Category Archives: Undergraduate student profiles

Ovid’s cure for pimples (and other adventures in ‘Practical Classics’)

Alison Daniels is an OU student working towards the Q85 BA in Classical Studies. This autumn, she was awarded the ‘highly commended’ prize for her submission to the John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay competition: an essay entitled ‘Practical Classics: Reflections on the attempted recreation of the ancient Roman skincare and cosmetic products described by Ovid in his Medicamina Faciei Femineae’. Alison attempted to recreate some of the lotions and potions that Ovid recommended to his Roman readers. It’s safe to say that this is the first student essay to arrive in the OU Classical Studies mailbox complete with pots of cosmetic samples!

In this blog post, she tells us a bit more about the process of researching and writing the essay, and her plans for future work in the field of Classical Studies.

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Hello Alison, congratulations on your prize! Please could you introduce yourself to our blog readers, and tell us about your OU learning journey so far?

This is my second degree with the OU. The first was an Open Honours degree which ended up as a weird mixture of cognitive psychology and Romans. I just chose what interested me. My love for the Romans was rekindled by the sight of James Purefoy’s backside in HBO’s Rome on TV. It’s not the greatest reason for studying, is it? This time I’m taking another honours degree in Classical Studies. Last year I had to exert some discipline to learn all those Latin endings and declensions for A276. I’m now taking A330 looking at Greek and Roman Myth. I can’t quite get my head round the Greeks, they seem to have quite an alien mind set to me.

I’d love to go on and take a PhD part time by distance learning, but funding it would be an issue. Building on A330, I’m fascinated by how Roman cults functioned as businesses, so that would be my subject.  How cults competed, attracted new members and got the money to operate, how they entered a new market, how you spread the message about your “new” god, why people would join a new cult and what it offered, how they sought out high profile converts, the economics and business aspects of creating and buying votives – that kind of thing.

Other than that, I’ve always had way too much curiosity and a bad habit of going, “What if…”

You chose to write your Kassman essay about Ovid’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae. Can you give us some background to this text? How much of it survives, and what is it about?

What remains of the Medicamina is just a fragment of about 100 lines long. The first half is Ovid’s usual poetics, but the second half changes quite abruptly to a series of five recipes for skincare and cosmetic products. At first sight, it didn’t seem to fit with the bits of Ovid I’d encountered on the module [A276]]. It was as if, say, Hamlet broke off in the middle of “To be or not to be” to give you his recipe for Danish Pastries.

Why you decide to recreate the recipes, rather than just read about them? And what did you expect to find out when you started your research?

When I started my research, I thought I’d find that lots of people had recreated Ovid’s recipes. It seemed such an obvious approach, but although there were lots of references to the recipes, no what seemed to have actually tried them out. Even where people had written books on Roman cosmetics, they didn’t seem to have made them, so I decided I’d give it a go as my topic for the Kassman essay prize.

How many recipes did you recreate? What were the main challenges you encountered? 

I chose to recreate four recipes out of the five. The one I omitted involved nitre, which I thought at the time I’d have to make by following a medieval process. Since it involved digging a metre cubed pit and filling it with alternate layers of lime and chicken poo, I passed on that.

There were two main challenges. I soon discovered why no one appeared to have recreated Ovid’s recipes before! The first was the translations themselves, which varied enormously and unexpectedly. Take lines 78-80. Mahoney (Perseus.tufts.edu) renders them as:

“Two ounces next of gum, and thural seed,
That for the gracious gods does incense breed,
And let a double share of honey last succeed”.

This differs significantly from the prose translation offered by May in the Loeb,

“There should also be added two ounces of gum and Tuscan spelt, and nine times as much honey.” (www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo62.htm).

So I didn’t really know whether to go with nine times as much honey or 4 ounces as the double share. Scale it up to fifty lines and it becomes even less consistent. In the end I opted for the Loeb translation throughout, cross-referencing as needed.

The second challenge was rounding up the materials and trying to identify what species of plant or type of material Ovid actually meant. He was writing before scientific taxonomy and many of the translations seemed give priority to metre over product formulation. In one recipe he specifies windy beans, but even with research into ancient Roman recipes, it wasn’t clear which variety was meant. Add in that commercial plant breeding and agriculture has changed the physical qualities of many species over time and I couldn’t be sure that Ovid’s opium poppy petals bore much resemblance to the ones from my neighbour’s garden, or that the modern ingredients wouldn’t result in a less efficacious product.

I had to make some educated guesses and substitutions, so I used Scottish barley that a local farmer let me have rather than Libyan barley and my iris bulbs came from the garden centre rather than Illyria. Similarly, I used a high powered blender to grind and mix my ingredients since I had no access to strong-armed slaves or a donkey powered mill.

Can you give us a taster of one of the recipes – perhaps your favourite one?

Although Ovid’s fennel seed complexion cream smelt fabulous, I found his spot and pimple cream most interesting. At first, I thought it was maybe a later addition to the poem as the quantity of ingredients seemed pretty industrial, coming in at just over 4Kg.

At Ovid’s stated dose the batch contains six months’ worth of daily treatment. In fact, Ovid’s suggestion of ½ Roman ounce, or 14.35g per treatment, is 29 times higher than a recommended full face dose of a modern acne treatment. At that rate, Ovid’s recipe provides almost six years of twice daily treatments. I thought Ovid was obliquely suggesting that those with spots should cake themselves in a thick layer of disguising cream for several years until the skin problems have passed.

Ingredients for Ovid's pimple cure

Ingredients for Ovid’s spot and pimple cure and the end result

Ovid's cure for pimples

 

When I tested the recipe, I found it resulted in a dark, flecked mixture. It didn’t absorb into the skin, but sits on it until removed. Rubbing resulted in the honey component spreading into the skin, leaving dry farinaceous matter on top. It is exceptionally drying on the skin, but not sticky. If Ovid’s suggested dose of an ounce were applied to the face, it would doubtless slide off. The wearer would not be able to apply this product then appear in public, but would have to stay secluded. Ovid often seemed to use a known allergen in this preparation. Lupin commonly causes skin rashes and breathing difficulties in around 1-2% of the population.

You mention in the essay that some of your neighbours helped with sourcing the ingredients – what did they think when you told them about your project?!

Luckily for me, I live in quite a charmingly eccentric little village, where people are always helping each other out. My job writing for magazines and editing means my neighbours are quite used to me doing strange things, like walking over hot coals or trying twenty ice cream flavours in one afternoon for a food review! They didn’t have a problem with letting me take some lupin seeds or stealing all the petals from their poppies once I had explained.

And finally, what would you count as your most important or surprising discovery?

Even though the project was pretty poor science and not very rigorous as classical research, I think it had value. It gave me an idea of the difficulties of primary research without proper funding, equipment and access to materials and secondary research. It was also fun to do and interesting to explore.

In terms of the cosmetic formulae themselves, I came to the conclusion that Ovid gives us a series of cosmetics where each has the opposite effect to that promised. A cheek stain that gives the wearer the appearance of bruises rather than a healthy glow; a spot cream that needs to be layered on so thickly the wearer’s entire visage is obscured and the user must avoid others; a cream that promises radiance but soon leaves the skin dull and grey and a brightening cream which blisters the skin.

While this may have been Ovid’s subtle comment on the futility of artificial beauty products, my own conclusion was that the recipes were, in effect, a series of practical jokes. By simply translating Ovid’s words and failing to fully comprehend the sly implications of his recipes, I felt we may have missed out on a more practical aspect of Ovid’s humour.

 

Kassman essay prize 2017 – winner announced!

In Classical Studies we have an annual essay competition. The John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay prize is an annual award based on the income from a donation given by the late Alec Kassman in memory of his son. Alec was an Arts Faculty Staff Tutor in the London Region and a contributor to Classical Studies modules. The purpose of the prize is to develop and foster study of classical antiquity in the Open University.

We’re delighted to announce that this year’s winner is Ben Cassell.

Originally from North London, and now living in Wales, Ben has recently graduated with First Class Honours in Classical Studies after studying full time over three years at the Open University. Ben has now begun studying the MA in Classical Studies with the OU. He has previously been awarded the Sir Julian-Hodge Prize in 2014/15, the prize sponsored by Ede and Ravenscroft in 2016, and he was also the runner up for the J.S. Kassman Essay Prize last year.

Ben tells us: ‘I have always had a keen interest in ancient and medieval history, being something cultivated in my childhood, but was drawn to studying Classics after reading Euripides and Aristophanes as well as Michael Scott’s Delphi and Olympia: Spatial politics and pan-hellenism, a work that revolutionized my appreciation of Classics as a field of study.’

Ben’s winning essay examined the monuments and iconography of fifth-century BCE Athens, exploring how they played a vital role in shaping Athenian identity in this period. The essay offered an analysis of the context and ideology of various iconographic schemes, such as the paintings in the Stoa Poikile and the metopes and friezes in the Hephaisteion (both in the Athenian agora), highlighting how monumental iconography in Athens was not simply a product of ethnic identity, but an essential medium for its enactment through memorisation.

The annual competition is open to all current OU undergraduates, with a notification date usually at the end of June, with submission at the end of September. This year’s winner is keen to continue developing his interests in memory studies, inspired by prominent figures in the field such as Jan Assmann and Claude Calame. Ben says, ‘My ambition is to work within the field of Classical Studies professionally … [looking at] the role of memory as a mechanism for cultivating identity, especially as relating to art, iconography and ritually consumed space.’

Many congratulations to Ben from everyone here at OU Classical Studies.

Celebrating student success

Congratulations to former Open University Classical Studies student Ian Ramskill, who has had his work published in the first ever edition of NEO: The Classics Students’ Journal. Ian’s piece is entitled ‘Horace Odes 3.14: a pragmatic and welcome acceptance of the early Pax Augusta.’ His paper started life back in 2014 as a prizewinning essay for the John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay Prize, a competition which is open to all OU Classical Studies undergraduates. You can read Ian’s work, along with the other contributions to NEO, here; and if you’d like to know more about his student experience at the OU, take a look at the blog post he wrote just before he started his final year of study.

The deadline for this year’s Kassman Prize is 29th September 2017. More details about how current OU undergraduates may enter are available on the Classical Studies website here.

Kassman essay prize 2016 – winner announced!

In Classical Studies we have an annual essay competition. The John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay prize is an annual award based on the income from a donation given by the late Alec Kassman in memory of his son. Alec was an Arts Faculty Staff Tutor in the London Region and a contributor to Classical Studies modules. The purpose of the prize is to develop and foster study of classical antiquity in the Open University.

We’re delighted to announce that this year’s winner is Westley McCallum.

From Glasgow, Westley has been studying with the Open University since 2013, and is on the Classical Studies degree pathway. So far he has completed the two broad-based level 1 humanities modules, A219 (Exploring the Classical World), and A276 (Classical Latin). Westley is currently studying A330 (Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds) and will finish his degree next year with A340 (The Roman Empire). After that Westley hopes to apply for an MA in the field of Classical Studies.

Westley tells us: ‘I have had a great experience on the OU Classics degree so far. My main area of interest, and accordingly the part of my studies which I have most enjoyed, is Roman social history. I am especially interested in uncovering voices and perspectives which have been ignored or erased; ranging from the socially suppressed voices of women, children and slaves, through to the maligned and crude elements of entertainment forms such as Atellan farce. I also have interest in Roman Scotland, particularly the Antonine occupation.’

Westley’s winning essay was centred on an analysis of one of Cicero’s letters (Fam. 7.1) in which Cicero writes to Marcus Marius about Pompey’s recent shows. The essay explored the contextual and emotional circumstances that shaped the letter, and highlighted the importance of these factors in modern reappraisals of Cicero’s work.

The annual competition is open to all current OU undergraduates, with a notification date usually at the end of June, with submission at the end of September.  This year’s winner is keen for other students to enter in future, and says, ‘For me, working on my submission for the Kassman essay competition helped to keep my essay skills sharp during the summer break between modules, and allowed me to begin developing my own interests within the field of classics. I’d encourage any and all OU Classics students to enter next year, because it is a fantastic experience.’

Warm congratulations to Westley from everyone here at OU Classical Studies.

Introducing our Classical Studies students

Although at the OU we don’t always get to meet our students face-to-face (but see here for an insight into how our teaching is carried out), here in the Classical Studies department we enjoy finding alternative opportunities for engaging with the people who are studying our modules. One way in which we do this is through the use of online2015-03-09 001 2015-03-09 002 forums. This summer several members of the department ran an online discussion forum aimed at students who are making the transition from Level 1 study to our Level 2 modules (the equivalent of the step up from first- to second-year undergraduate study elsewhere); the forum was a place where we could offer help and advice, and share our enthusiasm for the subject, and it also allowed our students to make contact with each other before the online forums for their individual modules opened. As a result we ‘met’ a whole range of students who form this year’s cohort. As always they’re a diverse bunch, spread over a wide geographical area, and with a variety of reasons for undertaking Open University study – there is no such thing as the ‘typical OU student’. We asked them to introduce themselves and to tell us a little bit about why they’ve chosen to study with us, so here are a few of their stories:

– Sasha, who lives near Leicester, told us that, with four young children and another on the way, the OU enables her to combine studying with raising a family in a way that would not be possible via a ‘brick’ university; having enjoyed the classical elements of the OU’s interdisciplinary Level 1 Arts module (in which students encounter, among other things, Sophocles’ Antigone, Plato, Cleopatra and Roman archaeology) she has decided to pursue a single honours Classical Studies degree.

– Several students cited a lifelong interest in ancient Greece and Rome as their inspiration for beginning formal study. Brian recalled a school trip to Chester and studying Latin at ‘O’ Level in the 1970s as fuelling his enthusiasm, and, having studied several history modules with the OU, is 150hornblower[1]now embarking on Exploring the Classical World, our wide-reaching Level 2 module which introduces our students to the literature, history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Trevor, who is studying the same module from his home in the Scottish Highlands, told us that he’s been studying with the OU since 2013; he’s enjoying reading all manner of ancient texts and plans to go on to study our Level 3 module Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds next year. Another of our students, Alisha, lives in Switzerland, and dropped in to tell us that she’ll be studying the myth module along with our brand new Level 3 module The Roman Empire. Philip in west Wales, meanwhile, is a local guide who spends a lot of time talking to tour groups about the Roman heritage of his town, so he’s joined us in order to find out more about the Greeks and Romans.v2a21923[1]

– Our new Level 2 Latin module, which we are offering for the first time this year, has been eagerly anticipated, and we met several students who are looking forward to learning the ancient language. Among them are those for whom the study of the language offers them the opportunity to enhance their understanding of the ancient world, and others who plan to study Latin as a way of complementing their knowledge of a variety of modern languages.

– Meanwhile we also give our students the opportunity to learn ancient Greek, with a module which teaches the language from beginners’ level as well as allowing students to gain a deeper understanding of some key literary texts by reading them in translation. Gale told us that, having retired after a long career in the NHS, she now has the time to take up formal study; she confessed to feeling a little daunted by the challenge of studying ancient Greek but is fascinated by the ways in which the ancient world continues to influence our own society.

If you’d like to know more about what we offer please visit our departmental website, where you’ll find information on our modules and courses (at both undergraduate and postgraduate level) as well as free taster materials and contact information.

Wishing all our students the very best of luck with their studies for the coming year!

It was all Greek to me….

 OU Classical Studies student Ian Ramskill shares his experience of studying with us.

…Well it was ‘all Greek to me’ until I completed A275 Reading Classical Greek: Language and Literature, a wonderful module, on which more later; but first a quick introduction to myself and some of my experiences of studying Classics with the Open University over the last six years. In briefIR student pic, I’m now approaching the big half century and I’m a freelancer in the aviation industry, having previously served in the RAF. Before joining the OU I had no experience of university level education, having left school at sixteen with a clutch of ‘O’ levels. A trip to Rome reignited my childhood interest in the classical world and I began to read more about it. This was the point at which, with some trepidation, I decided to give the OU a go, over twenty five years since I’d written more than a couple of sentences together, never mind an essay!

The OU humanities gateway module AA100 (The Arts Past and Present) was just great; it still surprises me how much my essay writing developed and improved in just 8 months. After this I worked through the then available Classical Studies modules A219 (Exploring the Classical World), A330 (Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds) and the two Latin courses (now the new A276); all were intriguing, informative and utterly engaging. In A219 we studied Homer and classical Athens – with, among other things, an in depth analysis of the Parthenon – before moving on to the fall of the Roman Republic and Augustan poetry. The Latin courses, while hard work, were very satisfying. Translating book II of the Aeneid – the fall of Troy – was a particular highlight once I had acquired the language skills to do so. In A330 we investigated literary, artistic and political uses of ancient myths; Ovid’s Metamorphoses in particular was well received. It would be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic support I received from all of my tutors; without fail they have been enthusiastic and encouraging, providing timely and constructive feedback on assignments and being readily available to provide help when needed.

So now to my most recent module, A275, and the study of Greek langureadinggreekage and literature. I found this a challenging module, but the excellent materials provided by the OU – coupled with some tenacity on the part of the student – made it more than manageable. One of the first challenges was to master the Greek alphabet, but there is a great free learning aid available to non-students on the OU Classical Studies department website, which also acts as a taster of what the module offers. Those who take up the module are almost spoiled with the amount of textual, audio and visual learning aids provided; CDs provide recordings of many of the Greek exercises, and there is lots of help with the translations of adapted texts. There are also some great websites to aid vocabulary and grammar retention. I used these almost daily in my breaks at work; with language work ten minutes here and there, but often, is a useful learning strategy.

Even students who do not wish to go on and read original Greek texts benefit from the focus on analysing different translations and assessing their merits. The module Socratescan also be tailored to your individual needs; as you progress you can slow down the language learning and invest more time in studying literature in translation if you prefer. The three key texts studied in translation are Euripides’ Medea, Aristophanes’ Clouds and Plato’s Defence of Socrates.These are three pearls of Greek literature; the betrayal and horrific revenge depicted in Medea pushes what it is to be human to the limit. Clouds,with its irreverent and bawdy humour, may not be to every modern reader’s taste, but offers important insights into contemporary views on philosophy and indeed daily life in late fifth-century BC Athens. Plato’s work though, for me, is brilliant artistry; the CD recording which is provided enhances understanding of the text, as with the audio-visual materials for the rest of the module (these include a DVD showing a performance of Medea, and a CD recording of Clouds).

To say that I have enjoyed the last six years would be a gross understatement; investigating and writing about the classical world has given me a much more informed understanding of this fascinating era. It has been difficult at times balancing work and family commitments but somehow I have managed to make the time and meet the deadlines; it is with gratitude that I give my thanks to my patient and encouraging wife. Now onwards to my final year and the new Roman Empire module, A340, which I’m sure will be just as enjoyable as all of the previous ones.

Editor’s note: if you’ve enjoyed reading Ian’s post and would like to know more about Classical Studies courses at the Open University have a look at our departmental pages, where you can find information on our modules as well as a whole range of free taster materials.