UQ Ancient Greece Study Tour – An Artistic Experience of Antiquity

Riva Charles, third year undergraduate student at the University of Queensland shares her insights of the 2020 Study Tour

Travelling around Greece for three weeks was always going to be a dream but learning about the history while standing in an archaeological site or historical museum is an experience that cannot be matched. After hearing of the Ancient Greece Study Tour being offered to students by the University of Queensland in 2020, I knew immediately that I would be enrolling. I had also previously taken the Ancient Greek Art and Archaeology course, which has been one of my favourite courses I have taken while studying at UQ.

After learning the history of Ancient Greece for four years, two of those being at a university level, I had developed a distanced love for this past culture, particularly the art of ancient Greece. However, there is only so much appreciation that you can gain from reading textbooks and listening to lectures.

Our course began in Athens, offering us the chance to explore the marvels of the Acropolis Museum and National Archaeological Museum, and even giving us an opportunity to walk inside of the Parthenon.

Standing inside of the Parthenon. Photo: Mae Taylor

While at the National Archaeological Museum, I was pleasantly surprised with the discovery of many ancient artistic artefacts that I had learnt, and in some cases, written essays about. What first struck me about seeing the ancient sculptures is that I was able to walk around them, see the mark of the artist’s hand in the stone, observe them as they were intended to be seen – in person as a whole viewing experience. The pottery that we had studied, such as the Dipylon Amphora, amazed me with its size. I could again, walk around it and observe the fine detail that the artist intended the viewer to see.

Dipylon Amphora. Photo: Riva Charles
Hermes and Infant Dionysus by Praxiteles. Photo: Mae Taylor

As I also come from an art historical background, I was interested in doing my assessed presentation on the statue of Hermes and Infant Dionysus by Praxiteles, held in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. I had researched all that I could about its preservation from when it was made in mid-fourth century BCE, its archaeological discovery, the differing debates surrounding the sculpture’s dating and intentions, even the artistic technique later deemed the ‘Praxitilean style’.

The experience of writing and presenting to my fellow academic classmates along with the teaching staff allowed me to express my love for the artistic culture of Classical Greece while actually standing in front of the sculpture, an experience unlike anything else. What it also allowed for however, is a chance to obtain a deeper understanding and appreciation of this sculpture, that surpassed anything I had gained from my research.

Close view of Hermes with Infant Dionysus. Photo: Riva Charles

One of the debates I had discussed in my presentation was the differing theories of what Hermes was holding in his right hand. It has been speculated to be a bunch of grapes, as some suggest that Hermes’ gaze is interacting with Dionysus. Others have objected this, suggesting Hermes is gazing past Dionysus and would have been holding a pair of cymbals, or even a coin purse, which they would have both been listening to. The theory that particularly interested me was that Hermes was holding his very characteristic herald’s staff due to there being a round hole in his left hand.

Seeing this sculpture in person gave me a chance to explore these theories myself, being able to closely observe the stance of Hermes, his visible limbs, and the gaze of both Hermes and Dionysus from any position. It gave me, along with all of my fellow academic classmates the opportunity to develop our own idea on this debate that may possibly never be resolved.

Close up of Hermes foot, the detail of his longer second toe is noticeable. Photo: Riva Charles

While visiting the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Messene earlier in the course, my tutor ­­­Annabel Florence and I developed a possible theory through close observation of the ancient sculptures. We found that all of the sculptures of the Greek Gods and Goddesses had a longer second toe than any other toe, whereas the sculptures of unnamed men and women did not have this attribute. Using Hermes as an example, it is visible that the second toe is slightly longer. It was only through the close, in person observation of the ancient art, particularly in the company of fellow academics, that we were able to foster this discussion and develop new ideas that would not have beeen possible through online research.

Nike of Paionios, a sculpture that I have written an essay on. Photo: Riva Charles

Throughout the duration of Ancient Greece Study Tour, I was able to explore more than I could imagine. My appreciation of Ancient Greek culture, particularly the Ancient art of Greece increased more with each passing day, with each new museum or archaeological site, and with each new personal observation. What I have gained most from this course, however, is an appreciation for learning in situ, experiencing the culture in the location it was formed. I urge anyone that has the opportunity, to undertake that experience, as it has been one that has significantly impacted my academic understanding of Ancient History. I have been allowed the chance to bring the research of my undergraduate studies to life.

Caryatids in the Acropolis Museum. Photo: Fiona Charles

Riva Charles is a University of Queensland undergraduate student in her third year of a Bachelor of Arts majoring in History and Art History. Her interest in Art History has influenced her Ancient History studies throughout her undergraduate degree, allowing her to pursue this interest throughout the Ancient Greece Study Tour. Riva is currently employed by the Queensland Museum and the UQ Art Museum.

Contacts

Dr Stavros Paspalas – Acting Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
+61 2 9351 4759 +61 (0)2 9351 7693 arts.aaia@sydney.edu.au