Clare Barker loves to experiment, and try inventive things.
That is why she opted to study molecular biology, genetics, and classical languages during her undergraduate years at the University of Guelph, combining her love for both the arts and the sciences.
“I’ve always been drawn to both the arts and the sciences and I didn’t exactly take a typical route to get into Classics. I just really love to study what I’m passionate about so I’ve been going down all sorts of different rabbit holes. I ended up in Classical Languages and Classical Studies, and that was a fun process,” she says.
Fascinated with ancient literature and antique civilizations, Barker stumbled upon a delightful course on Hellenistic history during her undergraduate years, where she ended up looking at agriculture and the movement of plant and crop species after Alexander the Great’s conquest across the Middle East and over to India, and discovered her passion for papyrology.
“One of the main primary sources for my research paper was people during that time talking about sending different species to different places, and I was looking at grapes being brought into Egypt, and people talking about that in their personal letters, which is how I ended up looking at papyrus, and falling in love with it,” says Clare.
A second year MA student pursuing a degree in Classics, Clare Barker has had an adventurous time at Queen’s University. Drawn to the small Classics program at Queen’s, Barker knew she had made the right choice after consulting other students at the university who had pursued it during their undergraduate years, and given great reviews of the program.
“There are a number of places where you can do Classics in Canada, but the Queens program is fairly well known as a pretty small program where you get a lot of attention from your professors. The graduate program here also has some extremely good researchers such as Professor George Bevan, who’s my supervisor,” she says.
When she got in touch with professors at Queens, one of her questions, particularly for George Bevan was whether or not she would be able to study papyrology here, and when he said yes, Barker instinctively knew that this was the right place for her.
“Bevan had done his PhD at the University of Toronto, and was charged with organizing the photography of the papyrus collection and trying to find some people who would be interested in doing some more research on it because it hasn’t been published, described or catalogued before,” she says.
For Barker, the high intrigue in deciphering things that had never been read before or talked about in academia was exhilarating, and she jumped at the opportunity to become a part of such an innovative project, leading to her current research on describing and photographing papyri at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. Always looking to explore new frontiers, and expand her horizons, Barker knew she wanted to discover and get more out of her relationship with papyrology. The opportunity to do just that arose when she received funding from SHRCC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), and applied for the Michael Smith Foreign Study (MSFS) supplement, which is only available for SHRCC winners.
“A number of people told me that if I had the opportunity, I should apply for the MSFS because many people don’t apply for it at all. Some people can’t go for logistical reasons. You have to be gone for at least three months, and you usually have to make a trip out of the country,” she says.
To satisfy her own thirst for knowledge and new cultures, Barker knew that studying abroad for a semester would be an adventure she wanted to pursue and so she applied to Heidelberg University in Germany, one of the most innovative and renowned centres for papyrology research.
“It was definitely an amazing experience, and an excellent opportunity for me to practice my German as well. A lot of the papyrology lectures were in English. They make a lot of programs as accessible as they can, and encourage people speaking different languages to come and give lectures,” she says.
Mesmerized by the vibrant culture there, Barker returned to Queen’s refreshed and rejuvenated, having met some renowned researchers and teachers from all over the world. Now almost near the end of her MA program at Queen’s, Barker is wistful at the prospect of leaving the place that has become home for her.
“The sense of community in my program is really great here at Queens. We have thirteen MA students, and I’ve had a really good experience getting to know them. It’s easy to get to know other people when you have a small close-knit program like that,” she says.
She loves the small classes, and bonds with her colleagues over translations of obscure texts, and admits that they are like her family.
So what’s the next adventure for Clare Barker? “Maybe I’ll go to the US to study. Or maybe Europe. I’ve heard Trier is nice,” she says. The possibilities are endless.
Images above of papyri belong to the University of Toronto Libraries, please contact the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library for permission to copy, use or publish images of their papyri.
(Left) - “RW Inv 9” : Papyri at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library were photographed in visible light and near infrared. Rostovtzeff-Welles Inventory 9 is a beautifully painted piece of re-used papyrus that was extracted from a mummy case at the beginning of the twentieth century. The papyrus was probably first a contract, but the low contrast of the ink against the papyrus papyrus background makes it very difficult to read. Near infrared photography makes this previously undecipherable piece possible to be deciphered.
(Right) - “A list of people owing taxes”: Papyri at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library were photographed in visible light and near infrared. RW Inventory 14A is a document that lists people who had not paid their taxes for 3 years in July or August of the year 245 BCE. Near infrared photography has increased the contrast of the ink on the bottom right corner where it has been washed away.
Images courtesy of Clare Barker and Filza Naveed
(Left) - Clare Barker in front Heidelberg Castle (Schloss Heidelberg), an iconic ruin overlooking the Neckar River in Heidelberg, Germany. Funded by the Canada Graduate Scholarship Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement, Clare had the opportunity to obtain specialized training in Greek and Roman papyrology—the study of ancient literature and documents written on papyrus—in addition to increasing her German language skills and having an enriching intercultural experience.
(Middle) - Clare back home at Queen's
(Right) - Clare Barker in front of the Institut für Papyrologie (Institute for Papyrology) at Heidelberg University (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg). Funded by the Canada Graduate Scholarship Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement, she had the opportunity to obtain specialized training in Greek and Roman papyrology—the study of ancient literature and documents written on papyrus—in addition to increasing her German language skills and having an enriching intercultural experience.