Oxford Arts Blog | University of Oxford

Oxford Arts Blog


It's a question many people thought would be impossible to answer: what did ancient Greek music sound like? Too much time had passed, and the evidence necessary to recreate and experience the sounds that the ancient Greeks heard was thought not to exist.

Professor Armand D'Angour of Oxford's Faculty of Classics thought otherwise.

It has long been taught that Hebrew liturgical music underpinned the ninth-century Gregorian plainchant that lies at the root of the history of Western music. However, Professor D'Angour's groundbreaking research has now shown that elements of the West's musical idioms may be traced much further back in time, indicating that our music has a clear basis in much earlier European practices.

Although ancient Greek music has been investigated intensively since the 16th century, for 500 years it seemed impossible to get a sense of what it would have sounded like. Now, sounds not heard for 2,000 years can be experienced thanks to collaborative research in reconstructing the melodies, instruments and rhythms. Over the past five years, accurate replicas of ancient Greek instruments have been created and have been used in performing scored texts of ancient works surviving on papyrus and stone. Auloi (double pipes played using circular breathing techniques) have been reconstructed, including one from an original second-century instrument now on display in the Louvre. The kithara (a stringed instrument that was used as a large concert lyre) has been remodelled with reference to images found on ancient vases. The integration of these instruments into this research gives an authentic feel to the sounds that we hear.

The texts of ancient Greek poetry were intended to be sung or spoken along with music. The earliest music that may be speculatively recreated is that of Homer, who composed his epics around 700 BC to the accompaniment of a four-stringed lyre. The sound of epic song has been recreated (following work by the late Professor Martin West) using the four notes that would have been available to Homer, and improvised on the basis of the pitch inflections of ancient Greek (in which the syllables of words went up and down in pitch at specified places).

In other cases, fragments of the melody and rhythms have survived to give a more complete sense of the original piece. The most valuable of these is a papyrus fragment with the music from a tragedy, Euripides' Orestes, originally produced in 408 BC. Another source, a stone tablet from Delphi, shows the melodic notation of Athenaeus' Paean from 127 BC. Professor D'Angour has worked to fill in the gaps, and the performance of these pieces provides a thrilling insight into what the ancient Greeks would have heard.

So what's next? Currently, Professor D'Angour is working with around 30 further documents of ancient music to continue to recreate the works that were played and sung. The aspiration is to put on, for the first time since antiquity, an ancient tragedy accompanied by the kind of music that it would originally have been accompanied by, perhaps in one of the great theatres that survive from the ancient world.

Find out more about Professor D'Angour's work here, here and here.

Instructions for computing the motion of Mercury in accordance with a Babylonian algorithm.

Adapted from an article by Exzellenzcluster Topoi.

Egyptian astronomers computed the position of the planet Mercury using methods originating from Babylonia, finds a study of two Egyptian instructional texts from Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. The study was carried out by Mathieu Ossendrijver, a historian of ancient science at Humboldt University Berlin and Exzellenzcluster Topoi, and Andreas Winkler, an Egyptologist at Oxford University's Faculty of Oriental Studies. The instructional texts date to 1-50 AD and are written in the Demotic language, a late stage of ancient Egyptian, on two 'ostraca' (potsherds, or broken pieces of ceramic material). They are the only known texts from Greco-Roman Egypt with instructions for computing astronomical phenomena with Babylonian methods.

The instructions correspond exactly to methods invented in the ancient state of Babylonia several centuries earlier (400-300 BC). Surprisingly, the ostraca employ a mathematical formulation not found in Babylonian texts but whose existence has long been suspected by historians of astronomy. The ostraca prove that native Egyptian scholars were as competent in Babylonian astronomical computation as their colleagues writing in Greek, suggesting a more important role for native Egyptian scholars in the transmission of Babylonian astronomy to Greco-Roman Egypt than previously thought.

By the early second century BC, Babylonian astrology and astronomy had spread to Egypt. Like their Babylonian colleagues, Egyptian astrologers began to produce horoscopes in order to determine the fate of a newborn. The production of a horoscope required computing the zodiacal positions of the Moon, the Sun and the five planets known in antiquity: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Both Demotic horoscopes and Greek horoscopes have been found in Egypt, and in 1999 the American historian of astronomy Alexander Jones proved that some Egyptian astrologers writing in Greek were using Babylonian methods. But until now little has been known about the computational methods of the native Egyptian astrologers writing in Demotic. 

The two newly identified Demotic texts with computational instructions shed new light on the mathematical skills of the native Egyptian astrologers. Both ostraca contain instructions regarding three distinct Babylonian algorithms. Each of them is concerned with a particular phenomenon of Mercury: its first appearance as an evening star, its first appearance as a morning star, or its last appearance as a morning star. The inscriptions offer the first unequivocal proof that native Egyptian astrologers, like their colleagues writing in Greek, were capable of computing positions of Mercury, a planet with a comparably complicated motion, using Babylonian methods. An analysis of the instructions suggests that the native Egyptian scholars adapted these methods before their colleagues writing in Greek, as well as independently of those colleagues. First, the ostraca predate all known Greek tables for Mercury that were computed with these methods, and are in fact the only instructional texts with Babylonian astronomy that have been found in Egypt thus far. Second, they use a Babylonian loanword for 'degree', while the astrologers writing in Greek used a Greek word for this.

A surprising aspect of the instructions is that they employ a mathematical formulation that is unknown from Babylonia. While the Babylonians directly computed the variable distance travelled by Mercury along the zodiac – for example, between two occurrences of its first appearance as an evening star – the Egyptian scholars first divided the zodiac into tiny steps of variable length. The distance travelled by Mercury was then obtained by counting off a fixed number of these steps, with identical results to those obtained by their Babylonian counterparts. In 1957, the mathematician Bartel van der Waerden first suggested the existence of this alternative formulation. While it has not yet been identified in any Babylonian text, we now see it in these two Demotic texts written by native Egyptian scholars.


Digitising Iran's cuneiform collection

Stuart Gillespie | 31 May 2018

Chronicling 'half of human history', cuneiform texts provide a rich source of information on the rise and fall of ancient civilisations and the daily lives of people of the past.

And with more than half a million original and unique artefacts in museums worldwide, cuneiform texts from ancient Iraq, Iran and Syria – dating from around 3500 BC to the year 0 – represent a resource richer than any other recovered from the ancient world.

The cuneiform system itself is characterised by wedge-shaped signs on clay tablets, representing words or syllables in long-forgotten languages such as Akkadian and Sumerian.

Working with colleagues around the world, Oxford's Professor Jacob Dahl has been co-leading a project to digitise and disseminate many of these important cuneiform texts. Most recently he has spearheaded a collaboration to include the cuneiform text artefacts in the National Museum of Iran (NMI) in the growing online corpus of cuneiform texts.

Professor Dahl, a member of Oxford's Faculty of Oriental Studies and a fellow of Wolfson College, said: 'Cuneiform texts cover half of human history, and the sources from ancient Iraq, Iran and Syria are richer than those of any other ancient civilisation. They cover all topics and genres and include thousands of private letters, lexical texts, literary compositions and above all administrative texts.

'The NMI collection is particularly important for the early period, when cuneiform writing was invented in Iraq and spread into Iran, where a related writing system called Proto-Elamite was developed. The sources for this still-undeciphered writing system are split between the Louvre in Paris and the NMI.

'The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, which I co-lead, has digitised much of the Louvre collection of cuneiform already, and bringing in the NMI therefore draws together two parts of the same ancient collection. The NMI also holds significant collections of clay tablets, bricks and stones featuring texts from other periods and in other languages – in particular Elamite and Old Persian – which are of interest to specialists well beyond the narrow field of Assyriology.'

Jacob DahlJacob Dahl scans Proto-Elamite tablets in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

The digitisation project was proposed two years ago by Professor Dahl and Jebrael Nokande, Director of the NMI. The first group of Proto-Elamite tablets was scanned and digitised in January and May this year.

Professor Dahl said: 'Since beginning my work on Proto-Elamite tablets almost two decades ago I have waited for an opportunity to work on the texts in the NMI. I spent a lot of effort digitising cuneiform collections in Syria prior to the current unrest, which highlighted for me the need to secure all collections both here and abroad through digitisation and web dissemination.

'The field in general is in the middle of a digital transformation, and it is hard to overestimate the impact of making this collection openly accessible through the internet. Scholars will be able for the first time virtually to reassemble the ancient textual record recovered during the excavations of Susa (modern-day Shush in Iran). It will also open, I hope, avenues for collaboration and sharing of scholarly knowledge between researchers from Iran and the UK concerning a variety of topics, expanding beyond my own subject of Assyriology.'


How, through the simple, everyday act of drinking a cup of tea, can we explore links to the history of empire, trade and transatlantic slavery? A new Oxford-based project aims to address this question.

Myfanwy Lloyd is a part-time tutor at Oxford's Department of Continuing Education who otherwise works as a freelance historian and museum consultant. Angeli Vaid specialises in heritage and community outreach projects. Along with two Oxford history DPhil students, Elisabeth Grass and Mimi Goodall, they are working with a host of local partners on a project inspired by the Ashmolean Museum's collection of 18th-century porcelain.

What could be discovered from putting these objects into their proper social context? How far have our tea habits in Britain been driven by the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism? From the tea itself, imported via Britain's colonial trade links, to the porcelain and ceramics imported from China, to sugar, the result of exploitation and slavery.

Cup and saucerA Wood's Ware 'Beryl' style teacup and saucer, 1940s/50s.

Image credit: Fran Monks

The aim of the 'A Nice Cup of Tea' project is to work with local community members to explore the complex legacy of empire, transatlantic slavery and trade, particularly in relation to Oxford city and Oxford University. There are five interwoven strands to the programme:

• Tea Party: a community tea party involving a pop-up exhibition, readings and discussions 
• Tea Chest: producing a 'handling collection' of historical and contemporary artefacts to stimulate discussion and creative work in schools
• Tea Shop: a community-led and curated temporary exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum
• Tea Table: a forum to debate the legacy of slave trade and empire with events at the Pitt Rivers Museum
• Tea Tales: creative and artistic performances by young people and community groups exploring the theme

As part of the project's wide-ranging and varied events calendar, A Nice Cup of Tea is linking in to Oxford's History Faculty's annual 'teach-in' on the theme of 'commemorating the Windrush experience'. This year's teach-in is designed to bring alive the experience and impact of the Windrush generation and its descendants. This event will split into four sessions, focusing on 'Windrush and calypso', 'Windrush and literature', 'post-war Asian migration' and 'Oxford's Windrush generation'.

One of the first events is on Sunday 1 July, when A Nice Cup of Tea will be running a community tea party as part of the Oxford Festival of the Arts' 'Around the World in Eight Nations' day, including a pop-up exhibition based on research by Mimi Goodall and Elisabeth Grass. Interspersed throughout the tea party will be poetry and song.

These events are part of a larger suite of commemorative events being coordinated by the African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative, Oxford City Council, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and Oxford's History Faculty.


Francesca Moll meets the pioneering songwriter on a mission to prove that opera is for everyone.

What do you think of when you think of opera? 'I think we're past the "fat lady with horns" now,' says Dr Toby Young, the Gianturco Junior Research Fellow researching Music and Philosophy at Linacre College.

But while other genres of classical music have been undergoing something of a renaissance, opera remains a niche interest, hampered by the perception of it as a difficult genre reserved for the privileged few. This is something that Toby, a true music lover who appreciates everything from 13th-century Armenian folk music to the grime artists recently so instrumental in Jeremy Corbyn's election campaign, is determined to change.

'Opera was for a long time very much the music of the people,' he says. 'Now, stereotypically, the audience is white, middle-aged and fairly wealthy. I want to say that opera is for everyone, but at the moment it clearly isn't.'

Nobody could be better placed to change this. In addition to his academic work, Toby is also a songwriter exploring the boundary between pop and classical music. As well as writing for the London Symphony Orchestra and King's College Cambridge choir, he has worked with a variety of big names including drum and bass group Chase and Status, Duran Duran and the Rolling Stones ('They're just amazing musicians, Mick is just an amazing performer').

As part of a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Toby has been working with McCaldin Arts, a group of professional opera singers, to explore precisely what it is that makes opera so difficult to engage with.

Apparently, the issue is not simply the cost of going to the opera: 'Actually it's cheaper to go to the opera more often than it is to go to the football.'

It also is not a question of opera being especially removed from the rest of modern music. In the course of workshops with singers from a wide range of genres, Toby and his partner at McCaldin Arts, Clare McCaldin, discovered something rather surprising. Technically speaking, there is actually very little difference between opera and pop, with singers from both genres making use of a similar set of skills. A lot of the distinctiveness simply lies in how a piece of music is presented: for example, whether there is a piano accompaniment or a drum and bass beat playing in the background.

Actually, according to Toby, 'pop and opera aren't that different after all'.

It seems opera's problem is far more complex: often it's simply the case that people are raised in certain cultural worlds and are unwilling to stray out of their comfort zone. This is not helped by the fact that traditional opera, with its lengthy run times and big, over-the-top subject matter, can often seem out of touch with modern people's everyday lives.

Toby says: 'Especially now, as society speeds up, we're dealing with people's short attention spans. Opera requires you to slow down a bit.

'It's not so much that they don't understand it. But people haven't experienced a good one, or else they've seen one that put them off for life. You know, they went with school, and they just went, "Why am I seeing this slightly weird hammy thing with someone just standing and singing at me?"

'I think when it's done well, opera is such an effective, emotional, moving and wonderful thing. When it's not done well, it can be really strange, off-putting and distancing. It's such a fine balancing act between a really amazing effective thing where you leave there and go, "wow, that has inspired me in so many ways" versus something where you leave going "oh my God, that was a waste of three hours of my life."'

Work has been done by groups such as Opera Up Close and Silent Opera to bring opera to communities that might be unfamiliar with it, but Toby thinks it requires more than just playing a traditional opera in a new setting to truly engage people. He believes that opera also needs to create a fresh sound that is closer to music people recognise. This is something he hopes to work on in the future, drawing on his experience of popular and classical songwriting to create an original piece that fuses elements of both.

Despite all the challenges, Toby is convinced that opera can be a vital, relevant genre, in a unique position to hold up a mirror to the problems modern society faces.

'There's no other art form that's so complete,' he says. 'You have interesting visuals, you have the acting, and you have the dramatic music all coming together in a truly unique way.

'Because it has to work so hard to draw you in, when you're drawn in I think you're hooked.'