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Horse Skulls and Bronze Tables: Guest Lecturers illumine Classical Archaeology and Linguistics

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Published Date

February 26, 2024


It was a busy day last week in Princeton Classics, as two undergraduate courses hosted guest lectures from experts in their respective fields. With a horse skull and several smaller bone-bags in tow, Prof. Katie Tardio of Bucknell came to introduce methods of zooarchaeology to “The Science of Roman History” (CLA 247). At the same time, Prof. Michael Weiss drove down from Ithaca to deliver an introduction to the obscure Italic language of Umbrian.

“We were delighted to welcome Prof. Weiss, who is chair of the Department of Linguistics at Cornell and one of the world’s foremost scholars of Indo-European languages in general and the Italic languages (including Latin) in particular,” said Prof. Jesse Lundquist, who teaches “History of the Latin Language and Its Earliest Literature” (LAT 403). Prof. Weiss had come to present his work on the Iguvine Tables, a series of esoteric religious inscriptions containing the vast majority of what is known of the Umbrian language.

Jesse Lundquist stands introducing Michael Weiss in a wood panelled classroom

Jesse Lundquist introducing Michael Weiss in LAT 403

Weiss elucidated the Tables in a wide-ranging and accessible introduction, drawing specific parallels to Roman practices attested in better known texts. “In scope, content, and antiquity the Iguvine Tables surpass all other documents for the study of Italic religion even though the interpretation of many passages remains uncertain,” wrote Weiss in his lecture. “In many details they show resemblance to Roman ritual and cult.”

“He brought out the significance of these texts by close linguistic analysis that kept in its purview the broad sweep of life in ancient Italy,” said Lundquist, who is teaching the class for the first time. “All in all, an outstanding bonus (duenos?) for our class.”

Meanwhile, one floor below, Prof. Tardio was explaining how sifting through an archeological site’s animal bones illuminates seemingly countless aspects of a region’s ancient culture, from diet to entertainment, trade, disease, and siege-craft.

“I thought it was really cool to be able to see an expert at work in my classroom,” said Mary McCoy ’26, a prospective Classics major and student in the course. “Being able to handle bones, seeing Dr. Tardio's perspective and knowledge in real time, and being able to ask on-the-fly questions helped the zooarchaeological process come to life.” Even in a class known for smelting iron on Cannon Green, it was a special hands-on experience with ancient data. “It extended the classroom outside of just theories and readings and into the practical,” added McCoy, “which I really enjoyed and appreciated.”

Caroline Cheung laughs, pointing at an animal bone

Caroline Cheung pointing out various animal bones

In LAT 403, linguistics major Henry Cammerzell ’25 felt much the same: “In any subject, it's not often you get to learn from the person who wrote the book itself. When it comes to Italic languages and Proto-Indo-European, there is almost no one else with as strong a command of and ability to explain the material as Prof. Weiss.” For Cammerzell, the most recent recipient of the Stinnecke Prize, the Classics Department’s highest award for undergraduate language ability, it was a master class in academic judgment. “His insights into the Iguvine Tables were illuminating, and he did not shy away from leaving problems with the text unresolved. It demonstrates a large measure of respect for the material to not rush to any convenient, yet unmotivated answers to its conundrums.”

After class, Prof. Tardio hung around for a reception with grad students in Prentice Library, fielding questions on everything from elephant anatomy to teaching introductory Latin. Before driving over from Bucknell, Tardio had “heroically taught her 9AM class,” said Prof. Caroline Cheung, who co-teaches CLA 247 with Art and Archaeology's Leigh A. Lieberman. Even so, she showed no signs of fatigue. “I’m hopeful she can be a regular guest presenter,” added Cheung. 

Tardio poses with a horse skull while talking to a grad student at a reception

Tardio exhibits a horse skull at the Prentice Library reception

In fact, both Cheung and Lundquist show continuing interest in the educational opportunity of inviting guest speakers. In early April, LAT 403 will host lectures from eminent linguist Brent Vine, emeritus professor at UCLA. This week, CLA 247 will be treated to a presentation on Roman garum by Darío Bernal-Casasola (University of Cádiz), complete with taste-testing. The lecture will be open to the public.