Undergraduate travel reports 2021-22
Univ offers a range of travel grants and scholarships available to assist our students – both undergraduate and graduate – in funding fieldwork and other trips linked to their studies. As we approach the end of the calendar year we look back here to celebrate a small selection of our undergraduate travel reports.
We hope you enjoy them…
Alexandria to Luxor
Aurelia Aslangul (2018, Bachelor of Arts in Literae Humaniores)
27 December 2021 – 4 January 2022
I undertook the trip to Egypt, for which I received my travel grant over the Christmas vacation and it was an incredible experience. Not only was my journey directly related to my course (two papers covering the Hellenistic World and my thesis on Egypt’s wonderous spectacles) but also a once in a lifetime experience that I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to do.
I began my journey in Alexandria and visited Roman monuments, including the Roman amphitheatre as well as “Pompey’s” column. The National Museum of Alexandria was a highlight as I got to see the terracotta figurines I have studied in Hellenistic Art and Archaeology, among other materia, including sculptures of Ptolemaic and Roman rulers. Next, I flew to Aswan from where I began a journey up the Nile to Luxor.
The very act of seeing the Nile brought back the descriptions of Herodotus, Strabo, Lucretius, Seneca, Lucan etc that I have been reading for my thesis, and I was able to enjoy reading these Nilescapes with their very subject in front of me. At Aswan I even saw the two dams that prevent the Nile’s once critical and wonderous summer flood. Along the Nile, the range of Ancient Egyptian, Ptolemaic and Roman sacred architecture really emphasised the many layers of the history of these sites. In particular, walking around the temples of Edfu and Philae I enjoyed noticing details in the art and architecture that I have since used in essays on this subject.
My final stop at Luxor enabled me to see the Colossi of Memnon, considered a sacred wonder of Egypt by the Roman tourists who travelled to hear the mysterious song that appeared to come from the statue at dawn. It was great to see the graffiti inscribed on the lower portion of the right statue by Greeks and Romans, including the distinguished emperor Hadrian and Julia Balbilla, both of whom I am studying in my thesis. See the photo of my brother and I at the foot of the statue below!
All in all it was a wonderful experience and both the inconceivably ancient nature of the Egyptian civilisation and the beauty of Egypt’s natural and artificial wonders will stay with me!
Ten Days in Tbilisi
Gabriel Barnes (2019, Bachelor of Arts in Modern Languages (French and Russian))
I am grateful to the College for providing me with a travel grant for my trip to Georgia in September 2022, which increased my fluency in Russian and was a culturally enriching experience. I spent ten days in Tbilisi with another Russian student, arriving early in the morning of Saturday 3 October. We spent the following week on an intensive Russian language course at the Goga Askurava Language Centre in the mornings and getting to know the city in the afternoon. In the lessons, we were fully immersed in the language: the teacher was a Russian native speaker who quickly identified at the beginning of the week that our passive Russian was much better than our active speaking skills.
By the end of the week, I felt so much more confident in Russian that I was able to haggle with a street vendor on the Sukhoi Most (“Dry Bridge”) – which is very much the expectation for Georgians and Russians but not so much for Westerners – for a Soviet-era poster about the dangers of crossing the street. The man who sold me this poster was rather shocked that someone from England would want to learn Russian. I was also pleasantly surprised by his intimate knowledge of, and strong support for, relatively obscure English League One football clubs (namely, Sheffield Wednesday).
We found everyone we encountered to be hospitable and polite. There is a strong anti-war movement in Georgia, which can sometimes manifest in anti-Russian sentiment, even though there are many Russian tourists (and now, refugees) in Tbilisi. However, it seemed that Putin, and not the Russian people, was the principal object of anger and resentment. Occasionally, certain people seemed a little affronted that we were choosing to speak to them in Russian and not English, but they were very much the minority; and when we explained that we were students of Russian they were often very content to allow us to practise with them.
Although there were considerably fewer homeless people in Tbilisi than there are in Moscow or London, for example, owing perhaps to Georgia’s very small population (3.7 million in total), it was distressing to see that all those who were begging, were elderly. On the last evening, we had dinner in a family-run basement restaurant. Despite charging very little for the food, they refused to take a tip, and insisted instead that we give the money to a homeless person, “because they need it more than we do.” At the risk of generalising, I found this experience to be reflective of a wider culture in Georgia of compassion and public-spiritedness.
Tbilisi is architecturally one of the most diverse cities I have visited. Georgia has been occupied by a number of empires and states in its history, and its multi-confessional past is reflected in the fact that there are many synagogues, mosques, Orthodox churches, and other religious sites in the city. We were able to visit a Zoroastrian temple dating from the fifth century, which could strangely only be accessed through the private dwelling of a resident of the “Old Town,” because his home had been built around the site. There is also a funicular railway in the south of the city linking the Mtatsminda Pantheon of Writers and Public Figures, rather incongruously, to an amusement park.
Increased language and cultural exposure aside, one of our main motivations for choosing Georgia for this trip was the fact that during our brief time in Russia on our year abroad, the Georgian food and wine that we were able to try was excellent. Tbilisi exceeded our expectations on this front; and I would recommend anyone to try khachapuri – a kind of boat of bread filled with cheese, butter, and usually an egg. We were able to sample a variety of local wines as well, including “Gabriel’s Wine,” an amber Rkatsiteli originally made by a sixth-century Orthodox Christian monk of that name.
Fieldwork on Milos
Jack Ditchfield-Ogle (2019, Master of Earth Sciences)
For my 4th year project, I wanted to research into processes surrounding hydrothermal precious metal mineralisation. In discussion with my project supervisor Laurence Robb, and Mike Searle, an excursion to Milos to study the mineralisation both in the field and in the lab through samples collected while there was suggested.
Further research into Milos gave the appearance that this would be one of the most suitable places for this type of project in terms of the type of processes we would be studying there and the logistics of a field trip to this area, as Milos is a small island with a reasonable tourist industry on the East side.
I booked accommodation as far west as I could in order to be closer to the areas identified in past literature as having mineralisation. This also had the benefit of staying in accommodation that was away from the main towns on Milos resulting in a cheaper price.
Unfortunately, neither supervisor was able to join me on the trip which made the field study more difficult as I was studying rocks and processes that were not too familiar to me in the field. To help with this, regular emails between myself and Laurence were exchanges as well as meetings over teams to discuss how I felt the trip was going.
The first few days in the field I spent up and around Profitis Elias, the highest point on the island as the weather forecast for the duration of my trip predicted temperatures to rise during my stay and so it was better to do the hike up the mountain first while temperatures, while still hot, were cooler than if I visited this area later in the trip.
The first day I drove to the top of the mountain as in reading about the mountain I saw that it was possible to drive to the top rather than hike which I thought would save a lot of time getting to the summit and allowing me to collect samples as I drove down the mountain. I studied the veins in the outcrops at the summit and collected some samples, however, I discovered I had gotten a flat tire, and that the tools in the car did not fit the bolts on the wheel and so I had to wait for someone to come and bring the tools required to change the wheel. Due to the remoteness of where I had the puncture, this took up the rest of the day.
The start of the next day I visited the southern side of Profitis Illias as there was a path which appeared go up to around 500m above sea level and literature identified that 300-400m was where most mineralisation was located. And so after spending the morning having the tire replaced I had a meeting with Laurence about how the previous day went and how I thought the trip was going to go having arrived on the island. This day I feel was one of the more productive days despite the late start as I managed to find what I believe to be evidence of mineralisation as well as make a number of observations.
The next few days were focussed on the area of Triades and Galana where I walked around the Triades bay initially in search of mineralisation. However I was unable to find much evidence outside of some quartz/barite crystal clusters from a small mine in the area. Galana was also similarly unfruitful but I also found some barite crystals as well as other potential veins or minerals which may turn out to be evidence of mineralisation I can identify when they are analysed in the lab.
The final dedicated area I visited was Vani which was very fruitful. This area was a large, open case mine which had a number of veins of both metallic sulphide minerals as well as quartz/barite veins. I collected a number of samples and noted the appearance of some veins in the walls of the mine which appeared to be a stockwork and may be evidence that the fluids were boiling as they rose.
The final thing I did on this trip was collect a hand full of samples from areas I did not visit in the field by collecting rocks from the cliff at the side of the road. This was so we could attempt to add to maps of the alteration pattern of the island as the alteration of the rocks which make up Milos is likely related to the volcanic history and we may be able to identify zonation in the alteration which may help explain any zonation in mineralisation across the island. This included visiting two areas on the island marked as having silicic alteration as there were not seen in the area studied.
I collected numerous samples on this trip, predominantly of and quartz or barite material I could find in situ as these veins often contain fluid inclusions which can be used to reconstruct the pressure temperature conditions involved in the formation of these minerals.
As such, I had these samples couriered back to Oxford and a number have already been submitted to be prepared so that I am able to begin to study them as soon as term resumes in October rather than having to wait for them to be prepared as others in the past have. And so, while I feel I accomplished most of my goals, especially given the difficult working conditions from the high heat and desert climate on the island, I still have a lot of work ahead in order to complete this project in a satisfactory manner.
The RAND Institute, Iraq
Halima Doski (2020, Master of Chemistry)
My visit to the RAND Institute, Duhok, Iraq was highly informative in the field of petrochemicals and education. Having organised the placement by reaching out from seeing their work online, I was excited to see how the technical institute went about conducting research and teaching chemistry.
Despite all the issues with travel during the summer due to staff storages, I had a difficult beginning but soon enjoyed attending work with my colleagues and meeting the students. Having not visited the region for 4 years, I was happy to be speaking in my mother tongue again, with the unique position of trying to communicate chemistry in a language I was not taught in. With the help of the assistant professors, I learnt the key phrases to translate a lot of my work into Kurdish, with most students also learning in English.
The main project I worked on was a seminar on Fisher glycosylation. One of the topics that interested me most during second year, I was given the opportunity to conduct several experiments on the matter. Varying conditions such as temperature and concentration to then measure the rate of reaction, I decided on 3M glucose and 80oC to allow the reaction to proceed in a mild manner but at a rate in which the students would be able to see. Due to the lack of resources, we were not able to conduct any identification on the final product, in which normally I would have used both NMR and IR. Instead, we included a session on the typical process of organic synthesis, diving into the various identification methods the students can use.
Overall, I enjoyed conducting a chemistry experiment in an unfamiliar environment and having to adapt to suit the audience and use what was available. Working with the associate professors and having conversations about their journeys was interesting, with many showing a passion for teaching as well as an investment in their student’s education.
Archaeology in Umbria
Rhianna Harding (2020, Bachelor of Arts in Literae Humaniores)
Over the Easter holidays, myself and two other Classics students went to Orvieto, a town in Umbria, Italy, to look at their archaeology, in particular about the Etruscans.
Firstly, we visited the Orvieto National Archeological museum. This museum had an impressive collection of Greek pottery ranging from the 6th BC to 5th AD, predominantly depicting mythological scenes. This linked nicely with our Texts and Contexts module which had included analysing Dionysian artefacts such as amphoras. I was also particularly interested in the museum’s collection of pre-Etruscan objects, particularly of the Late Bronze Age, such as shafts and bucchero – black-coloured pottery characteristic of the Etruscans from the 7th-5th C BC.
We also visited the Etruscan caves in Orvieto. Etruscan Caves, which were built for cisterns to get water works dating back to 800BC and proved essential during the 2 year Roman siege of Orvieto in the 3rd century BC until they were essentially replaced with the aqueduct system by 1200 AD.
We learnt that the caves were owned by families, and each family was allowed to dig as much below as the perimeter of their house.
In the caves, we looked at some remains of Etruscan water wells, which had a depth of about 80 metres and contained fragments of 6th century BC pottery.
We also learnt about some non-classical history. For example, some of the Etruscan caves were converted into bomb shelters in WWII. Finally, we admired the magnificent Duomo di Orvieto, a 14th century Catholic cathedral, which had an impressive array of religious imagery and interesting Gothic features.
Internship at the Oxford Physics Department
Sing Lau (2020, Master of Physics)
July — Aug 2022
This summer I participated in an 8-week internship at the Oxford Physics Department, working on measuring volcanic ash properties and studying how these would affect plume drift predictions.
The original framework of the project only involved measuring the density of 24 ash samples through the use of gas pycnometry, but soon I realized it would be quite repetitive, leaving me with a lot of free time during each machine run. Then, I proactively started branching out new ideas for the project, including writing simulations that can incorporate atmospheric fluid dynamics and my data into forecasting volcanic ash dispersion. The current progress has demonstrated a substantial deviation from previous assumptions made by other researchers, so I am confident that my work will benefit the scientific society.
Through the intriguing tasks, both experimental and computational, I have found the knowledge I acquired in the past two years very useful; I have also done an extensive amount of reading, looking for peer-reviewed papers from different sources often including library trips (rare in STEM degrees!). The whole placement has elevated my research skills significantly, and strengthened my passion for scientific research. At the same time I enjoyed conversing ideas with other interns and academics—I have definitely gained lots of insights into the academia!
Due to some unexpected circumstances, I had to delay the last week of my placement to 0th week of MT22, during which I will finish my remaining measurements and finalize my scientific paper aimed for publication. Nevertheless, the academic opportunity funds have played an important role alleviating the costs for me to stay in Oxford as an international student — and I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude.
I am eager to bring this experience forward, and further my knowledge in atmospheric and planetary physics — through courses next year, and more academic opportunities in the near future!
An Odyssey in Guardea
Anneka Pink (2020, Bachelor of Arts in Literae Humaniores)
With our Classics Moderations exams successfully behind us, Rhianna, Raoul and I set out for Guardea in April of this year on an odyssey of our own. We felt especially grateful to be the first recipients of the Sylvanus travel grant since the Covid-19 pandemic, and were keen to make the most of this opportunity after a challenging few years for all at the College. Our practical aim behind the trip was to learn more about the Etruscans – a largely mysterious but advanced civilisation who predated the Romans and occupied the city of Rome, but were conquered and incorporated into the Roman empire. The extent of Etruscan influence on Roman culture has only been realised in recent years. It has now become clear that the Etruscans were in competition with both the Greeks and the Phoenicians, politically and artistically. During our course we had encountered the Etruscans in the architecture of luxury Roman villas during our Texts and Contexts module and in studying Virgil’s Aeneid. In the poem, the Etruscans are conceived as central to Aeneas’ foundation of the Roman empire – Virgil creates a story line where the Etruscans rebel against their leader Mezentius and fight for Aeneas’ Trojan army.
We soon found we were not the only ones fascinated by the Etruscan inheritance: while we were looking round one of Italy’s oldest castles (Castello del Poggio), the owner told us that many contemporary Italians still identify with the Etruscans. According to her, an entire village in Tuscany was DNA tested in order to prove that they were descended from the Etruscans. This attested to the survival of Etruscan local identity thousands of years after their civilisation was subsumed by Roman – a fact that later became very interesting to us when considering the enfranchisement of the Italian allies and subsequent process of municipalisation during the second century BC in our Roman Republic module this term. In Orvieto, a former Etruscan acropolis later captured by the Romans in 264BC, we enjoyed looking at the material evidence ourselves. We explored the Archaeological Museum, examining the Etruscan pottery which was a key export to the rest of the Mediterranean, and taking a tour of the underground caves. The caves were one of my favourite parts of the trip: descending down into the darkness through a tunnel right under the city was, to use another classical reference, like taking a short trip to the entrance of the Underworld. I had assumed the caves were natural: it turned out the (over 1000!) caves were dug by individual families under their houses around 800BC. Only two of the caves are publicly owned, the rest are still privately owned by families; it was only by chance that archaeologists discovered an original Etruscan water well in one of these caves. The well we inspected was over 80 metres deep and entirely regular – taller than the Duomo we had visited earlier in the day – and, as the niches and grooves in the side showed, would have been climbed up and down by Etruscan family members retrieving water! It was a testament to Etruscan engineering. The creation of this cave system was not only socially useful for storage space, but even militarily strategic; the Romans were only able to take Orvieto after a two-year siege since its inhabitants were able to store water and livestock in their own caves, they never had to risk going to the plain below. Remarkably, the caves have been since used throughout history by the city; from being reworked into pigeon houses by families, or used for olive oil production, and during World War II as bomb shelters and an infirmary. This made the Etruscan legacy, not only in the influence of Roman art and architecture, but even in daily life in the city clear, and exemplified the spirit of the trip.
Riches of Etruscan archaeological
Raoul Lee (2020, Bachelor of Arts in Literae Humaniores)
The city of Orvieto was a major Etruscan settlement from the 9th Century BC and is rich with Etruscan archaeological evidence, a lot of which is now housed in the Etruscan Museum “Claudio Faina”. Its location is raised high on the summit of flat volcanic tufa and networks of caves have been discovered dug into the tufa by the Etruscans. As a location, it is rooted in Etruscan civilisation and is prime for study into such a mysterious people for whom no bones or DNA evidence have yet been found.
I was struck by the amount of Attic pots discovered in the area, both red-figure and black-figure, showcased in the museum. This demonstrates the importance of Tyrrhenian Etruria, a region in central Italy in which Orvieto is located, as a foreign market for these Attic pots. There were also some pots displayed that are thought to have been in an Orvietan workshop; a series of pots known as the Vanth group show the Etruscan female divinity for the Netherworld, depicted with wings and serpents around her arms. It was really interesting to see this Etruscan interpretation of the god of the underworld and to get an insight into the Etruscan pantheon of gods and how they differ from the Greek. The specific painter of this series of pots appears to favour this scene of the arrival of the deceased into the Netherworld.
The Etruscan bronzework that was on display really surprised me with some of the unconventional designs. Their function was as large and small votive sculptures and domestic ware. Here is one of the Etruscan bronzes; an incense burner oddly depicted as having human legs. There were also several miniature bronze votive figurines, almost like toys, of men, women and even dogs The proficiency of the Etruscans in bronzework was well-known to the Greeks and they also specialised in a type of pottery known as bucchero; these pieces have a striking black colour as a result of the reducing atmosphere in the kiln and are characteristic of the Etruscan world.
We also went on a tour of the Etruscan caves beneath the city and learnt that the original layout was not a criss-crossing labyrinth as many of them became under Roman rule, but actually each cave was owned by a family who was allowed to dig as much as the perimeter of their house. The caves were used as cisterns for the Etruscans to get water as development in water works only came in 800BC. This is the reason why the Roman siege of Orvieto took as long as it did (2 years), because the Etruscans had this access to water. The uniformity of the wells in size was impressive and they have grooves and niches carved in for family members to climb up and down. Some of the caves were later converted into columbaria for pigeons in medieval times with typically 100 pigeons per family as their food sources. These cave shapes could be medieval copies of original Etruscan tombs as seen in other regions of Italy. Some caves were even converted into bomb shelters in World War 2 with one located beneath the hospital, with the exit found but where the cave actually joins with the hospital has yet to be excavated. The Etruscan history behind the city of Orvieto provided us with lots of fascinating archaeological evidence and offered an insight into an otherwise mysterious civilisation.
September in Rome
Rachel Rees (2019, Bachelor of Arts in Literae Humaniores)
In September 2022, I went on a trip to Rome, funded by the Travel Fund. I really enjoyed it; it was a brilliant opportunity to visit so many important ancient sites. I was amazed by the sheer number of remnants of the ancient city, and its integration with the modern one – particularly the apartments built on top of the Theatre of Marcellus in later centuries! Overall, it was a great opportunity to learn about the society that shaped so many of the texts I now study, on both the Classics and the English side of my degree.
On 15 September, we walked through Rome and saw the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, the Forum and Palatine, and the Pantheon.
On the 16th, we visited St Peter’s Basilica and the Capitoline Museums. My favourite statues in the museums were the famous Capitoline Wolf (depicting Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf), the Dying Gaul, Cupid and Psyche, and the disembodied remnants of colossal imperial statues.
On the 17th, we saw the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Keats-Shelley Museum, and the Vatican Museums. At the Keats-Shelley Museum, it was great to learn about the British Romantics’ time in Rome, see some of their letters to each other, and read about the classical influences in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and Adonais. The Vatican Museums were amazing, from the wealth of artefacts from Ancient Egypt, to the brilliant statue of Laocoon and his sons, to the beautiful Sistine Chapel.
On the 18th, we went to the Caracalla Baths, a huge part of daily life in Ancient Rome, as well as the Circus Maximus and the Theatre of Marcellus.
On the 19th, it was great to see the Villa Borghese estate and the 18th century Temple of Aesculapius, epitomising the enduring influence of the ancient city throughout the ages.