Monthly Archives: March 2016

G.I. Jones: Classical Archaeology, Military Balloons, and Early Aerial Photography

In 1898, famed Venetian architect Giacomo Boni was charged with leading new excavations in the Roman Forum (1899-1911) and on the Palatine hill. In order to get aerial photos, Boni enlisted the Italian military’s Brigata Specialisti military balloon, used by the Italian Corps of Engineers. He was amazed at the ability to more accurately draw and map the site from pictures taken 400m off the ground, and in fact took several trips in the balloon before writing his friends eager letters about the adventure.


Photo of Giacomo Boni during the Forum Excavations. Assumedly, he did not excavate in a suit. Photo via Il Primato Nazionale.

The aerial photography taken by Boni helped archaeologists excavating the Forum Romanum to accurately plan the remains of the Forum and to create new, more precise drawings of the area. Below, you can see plans from Il Foro Romano (edited by Prof. Giacomo Boni), and an aerial photograph taken of the site (via Martin Conde’s Flickr page). Turns out that a bird’s eye view was just what archaeologists needed.

ROMA ARCHEOLOGIA - Il Foro Romano ed il Prof. Giacomo Boni:  “Recenti Scorperte nel Foro Romano, da un testimone oculare il Sig. St. Clair Baddeley,” londra (1904) [PDF, pagina 1-216].

Militaries of various countries had been using the benefits provided by balloons since the late 18th century, predominantly for surveillance purposes. Balloons far predated the invention of the camera, and so the first aerial photograph was not taken until 1858 in Bievre, France. The combination of balloons with this new technology was quickly turned to in the planning of the French campaign against the Italians in 1859. The American Civil War of the mid 19th century (1860-1865) was also a notable shift, in that military balloons played a more prominent role in spotting artillery and in gathering intelligence than ever before (Sterling 2008: 13). President Lincoln even created a balloon corps during the war, but ultimately decided against the unit. It turned out that balloons tended to be a target for enemy fire (Bourgeois 2005: 94) and, well, balloons and bullets didn’t mix well.


Founder of the Union Army Balloon Corps, Prof. Thaddeus Lowe, making a balloon ascension on a recon expedition to Vienna, Va (1861)  Photo via the Library of Congress.

Although many consider Stonehenge to be the first use of aerial photography (1906) for archaeological purposes, I think Boni actually beat them to the punch. Whatever the case, archaeology greatly benefited from the invention of this military technology–and this was to be the case for many decades to come.

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Lieutenant Philip Henry Sharpe “Stonehenge as seen from a War Balloon” Photograph: 1906 (taken) 1907 (published). The Society of Antiquaries Magazine. Photo via Luminous-Lint.

The utilization of military technology is something near and dear to my own heart, since the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton: 2000) used military base-maps to build the atlas. As the editor of the atlas, Richard Talbert, stated, “In particular, the (then) Defense Mapping Agency’s Operational Navigation Chart (1:1,000,000) and corresponding Tactical Pilotage Chart (1:500,000) series both offered all but complete coverage of the entire span to be covered by the atlas. Although in the case of both series some of the sheets required are produced by the British Directorate-General of Military Survey, these adhere to U.S. specifications, so that uniformity is maintained” (Talbert 2003: 11). Military maps made the Barrington Atlas possible, and were an early building block for rebuilding the ancient Mediterranean accurately.


From Epi-pens to archaeological drones to cargo pants (okay, maybe that last one is more a detriment than a benefit), military technology has had a great deal of influence on our everyday lives. Archaeologists in particular have benefited not only from the development of cameras for military balloons, but also the creation of Global Positioning System satellites launched by the U.S. Department of Defense in the 90s. Actually, you can thank President Clinton for making the system available to civilians in 1996.  This is a short post to remind us all of the debt we owe military engineers. Archaeologists in particular have benefitted from the military’s continued drive to develop new technology, even if war itself destroys the cultural heritage we hold dear.


Aerial photo of Ostia taken via Google Earth.




Martius Madness: On Manliness, Roman Gambling Laws, and NCAA Brackets

We are in the midst of the NCAA March madness tournament in the U.S., and, as NPR reported, the American Gaming Association boasted more NCAA Brackets than number of votes for the next president. Now, I identify as both a UVa Cavalier and a UNC Tar Heel, and so my entire household was glued to the screen yesterday. As I read through Obama’s yearly bracket (Side bar: He picked Kansas? Over Virginia?  C’mon!), I began to ponder the social function of gambling in antiquity in terms of food, space, and elite constructions of virtus (‘manliness’). I also wanted to explore whether gambling laws have ever really been an effective means of social control.


President Barack Obama fills out his NCAA bracket in the Map Room at the White House. Image via ESPN, Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.

As early as Homer’s Iliad (and likely earlier), people placed bets on sports. In this case, it was on the outcome of the chariot games played during Patroclus’ funeral (Il. 23.485-7). Moreover, as Juvenal’s rather overused term “bread and circuses” demonstrates, there was always a tie between food, gambling, and the “softness” of the masses who indulged in these rather easy pleasures. These are socializing elements: food and sports are paired in history and across people. Anyone who has watched March Madness with a group of people drinking beer and eating Doritos, but supporting different basketball teams, can tell you that it takes a careful negotiation to balance games, alcohol, and friendship successfully. This is why Duke and UNC fans tend to watch games apart from one another, and why circus factions tended to sit in their own sections during ancient games in the hippodrome.

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Attic Black Figure Dinos fragment showing the crowd at the Funeral Games of Patroclus, Sophilos, 580-570 B.C. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 15499.

A famous shop sign from Rome visualizes the tie between food, games, and socializing quite nicely. It has an orthogonal display (12 letters x 3 lines = 36 letters with spelling errors to make it fit the board representation) that first hints graphically at the gaming boards housed inside the tavern. It transmits a menu as a game-board:

(H)abemus in cena(m)
pullum piscem
pernam paonem


“For dinner we have [abemus for habemus] :
chicken, fish
ham, peacock


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What is important to emphasize here are games of chance versus games of skill within the Roman mindset. Betting on sports and games such as alea (a term for various dice games) was a common, yet ultimately mindless endeavor. In other words, it did not take a great deal of skill to bet. Gambling on certain sports or on dice was seen by the elite as a vice of the masses (even if the elite themselves indulged in such vulgar activities on occasion), but more complex mind games that used boards were viewed a bit differently. Well into Late Antiquity, the game-boards outside of the Basilica Julia in Rome focused on games that cultivated the mind, rather than gambling predicated on chance.

Crowds gathered at the Basilica Julia to shop, watch games, and listen to court cases, but the board games played here may have been perceived with more favor (Kalas 2015: 111). Mind games played for money seem to have been more socially acceptable out of doors than games of chance. The more vulgar, socially suspect gambling (e.g., dice) often occurred indoors: in taverns, brothels, and disreputable spaces that commonly served hot food. This is further evidence that legally and in literature, the Roman moral perception of actions often depended on the space within which they happened–was it in the open air of the Forum or in a popina (bar)? In my ancient financial crisis seminar last year, my students learned how to play a number of these ancient games. As I discussed in terms of ancient board game inscriptions, such games could become heated affairs (although an integral part of Roman social life).


Game board on the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum that read ‘oraculo’ (Photo by Roger Ulrich, via Flickr. CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0).


A Roman game-board from the Basilica Julia in Rome. Image via Wikimedia.

Much like American legislation, Roman laws often enshrined and perpetuated an elite ideal that cast gambling as predominantly bad. That is, unless it involved a sport seen as masculine. The Lex Alearia was written before 204 BCE. It prohibited dice games altogether. Later, Sulla’s Lex Cornelia de aleatoribus (81 BCE) declared bets valid only in the case of games that involved virtus (manliness). Two excerpts from the 6th c. CE Digest of Justinian tell us more about what types of games these actually were. The 2nd-3rd c. CE jurist Paulus states that it was seen as okay to bet on running, jumping, boxing, wrestling and throwing of the javelins for the sake of virtus (Dig. Senatus consultum vetuit in pecuniam ludere, praeterquam si quis certet hasta vel pilo iaciendo vel currendo saliendo luctando pugnando quod virtutis causa fiat.). Marcianus then states that the leges Cornelia, Publicia, and Titia established this list of manly events (basically, most of the events from the Olympics) (Dig. 11.5.3: ‘In quibus rebus ex lege titia et publicia et cornelia etiam sponsionem facere licet: sed ex aliis, ubi pro virtute certamen non fit, non licet.‘). The manliness of a sport made it more socially acceptable to Romans, and betting on them was seen as less degrading.

Even food came into play in these laws. The Lex Alearia may have had provisions that said that people could only bet during meal times or Saturnalia. As Jerry Toner has pointed out about this legislation, the laws were themselves rarely enforced and the aediles (public officials) tasked with overseeing the gaming houses could do little to stop rampant gambling. As usual, law was used to project an elite ideal, and did not reflect the social reality. Toner notes, “Gambling, it is clear, was not just part of the ’emotional glue’ which brought the crowd together, it also divided them into factions, and thus framed and shaped the context of the game itself” (Toner 1995: 94; Cf. Hopkins 1983: 26). I’d say the same for March Madness pools, which, as many have pointed out, are technically illegal.

Many of the laws on gambling changed under the rule of Justinian (527-565 CE). Edicts from 529 (CJ 3.43.1-2) attempted to curb gambling, particularly games involving dice. It was these games that led to financial ruin, in the emperor’s eyes. Justinian returned to ancient ideas of manliness by encouraging bishops to organize traditional games for betting: “They shall further arrange for five games; leaping, pole-vaulting, throwing javelins or pikes, wrestling and show fighting” (CJ 3.43.1. trans. Blume).  As Suzanne Faris has pointed out about Justinian’s policy in the mid 6th c. CE, Justinian had a vested interest in cracking down on gambling:

(1) In order to protect the assets of tax-paying individuals who were depended on for things like curial service
(2) Out of public morality concerns
(3) A wish to modify the moral behavior of clerics
(Faris 2012: 199).

The power for enforcement was notably shifted from the aediles over to the bishops. It was now clerics who had the power to oversee and enforce such gambling laws.


Bronze Roman dice in the form of squatting figures (1st-2nd c. CE, Roman. Image via the British Museum. 1975,1103.1).


Closeup of a bronze dice in the form of a squatting figure. Photo via the British Museum. Museum number 1975,1103.1

What these laws show us is that gambling played a big part in everyday life in ancient Rome. Just like today, the economy of sports gambling in antiquity incorporated both the rich and the poor. Moreover, much like NCAA brackets office pools, the enforcement of sports wagers often fell outside the purview of the legal system. Sports were then, as now, inextricably linked to notions of what it means to be a man. Consequently, exceptions were made for betting on the sports viewed as integral to the development of young men and the cultivation of manliness. The social good and popularity of the sport lent the gambling a veneer of respectability. Similarly, today we turn a blind eye to the pervasive betting on the NCAA tournament, but we often feel very differently about games of chance played in casinos.


Faris, Suzanne B. “Changing Public Policy and the Evolution of Roman Civil and Criminal Law on Gambling,” UNLV Gaming Law Journal 3 (Fall 2012): 199-219.

Kalas, Gregor. 2015. The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity: Transforming public space. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Purcell, Nicholas. 1995. “Literate Games: Roman Urban Society and the Game of Alea”. Past & Present, no. 147. [Oxford University Press, Past and Present Society]: 3–37. JSTOR

Toner, J. P. 1995. Leisure and Ancient Rome. Cambridge [England]: Polity Press.




Epigraphy Enchiridion: A List of Open Access Books for Teaching Greek and Roman Inscriptions

A famous funerary epigram now at the British Museum (IG XIV, 2131) and dating to the second century CE has a skeleton lying in repose. It reads:

“Who can say, passerby, looking on a fleshless corpse, whether it was Hylas (i.e., a beautiful youth) or Thersites (i.e., a bow-legged, ugly man)?”


I first learned about this inscription in a Greek epigraphy class at Duke University taught by Kent Rigsby. We were told to make a lemma of publications for each inscription, and I vividly remember tracking down the 1917 guide to inscriptions at the British Museum. Prof. Rigsby is emeritus from Duke now, but he still edits the open access journal Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies.  In the spirit of open access, his epigraphy class had no central textbook and cost us almost nothing in terms of materials. It was largely based on reprints, open access materials, and good old fashioned leg work in the library. For new epigraphers today, there are still some splendid textbooks one can buy–for a price–but also a wealth of old epigraphy manuals, guides, and anthologies that still have value. They are largely available via the open access HathiTrust digital library. 



A guide to the common ligatures (=conjoining letters to save space) in Latin inscriptions [Egbert 1896].

As any English major or mixed tape wizard will tell you, anthologies are indeed an art form unto themselves. Certainly these manuals indicate which inscriptions were important at which times. I have listed just a few of them here (largely ones in English), but this is but a sampling of the genre. Please add more in the comments section below, and I will be sure to post the entirety of the list on the website (pending executive board approval, of course).

Epigraphic Editing Standards 

(1969) Sterling Dow, “Conventions in Editing” [PDF via GRBS]

Early Christian Epigraphy

(1878) J. Spencer Northcote, Epitaphs of the Catacombs, or, Christian inscriptions in Rome during the first four centuries. 

(1912) Orazio Marucchi, Christian Epigraphy.

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The “Alphabets of Italy” [Egbert 1896, 22]

Latin Epigraphy 

(1893) G. Rushforth, Latin Historical Inscriptions Illustrating the History of the Early Empire.

(1896): James C. Egbert, Introduction to the study of Latin inscriptions

(1897) W.M. Lindsay, Handbook of Latin inscriptions, illustrating the history of the language, by W. M. Lindsay.

(1898):  René Cagnat, Cours d’épigraphie latine

(1915)  Henry Bartlett Van Hoesen, Roman Cursive Writing 

(1927): John Edwin Sandys, Latin Epigraphy: An Introduction to the Study of Latin Inscriptions

(1935) George N. Olcott, Thesaurus linguae latinae epigraphicae; A dictionary of the Latin inscriptions. 

(1957) Joyce S. and Arthur E. Gordon, Contributions to the Paleography of Latin Inscriptions 

Greek Epigraphy

(1882) E.L. Hicks, A Manual of Greek Historical Inscriptions

(1898) Helen M. Searles, A Lexicographical Study of the Greek Inscriptions.

(1901) E.L. Hicks and G.F. Hill, A Manual of Greek Historical Inscriptions

(1910) Carl D. Buck, Introduction to the Study of the Greek dialects; Grammar, selected inscriptions, glossary. 

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[Hicks and Hill, “Notanda,” xxxiii] This is a page from Hicks and Hill’s 1901 guide to Greek numerical and monetary signs in inscriptions.

Museum Catalogues with Instructive Guides: 

(1900) Lucio Mariani, National Museum of Rome in the Baths of Diocletian.

(1917)  Guide to the select Greek and Roman Inscriptions : Exhibited in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the British Museum.


(1899) George Francis Hill, A Handbook of Greek and Roman Coins 

Open Access and Instructive Articles: 

Rebecca Benefiel, “The Inscriptions of the Aqueducts of Rome: The Ancient Period,” The Waters of Rome 1 (2001).

Tom Elliott, “Epigrapher’s Bookshelf,”

Francisco Beltrán Lloris, “Latin Epigraphy: The main types of inscriptions,” in Ch. Bruun and J. Edmonson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy (Oxford — New York: 2015), 89-110.

Non-Open Access Lists with the Modern Epigraphy Handbooks Listed: 

Sara Saba, Gil H. Renberg, “Greek Epigraphy”. In Oxford Bibliographies in Classics, (accessed 10-Mar-2016).

Gil H. Renberg, Sara Saba, “Latin Epigraphy”. In Oxford Bibliographies in Classics, (accessed 10-Mar-2016).

Other Non-Open Access Epigraphy Handbooks (Just go to the library!): 

John Bodel (ed.), Epigraphic Evidence: Ancient History from Inscriptions (London and New York, 2001).

Alison E. Cooley (ed.), The Afterlife of Inscriptions: Reusing, Rediscovering, Reinventing and Revitalizing Ancient Inscriptions (London, 2000).

______ The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy (Cambridge: 2012).

Arthur E. Gordon, Illustrated Introduction to Latin Epigraphy (Berkeley: 1983).

Graham J. Oliver (ed.), The Epigraphy of Death: Studies in the History and Society of Greece and Rome (Liverpool: 2000).

B.H. McLean, An introduction to Greek Epigraphy of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods from Alexander the Great down to the Reign if Constantine (323 B.C.-A.D. 337). (Ann Arbor: 2002).

Times New Roman: Classical Inscriptions, Epigraphy Hunters, and Renaissance Fonts

The Renaissance (ca. 1330-1600) is often remembered for its revival of Classical literature. Modern books like The Swerve celebrate the Renaissance era book hunters such as Poggio Bracciolini, who travelled to hidden monasteries in search of Latin manuscripts of Virgil or Cicero, and uncovered lost works, such as Lucretius’ De rerum naturaHowever, the Renaissance was also a time for rediscovering Latin and Greek inscriptions from classical antiquity. The famed Bracciolini not only found new literary works, he also transcribed the myriad Latin inscriptions he encountered on his journeys. Both newly discovered and long-known inscriptions served to inspire the new fonts used in printing presses in Western Europe, to play into the cultural battles waged by the Church during the Counter Reformation, and to inspire a number of forgeries of classical objects. Above all, the epigraphic Renaissance of the 15th century helped shape a new typographic landscape that we continue to traverse today.

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Poggio Bracciolini’s, Collectio in scriptorium veterum (ca. 1430). From the SLU Libraries’ summary: “Originally owned by Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459); autograph manuscript. On fol. 29r, a line drawing by Poggio of an ancient Roman monument with an inscription.” Image via Saint Louis University Libraries. 


One of the best known of these inscriptions resides on the so-called Chimaera of Arezzo, which dates to around 400 BCE. It was discovered near the Porta San Lorentino in the ancient Etruscan city of Arretium (Italy) in the year 1553. On the Chimaera’s right foreleg is inscribed ‘TINSCVIL’ (“for Tinia”), a dedicatory inscription addressing the head Etruscan god, Tinia. The Chimaera was itself a mythical beast that fused numerous animals together: A Lycian lion that breathed fire, with a serpent tail and usually a goat mixed in. After the bronze sculpture was unearthed, the Etruscan statue was added to the collection of Cosimo de’ Medici and placed in his grand palazzo in Florence. Today it resides in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence.


The Chimaera of Arezzo (detail with inscription “tinścvil”), ca. 400 B.C.E. (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence). Image via Khan Academy. 


Manuscript page by Alfonso Chacón (1540–1599): (left) Latin and Etruscan alphabets; (right) right front leg of the Chimaera of Arezzo with the retrograded Etruscan inscription. Getty Research Institute, inv. no. 840005B. Images from the AJA Online Review of The Chimaera of Arezzo.

The discovery of the Chimaera of Arezzo (interactive display HERE) enthralled a number of artists, such as Alfonso Chacón. Chacón was a 16th c. Spanish humanist who worked in Rome and drew, transcribed, and recorded hundreds of Roman antiquities and their inscriptions in his work, De antiquitatibus Romani. His 1582 drawing of the Chimaera reveals a personal fascination with not only the paw of the sculpture, but also the Etruscan alphabet inscribed on it. To the left of the transcription, he wrote out the Latin alphabet in his own print, and then shows the parallels in the Etruscan alphabet side-by-side. His engagement with the inscription was part of a wider, more popular interest in manuscripts (i.e., scripts written by hand) that had grown since the invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century.


Cyriac of Ancona’s drawing of the Carvings at the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Merbaka. Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r. Image via

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Compare with the relief of the carvings at Merbaka today.

Epigraphy and lapidary scripts became a fascination for Catholics involved in the counter Reformation as well. One of the foremost Renaissance epigraphers was Antonio Bosio (1575-1629), who drew and then published a number of epitaphs pulled from the newly rediscovered Roman catacombs (Mazzoleni 2014). These inscriptions put the antiquity of Christianity on display, gave a voice to ancient Christians, and–at least to viewers–served to validate the association of the catacombs with Christianity and martyrdom.

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One of the early Christian “good shepherd” inscriptions now at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. Photo via the author. It is available at my Flickr Page.


A fold-out map of the catacombs of San Callisto from Bosio’s Roma Sotterranea (1650), with recorded catacomb epitaph to the left of the map. Image via the KNIR Special Collections.

The Renaissance was chockablock with copyists who learned and then duplicated Latin epigraphic scripts for various purposes. This imitation game had a great amount of influence on the Renaissance antiquities market at the time (forgeries could be bought all over Italy), but it is also revealed in the fonts we use today–particularly Roman fonts. The invention of fonts by various printers and typesetters in the 15th and 16th centuries was often inspired by lapidary inscriptions from the catacombs or pulled from manuscripts recording antique stones. After all, these inscriptions were increasingly displayed in the houses of the Roman elite, by popes, in churches, and in newly established museums.

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Epigraphic fakes displayed at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. Photo by the author. The image is via my Flickr Page.

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The typeface of Nicolas Jenson in his 1470 edition of Eusebius (Newberry Library. inc. 4066). Image via the Newberry Library.

Printers began to compete to create fonts that evoked classical antiquity while upholding the aesthetic ideals of symmetry and beauty. One of these printers was Nicolas Jenson, who lived in Venice and produced an edition of Eusebius’ De evangelica praeparatione in 1470 that was celebrated for its readability and close approximation to classical lapidary inscriptions. The Renaissance architectural ideals of symmetry and proportion were similarly expressed in new typescripts.

Although computer fonts have changed since those used in the Renaissance, remnants of the influence of epigraphic scripts on typographers remains today. The famed Times New Roman font was not invented until 1931 or 1932, by Stanley Morison for the London Times. The font drew on Renaissance fonts that had, in part, used classical inscriptions as models. However, other modern fonts that imitate ancient scripts have not been as successful. For instance! Ask any papyrologist or epigrapher working today, and they will likely tell you that they hate the font ‘papyrus.’ Every poster for a talk on ancient Egypt since its invention has had that damned font imprinted on it since about 1982, and it really is overplayed. However, its attempt to tie epigraphy, culture, and legitimacy together is much the same as the Roman fonts invented during the Renaissance. One of my favorite sites is ‘’, which mocks (among many others) the movie Avatar for trying to make the Na’vi language more authentic and antique by using subtitles that employ the papyrus font. Nice try, James Cameron, but font alone cannot legitimize a language or a piece of writing.


How ancient historians view the use of papyrus font on posters and in the movie Avatar. We beg you: Please abandon this font. Image via

The field of digital epigraphy today is about more than just translating and transcribing inscriptions and posting them online. It is still an art form, I swear! As modern typographers attempt to translate epigraphic scripts into digital scripts, they must also work hard to preserve the ligatures, symbols, character, and aesthetic feel of an inscription or a papyrus. Only then can we truly recreate the experience of viewing an inscription digitally when a picture is no longer available or accessible. The creation of epigraphic fonts like Dumbarton Oaks’ 2013 Athena Ruby Inscription Font demonstrates how challenging, but also how necessary it is to understand the material source before you try and translate it to a digital canvas. Epigraphy hunters traveling around Europe during the Renaissance grappled with how to draw ancient inscriptions, typographers struggled with how to translate it into print for new readers, and now digital epigraphers must try and capture the beauty of Greco-Roman inscriptions online for a new generation of Renaissance men and women to enjoy.



Athena Ruby Inscription Font. Dumbarton Oaks’ OpenType font for Byzantine inscriptions. Available HERE.


Further Reading:

Silvia Orlandi, Maria Letizia Caldelli, and Gian Luca Gregori, “Forgeries and Fakes,” in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy (Oxford: 2015): 42-65.

Michael J. Waters, “Francesco di Giorgio and the Reconstruction of Antiquity: Epigraphy, archeology, and newly discovered drawings” Pegasus – Berliner Beiträge zum Nachleben der Antike 16 (2014) : 9–102.