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Undergraduate students contribute to “Who’s Who” of ancient Athens

Photo of Abigail Ferstman, Sean Stewart, Joshua Zung, John Traill and Marielle Balanaser who is holding a brush over a wet plate with a paper on top

L-R: Abigail Ferstman, Sean Stewart, Joshua Zung, John Traill and Marielle Balanaser, working on making a “squeeze” — a paper impression of an ancient inscription. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

Marielle Balanaser studied ancient Greek and Latin to better understand the roots of modern medical ethics and terminology, but it was the mysterious process behind the black-and-red-figure vase art of ancient Athens that really fired her curiosity.

“It’s possible they used some sort of ingredient we no longer have, but whatever the reason, modern scholars have not been able to duplicate it precisely,” says Balanaser.

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She is among the latest in a succession of students who have assisted John Traill, professor emeritus in the Department of Classics, with Persons of Ancient Athens, a book series that is the mainstay of a unique Faculty of Arts & Science undergrad research project.

The series Biographies of Ancient Athens is part of the Faculty of Arts & Science Research Opportunity program for second-year students.

A second-year student majoring in biochemistry and classics, Balanaser recently culminated her year in the program with a scholarly presentation on the chemical process called redox that was used in the ancient vases, highlighted by recent archeological discoveries of new examples of the art form.

Balanaser and the students who came before can see their names in the prefaces to the book series, a Who’s Who of 100,000 or so citizens of ancient Athens. The books are part of an ongoing project started in the 1970s to catalogue information about the people from Plato to Socrates who were part of one of history’s greatest societies.

Sean Stewart’s contribution was a biography of Aristotle, who strangely enough had not initially been included in the book series because he was not originally from Athens. Stewart had to sift through a mountain of often contradictory research on the enigmatic Greek scholar to create an accurate entry.

“There are tons of sources for Aristotle, but most of them were written at least 100 or 200 years after he died, and like Socrates, a whole mythology had evolved around who he was,” says Stewart, now a fourth-year student majoring in classics and classical civilization.

“So I had to try to figure out who I thought were the most reliable sources. I went through a lot of scholarship and primary sources, even translated Arabic, to help me to make up my mind.”

Traill says the undergraduates make an enormous contribution to the project, and he tailors the research to the individual interests of his students.

“We’re trying to imitate the ancient Athenian mind that explored and questioned,” says Traill, who also teaches a Latin and Greek scientific terminology course.

Working with scholarly and original source materials, the students help build the growing data base on ancient Athens while being encouraged to form their own critical analysis of the subject.

Joshua Zung, a third-year student majoring in classics and computer science who plays in several symphony orchestras and will be attending U of T’s Faculty of Law next year, focused his research on scholarly works and inscriptions of ancient Greek music.

He believes the influence of the Greeks on classical music can be found in works such as Sergei Rachmaninoff’s epic Isle of the Dead symphonic poem.

“The project was eye-opening for me, to see there are other forms of music out there, and different ways to notate it,” says Zung.

“And then I went into computer science because I saw a lot of similarities between Latin and Greek, and constructing instructions for machines.”

Ancient Athenians is one of the relatively few research opportunities in the humanities, something that caught Abigail Ferstman’s attention when she was a second-year student.

Now completing her master’s in classics, Ferstman spent last summer at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens after spending her research project studying the beginnings of literacy in the ancient Greek society.

“I wasn’t planning on majoring in classics when I came into the project, but it really gave me an insight into the whole range of things you could do,” says Ferstman, who is now studying ancient Romans.