Present History: Excavating Ancient Europe at Café CSE

Four professors discussed how the ancient history of Europe still affects the continent and the world today.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 17, 2016)—History is all around us, involved in our everyday lives, but we often overlook just how much the far past can affect us.

Three professors – Kimberly Johnson of the English Department, Cynthia Finlayson from the Anthropology Department and Girolamo F. De Simone, a visiting professor in the Classics Department – discussed just how closely the ancient past of Europe, specifically the influence of the Roman Empire, is intertwined with the continent today. As Roger Macfarlane, associate professor of classics and event moderator, said, “There are still effects of the Roman empire that are tangible throughout the Mediterranean world.”

Kimberly Johnson spoke on how the ancient poet Virgil’s work the Georgics was the beginning of the development of Western literature. She attributed the poem’s longevity to the fact “that it takes the act of reading itself and the work we put into receiving competing material, and [tries] to discern and balance between them.” Virgil claims to write advice to tending to grains, vines, herds and bees, but in reality he offers little practical advice, leaving the reader to discern from this conflicting information what the true purpose is. Johnson explained that this kind of reading and understanding of poetry has become the stepping-off point of the literature that makes up the modern Western canon.

The kind of lives people lived when Virgil was writing the Georgics is of special interest to Girolamo F. De Simone. Raised near Nola, the area on the north side of Mount Vesuvius near Naples where Virgil is said to have written part of his poem, De Simone spent his childhood around the archeological digs in Pompeii, but has focused his own research on the often forgotten north side of the volcano. As De Simone said, “Pompeii and Herculaneum are a fascinating picture of frozen life. . . . It’s about the frozen moment and that’s the end, the mayhem. But it wasn’t the end. It was the end of the cities and their inhabitants, but life went on and, especially on the north slope, we can tell much about what happened afterwards.”

Cynthia Finlayson’s archaeologic work also discovers how the past leads to progress in the future. As a part of a project aimed at rescuing the Temple of Ad-Dier at Petra (in modern Jordan), she noted that her team takes special care to train local people in the workings and maintenance of the solar-powered systems used in the restoration of the aqueducts, giving them a new skill to make a future with. She said that an important part of any archaeological project is creating connections with the local people, “seeing what they think their needs are, not what we think their needs are” and taking their input for “projects that might be developed and allow them to be the spurring agents” of their past and future.

Roger Macfarlane, Kimberly Johnson, Girolamo F. De Simone, and Cynthia Finlayson discuss how ancient Europe still affects the continent today.

Roger Macfarlane, Kimberly Johnson, Girolamo F. De Simone, and Cynthia Finlayson discuss how ancient Europe still affects the continent today.

To finish the discussion, when asked why the study of ancient texts and artifacts was important, all four professors stressed that studying the ancient world was crucial to understanding the human experience. Johnson spoke to the urgency of the lessons we learn through ancient texts: “One of the most difficult conditions . . . facing our modern life is the way that other people seem so insurmountably other to us. . . . Cultivating an appreciating for the continuities, . . . that’s going to breed compassion, that’s going to breed civility and patience and stuff that’s perhaps more urgent than a 2,000-year-old text.”

Finlayson echoed the sentiments of the importance of the ancient theaters she studies: “If we stop to think about the political development of Europe . . . the form that the theater presented and how that persisted on and became then Shakespeare and the theater in London, and that all came from that same heritage and we’re still benefitting from that.”

De Simone ended the discussion, stating simply, “You should study [the ancient world] because it makes you a better person. . . . By looking into the remains, you can understand better what happens today.”

Alison Siggard (B.A. English Education ’17)

Alison covers the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.