Researching the underside of ancient culture: the archaeology of humour

After a B.A. in Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology and a Masters degree in classical archaeology at Strasbourg in France, I obtained a D.Phil in Classical Archaeology from Oxford University.

I lectured and tutored at the universities of Oxford and Reading in the UK and gave various courses as a guest lecturer over the years at the university of Fribourg in Switzerland. Greek Vase Painting and the Origins of Visual Humour (2009, 2012) was published by Cambridge University Press, New York. My current research focuses on Classical Greek and Roman reception in editorial cartoons since the turn of the 20th century published in British and American newspapers (and in a large choice of European newspapers).

I founded  Expressum, a Brussels-based translation agency (formerly in London) specialising in French and English translations of conference papers and scientific articles written in classical and medieval studies. I am also member of various international associations and an Associated Researcher at the university of  Fribourg | ERC Locus Ludi

The Archaeology of humour is the concept that underlies my past and current research projects. My interests lie in popular visual culture and the study of humour from antiquity to the present day. There are three main areas of research: The reception of antiquity, the history of medicine in antiquity and ancient visual humour.  

1. (2010-now) The reception of classical concepts, myth and art in editorial cartoons.

Photograph © Alexandre G. Mitchell.

Democracy and popular media: the reception of classical myths, ideas, imagery, events and statesmen in political cartoons from the turn of the 20th century to the present day

There is much debate, even outside of the “classics world”, on who reads classics, whether it is only of interest to the elites of this world, or whether it is useful to non-specialists. There is however a huge and uncharted territory which has been overlooked by most classicists: the world of editorial cartoons. They are very accessible, challenging and mass-produced, in numerous languages and throughout the world.

Indeed, what should we make of the many thousands of editorial cartoons in popular and prominent newspapers, propaganda leaflets, from the 19th century to this day, which make classical references, which use (and abuse) Greek and Roman visual myths, events or statesmen, to mock current affairs? Printed newspapers and online papers have grown exponentially in recent years, and their readership has increased not only in numbers but also in popularity, encompassing readers from all social horizons. Newspapers thrive in democracies.

This project, supported by a very large and growing database of political cartoons with classical references, includes mainly publications from most European countries, the USA and Canada, but also some random finds from more “exotic” countries (e.g. Singapore). The many cartoons mocking the ancient world are not considered in this project: only those using the ancient world to comment on current affairs.

There needs to be a move, stronger than ever to study “popular”; art forms, maybe part of what we call media today (theatre, films, documentaries, comics, art, visual and verbal humour, poetics, political rhetoric; new media such as the internet) to tap in the immense reservoir of references to the classical world and understand better both our own categories of thought, and our special relationship with Greek and Roman antiquity.

Research output: a series of articles (2010; In Press; In Preparation); 2-3 monographs on the topic (In preparation); 5 conference papers; a database.

2. (2010-now) The history of medicine, Roman terracotta and the function of pathological grotesques.

Photograph © Alexandre G. Mitchell.

The meaning and function of ancient grotesque terracotta figurines has been debated since the time of Charcot and Regnault, who first “diagnosed” a pathological inspiration in the grotesquely deformed bodies of terracotta statuettes found by the thousands in various archaeological excavations of the Mediterranean and dating from the 3rd century B.C.E. to the 3rd century A.D. Yet the iconography of these grotesque terracotta figurines is extremely complex to pinpoint with any certitude.

There are three main spheres of interpretation: visual humour, theatrical imagery, and specific “portraits” of known pathologies. Their function may have been to amuse, to avert evil, as a memento of comic plays, or even for medical study. These grotesque figurines often lack an archaeological context to be fully understood, which is a little like diagnosing a patient over the telephone.

An interdisciplinary research project between the history of medicine and archaeology. With the collaboration of Prof. L. Lorusso, Clinical neurologist, in Chiari, Italy and Dr. Celso Zappalà, Obstetrician Gynaecologist, Torino, Italy.

Research output: 3 articles ; 4 conference papers.

3. (1999-now) Visual humour in Ancient Greece.

Photograph © Alexandre G. Mitchell.

This project which began in 1999 as a D.Phil focussed largely on comic images in ancient Greek vase-painting, a relatively neglected subject at the time.  It involved analysing images on over 40.000 Greek vases stored in over 30 European museums, and carrying out a reconnaissance survey in and around the Kabirion Sanctuary, Thebes (Greece). I also carried out a systematic analysis of the entire Beazley archive and the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. I worked at the Beazley Archive during my D.Phil and for another year and a half as a full-time researcher for the CVA project. This research resulted in an extensive database, the foundation of my D.Phil, articles and a monograph. I drew many vases during that period, including over a hundred vectorised line-drawings of vase paintings.

The Research questions focused on identifying visual humour in ancient Greece (mainly Athens and Boeotia), from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C., through unchanged mechanisms/genres (surprise, parody, caricature, situation comedy); and comparing each comic image to a series of ‘usual’ or ‘serious’ representations. The decorated Greek vases are found in the hundreds of thousands, and depict minute details of everyday life and mythology. They also mock many aspects of social and political life, as well as the religious and the mythological spheres; they offer a humorous perspective on popular subjects such as women, foreigners, workers, peasants, poliadic and Dionysian cult (in Attica but also in Boeotia: a chapter of  Mitchell In Press 2009 concerns the Kabirion Sanctuary near Thebes) and democracy. The study enabled me to establish certain patterns within painters’ workshops, where certain painters seem to almost specialise in comic scenes. A principal contention was that the products were relatively cheap to produce and purchase, and that because they were made by artisans for the market rather than for a patron, they exhibited a freedom of expression which was lacking in most other patronised art forms of the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C. Just as Aristophanic comedies provide insights into general trends in Greek culture — to win democratically at the yearly dramatic competitions a playwright had to offer something to please most citizens — Greek vases were aimed at universal appeal, or in other words, at being purchased! Humour was a powerful marketing tool in ancient Athens just as it is today in modern advertising .On the one hand, I interpret the comic images on the ancient Greek vases as reflections of general public sentiments rather than those of the intellectual elite, and on the other, I argue that the artists who produced them enjoyed a freedom of expression which was a direct outcome of the new democratic rule.

Research output: Oxford D.Phil 2002, a series of articles (2000, 2004, 2007) a monograph (Cambridge University Press 2009), and a number of invited lectures.

Greek Vase Painting and the Origins of Visual humour, Cambridge / New York: Cambridge University Press 2009 (2012 paperback, 2013 ebook)

This book is a comprehensive study of visual humour in ancient Greece, with special emphasis on works created in Athens and Boeotia. Alexandre Mitchell brings an interdisciplinary approach to this topic, combining theories and methods of art history, archaeology, and classics with the anthropology of humour, and thereby establishing new ways of looking at art and visual humour in particular. Understanding what visual humour was to the ancients and how it functioned as a tool of social cohesion is only one facet of this study. Mitchell also focuses on the social truths that his study of humour unveils: democracy and freedom of expression, politics and religion, Greek vases and trends in fashion, market-driven production, proper and improper behaviour, popular versus elite culture, carnival in situ, and the place of women, foreigners, workers, and labourers within the Greek city. Richly illustrated with more than 140 drawings and photographs, as well as with analytical tables of comic representations according to different themes, painters, and techniques, this study amply documents the comic representations that formed an important part of ancient Greek visual language from the 6th through 4th centuries BC.

Read a selection of international scientific reviews

PUBLICATIONS (2000-2022)

2022
Perikles Christodoulou – Alexandre G. Mitchell (eds.), When Walls Talk! Posters – Promotion, Propaganda and Protest. Temporary exhibition catalogue, House of European History, Brussels. Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union, 248 p. | web

Perikles Christodoulou – Alexandre G. Mitchell, “Ideological struggles and armed conflict”, in Perikles Christodoulou – Alexandre G. Mitchell (eds.), When Walls Talk! Posters – Promotion, Propaganda and ProtestTemporary exhibition catalogue, House of European History, Brussels. Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union, p. 89-95.

(in press) “Le phallus comme objet et véhicule d’humour dans la peinture de vases attique”, in Archimède. Archéologie et histoire ancienne. Numéro spécial, The Phallus in all its Glory.

(in press) “Montrer la laideur dans une société tournée vers la beauté : caricature, anxiétés et culture populaire d’après les vases grecs figurés du 6e au 4e siècles avant J.-C.”, Valérie Huet (éd.), Caricature et Laideur, CRBC, Brest, 2022.

(in preparation), “The Greek crisis (2010-2016) in the hands of European cartoonists: Use and abuse of Classical Greece to address current affairs”, Antike Welt

2021 “Visual Humour on Greek Vases (550-350 BC): Three Approaches to the Ambivalence of Ugliness in Popular Culture”, in Daniel Derrin and Hannah Burrows (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Humour, History, and Methodology, Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp. 175-200.| read here

2018
“Les handicaps et malformations à l’époque de Galien”, in Au temps de Galien, catalogue de l’expostion, Musée Royal de Mariemont, pp. 155-161. | read here

2016
“Classical reception in Lysistrata posters: the visual debate between traditional and feminist imagery”, in P. Walsh (ed.), Brill’s Companion to the reception of Aristophanes, Brill, pp. 331-368. | read here

“The Hellenistic turn in bodily representations: venting anxiety in terracotta figurines”, in C. Laes (ed.), Disability in Antiquity, Oxford: Routledge, chapter 13. | read here

“Drôles de vases grecs”, L’Histoire, Mai 2016, no.423, pp. 72-75. | read here

2015
“Humor, women, and male anxieties in ancient Greek visual culture”, in A. Foka, J. Liliequist (eds.), Laughter, Humor, and the (Un)Making of Gender, Historical and Cultural Perspectives, Brill, pp. 214-240. | read here

2014
“La caricatura nell’ antichità”, L. Lorusso, E. Fazzi (éds.), Il sorriso della mente, la caricatura nella storia delle neuroscienze, Edizioni Santa Caterina, Pavia, pp. 13-31. | read here

“Greek Visual Humor”, in S. Attardo (éd.), Encyclopedia of Humor Studies: A Social History, Sage Publications, pp. 271-275.

2013
“Democracy and popular media. Classical receptions in 19th to 21st centuries political cartoons: statesmen, mythological figures and celebrated artworks”, in L. Hardwick, S. J. Harrison (éds), Classics in the Modern World: A ‘Democratic Turn ?, Oxford, pp. 319-349. | read here

“Disparate bodies in ancient artefacts : the function of caricature and pathological grotesques among Roman terracotta figurines”, in C. Laes (éd.), Disparate Bodies “A Capite ad Calcem” in Ancient Rome, Leiden, pp. 275-297. | read here

2010
“Grotesque terracotta in the Greco-Roman world: the role of caricature in visual humour, of theatrical masks in the realm of Comedy and of portraits of deformity in ancient medical centres”, Rivista Italiana di Neurobiologia.

2008
‘Greek gods and mortals’, Wace, R. (ed.). In our own image. Gods and mortals in ancient art. London. | web | pdf

2007
‘Ancient Greek visual puns: a case study visualhumor’; in Attardo, S. and Popa, D. (eds.). New Approaches to the linguistics of humor. Academic Printing House of Dunarea de Jos, Univ. of Galati (Rumenia). | read here

2005
‘www.beazley.ox.ac.uk’, in Lambrakis, A, Lezine,V. (eds.), État de la publication scientifique dans le domaine de l’archéologie, des arts et traditions populaires: [actes de colloque], 20-22 février 2004, Athènes. Athens: Αρχαιολογία και Τέχνες. | web

2004
‘Humour in Greek vase-painting’, Revue Archéologique, fasc.2, pp. 3-32.|summary | read here

2002
Comic pictures in Greek vase-painting: humour in the polis and the Dionysian world, in the sixth and the fifth centuries B.C. D.Phil Thesis, University of Oxford.

2000
‘Une outre outrée: parodie et jeu iconographique à propos d’une coupe de Leipzig’, KTEMA 25, pp. 115-122. | read here

BOOK REVIEWS

2022

(in preparation) Anne Gangloff, Valérie Huet, Christophe Vendries (eds.), La notion de caricature dans l’Antiquité. Textes et images. Préface de François Lissarague, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2021. 24 × 15,5 cm, 232 p., 8 pl., fig., 24 €, ISBN 978-2-7535-8043-5. Latomus

2017
Dorota Dutsch, Ann Suter (éds.), Ancient Obscenities, Their Nature and Use in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2015. 1 vol., 366 p., 14 ill. ISBN 978-0-472-11964-6. Antiquité Classique

2010
Walsh, D. (2009). Distorted Ideals in Greek Vase-Painting. The World of Mythological Burlesque, C.U.P. 2009’ Classical Review 60.2 | read here

2008
Clarke, J. (2007). Looking at Laughter (100 B.C.- A.D. 250). Berkeley: University of California Press. Bryn Mawr Classical Review September 2008, no. 55. | read here