. After our walk, I enjoy warming up in front of the fire reading Classics-inspired fiction and watching Star Trek.

Helen McVeigh received her bachelor’s degree from the Open University, and her Masters from Queen’s University Belfast, both in Classics. After trying a variety of a career choices including office work, tour guiding and being a classroom assistant with five-year-olds, she has at last found her niche: teaching ancient Greek online to students from all over the world, and promoting classics in Northern Ireland and beyond. Helen is convenor of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland, and the founder and coordinator of the Belfast Summer School in Latin and Classical Greek. In addition, she teaches ancient Greek to individuals and organises group classes and intensive study days. To find out more, please go to helenmcveigh.co.uk.

Snowball is a Good Dog

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.


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