Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Yet another great announcement for the classicists who love LEGO. The well-known Australian historical archivist Liam D. Jensen, AKA The Lego Classicist, is informing us about the revealing of the 100th entry in this rich and precious collection of classicists.

This time, the coveted acknowledgment will go to the world-famous British star Stephen Fry.

Fry has starred in theatre plays, full length pictures and TV series; besides, all throughout his career he's been a film director and scriptwriter, a TV host, a journalist and a book author.

An important part of his writing activities is indeed focused on the subject of mythology; we had the honour of interviewing Stephen Fry on this occasion.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

You wrote many books on the subject of myth. Where does this interest start, and what inspires you?

Mythology, but specifically Greek myth, gripped me from the first. I had liked fairy stories well enough when young, as most children do, but I sensed straight away that myths were somehow different, they came from a different place, they could be “taken to be true” in a certain kind of way that was stronger than fantasy. I think it was the personalities in Greek myth that so beguiled me. Without being conscious in any way of what myth is – where it comes from, who thought the stories up – I think it was clear to me that they had a truth and a depth too them that was more imperishable and somehow more important than, for example, Snow White and Rapunzel on the one hand, or the Hobbit and Narnia on the other. I have no wild objection to author-created fantasy worlds, but they could never reach me the way stories of myth could and still do.

What does it mean for Stephen Fry to popularize and/or retell a subject?

Goodness, I am not sure. I suppose in my wildest moments of self-belief and optimism I might hope that I combined enough of an ability to animate and entertain with enough authority and knowledge too - such a combination allowing people simultaneously to enjoy what I write but also to feel in some sense enriched by the confidence that they were (perhaps for the first time, or at least for a long time) drawing from the same narrative waters that so many generations of our ancestors had drawn. I get such pleasure when people tell me that they finally felt able to connect dots between — for example — Apollo and Hermes or the Titans and the Olympians, or that they feel familiar with characters whose names had often seemed remote and forbidding, Clytemnestra, say or Antigone. What once had been rather academic sounding names were at last knowable. Most of all, I hope to have taken away the scent of chalk dust and the stuffy school room...

 

The cover of the book Troy: Our Greatest Story Retold - Stephen Fry's Greek Myth, Penguin Books (2020)

How have your studies on English literature influenced your choices and your activities?

It’s impossible to say: I suspect that the traces of a lifetime’s love of reading will have left their mark in all kinds of ways that I cannot necessarily know or define. I think that a sense of irony (by which I mean something more than mocking irony, sarcasm or a sense of cosmic irony) is crucial to full human social development. An ironic mind is one that understand how to adopt another point of view, how to substitute (like a kind of social algebra) different ways of thinking, how to lay the patterns from one form of discourse on another (I know that doesn’t sound very clear, but I hope you get what I mean). The opposite of a ironising mind is a literalist mind, a dangerous and all too common presence in our world as larger and larger proportions of society rise in the world in new generations, sadly it seems unequipped with the ability to think ironically (such an ability presupposes the gift to think logically and imaginatively for you cannot be an ironist without a rigid sense of logic coupled with the ability to penetrate the knowledge and experience of others). My friend Matt D’Ancona put it very well when writing about another friend, the late Christopher Hitchens: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind … unlike rigid ideology and fundamentalism, irony – saying one thing while meaning another – helps us to recognise complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity.” And nothing, I would suggest, allows for this facility more than an exposure to literature and drama.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

In your book Heroes: Mortal and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, you wrote again about classical mythology, and of vices and virtues of the Gods. How do you imagine a fictitious Olympus?

Well, I am sorry to have to break it to you, but an Olympus peopled by quarrelling and fractious gods is a fiction. When you climb Mount Olympus in Greece you will find nothing but a very cold, damp, cloudy and rocky empty space. No gods there at all. The idea that there ever were gods there is … well, if not fictitious then mythical. We can think about what we mean by the difference. A fiction is fabricated by an individual mind, or occasionally a group of collaborating minds. A myth is fabricated by a whole society. Myths can be called, as Joseph Campbell did, “public dreams” or, if you prefer Carl Jung’s phrase, they are expressions of a “collective unconscious”. The collective unconscious of the Greeks, in my view, is so appealing because it understands that if the world is majestic, beautiful, awe-inspiring, noble and beautiful (as it clearly is) then the gods must be all those things …. BUT, the Greeks also knew that if the world is brutal, cruel, capricious, unjust, ugly and savage then the gods must be all those things too. Therefore, for the first time in human story-telling, the Greek pantheon is presented as one of personalities who are several things at once: mean but beautiful, cruel but fair, noble but capricious, etc etc etc. In other words, unlike so many other mythic cycles, the Greek one is filled with the ambiguities, inconsistencies and multiplicities of character that we find in our real lives. The very complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity that I mentioned earlier. They are the first mythic cycle in our human history to have been shaped and reshaped by poets and dramatists to become a perfect blend of the religious, the literary, the dramatic, the visionary, the comic and the symbolic. They are, I think one can say therefore, a work of art.

The cover of the book Heroes. The myths of the Ancient Greek heroes retold, by Stephen Fry, Penguin Books (2019)

Stephen Fry will be the 100th Lego Classicist, did you know the project already?

I had heard of it, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I might be the Lego Centenarian.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Liam D. Jensen and Alessandra Randazzo talking about the 100th LEGO Classicist

All Lego Classicist pictures courtesy Liam D. Jensen, The Lego Classicist.


Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold near the Griffin Warrior

Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold

The family tombs are near the 2015 site of the 'Griffin Warrior,' a military leader buried with armor, weapons and jewelry.

A gold ring depicts bulls and barley, the first known representation of domesticated animals and agriculture in ancient Greece. Credits: UC Classics

Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati have discovered two Bronze Age tombs containing a trove of engraved jewelry and artifacts that promise to unlock secrets about life in ancient Greece.

The UC archaeologists announced the discovery Tuesday in Greece.

Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, archaeologists in UC's classics department, found the two beehive-shaped tombs in Pylos, Greece, last year while investigating the area around the grave of an individual they have called the "Griffin Warrior," a Greek man whose final resting place they discovered nearby in 2015.

Like the Griffin Warrior's tomb, the princely tombs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea also contained a wealth of cultural artifacts and delicate jewelry that could help historians fill in gaps in our knowledge of early Greek civilization.

UC's team spent more than 18 months excavating and documenting the find. The tombs were littered with flakes of gold leaf that once papered the walls.

"Like with the Griffin Warrior grave, by the end of the first week we knew we had something that was really important," said Stocker, who supervised the excavation.

"It soon became clear to us that lightning had struck again," said Davis, head of UC's classics department.

Bronze Age Tombs Griffin Warrior Pylos
UC archaeologists discovered two large family tombs at Pylos, Greece, strewn with flakes of gold that once lined their walls. The excavation took more than 18 months. Credits: UC Classics

The Griffin Warrior is named for the mythological creature -- part eagle, part lion -- engraved on an ivory plaque in his tomb, which also contained armor, weaponry and gold jewelry. Among the priceless objects of art was an agate sealstone depicting mortal combat with such fine detail that Archaeology magazine hailed it as a "Bronze Age masterpiece."

Artifacts found in the princely tombs tell similar stories about life along the Mediterranean 3,500 years ago, Davis said. A gold ring depicted two bulls flanked by sheaves of grain, identified as barley by a paleobotanist who consulted on the project.

"It's an interesting scene of animal husbandry -- cattle mixed with grain production. It's the foundation of agriculture," Davis said. "As far as we know, it's the only representation of grain in the art of Crete or Minoan civilization."

UC archaeologists found a sealstone made from semiprecious carnelian in the family tombs at Pylos, Greece. The sealstone was engraved with two lionlike mythological figures called genii carrying serving vessels and incense burners facing each other over an altar and below a 16-pointed star. The other image is a putty cast of the sealstone. Credits: UC Classics

Like the grave of the Griffin Warrior, the two family tombs contained artwork emblazoned with mythological creatures. An agate sealstone featured two lion-like creatures called genii standing upright on clawed feet. They carry a serving vase and an incense burner, a tribute for the altar before them featuring a sprouting sapling between horns of consecration, Stocker said.

Above the genii is a 16-pointed star. The same 16-pointed star also appears on a bronze and gold artifact in the grave, she said.

"It's rare. There aren't many 16-pointed stars in Mycenaean iconography. The fact that we have two objects with 16 points in two different media (agate and gold) is noteworthy," Stocker said.

The genius motif appears elsewhere in the East during this period, she said.

"One problem is we don't have any writing from the Minoan or Mycenaean time that talks of their religion or explains the importance of their symbols," Stocker said.

UC's team also found a gold pendant featuring the likeness of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

"Its discovery is particularly interesting in light of the role she played in Egypt as protectress of the dead," Davis said.

The identity of the Griffin Warrior is a matter for speculation. Stocker said the combination of armor, weapons and jewelry found in his tomb strongly indicate he had military and religious authority, likely as the king known in later Mycenaean times as a wanax.

Likewise, the princely tombs paint a picture of accumulated wealth and status, she said. They contained amber from the Baltic, amethyst from Egypt, imported carnelian and lots of gold. The tombs sit on a scenic vista overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the spot where the Palace of Nestor would later rise and fall to ruins.

"I think these are probably people who were very sophisticated for their time," she said. "They have come out of a place in history where there were few luxury items and imported goods. And all of a sudden at the time of the first tholos tombs, luxury items appear in Greece.

"You have this explosion of wealth. People are vying for power," she said. "It's the formative years that will give rise to the Classic Age of Greece."

The antiquities provide evidence that coastal Pylos was once an important destination for commerce and trade.

"If you look at a map, Pylos is a remote area now. You have to cross mountains to get here. Until recently, it hasn't even been on the tourist path," Stocker said. "But if you're coming by sea, the location makes more sense. It's on the way to Italy. What we're learning is that it's a much more central and important place on the Bronze Age trade route."

The princely tombs sit close to the palace of Nestor, a ruler mentioned in Homer's famous works "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." The palace was discovered in 1939 by the late UC Classics professor Carl Blegen. Blegen had wanted to excavate in the 1950s in the field where Davis and Stocker found the new tombs but could not get permission from the property owner to expand his investigation. The tombs would have to wait years for another UC team to make the startling discovery hidden beneath its grape vines.

Excavating the site was particularly arduous. With the excavation season looming, delays in procuring the site forced researchers to postpone plans to study the site first with ground-penetrating radar. Instead, Stocker and Davis relied on their experience and intuition to focus on one disturbed area.

"There were noticeable concentrations of rocks on the surface once we got rid of the vegetation," she said.

Those turned out to be the exposed covers of deep tombs, one plunging nearly 15 feet. The tombs were protected from the elements and potential thieves by an estimated 40,000 stones the size of watermelons.

The boulders had sat undisturbed for millennia where they had fallen when the domes of the tombs collapsed. And now 3,500 years later, UC's team had to remove each stone individually.

"It was like going back to the Mycenaean Period. They had placed them by hand in the walls of the tombs and we were taking them out by hand," Stocker said. "It was a lot of work."

At every step of the excavation, the researchers used photogrammetry and digital mapping to document the location and orientation of objects in the tomb. This is especially valuable because of the great number of artifacts that were recovered, Davis said.

"We can see all levels as we excavated them and relate them one to the other in three dimensions," he said. UC's team will continue working at Pylos for at least the next two years while they and other researchers around the world unravel mysteries contained in the artifacts.

"It has been 50 years since any substantial tombs of this sort have been found at any Bronze Age palatial site. That makes this extraordinary," Davis said.

 

Press release from the University of Cincinnati, by Michael Miller.