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Research helping give a voice to ancient slaves

by Luanne Williams

What do depictions of female slaves on Greek and Roman gravestones have to do with serial killers? Wingate University senior Gabriela Cabrera will use the skills she's learning while researching funerary art to get her further down the road toward becoming a criminologist.

Gabriela Cabrera is a regular Renaissance woman. Set to complete bachelor’s degrees in communications and religious studies at Wingate next spring, Cabrera eventually plans to get her doctorate in criminology. And this summer she’s spending her time studying female slaves in Greek and Roman funerary art.

While the dots might not seem to connect, they form a perfect picture in Cabrera’s mind. A transfer student from South Piedmont Community College who is intrigued by serial killers and new religious movements (NRMs), Cabrera is comfortable forging her own pathway and thrilled to have earned a Reeves Summer Research Grant to work alongside assistant religion professor Christy Cobb.

“My interest in serial killers and cults started with my older sister, who has a degree in psychology,” Cabrera says. “She talked about it, and then I started doing a lot of reading trying to figure out why they do this. I found it fascinating. When these cult leaders are creating their new religions, they are all based on old beliefs, which pulls in the history aspect. And I have always loved history.”

Her fascination with NRMs led to an independent study last year that culminated in Cabrera writing a gender analysis of the Branch Davidians, research that helped convince Cobb that she would be a perfect assistant for a much larger project involving gender-related research.

A home-schooled student who also studied at Greyfriars Classical Academy in Matthews, Cabrera was (naturally) already familiar with Hellenistic art when Cobb approached her about the summer research. She welcomed the chance to examine monuments to try to shed light on the lives of slave girls.

“No scholars are really focusing on this, so it’s a way to bring a voice to these people who were really pushed aside,” Cabrera says.

A female college professor points out a female slave in a photo of Greco-Roman funerary art.

She echoes Cobb’s passion, not only for the summer research, but for the book project that it will inform.

“It is estimated that approximately twenty to thirty percent of the population were enslaved in antiquity, yet the words and lives of enslaved persons remain largely undocumented, due to illiteracy as well as the prioritization of the words of the elite population,” Cobb wrote in her research proposal.

She says that since most of the literature of the Greek and Roman world and that of early Christianity was written by free, elite men, it makes sense to turn to material culture such as archaeology to get a better understanding of slavery.

Cobb, who is wrapping up her book, “Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives,” was working on her dissertation during a trip to Istanbul and Ephesus, Turkey, four years ago when she first began noticing the presence of female slaves on many funerary monuments. She took photos and made notes that would, this summer, become the starting point of her project with Cabrera.

The two sorted Cobb’s photos, documenting, comparing and analyzing the artistic depictions before combing books, internet databases and other sources for more examples.

“We’d be walking across campus from the library carrying loads of books up to our chins,” Cabrera says. “But I love to read, so it’s been fun for me, poring over books all day.”

Finding symbolism in the details

A female college students takes notes as a professor points out features of photos of funerary art.

While she made notes, collected photos and bookmarked sources, Cabrera also homed in on her specific research topic: objects held by slaves depicted in the funerary monuments. These range from jewelry boxes and leaf fans to mirrors and vases. More unusual items include umbrellas, birds and even a doll.

Cabrera was thrilled to find a slave girl holding a pomegranate.

“Anytime they were holding something that was a symbol from Greek mythology was especially interesting to me, and the pomegranate is a symbol of Persephone, goddess of the Underworld,” she says.

Cobb says having slaves hold items such as jewelry boxes was a way to indicate that the deceased had wealth, while mirrors were used to symbolize beauty. A slave holding a bird typically indicated that a child had died. And some of the elite had their slaves portrayed with their hands on their faces as a sign of distress or mourning to show what kind and virtuous slave-owners they were.

The slaves, nearly always depicted as unrealistically smaller than their deceased owners, were included not because they were valued as individuals, Cobb clarifies, but simply to show elitism.

“Sometimes people look at the funerary art and think that a second woman might be the deceased’s sister, but often it’s a slave,” she explains. “Everyone has family, but not everyone has slaves.”

Details such as their lack of head coverings are the clues Cobb looks for to identify slaves, and she says clothing and posture usually help delineate gender. While male slaves may have crossed arms and appear to be lounging around, the females are always portrayed as subservient, often busy with tasks.

Independent study

Surrounded by books and deep into the web, Cabrera researched on her own for much of the last half of June as Cobb traveled in Greece finding more funerary art. Having been awarded a slot in a Council of Independent Colleges faculty travel seminar, Cobb visited archaeological museums in Athens, Nafplio and Delphi, emailing photos and notes home to Cabrera.

“We’d go to a museum and I’d scour the place for funerary monuments and then be photographing and taking notes feverishly,” Cobb says. She was especially pleased to get photography tips from Cabrera, who used her Photoshop skills to enhance the photos and inscriptions.

“The inscriptions are often very difficult to see,” Cobb says. “You can hardly decipher the Greek letters, which isn’t surprising, since these things were carved around 2,000 years ago.”

Cabrera, who seems never to have met a subject she didn’t like, says her English 256 class with Allison Kellar taught her some advanced techniques for amplifying images.

Once she and Cobb finish analyzing roughly 175 photos and choose 10 or so to go into Cobb’s book, she’ll put her skills to work on them. Cobb will write additional book sections focused on the archaeological examples, and Cabrera will write her own report for possible publication in an undergraduate research journal. Then they’ll edit one another’s work. Cobb will prepare to use some of her research in future Women and the Bible classes, and Cabrera will brace for her senior year, with two independent-study courses on tap.

“I’m a very independent person, which has harmed and helped me: I’ve gone from wanting to be a surgeon to an artist to everything in between, and I’ll be 23 when I graduate because I always see other courses I want to take,” Cabrera says with a laugh. “But it has helped me too. My independent studies have been research-based, which allows me to choose ideas from within two different fields and tie them together. That’s why I like the idea of doing my graduate studies in criminology: I can go in many directions with it.”

Whatever path she takes, Cabrera says the summer research has given her the critical-thinking and analysis skills she needs to be successful.

She and Cobb are among seven pairs of Wingate University researchers to receive Reeves grants this summer.

July 11, 2018

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