by Naoise Mac Sweeney
Every object tells a story. Indeed, behind each artefact lies not just one but a complex web of many untold tales – about the people who made it in antiquity, about those who used it over the ages, and finally about those who discovered it in modern times. As Keats mused in his famous poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, sometimes an object can tell “a flowery tale more sweetly” than either poetry or prose.
In Leicester, we decided to put this idea at the heart of our latest engagement project, Artefact to Art (click here to visit the project website). The A2A project (as it is affectionately known) encourages young people to take inspiration from classical artefacts, using this inspiration to create new and innovative artworks of their own. Over the last year, we have run workshops in schools and museums, produced teaching resources, and organised a competition for poetry and visual art.
The competition proved to have a wider appeal than we had dared to hope. We received submissions from four different continents, with the number of entries in some age categories running into the hundreds. We are delighted to be publishing sixty of these outstanding pieces in the forthcoming Artefact to Art book, as well as displaying them in an accompanying exhibition.
Especially exciting have been the original, and sometimes surprising, ideas that have sprung from artefacts that we in the classical community might dismiss as overly familiar. Our artists and poets have used Attic black figure pottery to think about colour in the natural world; gladiators’ helmets to ponder the nature of fear; and Roman mosaics to reflect on the recent “me too” campaign against sexual harassment.
The book launch and exhibition are part of the programme for the upcoming CA conference, which Leicester will be hosting for the first time in two decades. We felt that it was important for the conference to connect with our outreach and engagement work, and wanted the new project to reflect the nature of the department as a combined School of Archaeology and Ancient History. The Artefact to Art project, with its emphasis on the material traces of classical antiquity, emerged out of these two ambitions.
We are grateful to the Classical Association for their help with setting up and publicising the project, to Routledge books for their generous donation of prizes, and to the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies for their generous support of the schools’ programme.
Dr Naoise Mac Sweeney is Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Leicester