Epigraphomania in Ottoman Lands: Richard Chandler and the Epigraphic Obsession

Robert K. Pitt

He strikes me as a college fellow turned fresh out of Magdalen [Oxford] to a difficult and somewhat fatiguing voyage, for which he was as unfit as could be; and though very good at an inscription, was sure to go in the beaten track…

It was not uncommon for visitors to the Ottoman Empire, when compiling accounts of their travels, to air complaints regarding those worthy souls who had earlier trodden the same paths. But few lashed out with quite the biting criticism of John B. S. Morritt, quoted above, writing home in 1795 from Greece about Richard Chandler, the head of the Dilettanti Society’s First Ionian Mission. Searching for the positives in such a review, Chandler may have taken comfort in the A+ he receives for services to epigraphy, the study of ancient inscriptions carved into stone. These texts littered the ancient sites he had visited with his expedition companions Nicholas Revett and William Pars – the latter’s  wonderful drawings and paintings are the subject of a current exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, The Romance of Ruins: The Search for Ancient Ionia, 1764, produced in partnership with the British Museum.

Ancient inscriptions are a headache for museum curators: storerooms groan with the things, but they are a challenge to make accessible to the general visitor; only the real stars, such as the Rosetta Stone (the British Museum’s most popular exhibit, no less), get special treatment. This was not always the case. The earliest guidebooks to the galleries of the British Museum include extensive descriptions of numerous lettered monuments, and the periodicals of London’s clubs and societies contained reports and debates on the authenticity and historical importance of inscribed blocks brought back by their members from the Grand Tour of the Mediterranean in the 18th and 19th centuries. Books were even written on discussions of individual stones, so that by the late 1700s you could read whole tomes about the authenticity of the ‘Parian Marble’ in Oxford University, which is a chronological list of notable historical events composed in 264/3 BC, or the ‘Sandwich Marble’ at Cambridge, an Athenian inscription concerning the administration of the island of Delos, acquired by the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

Some members of the Society of Dilettanti, Joshua Reynolds, 1770 (Society of Dilettanti, London).

It is against this background of interest in new written evidence about the ancient world that the Society of Dilettanti chose the Oxford Classicist Dr Richard Chandler (1737–1810) to lead a sponsored mission to Greece and Turkey in 1764. The Dilettanti were keen to polish their antiquarian (not a dirty word at that point) credentials, having been portrayed as a bunch of aristocratic profligates: Horace Walpole in 1743 wrote that they were “a club for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one being drunk.”

The Society’s sponsorship of the publication of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s great work on the ancient architecture they discovered on their travels in the Eastern Mediterranean, The Antiquities of Athens, did much to help, and thoughts turned to funding their own archaeological mission. Chandler had come to their attention through a lavish and detailed publication of the ancient marbles held at Oxford, Marmora Oxoniensia (1763), in which his talents in the decipherment of Greek inscriptions were evident. The team of Chandler, architect Revett and painter Pars were sent off with a brief that included the instruction to copy “all the inscriptions you shall meet with”. Chandler took this to heart, producing on his return two very popular volumes of Travels and a separate publication of the inscriptions he recorded throughout two years in Greece and Turkey.

The Theatre at Miletus, William Pars, 1764 (British Museum, London). Chandler stands aboard the ferry, while Revett and Pars are still embarking.

As we follow Chandler’s journey on the Ionian Mission through his writings, we can trace the development of his skills as an epigrapher as well as his obsession with collecting inscriptions. Initially he copied every single letter he stumbled across, and later contrived to remove the stones themselves for his patrons back in London, a path that led him to some dubious ethical decisions.

Renaissance compilers of Latin inscriptions, particularly in Italy, had devised methods of dating texts by the evolving shapes of their letters, and Chandler developed something similar for the age of Greek writing, however inaccurate we may judge it today. He rarely discusses philological matters from the texts he records, preferring to extract from them the names of the otherwise anonymous sites they come across. He also made historical use of the information they contain, interweaving passages from the ancient historians and geographers to tell the story of a place or people. Thwarted in the group’s efforts to locate the temple of Ephesian Artemis, Chandler fills out his travelogue with inscriptions from the area, bringing to life the goddess whose temple would not be recovered for another century. He provides long English translations of some of these inscriptions, a rarity in such travelogues, and in this he was perhaps aiming to open up the evidence presented to a wider reading public.[1]

The tite-page of Ionian Antiqiuities (1769), which can be explored here.

Hunting for inscribed blocks in Classical lands relied heavily on the accounts of earlier travellers, and Chandler is at pains to locate known monuments and to improve upon their decipherment. When such efforts fail, his disappointment is palpable. At Ayasuluk (modern Selçuk, Turkey, near ancient Ephesus), the expedition expended great energy in investigating the many dozens of piers in an aqueduct, built largely of reused ancient statue bases from nearby Ephesos:

We copied or collated several, but found none which have not been published. The minute diligence of earlier collectors had been extended to the unimportant fragments… The downfall of some [piers] may be expected continually, from the tottering condition of the fabric; and time and earthquakes will supply the want of ladders.[2] (Travels, 115.)

New inscriptions needed to be found to please the sponsors and their audiences back home, and so we find the mission inspecting marbles taken from ancient Iasos (in ancient Caria, near modern Güllük) about to be hauled onboard ships as ballast. Chandler is keen to record these blocks before they are lost and is happy to spend funds for the privilege: “We had paid a pilaster at Scio [Chios] for leave to transcribe these marbles, which lay on the shore, and were transported from this place.”

Relief at Sigeum, which serves as a headpiece to the preface of Ionian Antiquities (1769, i).

Although Chandler’s efforts to record antique monuments for posterity were admirable, his increasing desire to save these stones from supposedly ignorant locals led him to decisions that might seem questionable in hindsight. One of the most famous Greek inscriptions of the day was the gravestone of one Phanodikos from ancient Sigeum in the Troad (northwest Turkey). It contained texts in two dialects, and scholars then thought it the oldest of all known Greek inscriptions. Found in 1716 by an English consul at the village of Yenişehir, passing travellers tried in vain to procure the block from the understandably defiant villagers. Chandler, aided by the draftsmanship of Pars, improved the known text, which had been worn down due to its employment as a bench. But this was not good enough, and Chandler lets fly a call to arms for the salvation of this rare example of early Greek:

It is to be wished that a premium were offered, and the undertaking recommended to commanders of ships in the Levant trade. They have commonly interpreters to negotiate for them, with men, levers, ropes, and the other requisites; besides instruments and tools, by which the stone might be broken if necessary. By a proper application of all-prevailing gold, it is believed they might gain the permission or connivance of the papas [priest] and persons concerned. It should be done with secrecy.

The irony of breaking the stone to preserve it seems quite lost on our epigraphic crusader. It would later take the diplomatic clout of the Earl of Elgin to finally prevail in 1799: the block is now on display (in one piece) in the British Museum.

East front of the Parthenon, Wiliam Pars, 1765 (British Museum, London).

When the team relocates to Athens, Chandler has by now convinced himself that removal of inscriptions is his true calling, and he applies for funds to begin a collection for the Dilettanti. In this there was nothing new: travellers to Athens were able to purchase marbles from the English and French consuls, who often had a side-line in the antiquities trade and could arrange for consignments to be shipped home. Like Sandwich before him, Chandler even acquires a ‘name inscription’, the so-called ‘Chandler Stele’, a remarkable report from towards the end of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC} in which a committee wander over the unfinished Erechtheion, the great Ionic Temple of Athena Polias on the Acropolis, noting what was complete, what work was required and which blocks were on the ground waiting to be lifted into place.

Chandler saw immediately what this text had to offer in the story of Periclean architecture and contrived to buy it from its Turkish owner. The problem lay in the fact that all antiquities were technically owned by the Sultan, and it was impossible to remove it from inside the house in which it lay off the rock of the Acropolis, then an Ottoman garrison. Nevertheless, after a series of bribes and the passing of secret signals, Chandler has the block removed and quietly secreted away to the lower city while the Turks were all at Friday prayers in the mosque (within the Parthenon), a ruse he seems most proud of. This time the stone is cut down for transport, much as Elgin’s agents would later reduce the weight of the Parthenon frieze blocks by sawing off the sculpted front from the bulky architectural slabs.

The porch to the Erichtheion on the Acropolis: all six caryatids are now replicas, five of the originals being in the Acropolis Museum, and one – the second from the left of the front four, removed by Lord Elgin around 1802 is in the British Museum.

Unfortunately, we now know from other surviving fragments of the inscription that it was written on both sides, and so in zealous haste the back side of these accounts was therefore totally erased. The block can be seen today in the British Museum gallery next to one of the great female Karyatid statues of the Erechtheion north porch removed by Lord Elgin (who left a brick pillar in her place, much like a car tyre thief). She is in fact mentioned in the building accounts she gazes down upon; she can’t now read the back of what they once said, but it’s fixed to the wall in any case.

Robert Pitt is an epigraphist (like Chandler, an inscription botherer) who lives in Greece and teaches ancient history and archaeology at College Year in Athens. He is currently writing a book about early travellers to Athens in the 18th century.

Further Reading:

I. Jenkins & L. Stewart (edd.), The Romance of Ruins: The Search for Ancient Ionia, 1764 (Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, 2021).

J. M. Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (Yale UP, NH, 2009).

D. Constantine, Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal (Cambridge UP, 1984).

F. Thomasson, “Justifying and Criticizing the Removals of Antiquities in Ottoman Lands: Tracking the Sigeion inscription,” International Journal of Cultural Property 17 (2010) 493–517.


1 A somewhat drier set of Greek texts with Latin translations would appear in his corpus of these monuments.
2 As a short man, the reference to ladders may be one of very few discernible elements of self-deprecation in Chandler’s work.