Stephen Tracy: The Origin of the Center for Epigraphical and Palaeographical Studies

The Origin of the Center for Epigraphical Studies at Ohio State University

by Stephen Tracy
Founder and First Director

I first had the idea of creating a research center to support the study of Greek and Latin texts inscribed on stone in the mid-1970’s.  There were two motivating principles behind this.  First was my strongly held conviction of the importance of inscriptions as a primary source for study of the ancient Mediterranean.  Inscriptions, after all, preserve writing from the past.  In contrast to ancient authors, such as Homer and Vergil, whose texts have often been copied repeatedly and are handed down to us on manuscripts that are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years removed from the author, inscriptions are the autograph.  The writing on them is ancient and brings the reader into direct contact with the time when they were written.  Moreover, nearly every inscription of any size preserves new information about the ancient world, even if only the name of a person.  They thus throw light on many aspects of ancient Greek and Roman culture.  Second was my concern that, as universities become increasingly enamored of areas that they perceive as relevant and useful, ancillary disciplines like the study of inscriptions are likely to receive less and less attention.  There was, thus, a real need for a research center dedicated to support work on Greek and Latin inscriptions.

During the 1970’s and 80’s, as I expanded my researches on ancient letter cutters, I also worked slowly on bringing a center for the study of inscriptions into being.  I had at that point amassed a collection of over a thousand squeezes of Athenian inscriptions and there was a clear need for a place to house them.  A. Geoffrey Woodhead, in the meantime, had been coming to the department as a visiting professor on a regular basis.  He taught mostly Thucydides for us, but was the editor for many years of the Supplement Epigraphicum Graecum (SEG), an annual compendium of scholarly work in Greek epigraphy, and was well-known for his work on Greek inscriptions.  He warmly supported my plans for a center.   Other colleagues in the departments of Classics and History, in particular Charles Babcock and Jack Balcer, came on board.  The department enjoyed the esteem of the College of Humanities and I developed a good relationship with the office of research in the Graduate School.  I began the process of interesting donors in supporting the effort.  Mr. Paul Watkins, head of the Student Book Exchange, was an early and generous supporter.

About 1984, the Department of Classics was persuaded to set aside an office/seminar room in University Hall at the far end of what is now the graduate student offices and a fledgling center came into being.   My squeezes, books and offprints formed the core holdings at that time.  In the meantime, I worked on acquiring Sterling Dow’s books, papers and squeezes and Charles Babcock secured Arthur E. Gordon’s many Latin squeezes and photographs.  In addition, Geoffrey Woodhead pledged his offprint collection to the Center.  As editor of SEG he had acquired a very large collection, most sent to him by scholars who wished their work to be included in this annual reference work.  This was especially true of East European scholars, whose work otherwise would not have been known in the west.  These activities, particularly our initial successes at gathering research material and fund raising, not to mention the support from the Department, College and Graduate School, led the Board of Trustees of the University on September 5, 1986 to establish the Center for Epigraphical Studies.

The Center continued to be housed in cramped quarters in University Hall, but planning went ahead in expectation that a suitable space, i.e. offices and a library/seminar, would eventually be found.  During the late 1980’s, my continuing scholarly work in the field garnered me two signal honors, namely the award of a yearlong fellowship for 1987/88 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the next year recognition from Ohio State as a University Distinguished Scholar.  Perhaps most important, my contacts with David W. Packard, who had been a fellow graduate student at Harvard, led in 1988 to an invitation to join the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) project to create a digital data base of all published Greek inscriptions.  David contributed special computers for the project and the money to pay staff.  This has been and continues to be the most significant ongoing project of the Center.

It was about at this time, September of 1988, that we were awarded a fine space for the Center in what became its home at 190 Pressey Hall on the West Campus.  Renovations to the space and the move of books, papers, etc. from the department and main library took considerable time and we were not able to actually open until the end of September of 1989.   While I did much in this phase, mostly fund raising and gathering materials, the strong success of the Center in its early years owed most to the organizational skills of Wendy Watkins, the first curator, to Thomas Loening, the first director of the PHI project, and to graduate assistant Philip Forsythe.  The Center was officially inaugurated on April 17, 1990.  My colleague and good friend Christian Habicht, Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, gave the opening address entitled “Athens in the Hellenistic Period 323-30 BC.”  After the talk we hosted a well-attended opening reception and tour of the Center.

St. Augustine, Florida

June 27, 2018