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"Early Iron Age Archaeology and the Tyranny of the Text: the Case of Athletic Nudity"

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October 3, 2019

Speaker & Affiliation

Sarah Murray, University of Toronto


4:30 pm - 6:00 pm
010 East Pyne


Interpretations of Greek Early Iron Age material culture are often heavily influenced by textual evidence, especially Homeric epic. In this paper, I argue that the fictional worlds narrated in early Greek texts, which continue to dominate scholarship concerning the Early Iron Age, have provided at best a highly limited and at worst a misleading basis for historical and archaeological interpretation. I investigate a particular case where early texts have profoundly shaped our understanding of a central element of Greek culture: the practice of nudity in ritual athletic contests and its meaning in early art. Historians have placed the origins of nude athletics in the Archaic period because of anecdotal evidence in Homer and other texts, but I demonstrate through a review of the material evidence from the Protogeometric and Geometric periods that in fact this institution had a far more complex development stretching back to the end of the Bronze Age. I close with a general discussion of the myriad challenges historians and archaeologists face when attempting to bring texts and material culture into meaningful discourse, and advocate for the adoption of a more rigorous analysis of archaeological evidence concerning every aspect of the Classical past for which there is limited textual documentation.