A couple of weeks ago, Manchester Museum held one of its regular Big Saturday public events on the theme of civilisations. Intended to tie-in with the BBC documentary presented by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, we showed objects representing a number of ancient and more recent civilisations from Manchester Museum’s rich collections. These included particular favourites of mine the Etruscans, as well as the Indus Civilisation (presented by Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures) and China. We also wanted to use this as an opportunity to publicise our new temporary exhibition Nature Through Roman Eyes, which opens on 6th April so we showed a selection of Roman exhibits. In this we were most ably assisted by two Classics undergraduate students, Lucy and Amy.
I showed the Etruscan pieces, one of them an example of the somewhat rarer longer inscriptions that have survived from antiquity. Something like 13,000 Etruscan inscriptions are known, of which 4,000 are fragmentary and most of the remaining 13,000 inscriptions are short, often consisting of just a name, such as the father or the mother, his or age, the public office held and formulaic phrases. An Etruscan vocabulary, in so far as we presently understand is only 250 words long (Brian Fagan The 70 Greatest Mysteries of the Ancient World). Added to this is the mystery of where the Etruscans came from, with plausible suggestions that they originated in what is now Turkey. The region of Etruria in northern Italy is named after them. Perhaps the story of Aeneas and the founding of Rome isn’t so legendary after all.
There is some support for this apparently from DNA evidence, similarities with languages such as Hurrian and the relatively equal role that women seem to have enjoyed Etruscan society. The Romans were scandalised that Etruscan women drank wine in public, for instance, and Pliny the Elder writes that women could be fined for drinking wine during the time of the Republic. In antiquity, the Etruscans were once powerful and influential, so much so that the first kings of Rome were Etruscan. They were particularly skilled in haruspicy, the inspection of the entrails of sacrificial animals in order to divine the will of the gods. One of the last people to understand Etruscan was the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) who had an Etruscan wife.
On my table I posed the question: whatever happened to the Etruscans? Of course, they were absorbed into the expanding Roman Republic. They weren’t slaughtered or dispossessed of their lands but became allies of Rome, and gradually Etruscan, as a language, disappeared. It is a salutary reminder of the loss of linguistic diversity in the modern as well as the ancient world. An article by Paul Bignell in The Independent on Sunday (13/12/2009) drew attention to the fact that of 6,500 languages spoken in the world, half are expected to disappear by the end of the century. Ninety-five per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by just five per cent of its population. If you take the example of the Rai tribe in Nepal – discussed in the article -children and young people are educated in Nepalese, and as the elders die off with the passing of time this ancient language will disappear. A linguist and academic at the University of British Columbia, Prof Mark Turin, has been director of the World Oral Literature Project since 2009, which aims to record threatened languages, many of them without a written tradition, before they disappear forever. Were it not for the fact that Etruscans were literate, we would have far less understanding of their language than we now have, and that is not a great deal.
I mention this because the exhibition that will follow Nature Through Roman Eyes, Heritage Futures, will look at the issue of the loss of linguistic diversity, amongst others in the autumn. Why should this matter? It’s important in a more practical way than saving languages simply for the sake of saving disappearing languages. Quoting from the Independent on Sunday article: ‘Experts now agree there is a correlation between areas of cultural, linguistic and biological diversity… Places that are diverse in species are diverse in languages and cultures.’ And to speak another language is not simply a means of communication, it is to immerse oneself in the culture of another people, to experience the world from a different perspective and even for this to influence the speaker’s world view.
This is one version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, beautifully explored in the science fiction movie Arrival (2016). In Arrival Dr Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, will write a book called The Universal Language Translating Heptapod. Although the circular characters – non-linear orthography – look like the stains left by coffee mugs, speaking the Heptapod language affects the cognition of the speakers, allowing them to experience events in the present and in the future. In a review of the film one critic wrote: ‘we (may) live on the same planet, breathe the same air — but our perceptions of those pieces shift and change based on the words and grammar we use to describe them to ourselves and each other.’ And to return to the Heritage Futures theme, a 2010 documentary called Into Eternity dealt with ‘attempts to devise a new universal language to label underground repositories of nuclear waste – labels whose warnings have to be understood by future humans whose language has evolved away from what we know now.’ Remember too the transmission in Ridley Scott’s Alien, which is not a distress call but a warning beacon that is translated too late to stop the horrific course of events.
Vessels from the Hildesheim hoard in ‘Nature Through Roman Eyes’
Whilst I talked to visitors about the Etruscans and how little we understood of their language, Amy and Lucy meanwhile were talking to visitors about the objects from the Pliny exhibition. They showed a replica of a bowl from a large hoard of Roman silver vessels found at Hildesheim in Germany in 1868. Manchester Museum, along with other institutions, has replicas of this important hoard. They must almost qualify as antiquities in their own right because they were made by French manufacturers, Christophe et fils, during the late 19th century. We know from previous experience that sometimes replicas can be almost as important historically as the real thing. If you are wondering what the connection to Pliny the Elder is, well, it’s because he served during the mid-1st century AD in the Germanies – the provinces of Upper and Lower Germany – where he served with a fellow officer who took a luxurious dinner service on campaign:
‘And yet, by Hercules! to my own knowledge, Pompeius Paulinus, son of a Roman of equestrian rank at Arelate, a member, too, of a family, on the paternal side, that was graced with the fur (a mark of privilege), had with him, when serving with the army, and that, too, in a war against the most savage nations, a service of silver plate that weighed twelve thousand pounds!’ (Natural History 33.)
Now I’m not suggesting that the Hildesheim hoard is the silver dinner service that once belonged to Pompeius Paulinus, but it does enable us to illustrate Pliny’s anecdote. It shows the opportunities for self indulgence made possible by the Roman Empire. At the same time significant amounts of money were going overseas to pay for expensive Chinese silk and Indian spices. We might describe this as evidence of Roman globalisation. There is a moralising aspect to Pliny’s writing but it is clear that overall he thinks Roman civilisation is a good thing, even if some Romans have indulged themselves rather too much in the luxuries provided by the empire.
As I think is becoming abundantly clear, the subject of the Nature Through Roman Eyes exhibition is something of a godsend to encyclopaedic collections such as those of Manchester Museum because natural history to the Romans extended far more widely than we would think of it today. In the 37 books of Pliny’s Natural History there are sections on every conceivable subject under the sun, including astronomy, numismatics, mining and the history of art. An exhibition about Roman natural history, therefore, has the potential to show the many different – and sometimes unexpected facets – of Roman civilisation and bring in every discipline and collection in the Museum. For years, museum curators have been urged to do more interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work and if ever there was an exhibition topic to realise this, Pliny’s your man. Added to which, Pliny himself is a marketing officer’s dream because he died during the eruption of Vesuvius in August 79 AD.
So there you go: Civilisations, the Etruscans, Pliny the Elder and Nature Through Roman Eyes, loss of linguistic diversity, science fiction movies, Heritage Futures and nuclear waste. Working at Manchester Museum is never short of variety.