The Classics Society Trip: a growing tradition, or where we’d all rather be

James Hua
James Hua
Apr 23, 2020 · 21 min read

As Stef_Greece recently put it, we’d all rather be bathing in the golden seas of the Aegean, or even just going outside in this gorgeous Easter weather, right now.

But given the current societal and economic effects that Covid-19 is causing, perhaps this isn’t exactly the right way of putting our priorities. Is the I all that imperative? As Victoria Hislop recently elaborated in an interview, much more heavily impacted than this I are the local industries, in the Aegean’s case largely tourism, and the people who have put their life and soul into making us welcome on those islands. It is these people whom we should equally be thinking about; it is their generosity and hospitality that we should be grateful for and with which we should be thinking of ways to move forwards. Not all these I’s (as many a hypocritical celeb has failed to notice) are so privileged. We should remember them when we think about what made things work.

To that end, and sticking to the Classics Society, I write this piece as a thought about the Society trips that we’ve started this year. But rather than drearing on about our accomplishments & res gestas, I want to discuss those people who have displayed their selfless generosity and helped us along the way, just like those Aegean hosts. It’s a chance to think about ways of moving forwards with the trips by engaging with local communities in a responsible way, and, hopefully, to show some gratitude to those who look after those gold-sanded beaches in the first place.

Introduction: the 7.43am train, or foggy ride with the Phaeacians in Od 13

“Reborn golden from its dormant half a decade, the Classics Society Trip made a comeback in November and indeed tomorrow — with a promising outlook!”

So I wrote (not entirely comprehensibly) as we were yawning on the 7.43am train from Durham on Sat 15 February 2020, heading to King’s Cross with 23 other students to visit the Troy Exhibition at the British Museum. Little did I know just how difficult the trip would become a few hours later, and how challenging the days soon after would be not just for travel, but for the world.

But little did I also know just how much of a success the trip would be given these challenges, and most of all, —

So I wrote a few days after the trip, on Wed 19 February. Looking at it now, I cringe. How out of touch it is.

It’s all about what we did, our suffering, our accomplishment. It completely misses the people in the museums, on the trains, and in the emails who made the trip possible much more than one enthusiastic user of them did. Sure, one could have a rant about “how the trip opened up a whole new aspect of activities for the Society!” — but that wouldn’t even come close to acknowledging how many people went out of their way to help us make this trip come true. Looking back provides perspective. It makes real just how much credit we should be giving these people for things which seemed to pan out so gratuitously.

It is with this perspective, both from hindsight and the current pandemic, that I write this ostrakon for two reasons: first, to show just how incredibly lucky we students are with the opportunities out there for us, to thank and acknowledge the people who are there to make students’ experience better, in this case relating to the Society Trips. Second, to think about ways we can work meaningfully with these local communities and their heritage to improve these trips, both for students’ academic experience and to find sustainable means to support and learn with these people.

To the north: Hadrian’s Wall, Roman Army Museum, and Vindolanda

On the morning of Saturday 2 November 2019, 33 students woke up bright and early, spurred on by the opportunity to explore Hadrian’s Wall for the day. It was a unique chance to experience an ancient site, which we’d studied in class, academically, physically, and independently — all as a break and for £6. Why Hadrian’s Wall? Because it’s the perfect opportunity to explore the local heritage of Durham and the North East, which is too often overlooked. At just a stone’s throw away, the scenery and rich history add the cherry to the cake.

Aiming to enable students from all backgrounds and subjects to experience Classical sites and exhibitions first-hand, a group of us in the Classics Society exec have been working to organise bi-annual Trips to Classical sites around the UK and abroad, for the first time in about a decade. What’s special is that we want to make them meaningful experiences: apart from exploring new ways to think about our learning on the trips, we actively want to engage with the local communities who live there and call it home, learning about their work to make it accessible, how it defines them, and how we can learn from that. How do we do this?

Photo by Seleste, our great photographer on the trip — thank you!

It starts off with the small things. Given that these communities have invested their lives and identities into these sites, respecting and learning with that is important. After waking up for that early 8.30am start, we hop onto the bus owned by Lee’s of Durham, a local bus company based in County Durham. We did our research to make sure it was ground zero (not just for environmental reasons), aiming to work with the local economy and people who care about the sites. You can tell that they care about their job and want you to feel welcome in their heritage — when I was frantically checking the schedule for the day, the bus driver helpfully offered some insider suggestions about what to see, where to walk on the wall, even ideas for group pictures. Visit the museum before walking on the wall because the museum often gets full later on; it would also help to understand the wall much better. The staff at the Roman Army Museum, our first stop, were equally helpful: they quickly led us to the video screening, as we were slightly late, suggested what we see first and look out for, and then sorted out the admin later. So first, what helped us was the local peoples’ kind acts even in the smallest of things.

We also chose to visit the Roman Army Museum because it was equally involved in the initiative to make learning fun and relevant for today’s audience. Rather than presenting the artefacts in a traditional Victorian museum display (as the museum at Chesters Roman Fort does, albeit very nicely) where all the artefacts are crowded together, minimal information is given, and it’s all a bit grey, the Roman Army museum was specifically geared to children and involved interactive displays, real life-models, and some really fun technology. And given that it focused on engaging more people with Classics, this was a perfect opportunity for us to think about how we could make Classics more accessible as well.

Group at Vindolanda; Photo: Seleste

The Roman Army Museum hits this accessibility right on the mark. First, they have their fantastic video that follows the life of a Roman soldier on the wall. While at times fantastical and unrealistic, it’s always engaging and gives a good idea about the harsh life there, bringing into focus even the smallest but equally important matters (from wearing the right shoes to the bitter cold). Moreover, it couples this humane approach with cutting-edge scholarship and archaeology, best exemplified with its virtual reconstruction of the layout of Vindolanda and display of recent finds in the Vindolanda Museum. And it’s definitely modelled for all audiences — it’s all 3D, and part of the fun is mucking around with the special glasses for the first few minutes. Second, and perhaps even better, was the 3D Virtual Reality hologram of an ancient Roman teacher who was teaching us Latin. Again, while there were some questionable choices about accents, concepts, and aesthetics (the stand-alone bottom-half of the teacher didn’t perfectly fit with the virtual projection of his moving face), it was great in capturing the spirit of an ancient (perhaps modern?) Latin class, helping the audience learn Latin in fun ways, incorporating facts and thoughts about the Wall, and engaging with all the instruments in the room, from maps to chalkboards and oral participation. It was all there — alongside the great life-size costume designs, information panels, and overall layout (the hall leading to the TV room was filled with a wonderful timeline), it was geared to be appreciated by everyone today. This is the sort of stuff we need if we want to open the Classics up to more people.

And for goodness sake — it was a hologram teacher! Where else will you see one except in the movies.

Talk about learning in situ! Photo: Seleste

We were also very lucky to have a local and PhD student working on Hadrian’s Wall, Andrew Tibbs, talk to us on the actual wall, at Walltowns Crag (where some of the highest sections of the wall are preserved). Apart from the stunning beauty of the landscape and ability to scrutinise the features right before us, what made this part so fun was the enthusiasm and expertise that our PhD candidate brought. His ability to integrate entertaining explanations and visualisations of the vallum and strategic use of space with his cutting-edge research got us all involved and excited — as heard from the continued hubbub as we clambered along the wall. As at the Roman Army Museum, this nicely opened us to new ways to learn, and the benefits that come from that.

Equally, there were many others who helped us make the trip accessible. First, we were fortunate enough to receive a Grant from the Durham Students’ Union of £500, enabling us to offer the trip for £6 per person. What’s more, the DSU had specifically designed this grant to enable students to engage with the heritage of the region around Durham, thereby giving us the opportunity to delve further into the local community. Building on this, we also opened the trip to students from all subjects by operating on a first-come first-serve basis, rather than narrowing the places to Classicists or our Society’s members. Classics should not be reserved for Classicists — we want to engage different people and open the opportunities of Classics to a wider audience.

And this drew palpable success. While all the 33 tickets sold out within the first 20 minutes of being put up, the mix of students from disciplines stimulated conversations enriched with different perspectives. Another group of people to thank is the actual participants — it was their diverse insights and willingness to share that equally made the trip special.

Waving from one of the forts at Vindolanda. Photo: Seleste

Finally, Vindolanda nicely encompassed all of these aspects. First, we were guided around by a local tour guide, who was a volunteer archaeologist of Vindolanda. Alongside her wonderfully clear explanations to the kids who joined our group, her attachment to the site and practical demonstrations helped reconstruct the site before our eyes. Like we had with Andrew Tibbs, again studying in situ and with someone not just acquainted but involved in the day to day running of the site made clear how we can work to make our subject more engaging and involving new perspectives. And this enthusiasm rubbed off — our students also went around in little groups, nattering on the things we had learnt in class.

And the trip is a balance of the academic and social as well. After we’d visited the Vindolanda museum, with some of the Vindolanda Tablets (!), many of us rested in the cafe and had the famous delicious Vindolanda hot chocolate.

And so all these different aspects intersected nicely together, with our student experience guided by the unique experience and care of the local communities. This enthusiasm and these different approaches to learning are things we can learn from — and that we intend to keep on collaborating with future visits to other sites on Hadrian’s Wall, like Housesteads and Chesters Roman Fort.

There was one final cherry on the cake. At Vindolanda, of all places, we met Alberto Angela, the Italian TV star that every Italian child grows up learning about the ancient world with. A coincidence? Perhaps not.

The one and only Alberto Angela! Photo by Elena /Alberto Angela, 2 Nov 2019

An Epic Journey to the BM: The Troy Exhibition

Three months of planning later, on Sat 15 February 2020 we were lucky to be on that 7.43am train with our cappuccini.

For multiple reasons.

Storm Denis had been disrupting travel the past few weeks, delaying and cancelling trains. We had more trouble this time in our applications for funding, causing us to postpone the event several times. And with the reality of Covid-19 setting in and the exhibition nearing its ending date, we were very lucky to have many people help us make this possible.

But enough of the whining. After all, nothing really beats enjoying the Homeric Reading Group at 7.43am in the morning.

So what did we learn from this experience, and how far did we work with other helpful communities in organising this?

A segment of our Homeric Reading Group! Photo: Elena

The most important aspect was perhaps exemplified by everyone gathering on Platform 1 at 7:20am on the cold Saturday morning. Here were enthusiasts to learn. And that was the first thing that people along the way helped us with — the academic side, making this an opportunity to learn not just about the artefacts, but also to talk about the work behind the exhibition with experts. We had been in contact with the curators of the Troy Exhibition beforehand — Drs. Victoria Donnellan and Alexandra Villing. If one can summarise how much they helped us in a few words, their dedication to spreading education and giving us the opportunity to engage more deeply with the exhibition defined the trip. Originally, we had planned to have a chat with them right after we had visited the exhibition to discuss the layout, artefacts, and museological aspects, while still fresh in our minds. Completely reasonably, however, they were not working on weekends; they nevertheless suggested having a Skype chat instead after that event. What an opportunity!

One point brought up relating to museology in the Skype chat was the layout of the exhibition, including the great wooden frame/ribcage of the horse, a nice allusion to the Trojan horse! Photo: the author

And so, on Tuesday 18 February at 6pm, right after our Homeric Reading Group, we had our wonderful Skype chat with the curator of the Troy exhibition, Dr Donnellan, gaining first-hand insights about the intentions of the exhibition display, choices, and artefacts that are so often difficult to decipher from the ancient evidence in isolation. The quality of this discussion was attested by the great questions that students asked, ranging from how the layout enhanced certain themes and about the process of acquiring the objects, to how the information on the panels were decided, how they were arranged (e.g. the very cool Troy part as displayed in one of Schliemann’s trenches), and even the politics of acquiring objects (e.g. with the archaeological material of Troy, some of which is in Russia). It was truly fantastic to get this direct perspective from the curator herself, and we were so grateful that she gave us the time to discuss what we strive to decipher in class. And the impact of that Skype chat and academic visit continues — in my weekly tweets about the (now virtual) Homeric Reading Group, I try to include pictures of artefacts in the exhibition that are relevant to the passages we read (and one of which Dr Donnellan commented on!).

The small vessel (skyphos, 440BCE) depicting the slaughter of the suitors by Odysseus (who on the other side shoots an arrow from his bow). This is the vase was really helpful for us in the Homeric Reading Group to visualise the slaughter scene that we were reading in the original Greek. Indeed, we decided that the man crouching in front with the overturned chair in front of him was likely Medon, the nurturer of Telemachos when he was small, whom Odysseus spares — which matches the detail given at Od. 22.362–3 (πεπτηὼς γὰρ ἔκειτο ὑπὸ θρόνον). This is the photo that Dr Donnellan nicely noted on Twitter!

But as much as I’ve lauded about the academic staff, as anyone in management will know (and as the latest season of Killing Eve nicely captures), the admin work behind organising such a trip is equally important. We were incredibly lucky to be assisted throughout this process by different members as well, who went out of their way to help us. And now is the time that, as much as don’t want to, I must recall just how difficult it was to get to the exhibition. If just for context, it nicely demonstrates how helpful the BM and LNER staff were.

All was going well — for one of the few times, the train was actually on time, bang on 7:43am. We wizzed past York, past Doncaster, Newark all fine. At Grantham — a small hiccup. The train stopped. And it stopped for about 45 minutes. Luckily, we had planned the trip so that we would arrive about an hour and a bit in advance before our planned entry, meaning that we’d have enough time to walk to the BM from King’s Cross & even grab a quick lunch. We started, and then stopped. Anxiety. Overhead announcements blurted out that we’d been delayed — and that delayed time slowly crept up with successive announcements. We started again and all seemed ok. Phew! And then the wind & rain started. Once we’d pulled into Peterborough, the train just stopped. No longer was the train delayed — a few minutes later on the announcement, it was now cancelled. We were stranded in Peterborough. A few moments of panic — should we turn back? But we kept our determination and, following the instructions, hopped onto the Thames Link that finally took us to St. Pancras. When we finally did arrive, we were about 2 hours late — for our actual entrance time, that is.

Epic proportions? Photo: author (also the cover photo of our Skype Homeric Reading Group)

But where the real epic proportions lie was with the things that the train company and BM staff did to help us. Following my teary call from the Thames Link, a reassuring voice from the other end told us that it was fine if we entered in later than our booked time, and let us know it was ok. This kind reassurance was so helpful (and calming), as it ensured that we could still visit the exhibition (our main objective), especially at a very busy time for the exhibition (more people often visit it as it neared its closing date). They were making an exception for us, and helping us to get in. We really appreciated that. And this conscious help had not been a one-off. The BM ticket staff, especially Paul, had been really helpful throughout the process since December in multiple ways. Acknowledging that we were a student group with limited resources coming a long way from the North, he and Dr Villing sent us very kind emails allowing us to have the 2 for 1 ticket that usually applied to school groups on Fridays. This was really helpful in bringing the costs down and allowing us to offer the trip (return train & entrance tickets) for those £10 per person (along with the Ordinary Grant of £500 that we received from the DSU, for which we are also grateful). Finally, this wonderful kindness was also complemented on the ground at the BM. Our having arrived late meant that our tickets had not been printed at the front desk of the exhibition. While the assistants there could simply have turned us away and not compromised, especially given the large number of people waiting to enter, they still believed us and did everything they could to help us to get in. In the end, they kindly let us go in after having checked the emails and correspondence, even though the printed out tickets hadn’t been found. As cliché as it sounds, it was heartwarming that they had faith in us and wanted us to get into the exhibition. Thank you for enabling us to experience it!

It’s all seems a bit too true to be true. But these small acts of kindness capture just how dedicated people are out there, how much they want to help you. As students, it’s vital to realise just how many people are putting themselves out of their way to help us — to realise how privileged we are, and how much we should give back. Apart from actually making the most of these opportunities, we should be grateful and acknowledge their help, and try to contribute our own part by helping others experience these opportunities as well.

Nestor’s Cup in the exhibition, which many students had studied about in the First Year module “Remembering Athens” with Prof Cuomo! It was great to see that so many students remembered it and actually gave little impromptu presentations on different artefacts in the exhibition.

Finally, and perhaps what was best about the trip, was the great diversity that we had, both in students and activities. As much as we like academia, it’s also about the bonding experience, making new friends, getting to know the BM and London, and ultimately, experiencing those artefacts in situ and forming your own connection to them. Apart from the tour in the exhibition, we also slotted in some time for students to explore the BM independently. We also encouraged students to meet up with their friend and other students studying around London, and explore the museum with them. It was great to engage with friends of friends from many universities, to get their different perspectives on the artefacts, and engage in that stimulating discussion. Indeed, I even remember that one of my friends from UCL made a really thought-provoking comment about the archaic vase showing the marriage of Peleus and Thetis — and my lecturer (who had taught it to me two years ago) said that their comment had made her think about it in a different way. As at Hadrian’s Wall with the students of different subjects, it’s this collaboration with other students that foster these invaluable and diverse perspectives that we need in order to move forward. And as the cherry on top of all this, we also were very grateful to have two lecturers from Durham, Dr Hellstrom and Prof Cuomo, accompany us through the exhibition.

Just like we collaborated with other people and parties on our interest in Troy, so too does this artefact show an Indian engagement with a potential scene from Troy, ie Cassandra before the gates and the Trojan horse. Photo: author.

And this was all before we had (and what I was always very eager about organising) dinner at the delicious and decently-priced Franco Manca (Tottenham Court Road)!

A group photo of the people who came along to Franco Manca (the other table with students is sadly not visible).

And so it was, and is, an exciting time. Even the return train’s one-hour delay couldn’t pull down our spirits of the day (delayed by the storms, so that we arrived at Durham around 1am). What made this trip so exciting was all the help we had from the organisers and local communities who welcomed us to the exhibition and gave us opportunities to learn with them. It is these helpful people who are the real heroes behind this odyssey. We must be grateful of them and — as we’ll end on below — find ways to engage with them to give back and make this a sustainable project.

The march back south — and beyond

So what does the future hold?

At first, the outlook may appear bleak. The grants which we applied for, and which were so fundamental in enabling us to make these trips accessible, are only for one-off occasions or extraordinary events not part of the Society’s annual operation (the pitfalls of the aorist). But, as always, there are opportunities out there.

Our Vice President jumping into planning the next trip! Photo: Tate

A first idea is to turn these first shimmers into a ray — to establish the Trips as a tradition and integral part of the Society’s activities. There are good and difficult things about this move. Difficult: as many a Thucydidean scholar has noted, financial resources (i.e., money) are a key element in organising such events. As we saw above, we will have to apply for funding from other sources. More on this below. However, another aspect contingent on this concerns the number of participants. While buses and museums can only hold so many people, we want to make Classics accessible to as many people as possible. One way to go would be to make trips more frequent; another, to tweak a few places that we visit so that we choose sites that can hold a greater capacity of students. Whatever we decide to do, we want the trips to stay, and with the guiding aim of enabling many people to join us.

Second, an initiative which right now might seem impossible, but which other institutions have done, would be to expand beyond the country and visit the sites at the heart of the cultures that we study: Italy and Greece (Greece being especially good as the archaeological sites are free for EU students). As much as the limited funding makes this a daunting task, it is promising that we are slowly following in the footsteps of a Classics Society that once organised a trip to Carthage and Morocco (in 2012, right after the Arab spring). I would argue that it is possible — with the justification that it would invaluably enhance students’ educational perspective and allow us to engage with local communities more.

How would we do this? With the assumption that the early summer would be the only realistic time to do this, I’ve had some informal discussions with lecturers at Durham who would be willing to help organise this sort of trip and guide us around. The advantage of this is these lecturers, both nationals of these two countries, would enable us to engage closely with the local communities; one used to work as an editor of an archaeological journal and newspaper, and therefore knows the sites well. Although impossible to say this far in advance, we would equally aim to engage with the modern community as much as the ancient and their attachment to it. In the aim of relating Classics to today, we would hope to prioritise having discussions with these local communities, learning with them as guides, and do unique activities with them relating to their culture. It is important that we do not come in as outsiders and have the mindset of fulfilling our own rigid aims — we want to learn with these people and find new perspectives through which to engage with our studies today.

Alongside these lecturers, I have also talked with friends at other UK Classics Departments & Societies which already organise such trips, such as Crete (Edinburgh University Classics Society; but also see Oxford Classics Society’s trips to near Rome for speaking Latin). We can hope to learn from them. One question, and perhaps the most urgent now, is how do they fund them? One way: miles. Using travel miles that the department’s lecturers gain when going on trips contributes to funding the transportation for the students.

While this technique is not the most ethical or environmentally friendly, there are other ways to cooperate with our department. So what lies at the core of all this, I think, is cooperation with other parties. Even at the British Museum, cooperation defined the experience — we had an open policy where we allowed students (and lecturers) to meet up with friends from other universities. It was great to bridge the institutional gap and learn from students who had studied through different programs together. In this light, the best way, in one form or another, to move forward would be to cooperate with other student groups, whether they be other societies at Durham (we were planning the Hadrian’s Wall trip with the Archaeology Society) or broader institutions like universities, departments, or funding bodies. While it might be difficult to forge these connections at first, these connections have arguably always been a pivotal part of our Society, whether it be our fruitful cooperation with Hoplon (Concordia University, Canada) this year for our blog Ostraka, or academic speakers from other universities and countries (we were planning to invite a French lecturer before Covid-19 restrictions came). As a team, collaborating, we can grow stronger.

A final form of this cooperation would be to apply broader afield for grants from good Classics institutions. The DSU grants have been incredibly helpful. But for a bigger trip like this, the grants can only get us so far, in keeping with our aim to make these trips accessible to all. In this light, this year we tried applying to grants from other Classics Institutions in the UK designed to enable students to experience these cultures. Sometimes, however, we were a bit over-ambitious and applied for ones that were not strictly relevant. An important lesson should be drawn from this: as others have given their time for us, it is equally important for us to be conscientious of others and realise that a trip like ours is a privilege, set in a world where there are many other students or scholars who need funding for equally or more urgent reasons. In other words, we should apply for opportunities responsibly, and with an eye to benefiting as many people as possible. In this light, The Institute of Classical Studies, Society of the Promotion of Roman Studies, Hellenic Society, and Classical Association have invaluable Grants for these purposes. For more local initiatives, the DSU has set up a new grant geared towards funding trips to sites in the North East; the Local Durham Community Grant also has a great initiative focusing on Durham.

The point is: there are funds out there; there are opportunities. Whatever happens, we should always keep one thing in mind: the process should be humbling and make us realise just how precious our education is, and how lucky we are to have those opportunities out there.

And so, as Socrates might say, the party never ends. There are ways to go forward, so let’s go for them responsibly— who knows where it’ll take us.

So a new tradition is born from the old ashes.

The cool thing is — this is just the beginning. Next year’s outlook holds much in store. After all, who doesn’t want to start off with bank accounts that show that a trip was fully compensated by train delays? (Those delays from the BM trip paid off in the end).

It’s an exciting time. And there is one certainty: the Classics Society is going to be working its guts out to make this helpful for everyone, to make it accessible and affordable, and to make it meaningful.

So what does the future hold?

That’s up to you — you tell us!

Do you have a suggestion for a future topic? Do you have an idea to share with your friends? Send us a message and follow the Durham University Classics Society on Twitter (@DUClassSoc) and Facebook (@DUClassics Society) to keep up with this blog and our other adventures!

Ostraka

Welcome to Ostraka: a place to be creative

Ostraka

Welcome to Ostraka: a place to be creative, show off your talent, and collect the shards of knowledge Classics and Ancient History students at Durham have to offer. For submissions please e-mail: classics.society@durham.ac.uk or send us a message on either Facebook or Twitter.

James Hua

Written by

James Hua

Durham University Classics Society Vice President; past Academic Affairs Officer. Current Ostraka editor. Μέν all things Greek, δέ keen resident of Rome!

Ostraka

Welcome to Ostraka: a place to be creative, show off your talent, and collect the shards of knowledge Classics and Ancient History students at Durham have to offer. For submissions please e-mail: classics.society@durham.ac.uk or send us a message on either Facebook or Twitter.