Ashes, images and the survival of democracy


A vase known as a loutrophoros that carried water for ritual cleansing and was often placed at the graves of young, unmarried men. Loutrophoros in the manner of Talos the Painter. Berlin, Staatliche Museen. PHOTO CREDIT: JOHANNES LAURENTIUS/ ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

Ashes, images and the survival of democracy: Nathan Arrington searches for meaning in ancient Athens’ public cemetery

By Catherine Zandonella

IT’S AN OVERCAST AND WINDY DAY, cold for June, but a strawberry stand across the road reminds us that summer has almost arrived in New Jersey. Nathan Arrington, an assistant professor of art and archaeology, sometimes visits the cemetery near campus to think. “Archaeologists tend to be comfortable with death,” he says.

I walk with Arrington past pitted, moss-stained headstones, wondering if any of those buried here died fighting for a fledgling democracy in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Princeton. Arrington is an expert on another burial ground, thousands of miles away and 2,500 years in the past, in Athens, Greece, where another fledgling democracy — perhaps the world’s first — was fighting for survival.

The cemetery is an appropriate place for a mystery, and Arrington is exploring a mystery that has captivated him since he was an undergraduate at Princeton in the early 2000s. Back then, he became intrigued by how ancient Greek art included portrayals of their defeats as well as their victories. For example, several of the marble carvings on the Parthenon showed Greeks being speared, trampled and otherwise humiliated in battle. In contrast, Arrington says, “The ancient Assyrians would never portray their warriors as anything but victorious.”

Greek portrayal of defeat

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Arrington was intrigued at how the ancient Greeks portrayed their own defeat in works of art, such as this marble sculpture created around 447-438 B.C. of a centaur trampling a Greek warrior situated on an outside wall of ancient Athens’ largest building, the Parthenon. London, British Museum. PHOTO CREDIT: ALBUM/ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

The portrayals of Greek defeat would eventually lead him to the larger question of how a young democratic society, at first fighting for survival against foreign aggression and later waging war for territorial expansion, convinced its citizens to sacrifice its young men to war. This topic would become the subject of a several-years obsession and eventually a book, Ashes, Images, and Memories: The Presence of the War Dead in Fifth-Century Athens (Oxford University Press, 2015). It’s a mixture of art, archaeology, history and modern neuroscience, tackling questions of how Athens in the fifth century B.C. developed rituals that helped its citizens accept the war dead as a necessary sacrifice to the survival of the state, rituals that influence us even today.

Mapping Athens’ ancient cemetery

When Arrington was an undergraduate, these findings were still far in the future. He wrote his senior thesis, a major work of scholarship required of all Princeton undergraduates, on the portrayal of defeat in classical Greek art, graduated in 2002 and then departed — first to the University of Cambridge, where he earned a master’s degree, and then to a doctoral program at the University of California- Berkeley. During that time, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

One day in 2008, amid the sound of cars honking and the smell of chestnuts roasting in a street vendor’s cart, Arrington followed Leda Costaki, a research archivist at the American School, on a tour of Athens’ ancient city walls. Most of the walls lie in ruins beneath the concrete and asphalt of the modern city. We know the location of the walls due to the work of government archaeologists who hastily catalogue the historical treasures — crumbling walls, roadbeds, even statues — uncovered whenever the urban landscape is peeled back during the construction of a commercial building or apartment house.

This type of archaeology — the examination of artifacts exhumed from beneath existing development — is considered so hard that a lot of people don’t want to do it. Instead of digging in dirt, urban archaeologists delve through stacks of papers or scroll through computerized reports. But as Arrington traipsed in and out of basements where parts of the walls had been preserved, he realized that it might just be possible to use the reports of these urban archaeologists to learn more about Athens’ ancient public cemetery.

Inspired by Costaki’s tour, Arrington undertook the task of mapping Athens’ ancient cemetery, the dēmosion sēma. Scholars already knew a bit about it from funeral orations and gravestones, but until Arrington, no one had conclusively mapped it or catalogued the locations of the large public graves for the war dead.

Arrington’s map revealed more mysteries. For one thing, the cemetery wasn’t exactly where you might expect a public graveyard to be — it was a little off the beaten path and outside the city — and the graves were not placed in neat rows the way they are in modern veterans’ cemeteries such as the Arlington National Cemetery. Instead, the graves were spread out over an area nearly a mile long that also housed a pottery manufacturing area.

“Sources speak of the [cemetery region] as a quiet place of solitude, or an ideal spot for a walk,” Arrington wrote of what the region would have been like in the fifth century B.C. in his doctoral thesis. “The wide road created an appealing, open space, with many paths leading off to the sides. The public graves did not dominate the edges of the road in a strict line but, like family plots, created smaller, inviting precincts. Such layouts of the monuments encouraged the pedestrian not to stroll by or between memorials, but to pause, experience, explore.”

The mapping of the dēmosion sēmaand study of casualty lists earned Arrington his doctorate degree in 2010, acclaim for his scholarship, and a job the same year as Princeton’s newly hired expert on classical Greece — filling the shoes, incidentally, of his senior thesis adviser, William Childs. Childs, professor of art and archaeology, now emeritus, is impressed with the scholar that Arrington has become.

“He is extraordinarily sensitive and very intelligent,” Childs says when I meet him in a windowless room above Princeton’s Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology. The room is crammed with filing cabinets and the walls are lined with faded black-and-white photos of Princeton archaeologists from a time when men on expedition dressed for dinner. “He covers just about everything — I disagree with him on a few points, but it is first-rate work, and he is a first-rate scholar.”

As an assistant professor at Princeton, Arrington began to piece together the story of what the public cemetery, together with the art and texts of the time, tell us about the lives and customs of a young, militant democracy.

The story starts about 508-507 B.C., when the citizens of Athens set up what is considered the first-ever democratic system of government. The city had hardly gained independence when it faced the threat of Persian invaders. Banding together with other Greek city-states, Athens triumphed over the Persians in 480 B.C. and waged many more battles — not only for survival but to gain power and territory. But the cost of these victories, and also some defeats, was high.

“There was an obvious problem with the war dead,” Arrington says. “You had to convince a society that these wars were worth the risk. And if you are a young democratic community, you need to honor the dead, but you cannot elevate the dead above the rest of society.”

The public cemetery was one way that city leaders sought to make the sacrifice more acceptable, Arrington found. Prior to the dēmosion sēma’s construction, the mourning of family members killed in battle was a very personal experience. Families would go to the battlefield to collect the body. Once home they’d wash the body, and invite extended family and friends to honor the deceased. Those who could afford to do so erected statues and monuments to commemorate the dead.

Once the public cemetery was created, however, the building of private monuments ceased, according to the records and artifacts that Arrington studied. Instead, officials cremated the war dead at the battlefield or somewhere else outside the city, then brought the ashes into Athens by the cartload to display in the burial ground. “This would have been a startling and disturbing sight,” Arrington says.

Individual monuments were replaced by tall slabs of marble called stelae inscribed with lists of names of the fallen. The carvings appear to have been done with some haste, probably in time for an annual celebration that would include speeches and funeral games.

“This was a way to honor people equally,” Arrington says. “You were elevated to the same level as your rich neighbor across the street. Death in battle was the great equalizer.”

Death was also the great anonymizer, he says. Only first names were carved on the stelae. “The anonymity of the lists encouraged a view of dead as a collective instead of individuals. These were fundamental changes in the way that people viewed their dead.”

Coopting the war dead for civic purposes

As Arrington learned more about these customs by studying the stelae, the works of art of the period and surviving funeral oration texts, he began to understand how the Greek battle scenes that had so puzzled him as an undergraduate fit into the picture.

These battle scenes were prominently on display on the crown of Athens’ largest building, the Parthenon, which, with its marble sculpture, was the Times Square of the ancient world. There, for all to see, were carvings of an Amazon spearing a Greek soldier, a centaur trampling a Greek and a Greek soldier turning to run or crawl away. These mythical foes, carved between 447 and 438 B.C., represent real-life battles. The Amazons, for example, wore Persian dress.

The location of these scenes on a sacred building — the Parthenon is a temple to the goddess Athena — suggests a deific stamp of approval. The images of flight, loss, defeat and death are a means of catharsis, creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the defeated, Arrington argues. Long after the funeral orations and games were over, the monuments posed the question to the living: What will you do?

Nathan Arrington

“There was an obvious problem with the war dead. You had to convince a society that wars were worth the risk.”
–Nathan Arrington, assistant professor of art and archaeology. PHOTO BY DENISE APPLEWHITE

How did the Greeks respond to coopting of their war dead for civic purposes? With their private traditions supplanted by public rituals, families over time shaped new customs. One such custom was to place in the cemetery offerings of decorative oil-filled bottles called lekythoi.

At the Princeton University Art Museum in the center of campus, I meet J. Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art. At a back entrance, a security guard checks me in, and Padgett takes me to a room lined with shelves of Greek antiquities where Arrington once worked as a student, and where in turn his students come to study lekythoi and other artifacts in the classes he teaches.

Padgett hands me a smooth vase about the size of a soda bottle. If I drop it, I would destroy an object created thousands of years ago. Holding it makes me feel somehow closer to understanding how a grieving mother might revere such an object, which served as a way of connecting the living and the dead. “Vases are a window on the past, although they are a smudged and cracked window,” Padgett says.

On one of the lekythoi described in Arrington’s book, a woman stands facing a tall grave marker, her outstretched hand holding a lekythos, possibly purchased at the nearby pottery works. A warrior looks at her from the other side of the grave.

From his armor, it is clear that he is a ghost; people didn’t go to graves dressed like that. The image carries a reassuring message for the grieving survivor who held this vase in pre-Christian Greece: Your dead son is here in spirit, and he knows that you visit his grave.


Disallowed from building individual monuments for their loved ones who died in battle, Athenians honored their war dead in the public cemetery by placing small vases called lekythoi at the mass graves. On this lekythos, dating from about 460-450 B.C., a woman carrying a basket with grave offerings on her head offers a lekythos to a striding warrior, probably the deceased. Berlin, Staatliche Museen. PHOTO CREDIT: JOHANNES LAURENTIUS/ ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK

Arrington examined this and other lekythoi as snapshots — the selfies of everyday life and loss in ancient Greece — and started to see how the Athenians used the vases in combination with the public cemetery to make sense of their losses. “What you actually see is the variety of responses to the war dead, to the point of almost being subversive. I wouldn’t call it an antiwar movement, but these were reactions against the city’s claims to the dead, to the bodies or to the endless wars.” Eventually the monuments to individuals returned, paid for by the families who could afford them, around 430 B.C.

Padgett takes the lekythos from my hand. He has clear memories of Arrington as an undergraduate. Just after graduation in 2002, Arrington worked as an intern in the art museum, helping Padgett prepare an exhibition. “Of course I remember Nathan,” Padgett says. “He stood out even then as an extremely bright and motivated student. He has great powers of concentration — and he was already multilingual by then. I and others were delighted when he came back.”

During his undergraduate years at Princeton, Arrington met his wife, Celeste, who is now an assistant professor of political science specializing in the Koreas and Japan at George Washington University. A few years later, while they both were working on their doctorates, Arrington found himself living in Japan. When not sifting through piles of photocopied Athenian archaeology documents, he would visit the Yasukuni war shrine. (“I was the strange tourist just sitting there watching people come and go,” he says.) Here, soldiers who gave their lives for Japan are revered as deities. Around that same time, the U.S.-Iraq war was going on, yet U.S. government policy forbade news photography of the coffins arriving home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He began to think about how our ways of remembering the dead — even today — influence our willingness to accept the personal cost of war.

Crossing the centuries

The sprawling cemetery, the anonymity of the grave markers, the funeral orations, the objects of art from the small lekythoi to the massive marble friezes — all were clues that pointed to ways that societies shape how their citizens view death.

And that led to the last piece of the puzzle: Exactly how did these material objects influence the thought processes of Athenians? Arrington found himself turning to modern neuroscience to learn how our environments and past experiences influence what we remember. We don’t remember everything that happens to us, but rather only those things that have some importance or value. And our biases or mindsets can influence what we remember. The public nature of the cemetery with its ashes on display, funeral games and speeches, plus the anonymity of the markers, carried strong messages that the war dead should be perceived and remembered for their contribution to the state rather than as good sons or dedicated husbands.

Few scholars today could have put together such a comprehensive look at how the objects of art and archaeology revealed something about the culture of ancient Athens, says Matthew Sears, a historian who studies classical Greek warfare at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. “Nathan’s work crosses boundaries between disciplines,” says Sears, who first met Arrington when they were students at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. “The objects of art that Nathan describes in his book are very well known. They’ve been studied for, in some cases, centuries, but they’ve only been studied in isolation from each other. Nathan brings them all together, as parts of the same story, and he brings in advances in memory and cognitive studies, things that have nothing to do with classical scholarship, in a way that sheds light on how Athenians lived,” Sears says.

A truck rumbles past the strawberry stand outside the cemetery in Princeton. Arrington is leaving for Greece in a few days, where he’ll lead students in an excavation of an ancient trading port on the north coast of Greece. The financial uncertainty in Greece is a worry. Celeste will go with him, and they’ll be bringing their young child (with another on the way), to the dig.

Arrington is musing on how modern society has coopted Greek classical art and architecture to make grand statements. For example, near campus on the Princeton Battlefield stands a neoclassical monument consisting of four Greek columns. “We use classical style as a way to elevate things, but to do that is to not understand the full complexity of Greek art,” he says. “I think we adopted some of these practices without understanding where they are coming from.”

The issues of the treatment of the war dead, the state support of war veterans and the place of war in society are issues that we are still grappling with today, says David Pritchard, a senior lecturer in Greek history at the University of Queensland who is familiar with Arrington’s work. “All of these questions are still being asked. Athens is a very rich point of comparison for thinking about pressing issues of democracy, citizenship and military participation.”

He adds: “Ancient Athens was democratic, but it was a state that was constantly at war. It was a state that prioritized military spending over social security spending, and it was a state that picked fights with other states all the time. So I think that Athens stands as a warning to the modern world that we shouldn’t be complacent in thinking that democracy protects us from warmongering or that democracy means that we only fight just wars, and we only fight necessary wars.”

Western-style democracies, in other words, have much in common with the ancient Greeks when it comes to the war dead: What do you do with the bodies? How will you memorialize them? How will you portray them in images? And will you honor the dead as a way to glorify war?

Arrington is not sure we honor our war dead particularly well. “We as a culture tend to ignore death as much as we possibly can,” he said. “It is difficult for society to come to grips with the cost of war because death is not part of our visual culture on a regular basis, the way it was in the ancient world. Yet these ashes, images and the memories they create are needed if we are to have national healing.”

Arrington’s work has been supported by Princeton University’s David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project and the Stanley J. Seeger Sabbatical Research Grant.

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Discovery_2015_F_3_Arrington_book_cover_9780199369072Arrington explores how a young democracy coped with the sacrifice of so many of their young men to war in his book Ashes, Images, and Memories: The Presence of the War Dead in Fifth-Century Athens (Oxford University Press, 2015). On the cover of the book is a vase known as a loutrophoros that carried water for ritual cleansing and was often placed at the graves of young, unmarried men. The vase, which dates from about 410 B.C., shows a deceased man looking at an equestrian statue of himself. The vase represents a way that families commemorated their dead and hints at a backlash against the practice of burying soldiers’ ashes en masse in Athens’ public cemetery.

Chigusa and the Art of Tea


Chigusa and the Art of Tea

Edited by: Louise Allison Cort and Andrew Watsky
Publisher: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2014

This book of essays by multiple authors tells the story of an extraordinary tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa. The jar was crafted in southern China during the 13th or 14th century and shipped to Japan, where its use as a tea-leaf storage jar endowed it with special status. The bestowing of a personal name — Chigusa (“thousand grasses” or “myriad things”), an evocative phrase from Japanese poetry — was a sign of respect and reverence.

Chigusa is the rare object that allows us deep insight into how people in Japan looked at, thought about and valued things over time,” said Andrew Watsky, professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University. He co-authored the book with Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, which organized the exhibition, Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan.

The exhibition is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from Oct. 11, 2014, through Feb. 1, 2015.

Italian Master Drawings: Exhibition goes beneath the surface

Michaelangelo picture

On display will be an architectural sketch depicting a floor plan for an unrealized chapel (bottom). It was only through the use of infrared reflectography in the mid-1990s that the sketch, located on the reverse side of a study of profile heads (top) that had been tentatively associated with the artist, was confirmed as the work of Michelangelo. Michelangelo, Bust of a Youth and Character Head of an Old Man, 1520s. Black chalk on tan laid paper. Gift of Frank Jewett Mather Jr. (Photos courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum)

A new exhibition, 500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum, on view from Jan. 25 through May 11, 2014, explores the mental process behind creation through nearly 100 rarely seen highlights by such masters as Vittore Carpaccio, Michelangelo, Luca Cambiaso, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Guercino, Salvator Rosa, Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo, and Amedeo Modigliani.

The creative process is captured in the Italian word disegno, which translates as “drawing” or “design.” But the term is far richer, said Laura Giles, the Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Princeton University Art Museum. She defined the term as “encompassing both the mental formulation and the physical act of creation,” a construct that was, she added, “embedded into the Italian drawing process by the 15th century.”

The exhibition represents the culmination of more than 35 years of scholarship on the museum’s Italian drawings, including the acquisition of more than 125 works that have entered the collection through gift, bequest or purchase.

Many of the drawings have benefited from new insights concerning attribution, iconography, dating, function and provenance. Among the many noteworthy findings is the discovery, first made in the 1990s, of an architectural sketch by Michelangelo on the reverse side of a study of profile heads that had been tentatively associated with the artist. The drawing, depicting a floor plan for an unrealized chapel, is obscured from view by an 18th-century collector’s mount. Only through the utilization of infrared reflectography was the floor plan revealed.

The exhibition celebrates the publication of a new scholarly catalogue, Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum, authored and edited by Giles, Postdoctoral Research Associate Lia Markey and Renaissance art specialist Claire Van Cleave, with contributions from many leading scholars.

Laura Giles

Laura Giles, the Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings, is curating the exhibition. (Photo by Henry Vega)

The catalogue is the first academic exploration of the collection since 1977. The research for the catalogue received significant support from The Getty Foundation’s Cataloguing of Museum Collections Grant Program.

In tandem with the publication of the exhibition catalogue, the museum will add updated research and high-resolution images to its online collections catalogue, allowing global access to the Italian drawings collection.

The museum’s collection of over 80,000 works includes more than 1,000 Italian drawings from the 15th through the early 20th century, encompassing the history of Italian art from the early Renaissance to early modernism.

–By Erin Firestone

Manuscripts spark dialogue on authorship

Martin Kern

Martin Kern (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Hundreds of early Chinese bamboo, silk and wood manuscripts excavated in the last 40 years are challenging the idea of the author as the sole creator of literary work.

Not one of the manuscripts, which include philosophical and literary essays as well as administrative and technical writings from pre-Imperial or ancient China (before 221 B.C.), mentions its author, according to Martin Kern, a Chinese literature expert in the Department of East Asian Studies. The texts are also difficult to attribute to any one author, as individual manuscripts can sometimes have little to do with each other and are thus difficult to categorize. The absence of explicit author credits and the composite nature of the early Chinese texts, Kern said, calls into question the idea that for ancient China, scholars can equate a written artifact with the original thought of a sole individual.

“We have to rethink the idea that for a text to be credible it has to be tied to a certain person from the beginning,” Kern said. He explained that in the Chinese tradition beginning in early Imperial times, the dominant approach to “saying what a text is” involves attributing entire books to one prominent figure even though they contain a range of disparate chapters most likely not composed by a particular individual. The “author” then becomes a principal actor for imbuing a text with meaning, anchoring a text in a particular time, place and literary or philosophical niche according to the traditional perception of his — and in this time period the author could be assumed to be male — ideas and biography.

Chinese literature expert Martin Kern studies ancient texts such as this one, a bamboo strip (presented in segments in image) containing a manuscript dating from around 300 B.C. and probably from a tomb in southern China. (Image courtesy of the Shanghai Museum.)

Chinese literature expert Martin Kern studies ancient texts such as this one, a bamboo strip (presented in segments in image) containing a manuscript dating from around 300 B.C. and probably from a tomb in southern China. (Image courtesy of the Shanghai Museum.)

“We start out with the assumption of a unifying person with a unifying set of ideas,” Kern said, referring to interpretations of ancient Chinese literature. “Now we look at these texts, and we see it’s not at all like that.”

Kern, who publishes in both English and Chinese, pointed to fifth-century B.C. Greece to further highlight the contrast between pre- Imperial Chinese texts and those of early Greece. The writings of several Greek philosophers explicitly identify Homer as the creator of poetry, and other Greek figures such as Herodotus and Thucydides established their creator roles at the outset of their texts. In making their authorship explicit, Kern argued, the writers marked their works with a well-defined historical, geographical and cultural context that would later be instrumental in guiding the texts’ reception.

By contrast, the classics of ancient China went for centuries without authorial attribution — long after they had spread across the vast Chinese realm. This is not to say that authorship had no place in Chinese literature at all — the Imperial Chinese tradition is rife with examples of texts that were intimately linked to individual personalities. However, Kern suggests that these are only later developments, beginning in the second century B.C. with the newly established empire, and must not be projected backwards in time to the formative pre-Imperial period of China.

“The textual attributions for the pre-Imperial authors come into being retrospectively,” he said. Kern, the Greg (’84) and Joanna (P13) Zeluck Professor in Asian Studies and chair of the East Asian studies department, hopes to encourage others in his field to rethink prevailing assumptions about authorship in antiquity. He also wants to spread his ideas to colleagues beyond Chinese studies.

“I want to say, ‘look, you have your situation in Western classical antiquity, and … you think everything about that is normal — in the same way that the Chinese tradition considers itself the normal case,’” he said. Yet the Chinese evidence for composite texts complicates the notion of an “author” and shows it as “a totally cultural decision,” he said.

–By Tara Thean

Found in translation: Scholar locates source of 18th-century Quran

Alexander Bevilacqua

Graduate student Alexander Bevilacqua with George Sale’s 1734 edition of the Quran, a highly influential English translation, in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton’s Firestone Library. Bevilacqua rediscovered the source material for Sale’s translation in a London archive. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

In a London archive, Alexander Bevilacqua found it: a medieval copy of the Muslim holy book, the Quran. Its aging pages, Bevilacqua knew, contained the original source for a highly influential 18th-century English translation of the Quran by George Sale.

Bevilacqua had embarked on a quest to find out how Sale, a self-taught Arabic speaker and amateur scholar in England, came to write such an enduring and unprejudiced translation in 1734, at a time when many Europeans viewed Islam with distrust.

A Ph.D. candidate in history, and fluent in five languages, Bevilacqua studies the ways in which cultures exchange ideas across the ages. His inspiration comes from growing up in Italy, surrounded by Roman ruins and the Musliminfluenced architecture of nearby Spain.

In this interview, Bevilacqua explains the importance of his finding.

Arabic manuscript

Bevilacqua discovered this medieval Arabic manuscript of the Quran, which served as a basis for George Sale’s English translation, in the London Metropolitan Archive. Sale borrowed this copy from the Dutch Church in 1733. (Reproduced with permission of the trustees, Nederlandse Kerk Austin Friars, London)

Why was George Sale’s English version of the Quran so influential?

Prior to his version, the best information about Islam was available in Latin. Sale included a lengthy preface in which he explained many historical facts about Islam. His efforts undercut the prejudicial notions about Islam that had circulated since medieval times. Sale’s translation remained the standard English version into the 20th century.

How did you come to discover the Arabic manuscript that Sale used?

Sale tells us in his preface that he employed a commentary written by a medieval Arabic scholar named Baydawi, which he had borrowed from the Dutch Church library in London. According to church records, the manuscript was donated in 1633 by a Dutch trader who had purchased it in Istanbul. The book sat in the library for 100 years until Sale borrowed it. I found out that the Dutch Church’s collection had been transferred to the London Metropolitan Archive, which houses city records. Its custodians didn’t quite realize they possessed such a precious book. The first time I visited, I was able to touch it, but after I explained its significance, I was asked to wear gloves.

What influence did the manuscript have on Sale’s translation?

Sale used particular words and phrases that were my smoking gun to show that he was working from this particular copy of the Quran rather than from existing European translations. Sale’s reliance on the commentary that accompanies the text shows us that Europeans of the time wanted to know how Muslims read and understood the Quran.

English version

An edition of George Sale’s translation of the Quran is held in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton’s Firestone Library. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

What have you learned about historical research?

One thing I’ve learned is that knowledge is so often produced in collaboration, or rather, by the efforts of multiple people, sometimes in the same time and place and sometimes over the centuries in different places. Sale consulted both European and Arabic authorities. This kind of discovery also reminds me how much remains to be learned about our past.

“Alex’s finding adds to our understanding of the 18th-century European mind and its openness to using tools from the Arab tradition to understand the Quran,” said Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. Bevilacqua’s advisers are Grafton and Michael Cook, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies.

Bevilacqua’s research was funded by the American Historical Association, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Society for French Historical Studies. His article on George Sale’s translation of the Quran, an edition of which is held in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton’s Firestone Library, will appear in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in November 2013.

–By Catherine Zandonella

Race and incarceration rates: Student researcher explores solutions

Image of razorwire

Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013, focused her research on the ways in which nonprofits are contributing to policy reform in the criminal justice system.

African Americans made up 40 percent of incarcerated individuals in the United States in 2012, despite being only 13 percent of the American population, according to the United States Census Bureau. Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013, wanted to know what could be done to change that statistic.

Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013 (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013 (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

For her senior thesis project, Pingue analyzed three nonprofit organizations engaged in incarceration reform. She found that, while these programs were promising, additional policy changes and judicial reforms are needed to shrink the racial disparity in incarceration rates.

“One thing scholars agree on is that mass imprisonment has produced a host of undesirable consequences, particularly for African Americans,” Pingue said, “including the loss of the right to vote and barriers to employment, purchasing a car, and access to quality health care. These disadvantages can affect entire African American communities, including non-offenders.” To find out what nonprofits are doing to address the issue, Pingue conducted in-depth interviews and reviewed policy briefs and other documents. Pingue focused on three organizations — the Sentencing Project, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project.

These groups advocate for reforms such as reduced drug-related sentences, rehabilitation rather than prison for nonviolent offenders, placement services for ex-felons re-entering society, and job training for economically disadvantaged youth. Additional reforms include ending biased police practices such as racial profiling.

Pingue found that nonprofits have had a positive effect on government incarceration policies. For example, lobbying by the Sentencing Project and the NAACP LDF contributed to a reduction in federal drug-related sentences through the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

She found room for improvement, however. “One of the more surprising findings of my research was that the reform that nonprofits are pursuing — mostly litigation or lobbying — may not represent what a large bulk of the affected population feels needs to be done,” Pingue said. She concluded that nonprofits need to do more to connect with affected communities.

Imani Perry, professor of African American studies, advised Pingue on the project. “The problem of racialized mass incarceration devastates communities, families and individual lives,” Perry said. “I’m very impressed by Danielle’s research into the range of policy recommendations and lobbying efforts of nonprofit organizations working on how to address this problem.”

During her undergraduate education, Pingue interned at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies and concentrated her studies in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs with a certificate in African American studies.

Pingue, who was born in Jamaica and moved with her parents to Worcester, Mass., when she was 10, will enter Harvard Law School in the fall. After law school she hopes to enter politics, perhaps as a representative working with disadvantaged communities. “My long-term goal is to go back to Jamaica and work on social policy and developmental issues, bringing the work that I’ve learned in the United States back to my birthplace,” she said.

–By Catherine Zandonella

Explain me something: How we learn what not to say

Adele Goldberg

Adele Goldberg, a professor of linguistics in Princeton’s Council of the Humanities, and her research team use nonsense words — such as ablim, adax and afec — to study how we learn which combinations of words are allowed and which are not. (Photo by Till Dreier. Illustration by Ilissa Ocko)

Explain me something. She considered to go. The asleep dog snored. We have learned to avoid using these phrases although it is difficult to say exactly why explain me is not allowed but tell me is acceptable. Somehow we have learned that consider to go is wrong but decide to go is right, and that although the asleep dog sounds odd, the sleeping dog sounds fine.

So how do we learn what not to say?

Through a series of experiments, linguist Adele Goldberg and her team believe they have found the answer: language learners create expectations about how words and phrases will be used, and if a different form is repeatedly heard instead, the previously expected form will be ruled out.

For example, when a young language learner expects to hear he disappeared the rabbit, but instead repeatedly hears he made the rabbit disappear, then the child learns that the second sentence is preferred, said Goldberg, professor of linguistics in Princeton’s Council of the Humanities. Linguists call this the “statistical preemption” theory because language learners record the frequency and context of phrases that then preempt the use of the expected phrases, Goldberg said.

This cycle of expecting one formulation followed by witnessing an alternate formulation helps language learners eliminate phrases that at first glance would seem to be allowable.

To test the idea of statistical preemption, in one study, Goldberg and postdoctoral researcher Jeremy Boyd looked specifically at adjectives that start with an unstressed a, such as asleep and afraid. (In Old English, asleep was a contraction of in sleep so the phrase, the in sleep dog was not used, explaining our modern day avoidance of the asleep dog. Many “a”-adjectives follow this pattern.)

Boyd asked 32 college-age volunteers to create new sentences using nonsense “a”-adjectives, such as afec, of which people have no prior knowledge. He found that when people had been led to expect to hear the afec fox (which is analogous to the asleep fox), but then heard the preemptive phrase the fox that was afec (which is analogous to the fox that was asleep), they quickly learned to avoid using the afec fox, a finding that affirms the statistical preemption theory.

Boyd also found that when the context was manipulated so a new set of volunteers did not form an expectation to hear the afec fox, the volunteers showed no evidence of avoiding it, even though they had heard the preemptive phrase the fox that was afec. The results were repeated using many other nonsense “a”-adjectives.

“From this study we concluded that learners use preemptive contexts and what is more, they are smart about what counts as a preemptive context,” said Goldberg, who receives support for her research from the National Science Foundation and the Free University of Berlin.

Goldberg’s work on statistical preemption helps dispel a competing theory: that the reason we don’t use phrases such as explain me is simply that we only use language in ways we have heard before. If this were the case, Goldberg said, we would never be creative with language.

“The verb sneeze has been heard a million times in a simple sentence such as, ‘She sneezed,’” Goldberg said. “But we can also think of new ways to use it, as in, ‘She sneezed the foam off the cappuccino.’ We clearly know how to use language creatively.”

–By Catherine Zandonella

Language expert explores the art and science of translation


(Book cover image courtesy of the publisher)

Translations never produce quite the same phrasing, feeling or meaning as the original, according to Princeton professor David Bellos. In his 2011 book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, Bellos, a professor in the departments of French and Italian and comparative literature, explored how people understand — or do not understand — each other in various situations and settings.

Bellos charted the complex, fragile beehive of translators who keep the United Nations operating; explored the mental state involved in translating into and out of one’s native tongue; and delved into online translation — technology that actually dates back to Cold War-era efforts by the United States to quickly unscramble Russian — among other topics.

“There’s this idea that a translation is just not as good as the original,” said Bellos, director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. “Why does it annoy me so much? Well, a translation is different from the original. It can never be the same thing. But it’s not worse.”

In the end, Bellos said, one must put faith in a translation. “A text and its translation are two different objects, and they always will be,” he said. “So we must grant the translator authority in a language we do not know. We don’t like to do that. But we have to come to terms with it.”


Lost and found: Prokofiev’s score for Eugene Onegin

Prokofiev’s lost score

Princeton music scholar Simon Morrison found Sergei Prokofiev’s lost score for a banned production of the Russian classic Eugene Onegin. (Image courtesy of Sergei
Prokofiev Estate)

A banned adaptation of an important novel-in-verse. A lost score with 44 parts. A wait of nearly 80 years. These are the challenging elements that came together for Princeton’s staging of the classic Russian tale Eugene Onegin. Simon Morrison, a professor of music, rediscovered composer Sergei Prokofiev’s lost score for the production in a Russian archive. The score was intended as incidental music for a stage adaptation by Russian writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky of Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse. The stage production was halted and banned in 1936 by Josef Stalin’s Soviet regime. Morrison worked with other faculty members to bring the score to life at a four-day musical conference held at Princeton in February 2012. The productions included a symphony performance of the music by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and a theatrical performance of Krzhizhanovsky’s play. Morrison also worked with Caryl Emerson, the A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Tim Vasen, a lecturer and acting director of the Program in Theater, to stage the project as well as use the text and music for academic purposes.

The Life of an Ethiopian saint

Selamawit Mecca, an expert on Ethiopian female saints and an assistant professor of Ethiopian literature at Addis Ababa University, reads from a book about Walatta Petros. Selamawit Mecca, an expert on Ethiopian female saints and an assistant professor of Ethiopian literature at Addis Ababa University, reads from a book about Walatta Petros.

Selamawit Mecca, an expert on Ethiopian female saints and an assistant professor of Ethiopian literature at Addis Ababa University, reads from a book about Walatta Petros.

The Ethiopian saint Walatta Petros scolded her fellow females for wasting time on manicures instead of praying. She argued forcefully with the male leaders of her country. And she helped drive Portuguese missionaries from Ethiopia in the 17th century, preserving one of the earliest forms of Christianity, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Today, Wendy Laura Belcher, assistant professor of African literature in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies, is bringing to life the story of this Ethiopian Orthodox saint through the study of a 340-year-old parchment manuscript. The centuries-old tome resides in a monastery near Lake Tana, the site of some of Ethiopia’s most important religious libraries, where it is read by Ethiopian monks and priests but little examined by Westerners. In studying the manuscript, Belcher, who herself lived in Ethiopia as a child, has revealed a world of rich African literature that few outside scholarly circles knew existed.

“Many people do not realize that Africa has a rich literature that stretches back for millennia,” Belcher said. “Walatta Petros’ story is one of the first biographies written about an African woman by an African author in an African language.”

Pages from a 19th-century copy of the book Gadla Walatta Petros (The Life and Struggles of Walatta Petros). On the left page, the saint receives her commission from Christ to start seven religious communities. (Images courtesy of Wendy Laura Belcher)

Pages from a 19th-century copy of the book Gadla Walatta Petros (The Life and Struggles of Walatta Petros). On the left page, the saint receives her commission from Christ to start seven religious communities. (Images courtesy of Wendy Laura Belcher)

The manuscript portrays the life of Walatta Petros (1594-1643), a wealthy woman who deserted her husband to travel the country and preach against conversion to Roman Catholicism. Jesuit priests had arrived from Europe in the early 1500s and were attempting to convince Ethiopians to give up their ancient form of Christianity, which they had adopted in the fourth century. The missionaries nearly succeeded, having swung the emperor to their side, but, partly due to the brave female saint mobilizing a large following of nonviolent resisters, the Jesuits were ousted in 1632.

“I came across a reference to Jesuits calling the royal women ‘diabolical’ and blaming them for the failure to convert Ethiopians,” Belcher said. “At first I thought this was just misogyny. But it turns out the Jesuits were right. I found the story of Walatta Petros and these courageous women to be irresistible.”

The survival of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church offers modern scholars a window into early forms of Christian worship, but Walatta Petros’ story also yields a glimpse of what life was like for Ethiopian women during this period. In 2011, Belcher spent a year in Ethiopia on a Fulbright fellowship researching ancient manuscripts illuminating the lives of Ethiopian royal women in Walatta Petros’ time.

“One of the really wonderful things about this book is that it is a story about women’s friendships,” Belcher said. “Women read to each other, they have fights with each other, they avoid their mothers-in-law — there are all sorts of wonderfully human moments in this text.”

Belcher is working with Selamawit Mecca, an expert on Ethiopian female saints and an assistant professor of Ethiopian literature at Addis Ababa University, to clarify the meaning of the text, parts of which are confusing due most likely to scribal errors. Another collaborator, Michael Kleiner, a leading scholar of the ancient Ethiopian language Gəˁəz and its literature, is translating the book from Gəˁəz into English.