“We are all fascinated by the idea of being able to know what life was like so many thousands of years ago – how humanity has changed and how it hasn’t” Dr Michael Scott talks to World of Books about Indiana Jones, running the original marathon, and the film 300
Dr Michael Scott’s passion of the ancient world led him to read Classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge where he gained a 1st class degree and masters while studying in Italy, France, Germany, Greece and the UK (so he’s rather clever World of Books suggests!). Michael took his love of the ancient history and archaeology to the next level embarking on a PhD at Cambridge where he split his time between Cambridge and Athens studying the three subjects never to be mentioned – ancient Greek sex, politics and religion! In 2007, aged only 26, Michael became Dr Michael, as well as the Moses and Mary Finley Research Fellow in ancient history at Darwin College, Cambridge, and is now a research associate and affiliated lecturer in Classics, History and Art History. He divides his time between researching and teaching in Cambridge and Athens, giving lectures across Europe and working with schools across the UK to promote the study of the ancient world. Michael often lectures around the world and he also brings his passion and knowledge to our television screens as the presenter of programmes including programmes such as, Guilty Pleasures: Luxury in Ancient Greece – BBC4 (2011), Guilty Pleasures: Luxury in the Middle Ages – BBC4 (2011), and Delphi: Bellybutton of the Ancient World – BBC4 (2010). As author of popular history books, Michael’s first book From Democrats to Kings hit the shelves in 2009, closely followed by his second book The ancient sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia. Taking time out from research in the library, Michael has also embarked on several extreme endurance charity fund raising events: hiking, biking, rafting and kayaking across Costa Rica, dragon boat racing around the Venetian lagoon and re-creating the ancient world by running the route of the first ever Marathon in Athens- one busy man!
Well, we’ll be honest, World of Books is a little intimidated by your resume to say the least- it’s very impressive! You must be incredibly busy, so thank you for taking the time out for chatting to us today.
Q: OK, so a straight-forward one to start, what first attracted you to the ancient world? And what has inspired you to study it in such depth over the years?
– It was a combination of factors. I was lucky enough to have really good teachers at school for Latin and Greek – a great teacher makes all the difference – something I try to remember every time I walk into a classroom. A school trip to Greece when I was 17 (I celebrated my 17th birthday in an unforgettable nightclub in Tolo called the ‘Gorilla Club’!), seeing the ancient sites, walking in the footsteps of the ancients, convinced me to read Classics at University. I fell in love with the subject during that time and when, during my Masters, I got to spend 3 months working at the British School at Athens (www.bsa.ac.uk), visiting all the major sites and working closely with people at the cutting edge of archaeology, I was hooked. There was no turning back from there, and I never regretted it for a moment.
Q: How to do approach writing your books in terms of time-scale and research?
– Every research project is different, and the key thing is to let the project dictate how you work on it. Some projects require a lot more library research time, some more field time, others require more collaborative work with colleagues in related fields. Sometimes, you can see exactly how to answer a particular research question and there is a huge thrill and satisfaction in solving the ‘problem’. Other projects require time to mull, discuss and think over. With these often-times the ‘eureka’ moment will come when you are least expecting it: an unexpected piece of evidence suddenly comes to light; an article in a dusty journal provides the lightening-rod for the approach you have been trying to formulate for; a visit to a museum or archaeological site finally gives you the clear picture you have been searching for. When it comes to writing up – again the method is dictated by the project. Some research questions are best answered in short journal articles. Others require a book, and for me, the best way to write is, once the research is done, to plan what you want to say for a week then write for a week, then plan the next section and so on. I like to get into a writing rhythm of – if all goes well – about 2000 words a day. But some days you do just stare at the computer screen, which is a good sign that you are not ready to write yet because you don’t know what exactly you want to say. I also like to change the location I write in every so often: certain rooms/libraries/spaces just ‘feel right’ when writing certain things, and its really important to listen to that feeling, because the experience (and I think the end product) is so much better if you do. That might be a Starbucks, the Classics library, my office, home, the research schools in Greece, or on location at an archaeological site.
Q: What is it about ancient Greece that is still so fascinating to modern audiences?
– I think there are 2 main things that captivate audiences about ancient Greece. We are all, to some extent, fascinated by the idea of being able to know what life was like so many thousands of years ago – how humanity has changed and how it hasn’t – just look at the continuing number of successful Hollywood movies about the ancient world. But the culture of ancient Greece and Rome holds another fascination because these two have had – and continue to have – a deep impact on our modern culture, language, lifestyle, ideas and ideals. To understand ourselves, in part means understanding them. I was recently teaching in Brazil about ancient Greek democracy, where even I was amazed to find people really felt it crucial for their modern lives to know about ancient Greece. And the week I arrived, the language of ancient Greece appeared in the Brazilian papers. Thanks to the success of the film 300, the term ‘Spartan’ had become a term of approval used for the Rio police force!
Q: What do you find more useful, the literary sources of ancient writers or the physical evidence of modern archaeology?
– During the 20th Century, there was a strict divide between the kinds of evidence scholars of the ancient world specialised in. You were either a literary expert OR an epigraphist (working with inscriptions) OR an archaeologist (with material culture). The key revolution in ancient world study over the last 20 years has been the recognition that, to really understand the ancient world, you have to consider the full range of ancient evidence available. Literature, inscriptions and material culture were all inter-mixed in the ancient world – the ancients experienced them all as a connected whole. As a result, its hard for me to understand how we can possibly comprehend their world unless we approach it in the same way. That means a tougher job for researchers: you need to
become skilled in using very different sets of evidence, but I think its worth it.
Q: In your Book, “From Democrats to Kings” you talk in depth about Thebes, and your TV show “Delphi: Bellybutton of the Ancient World – BBC4 (2010)” discusses that great city state – why is that when people think of ancient Greece often they think only of Athens and Sparta? What happened to the other City states to make them fade from popular consciousness?
– Athens and Sparta come to the fore because – for a large amount of time in the ancient world – they were the dominant city-states. As a result, Athens in particular has been a long term focus of historical investigation and so we just have more stuff which has been discovered there, which in turn tends to make Athens, and places like it, more high-profile in modern study. But its absolutely true that lots of evidence does survive from other places all over the ancient world: the trick is getting to it, and then there being enough of it to understand it properly. But we can only play with the hand we have been dealt, and there are some topics and places which – sadly – will forever be tantalisingly out of our reach. But that should not stop us from doing our best to understand the ancient Greek world as much more than simply the story of Athens and Sparta.
Q: What is the current book on your night-stand?
I actually just finished David Nicholls One Day– a great read. But was also recommended and about to start Muriel Barbery The Elegance of the Hedgehog. And, more work related, have recently been reading D.Constantine – In the footsteps of the Gods: travelers to Greece and the quest for the Hellenic ideal.
Q: It makes us tired just thinking about it, so congratulations for participating in the “Original” marathon! How difficult did you find it? And how did it feel to retrace that historic journey?
– I signed up for this race with a group of friends without really thinking through the consequences. I trained in Cambridge – a place with no hills to speak of – and was petrified to find out that the Athens marathon is one of the hilliest in the world! The bus picked you up at the end point and drove you to the start – my heart sank into my shoes as the bus climbed up and down each of the hills I knew I had to run back across! But the experience was fantastic. You started at the battle site of Marathon, running around the famous burial site of the 192 Athenians who died that day in 490 BC defending Greece from the Persian invasion, before setting out for Athens. The route traces as best we can the route the plucky runner Pheidippides took to return to Athens to relay the good news. You pass a statue of him on the way. I won’t lie – the last 10km were the hardest thing I have ever had to do. But the ending was fantastic: you run into the Panathenaic stadium – rebuilt to celebrate the first modern Olympics in 1896. There was a man running beside me who did the whole thing in the kit of an ancient Greek hoplite soldier – including the leather sandals rather than cushioned trainers. I will never know how he managed to survive!
Q: You’ve already dealt with Sex, Religion and Politics in Ancient Greece – are there any other areas or time periods you want to study?
– Of course! The wonderful thing about the ancient world is that there is – and always will be – a never ending list of fascinating topics to study. Sometimes that’s because your own interests change, and new research questions come to the fore often prompted by issues affecting our own modern world: right now people are really interested in identity and ethnicity for example. But sometimes it’s also because new things are discovered: archaeological sites or particular finds which completely change our understanding of a particular place, issue or period. At the moment, I’m fascinated by the Oxyrhynchus project. In the first half of the 20th century, buried in the deserts of Egypt, an ancient rubbish dump was discovered. Because of the dry desert conditions, thousands of scraps of ancient papyrus had survived. These were excavated, preserved and now sit waiting to be read. There are so many of them that it will take decades to read them all: the project team have just launched a new website with tools to help anyone – no matter how little Greek you know – help decipher them (www.ancientlives.org). Who knows what we may discover in these texts? Already pieces of new plays, philosophical writings, fragments of an unknown gospel alongside a myriad of other kinds of texts have been found.
Q: What did you want to be when you were younger?
– I always loved the Indiana Jones movies, but I never thought I would end up studying the ancient world. I knew I loved languages
and learning about other cultures and societies, but it wasn’t until I was studying Classics at University that it clicked. I often tell people who ask what Classics is that it is sociology, but on societies that existed thousands of years ago. I love working out what made them tick, and along the way, learning about the modern societies that now occupy those same places.
Q: And lastly, here at World of Books we are dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. By sourcing a large amount of our books from charities, we are also able to support their cause. Any book we can’t sell, we recycle; last year alone we saved 12,500 metric tonnes of waste from going to landfill sites. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
– Absolutely. The book world is right now in the middle of a revolution between print and digital media. But whatever direction we take, I believe there will always be an important market for print books, and within that, for giving every book the chance of a long life – and second life, not to mention third, fourth, fifth. I’m always fascinated by those book piles you see in some cafés and hotels: people drop books off they have read and pick up others to take with them to some new part of the world. Sometimes people write their names and locations in the front covers: I love learning about previous book owners: it makes the book even more special.
Has this interview rendered your imagination gripped by the Greeks? Why not have a look at Dr Michael’s website by clicking here or following him on twitter @drmichaelcscott. Or if you would like to find cheap books, try World of Books.com.