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Locating Identity: Mixed Inscriptions and Mulitple Media in Greek Art, c. 675–336 BCE

Ann E. Patnaude [University of Chicago]
Twelve-Month Chester Dale Fellow, 2012–2013

My dissertation, “Locating Identity: Mixed Inscriptions and Multiple Media in Greek Art, c. 675–336 BCE,” reconsiders the elusive notion of ethnicity in Archaic and Classical Greece through a systematic analysis of stylistic, iconographic, and epigraphical features of the material record. Ethnic identity has recently become a major focus of research in classical archaeology and art history. Despite broad consensus that ethnicity is a discursive phenomenon, many scholars continue to disregard the material networks—the visual and linguistic patterns—that signify ethnicity in the archaeological record. My research, by contrast, focuses on the media of ethnicity. It does so by examining inscriptions on Greek painted pottery and stone statue bases. My premise is that inscriptions are, among other things, visual forms that are inherent to an object’s function and design. Combining art-historical methods with statistical analysis—close looking with attention to broad trends—my dissertation offers a more nuanced understanding of Archaic and Classical uses of style in the formation of social, political, and cultural communities.

The dissertation critically examines a basic premise of research in classical archaeology and art history: the existence of a direct correlation among dialect, alphabet, and ethnicity in inscriptions. Essentially four regional dialects and thirty-two distinctive alphabets were in use in Greece in the periods I am studying. Additionally, the Greek population was actually composed of various ethnic groups (Ionians, Dorians, Achaeans, and so forth). It is widely assumed that an ethnic Dorian would speak a Doric dialect and employ the alphabet of a Doric city such as Corinth or Sparta. On this assumption, scholars use epigraphic evidence to make broad claims about Greek ethnicity, relationships between communities, artistic production, and mobility in the ancient world.

By contrast, my dissertation challenges the idea that dialect and alphabet alone are sufficient criteria for ethnicity. I argue that artisans used inscriptions to evoke a variety of identities and meanings based on patterns and contexts of use. To that end, I investigate an important but neglected corpus: so-called mixed inscriptions in pottery and stone, examples of which date from c. 675 to 336 BCE. A mixed inscription employs a dialect and/or alphabet that does not conform to the putative norm for a particular region of manufacture (for instance, an inscription in a non-Athenian dialect or alphabet on an Athenian clay pot). Mixed inscriptions remain an obscure topic confined mainly to epigraphical studies, yet they exemplify the problem with assuming a direct correlation among dialect, script, and ethnicity and vividly illustrate the need to reconsider the role of inscriptions in Greek art.

Classical Athens offers a well-documented precedent for the use of a nonlocal script as evidence for a change in cultural practice. In chapter 2 of my dissertation, I explore the ways in which the Ionic alphabet was employed to represent Athenian identity in two very distinctive types of Athenian vase inscriptions dating from c. 460 to 336 BCE. I argue that what began as a script to mark difference (for instance, to set an individual apart from the collective) ended up integrating the Athenian empire and its allies into the very core of Athenian civic and religious life.

Chapter 3 investigates the Panhellenic sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia. With a focus on stone statue bases, I examine the ways in which mixed inscriptions may signify an artisan’s or patron’s identity and how that same identity may be expressed in different ways depending on the sanctuary. I argue that the use of a certain script or dialect is a stylistic choice that has various cultural and political meanings depending on its context of use.

Chapter 4 explores the ways in which artisans used alphabet and/or dialect in mixed inscriptions on Greek pottery to allude to poetic genre or to visualize poetry. For instance, an Athenian red-figure cup by Douris (c. 490–480 BCE) portrays a book roll with a poetic inscription that invokes the muses in an Aeolic dialect. These inscriptions are not meant to quote a source text but instead are used to allude to poetic genre—to make poetry apparent. The chapter focuses on the ways in which epigraphical features become visual attributes of poetry and signify in relation to pictorial narrative. As the first study to examine mixed inscriptions in Greek pottery and stone systematically from an art-historical perspective, my project generates new knowledge about the function of inscriptions in Greek art with wide-ranging implications for our understanding of identity formation in early Greek society. More broadly, it rethinks the materiality of identity and the relation of artifacts to cultural phenomena.

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