The Mecca of Greek Epigraphy: Researching at the Athens Epigraphical Museum

“Bring cookies when you go. Everyone loves cookies.”

1-1Words of wisdom from Dr. Molly Richardson, and advice I made sure to follow while I spent three days this July researching at the Athens Epigraphical Museum. As you, our loyal followers, know from my post about the EM back in 2013, it is the only museum of its kind in the world, and the proverbial mothership for enthusiasts of Greek Epigraphy. In other words, if you love Greek words on stones, this is the place for you!

To get the technical stuff out of the way first, here’s how one goes about actually getting permission to study inscriptions that are housed in the EM. First, you write a proposal, outlining what you want to study (inscriptions, of course!), how you want to study it (photograph, draw, measure, etc.), and – most importantly – WHY you want to carry out this research. Second, you send your proposal to someone much smarter and more experienced for feedback, and then when they rip it apart, you write it again! Ah, academia. In our case, Haley and I wrote our proposal back in February, because permits DO NOT happen overnight. Our aim was to receive permission to take photos of the fragments of the inscriptions that we have in our squeeze collection – in other words, we wanted pictures of the actual Stones to be displayed on your Screens! The point of this work was outlined in our proposal as follows:

The new photographs of the stone inscriptions will illustrate the squeezes at the core of the collection: the Athenian Tribute Lists, and select inscriptions we use most frequently for undergraduate instruction. Our squeeze images are unparalleled, high-quality digital images. The addition of the photographs from the Epigraphical Museum will facilitate the use of the database as a comprehensive research and teaching tool for epigraphers, scholars, and students alike.

This was a pilot project, so we only asked for permission to photograph approximately 40 inscriptions and fragments of inscriptions. We sent our proposal to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, who processed it for us and sent it along to the Ministry of Culture. In Greece, all permit requests are done through foreign institutes – meaning, you must be a member of one of these foreign institutes in order to apply to research archaeological material in Greece. Luckily for us, the ASCSA’s administrative assistant, Ioanna Damanaki, is truly phenomenal and incredibly helpful in all permit matters. We got the green light in March (an unbelievable quick turnaround in the Greek permit world), and scheduled our visit for July. Unfortunately, Haley was in the field working for EBAP, and was unable to be at the museum during workdays, so I bravely bought the cookies myself and entered the behind-the-scenes world of Greek epigraphy.

Day 1: ATLeast the ladder didn’t collapse


An example of a fragment with the coveted EM identification number.

Talk about starting with a bang. I introduced myself to the lovely EM staff, and was promptly brought into the room with the Athenian Tribute Lists. “Here you go,” they said. “Do you need anything?” I looked down at my notebook, photo scale, and camera. “Nope, I’m all set.” Twelve of the fragments I needed to photograph belong to ATL List 1, so I began scanning the massive stele, searching for the EM locator numbers that matched my inscriptions.


ATL 1. The Lapis Primus. Equally imposing in photos and in real life!

The problem is, not all of the EM ID numbers are pencilled in next to their respective inscriptions.

The problem is, the stele has over 100 fragments.

The problem is, the stele is 3.5 metres tall.



So, I took photos of every. single. fragment. We won’t use all of them, only the ones that we received permission to publish on our website, but fortunately because photography is allowed at the EM, I was able to photograph all the stones without any problems. The real fun begins when one of our From Stone to Screen staff members gets to comb through each and every photo of each and every fragment to match them up with their respective EM numbers!


A rickety ladder came into the picture once I faced the fact that I needed photos of the inscriptions at the very top of the stele. The height of the Lapis Primus is 3.5 metres, which is approximately 11.5 feet, which is approximately 5 feet taller than I am. Needless to say, I survived to tell the tale, and photographed all the stone fragments in ATL steles 1 & 3.

Day 2: Air Conditioning is for the Weak

After the excitement of the ladder adventure, I was anxious to see what Day 2 had in store. First, I spent several hours in the (non-airconditioned) back rooms of the museum, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the storerooms and the sheer loquaciousness of Greek antiquity.

Most of these fragments were actually parts of the ATL stelae that had been discovered after the Lapis Primus was re-constructed. If and when ATL 1 is ever dismantled, the difficulty level of this puzzle will increase significantly.

After hours spent in the storerooms photographing each fragment (at least 10 photos per stone, on average), I was brought to Room 9 of the museum. You should know exactly which inscriptions I was studying here, since this room specifically and descriptively houses “Inscriptions that are representative of various categories and periods”. You know, THOSE inscriptions. From various categories and periods! Since this room contains a permanent exhibit, I knew it would air conditioned. Unless it was being renovated….spoiler alert: it was being renovated. After I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, my sleepiness turned to excitement as I realized that this room contained two of the jewels of the From Stone to Screen collection: 1) Drako’s Law Code, an inscription from 409/408BCE based on 7th century text; and 2) the Choregic Dedication from Aixone, from 440 BCE, and our only squeeze with relief decoration. Photographing these two inscriptions was a true privilege, here are some of my favourite shots:

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Day 3: Many too many inscriptions

The museum staff were delighted that I came back for a third day, since originally I had just planned for two. They feigned surprise when I handed over the now-requisite cookies, and one informed me very matter-of-factly that I should be spending my time on a beautiful Greek beach and not in a museum. However, I was told by the Museum Sculptor, Mr. Stergios Tzanekas, that “most scholars come in and spend hours studying each inscription. You, you only take quick photos, and move on to the next one. You have many too many inscriptions for us to get all of them for you in two days”. So, there I was again, taking more photos, and again in a new room. But, I had only 5 more fragments and in less than an hour I was done!




So, 3 days and over 500 pictures later, my work at Greek Epigraphy mission control drew to a close. Overall, it was a fantastic experience, and I can’t wait to go back next year with my camera, notebook, and another list of inscriptions to photograph for From Stone to Screen. Oh, and cookies.


Stay tuned for more news about the photos from the EM, and their integration into our website!

To see the full permit request, click here: EMPermitRequestFeb2015

For the best cookies in Athens, go here.

About Chelsea Gardner

A PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia, Chelsea works on several archaeological projects in Greece and is the Project Manager for From Stone to Screen. Chelsea loves travel and all things related to Classical Archaeology, even when it involves uploading metadata or encountering spiders in the field.

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