Sometimes, archeologists come across something that really highlights how far we’ve come as a species. Humans used to bathe in water full of curses and mummify monkeys, for example – both practices we’ve almost entirely given up in recent years.
Other times, a discovery shows us just how similar we still are to our ancestors. That’s the case for a marble tablet dating back almost two millennia, whose ancient Greek inscription has turned out to essentially be a class yearbook.
“The inscription is a list of friends who went through the ephebate, a year of military and civic training for young men, together,” explains a note on the translation of the tablet, published last week by Attic Inscriptions Online – a research project aiming to find, translate, and publish all 20,000 or so Athenian inscriptions currently kept in UK collections.
“The thirty-one ephebes included in this list are a subset of the total cohort, which is likely to have contained over a hundred young men,” the notes add. “The ephebes are all referred to by their given name only, without patronymics or demotics, perhaps an egalitarian touch which obscures differences in social background. Unusually, several of the ephebes are named with shortened ("hypocoristic") forms of their names, such as Theogas and Dionysas for Theogenes and Dionysodoros (rather like 'Pete', 'Steve' or 'Chris' in English).”
The discovery is a surprising one, not least because the tablet actually turned up in Scotland, nearly 3,000 kilometers from its original Athenian home. That’s because it had been sitting in storage for about 135 years – it was originally assumed to just be a copy of a different tablet being stored at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England.
However, “when we looked a bit closer at this inscription, we discovered that it was in fact a new document,” Peter Liddel told NPR. As well as acting on the editorial committee of the Attic Inscriptions Online project, Liddel is a professor of Greek History and Epigraphy at the University of Manchester in England, and he’s also one of the three translators of the tablet.
“This is one of a small number of inscriptions in Scotland, one of three ancient Athenian inscriptions in the city of Edinburgh, so it's absolutely exciting,” Liddel told NPR.
It’s "something quite different from anything known before,” he added.
Luckily, the writer of the tablet – a young man named Attikos, son of Philippos – was kind enough to date the yearbook for future researchers. “Of Caesar,” reads the final line of the class list – a reference to Tiberius Claudius Germanicus Caesar, the researchers clarify.
He’s better known as the Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned between 41 and 54 CE – it’s perhaps ironic that the tablet was found in the UK, since Claudius was the emperor who brought Britannia under Roman control. In Athens, though – which had fallen to Rome centuries beforehand, and already survived revolts and re-conquest by the time the tablet was written – ephebes were trained to think of serving the Emperor as a core part of their identity.
While we may know these kinds of political and military facts, it’s the everyday banalities of life that can often escape our understanding. For that, Liddel told NPR, this ancient Athenian yearbook, written by a kid to record his school pals precisely as he knew them, is an invaluable discovery.
“We don't have objective accounts of ancient history,” he said. “What we have to do is piece together ancient history from the fragments that exist, and this is one of those.”