Ceramics and Swantaurs

Ceramics and Swantaurs

A favourite preoccupation of mine during the pandemic has been looking for images of Swantaurs, the weird in-between state where a man is transforming into a swan. The most well known man-to-swan isn’t really a man at all, but rather, Zeus/Jupiter transforming into a swan to rape Leda. The topic is fraught and sensitive for obvious reasons, which makes the hilarity of the swantaur images an occasionally difficult topic for discussion. And they are hilarious! So please excuse my flippancy at focusing on the artistic interpretations rather than the serious aspects of the topic.

For your amusement, I have uploaded my presentation about the appearance of Swantaurs on Renaissance Maiolica. The lovely Classics postgrads at the University of Otago hosted the Amphorae 2021 conference, and they gave me an opportunity to talk about something silly and fun. And yes, I managed to cut my “Hello, I’m Lauren” from the start of the video because I am oh-so-very impatient when it comes to video editing. I’ve also chopped the insightful and fun questions and discussion from the end of the video because my fellow conference-goers did not consent to be shared online (and I didn’t ask them because… impatience).

Since giving this presentation I have stumbled upon another plate painted by Francesco Xanto Avelli which shows a man tranforming into a swan, likely a mute swan. It’s an interesting image that depicts Orpheus arriving at the boat of Charon. Xanto identifies the image as being from book 10 of the Metamorphoses but the identify of the swantaur is currently unknown. The depiction of Cerberus is similarly unique and I have not found any analogous depictions in either ancient or early modern art.

Maiolica Bowl
The descent of Orpheus into Hades
Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo, 1532
Diameter:26.5 cm
© The Wallace Collection

The Hermitage Museum holds another piece by Xanto that was painted in the same year and also depicts Cerberus, but that shows a dog with three heads, not a man with three dog heads (see here). So, there are at least two mysteries about this illustration. If you know who the swantaur is and/or why Cerberus has a human body, please let me know. You can comment here (I think) or chase me on twitter at @ouroboros81

Be on the lookout for more swantaurs!

– Lauren Murphy

Making Ink

Making Ink

As part of my research into Renaissance collections of antiquities, I often find myself reading manuscripts and archival documents that have been written by hand. The distinctive sepia brown ink used in these texts can be recognised as iron gall ink, which was originally black but has faded over the intervening centuries. Ink enthusiasts refer to Pliny’s Natural History (34.26) as the earliest reference to it, although Pliny is speaking of the chemical reaction rather than making ink.

I am always up for a little bit of experimental archaeology, or just trying something new to apply to my own artwork, so I thought I would give making it a shot. First up was the difficulty in finding oak galls in Australia. Obviously, we are not a country resplendent with oak trees so I put out my feelers to my network. Fortunately for me, a few people I know are involved with the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) and one of them pointed me to Kraft Kolour. I already knew about this seller, due to my love of tie-dye, but it had never occurred to me that they might sell galls. Apparently, people use them for natural dyeing too.

mortar and pestle next to paper bag filled with oak galls

I ordered whole galls rather than the crushed variety because I was aiming for authenticity. I also purchased ferrous sulphate and gum arabic. Any of these ingredients would be accessible during the Renaissance – the galls come from wasps laying their eggs in the leaves of oak trees and the trees forming tannin-rich lumps in response. A rusty nail can be used in place of ferrous sulphate, but the powdered version was also available. Gum arabic is tree resin, usually acacia, but not species-specific.

large pieces of nuts in bowl

Crushing the gall nuts with a mortar and pestle is hard work.

partly crushed nuts in bowl

Really hard work.

mortar and pestle with fine powder inside

But eventually I had it ground down finely enough.

demineralised water bottle, brown paper bag, glass filled with frothy brown liquid

Most recipes call for rainwater. Some suggest vinegar or wine, which were considered purer than water. Considering that rainwater is unlikely to be of high quality in my suburban backyard, I added demineralised water so that there aren’t any other minerals to interact with the iron when I add it later.

jar with brown liquid covered with with guaze

Some gauze and a hair-tie to hold it in place so the bugs stay out while I leave it to sit in the sun for a few days.

glass with brown liquid, two white jars

After three days I strained the liquid through the gauze to get this milky coffee looking fluid. Other examples I have seen online look a lot darker so I was a bit worried about it. If everything goes wrong I also bought some powdered tannic acid, and apparently tea bags can also be used to make this kind of ink.

glass with brown fluid, two jars, measuring cup with water

I am a bad scientist, so I’ve averaged out the quantities used in different recipes so that I have mixed a teaspoon of ferrous sulphate in 25 ml of water. Then I added it to the gall liquid.

Look at the iron sulphate reacting with the tannic acid!

glass with ink in it

Oooh, nice and inky.

two small bottles of black ink

I made enough ink for two little bottles.

dip pen resting on white paper

My weapon of choice. A Speedball crow quill. There are lots of different dip pens out there but this is my favourite to use for writing and drawing.

"Lauren" written in ink on white paper

The ink looks dark purple when wet and darkens over a minute or so to charcoal black. Ideally, the black will be waterproof when dry but…

scrawly text reads "Lauren" and is smeared by water

I poured water over my dried ink and there was some bleeding. It could have been worse. I retested with some writing that I allowed to dry for three hours, I think a few days would be even better but I am very impatient.

text says "Trying out the ink" with water splattered over the top

That looks better. As an ink to write with, it needed only a little of the gum arabic mixed in for thickening. In any case, four hundred years from now this writing would be a lovely sepia brown like the humanist manuscripts that have preserved so many of our ancient texts. It’s really tactile too- which I wouldn’t have known because I would never, ever touch the ink on an old manuscript – but I can touch this and feel the words.

Here’s a splash test a week later when the ink has cured more. I think this is a success. There was a little smudging when I rubbed it with a cloth, but not much, and I am sure that it would hold up well over time.

Text says "testing the permanence of the ink" with water splattered over the top. The ink has not run.

– Lauren Murphy

The Mind is its own Place

The Mind is its own Place

As a Melbournian, I am currently in the midst of Lockdown 6. We’ve been through more than two hundred days of lockdown and you’d think that we’re getting better at it. Haha, nope. The isolation, the cancellation of plans and the stress of trying to work without a study, desk, or even a quiet corner of the house, has taken its toll on me. I persist because what else am I going to do? I’ll keep plodding along for the time being.

So, what lessons have I learned from the last two years?

1. Don’t leave things in your office. Any time that I take my books in to uni to work there is a very good chance that it might be eight months before I see them again. The majority of my texts are currently trapped on the bookshelf next to my desk.

2. Stay connected. I am active on a couple of social networks and try to keep tabs on what others at my uni and others in the field are doing. I’ve haphazardly attended Shut Up and Write sessions and dropped in to social zoom sessions. One of the (very few) positives of the pandemic is the increased accessibility of conferences and I’ve gone to quite a few in different time zones around the world. 4am isn’t the best time to absorb information though.

3. Have a hobby. I knit, sew, draw, keep my hands busy where I can. Making your research your whole life can work for some people but most of us need something that we can do because it is fun and not because we are good at it. Make some gross-tasting bread if you want, you can let yourself fail at something low-stakes. I’m a big fan of gardening and have been growing heirloom veggies from the Diggers Club for years.

4. Embrace the wonderful resources of the Interlibrary Loan team at your uni. Mine have tracked me down some extra-obscure articles and have been a lifeline for my research while my books are trapped.

5. Help others. This is part two of the hobby suggestion. Proofread for others, discuss their research with them, support your research community. We’re all struggling to get work done and although you can’t expect the same in return, it might happen. You’ll maintain connections with your peers and get a nice buzz from being helpful too.

6. Know that your value as a person and as a researcher is not linked to your productivity. If I get one more email about ‘resilience’ I may scream. I am doing the best work that I can in a really shitty time and I am not going to waste time and energy feeling bad about that.

7. Finally, find out the provisions for Leave of Absence, Extensions, Sick Leave, etc. at your Uni. Use them. If you are unwell due to mental illness you might be eligible for paid sick leave. If you need a bit more time to meet that milestone because you can’t access a resource, then there is no shame in seeking extra time.

These are my tips, you may have some of your own. Here’s hoping that we won’t need tips and advice for enduring lockdowns in the near future.

– Lauren

Midway upon the journey of our life

Midway upon the journey of our life

Hello, I’m Lauren Murphy and I am a PhD candidate at La Trobe University. At the invitation of Aimee, I have come to blurt out my winding and hazard-prone path into studying a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. I’ve chosen the opening line from the Inferno because I was in the middle of my life when I found myself a bit lost. Unlike many of my peers, I did not have any particular interest in the ancient world when I was young. I did have an interest in becoming a palaeontologist but discovering that I would have to take biology classes and dissect animals put an end to that dream. Oddly though, I grew out of my squeamishness. I can thank horror movies for desensitising me, I suppose.

My family are working class and we did not have many books in the house. We did have an encyclopedia set that was already dated when I was a young child – my mum said that there had been an offer in the newsagent where you bought one volume a fortnight until you had the whole set. Anyway, I had little interest in history at home or at school besides what I needed to get very good grades. Most history subjects taught in the early years of high school are focused (rightly or wrongly) on Australia, and I did not take any history subjects during VCE. What I did take was art classes: Art, Studio Art, and Graphic Communication. I loved it. I loved it so much I threw all my energy and funding into studying art and spent my days, nights, and weekends drawing and painting. My nan gave me a small amount of money towards my first car or anything else I needed, and I bought myself a very cool long coat and then spent the rest on art supplies and life drawing classes. And then I wrangled myself a spot in art school and spent three years painting and having a wonderful time.

Large red-figure volute crater on right with Lauren next to it on left.
Me with a rather large volute krater in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, 2019

All good things end, seemingly, and after art school I had to find a job if I wanted to buy more art supplies and pay bills. Oh, how I loathe bills. I found an okay job in retail selling fabric and that is how I spent ten years. By that time, I had developed the soulless dead eyes of many other people who spend their lives working in customer service. I still made art and I read everything I could get my hands on. At one point I printed a list of the top 100 books of all time and carried that in my wallet so that I could look out for them in second-hand bookshops. You would think this would be my introduction to the classical world, but nope.

My reason for returning to university was two-fold: I was dying inside from my job, and I had a lovely friend who lived in Italy that I wanted to visit. I figured, why not go back to university to learn Italian, maybe learn a few other cool things and become a more interesting person. My worst-case scenario was that I would come out the end and end up right where I started, but having had a few more years of fun in the interim. There was nothing to lose.


I will break in here and make it clear that my situation is very much unique to me. I suffer from mental illness and a consequence of that is the only pressure I have on me to succeed is my own. My family are very supportive of me doing my own thing, whatever that might be. I am glad for that, although I am sure they are disappointed that I am not curing cancer. Coming from the working class, our marker of success is that you are able to do, so you should be either working or studying, just doing something. I get a bit (lot) angry when people talk about the poor being lazy because it is just not true.


Back to the story. I enrolled in university, picked Italian as my major and picked some electives in Archaeology to use up some spots on my study plan. My motivation was that they sounded interesting and that I had been watching Time Team in the afternoons with my mother not long before I enrolled. The thought of digging holes and finding things, whether that was a treasure or otherwise, was quite appealing. I have since decided that digging hurts my back and that I like climate-controlled libraries with comfy chairs. But back then, it seemed like a good idea. There was a subject about Ancient Greece that I thought would work well to prepare me for a future like Indiana Jones, so I chose that too. In the end, that subject was what hooked me on the ancient world. I struggled with the literature at first, I had never encountered the Iliad before, but I got back into the swing of studying and essay writing. It was the art that snared me though. A vase-handling session was my first time getting to touch the ancient stuff and I have found that my art background and my love of books and libraries have combined so that I can spend my time researching and writing about ancient art.

I’ll admit that my entry into this field is a bit different to most people. Others have family that were interested in history, or they had their own interest in mythology. Some people read one of the ancient texts in translation and that was it, they had been captured by Classics. For me, it was holding a little ancient lekythos with some very rough designs on it.

No photo description available.
Lekythos, photo by author
(I smelled the contents and it just smelled dusty and old)

It is not a dream come true for me because I never dreamed about doing anything like this. I did not find my way into this field until I was in my mid-thirties, and it was entirely by accident. However, it is a very pleasant way to spend a few years and to contribute my insights and perspectives so that others can benefit from them. If I had better luck studying Italian (my Italian is still a work in progress), I would have wound up on a completely different path.

Anyway, that’s my journey into Classics and Ancient History.