Since its founding in 1887, the Penn Museum has been an important hub for teaching and learning on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Penn undergraduates and graduate students have a unique opportunity to wander the galleries, delve into the archives, and ‘excavate’ within the Museum’s artifact collections as part of their coursework and individual research. The Academic Engagement Department works to deepen the Museum’s ties with the University, and to encourage innovative approaches to teaching with our collections. We’ve asked faculty from across the University to tell us more about their experiences teaching at the Museum; here are their stories.
This fall, I had another great experience teaching in the Museum. That in itself is nothing new, since my department has a policy that all of our courses should visit the Museum at least once every semester. Since this means that majors, minors, and others will make multiple visits because they take more than one Classical Studies (CLST) course, it isn’t possible just to walk through the galleries time after time. But the collections are diverse, and the staff are very helpful in sorting out what particular objects are most appropriate for this or that course.
The visit I’m writing about involved a course that I hadn’t taught for a long time, Latin 101, Introduction to Latin. This is just what it sounds like, the first course in a sequence of four that teaches students the grammar and vocabulary they need to start reading Cicero, Vergil, and other authors at an advanced level. You might not expect that objects would be that useful in such a course. But for a long time, thanks to my colleague James Ker, it has been normal to use ancient inscriptions in these courses. Inscriptions are good teaching tools because their language is relatively standardized, and that makes them easier to read than literary texts. And, unlike literary texts, they do not come to us through a process of copying and recopying, which can and usually does introduce errors and uncertainties. They are about as close to an authentic, original text as you can get. Plus, it’s just exciting to work with an object that is two thousand years old.
All of that said, I think the students were a little dubious about how much they were going to get out of looking at these inscriptions. We made our visit right before Thanksgiving, and they had been studying Latin only since September. Even some of the readings in our textbook, which had been written or edited with beginners in mind, were still pretty challenging. How accessible was this raw, unprocessed Latin going to be?
The stones we examined were mainly funeral inscriptions, so before we looked carefully at them, we discussed what we might expect to find. The students inferred correctly that we would find names, dates of some sort, and other information about the deceased. We then discussed why information like that might be interesting, and it wasn’t long before they realized that, if you had the information from thousands of such inscriptions, as in fact we do, you could study them as a kind of database of information about life expectancy, family and social relationships, and things of that sort. It’s a whole different perspective on the ancient world from the one found in canonical literature, and the students were both surprised and intrigued by that.
Next, I asked them to work in teams to transcribe the texts of about eight inscriptions. They quickly found that some were easier and some harder simply to transcribe, because the stonecutters used more or less formal scripts for different inscriptions, and also because the condition of the different stones varied. But the students found that be shining a light on the letters from different angles, they might become easier to read. By the end of a 45-minute working session, they were able to transcribe all of the inscriptions, except one that was scratched out letter forms that resemble ancient cursive, which is very difficult to read, and two small inscriptions in Greek, which I have to confess I included as a kind of trick question. (They handled it very well, though!)
Marble Object Fragment with Greek Inscription
Museum Object Number: MS5733
Then, working from their transcriptions, they tried to translate the texts, referring to the originals as needed, when their ideas about translating this or that phrase caused them to doubt their transcription. By the end, with a little help from me on things like naming conventions and abbreviations, they were able to translate everything correctly. One of the highlights for me was when they discovered a “mistake” in one of the inscriptions, which said that the deceased had lived for such-and-so many years, but used the ablative instead of the accusative case. At first, they didn’t believe it was possible that any actual Roman would have made a grammatical mistake. But in fact, inscriptions were not always written by highly educated people, and the majority of Romans were apt to make mistakes as people are today. I think the students were impressed with themselves for being able to correct an ancient texts after studying Latin for only a little more than two months!
So, while I expected on the basis of experience in other courses that this visit would go well, I had no idea it would go as well as it did. It was definitely a high point in our semester, and not just a change of pace, but a unique validation of the good work that the students had been doing all along.