Comfort Classics: Jane Draycott

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 Jane Draycott

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

I wouldn’t say that there is one particular source. Rather, I find the documentary evidence from Graeco-Roman Egypt, the papyri and ostraca, endlessly entertaining and incredibly charming. Perusing it never fails to make me smile.

When did you first come across this type of evidence?

My PhD was on health and healing in Roman Egypt, so I spent three years reading documentary papyri and ostraca looking for information about the types of healing strategies that people living in Egypt used during the Roman period. In the process, I came across a lot of letters that people were writing to their family members and friends, and other types of documents, with lots of juicy details that were relevant to health and wellbeing.

Can you tell me a bit about these sources and their context?

Documentary papyri and ostraca are pieces of writing done either on scraps of papyrus or fragments of pot by ordinary people in their day to day lives in ancient Egypt, such as private letters, census returns, tax returns, legal contracts, legal petitions, recipes, lists etc. Once no longer needed, they were discarded as rubbish and taken to the local dump or reused to make cartonnage for human and animal mummies, but were eventually rediscovered two thousand years later by archaeologists and are now gradually being translated and published by papyrologists.

Greek private letter
3rd Century AD
Memphis, Egypt
P.Mich.inv 4961

What is it about these sources that appeals to you most?

Basically, I’m really nosey! I love getting an insight into ordinary people’s lives, and reading about their perfectly understandable and entirely normal concerns – sons on military service writing to their parents to complain about their living conditions, children being educated away from home writing to their parents to complain about their teachers, wives telling their husbands they miss them, family members making arrangements for forthcoming childbirths, people attempting to prosecute their neighbours for casting magic spells on them, prenuptial agreements, marriage contracts, bitter divorces, last wills and testaments, the list goes on.

Private Letter
296 AD
Philadelphia, Egypt
P.Mich.inv 1362

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

I’ve been trying very hard to keep a clear separation between my work life and home life over the last seven months, and making a concerted effort to keep myself busy in my free time so I’m not tempted to do more work and burn out. So I’ve done all the usual things – read a lot of books (I’ve run out of bookshelves and so have piles of them all around my bedroom), watched a lot of tv series and films, done a lot of experimental baking and cooking. But I’ve also started a few new things as well – while before lockdown I did yoga at home every morning and classes a couple of times a week, since I haven’t been able to go to classes I’ve supplemented my daily yoga with hula hooping and long distance running, and I’ve tried to be more creative and so to that end, I’ve been teaching myself to knit and latch-hook. But probably my biggest source of cheer at the moment is my cat, Magnus. He’s a two-year-old Norwegian Forest Cat, he has a strong personality and firm opinions about everything, and he’s recently found his voice.

Dr Jane Draycott is Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Glasgow. She investigates science, technology, and medicine in the ancient world, and is particularly interested in the history and archaeology of medicine; impairment, disability, and prostheses. Recently, she has begun exploring the use (and abuse) of history and archaeology in video games, particularly those set in classical antiquity. Her academic publications include the monographs Approaches to Healing in Roman Egypt and Roman Domestic Medical Practice in Central Italy from the Middle Republic to the Early Empire. You can find her on Twitter as @JLDraycott and Instagram as jane.draycott.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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