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Image of the street Agias Sofias, Thessaloniki (photo by the author)

“A difficult workday lies ahead,” comes the muted voice of the taxi driver as he expertly winds through the narrow backstreets of Thessaloniki. I laugh encouragingly as the heat is already starting to be too much; it’s 8:00 am and already the thermometer is pointing at 27 degrees Celsius. Though it is still May, summer seems to have arrived earlier, as if unable to hold back from taking spring’s place. Still, I feel a little guilty as we drive through the sunny streets. Our destination is the Archaeological Museum, and I cannot help but feel excited to start my workday. With a warm send-off from the Thessaloniki native, I thank the driver and make my way to the study room of the museum, my bags heavy but my step light and eager. I am greeted enthusiastically by the archaeologists who help get me settled and cannot wait to get to work. When the conservator brings the materials to the study room, I barely stifle the squeal of anticipation that rises to my throat. It’s like I’m a five-year-old in a candy shop…

Thessaloniki is the third stop in my pursuit of studying the archaeological assemblages which yielded the Orphic Gold tablets. Volos is next, followed by Athens and Vibo Valentia, Italy. As the Neda and Franz Leipen graduate fellow for the year 2021-2022, I know how precious my time in Greece is for my studies. This year has been instrumental in shaping the direction of my work and the nuance which my PhD thesis requires. It has also allowed me to connect with other classicists and archaeologists of the Mediterranean. The people I have met during my time at the Canadian Institute have all been exceptional in their professionalism and warm demeanor. With many I have formed friendships and from all I have learned a lot about what it means to work in this field. These are connections which I will treasure for the rest of my life.

My workstation in Thessaloniki (photo by the author)

In addition, the impact my stay has had on my work has been invaluable. Having the opportunity to travel to the museums which house the material under examination for my thesis has proven instrumental. Already I have formulated questions and working theories which I most likely would not have thought about had I not personally examined the archaeological evidence. Indeed, the deceased woman from Pelinna in Thessaly may not just be any Orphic initiate but a priestess. At the very least, she may have been thought to perform the initiation of her also deceased infant baby, judging by the shape of the Orphic tablets found in her grave and their placement on her chest area. The deceased woman from Methone in Pieria may have been a retired priestess of Dionysos judging by a depiction on an ivory plaque of an older looking maenad. Old maenads are not a common motif in Dionysian imagery and the placement of such a decoration on the funerary bier of the deceased could enrich our understanding of bacchic cult more broadly. The tablet from her grave appears to have been poured over something during its manufacture as its edges curve slightly backwards; was this placed on the initiate’s lips or was it placed upon a thin but sturdy material as it was engraved?

The tablets from Pharsalos and Pherai (photo by the author)

The two tablets in Volos from Pharsalos and Pherai also yielded new questions about their creation as one seems to have been made with silver (Pharsalos) while the other (Pherai) with bronze (or some other warm-toned metal used as a flux to help shape and work the gold; unfortunately, the tablet from Pherai will not be a part of the present study as its archaeological assemblage is unknown). The Pharsalos tablet’s coloring is cooler, while the Pherai tablet’s is warmer, a trait more easily visible with the naked eye, as I came to observe.

The Bull’s Eye achieved by yours truly

Aside from having the opportunity to formulate interesting questions regarding my thesis topic, I also enjoyed participating in the life of the Canadian Institute. Indeed, I was a part of numerous activities hosted by the Institute ranging from lectures to tours of the art pieces currently housed in the new location on Orminiou 3 and movie nights. The new facilities are versatile and can cater to a plethora of events keeping up with the Institute’s vibrant cultural activity. To say I am thankful to have been a part of such events is an understatement. But that which stuck with me the most was the warm welcome and easy company of the members of the Institute. To be able to meet up with them for darts every Tuesday at the Red Lion Pub was truly the highlight of each week. I importantly was able to hone my dart-throwing skills this year; the rest was a happy coincidence.

Katerina Apokatanidis
Neda and Franz Leipen Fellow, 2021-2022