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Mystery behind polymath's Greek grave engraving is solved by University of Oxford academics

The mystery behind a Greek grave inscription has been solved.

A story on KentOnline earlier this month highlighted the grave of Cecil Headlam after volunteers clearing St Margaret’s Church in Hothfield uncovered the polymath’s final resting place.

The discovery caused a stir amongst Ancient Greek academics, prompting a number of possible translations.

The Greek text
The Greek text

But members of the University of Oxford - Dr Llewelyn Morgan of Brasenose College and Professor Armand D’Angour from Jesus College - did a deep dive into the life of Mr Headlam, who died in 1934, coming up with a context which aided translation.

The pair’s translation reads: “Love bound this lovely union together all its days, he loved his wife as much as May his love in turn repays”.

Their translation rests on the fact that Mr Headlam’s wife’s name was Mary May Headlam and, having identified errors in the engraving, the pair’s answer to the mystery became clearer.

Members of the local history society uncovered a mysterious headstone with Greek writing on. Pictured: Sharon Butler, Richard Hull, Nick Wheat Sheila Flynn, Chris Rogers and Martin Crompton by the Graves they have uncovered Picture: Paul Amos
Members of the local history society uncovered a mysterious headstone with Greek writing on. Pictured: Sharon Butler, Richard Hull, Nick Wheat Sheila Flynn, Chris Rogers and Martin Crompton by the Graves they have uncovered Picture: Paul Amos

Dr Morgan said: “In my kind of circles on social media - academic classicists - it caused a bit of interest as to who could solve the puzzle.

“For me, it didn’t take long to get the general gist of the thing once I’d appreciated there were spelling mistakes.

“I then contacted a colleague, Armand, and between us we reached more conclusions about it, ultimately how to translate it.

“In the meantime, on a hunch that Cecil’s wife was called May and then a further hunch she was a divorcee, I’d started to discover some of the backstory.”

Cecil Headlam (centre bottom) played cricket for Oxford at the turn of the 20th Century. Picture: Magdalen College Archives
Cecil Headlam (centre bottom) played cricket for Oxford at the turn of the 20th Century. Picture: Magdalen College Archives

Dr Morgan says the pair are still “not entirely happy” with their translation, adding: “The misspellings are hard to explain if the author knew Greek, and in Greek the sense of the last clause is hard to pin down.

“Overall it’s a slightly amateur piece of work, maybe by someone whose Greek was not quite up to scratch.

“But writing in Greek metre isn’t easy, and this is a sound elegiac couplet, which is no mean feat. It’s all a little intriguing and it’s quite hard to imagine how it came about.

“Did Mary May write it? Did a friend of Cecil’s? Why were the errors left on the inscription?”

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