Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Seminar report: "Debating theories of Roman Imperialism" by Dr. Andrew Gardner, UCL

For the penultimate talk in our seminar series, we were given food for thought in the form of a theoretical debate where Dr. Gardner tackled the current issues in the relationship between theory and Roman archaeology, giving us an overview of its evolution within the discipline, and some ideas on how theory can be used . develop our understanding of the Roman Empire.

Contrary to other archaeological disciplines, Roman archaeology has tended to neglect theory, largely as a result of the incredible amount of data available which led to a focus on empirical studies. In 1991, the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) was created and one of the first issues it addressed was that of “Romanisation”, a concept over which debates have raged through the following decade. Indeed, some established approaches took Rome as the focal point and viewed the relationship between the Empire and its conquered territories in colonial terms, with the acculturation of the defeated and their conversion to the superior Roman culture. This was complemented to a certain extent by traditional historical explanations and core/periphery model.
However, the rise of post-colonial discourse – e.g. Said, Babha... - meant that the focus was shifted and more weight was given to the “others”, the non-Romans and a more “nativist” point of view was adopted. This perspective was variously influenced by Marxism, feminism and post-structuralism. It paid attention to evidence for resistance in the conquered provinces, and concepts such as discrepant identities and hybritidity were developed in the 1990s (see works by Van Dommelen, Mattingly below). In this way, the theoretical discourse in Roman archaeology went beyond the simplistic Roman/native dichotomy. However, this reversal of focus also resulted in some problems, notably the overemphasis laid on the literary sources, and the lack of attention paid to issues of power and violence: the multicultural nature of the Empire got highlighted, but the violence inherent to the processes of conquest and imperial rule has been minimised.
Globalisation theories have stressed the connectivity and communication aspects of the Empire, highlighting the role of material culture and consumption. Within this framework, concepts such as hybridity/hybridisation and “glocalisation” – the idea that within a global network of exchange, artefacts take on a local meaning in different parts of the network – have been developed to address satisfactorily the huge variety of interactions present within the Roman Empire and its provinces. Some argue however, that globalization is   a Western post-mediaeval phenomenon and cannot be applied to the study of past societies. The different is one of scale and intensity of communication though, for it can be shown that the different part of the ancient world were connected by trading and diplomatic links, even prior to the emergence of the Roman Empire.
Post-colonial theories stress a marginal – bottom-up - approach, globalisation theories on the other hand stress a systemic –top-down- perspective: the distinctive features of institutional articulation of power, identity and Empire are thus lost in the middle. For this reason, Dr. Gardner argued for the adoption of an “institutional archaeology” to gain a better understanding of cultural change in the past. By studying traditions and innovations in practice, we can understand the relationship between communities and institutions and the nesting of identities within power-flows, inside an overarching spatial and temporal reality.  Dr. Gardner used to case-studies to illustrate his argument: the bathhouse in the military fortress at Caerleon, Wales,  and the rural settlement of Cotswold community.
At Caerleon, the fortress was built according to the standards of military architecture, with a strict hierarchy of space, e.g. a large house for the centurion, smaller rooms for the legionaries. In addition to the living quarters, other buildings in the fortress served regimental practices, such as the bathhouse. Bathing played an important unifying role within the soldier community – a community composed of men coming from various provinces of the Empire. But at Caerleong, in the 4th century, we see a change in the use of space: the pool of the bathhouse goes out of use and is used as a rubbish dump. This in turn tells us something about changes in practices within the unit: bathing as a social activity went into disuse: what can this tell us about different dynamics within the military community? This interaction of actors and institutional structures is rather easy to see in the case of the military because we know what the standard situation would be, but Gardner’s study of the rural settlement at Cotswold community showed how this could be applied to a different scenario. There, it is the analysis of artefact distribution across the site which could inform the archaeologist about changing practices over time. And with changing practices come changing relationships, and changes in identity construction.
To conclude, practice theories have proven their worth in illuminating the material, social and temporal aspects of life in the past. It is a useful theoretical framework to address issues of cultural change and identity studies. Post-colonial studies in Roman archaeology are quite different than in other disciplines: no other empire has been studied in this way, probably because of the role Rome took as an example for modern nations’ own colonialism in the 19th century. The study of the Roman Empire is thus not just that of a past civilisation, it is intertwined with our understanding of our present society.
On behalf of UCD School of Archaeology and the Archaeology Society, I would like to thank Dr. Gardner for such an interesting talk. The argument he presented to us can be found in his latest paper published in Britannia (see below for references).
By Alexandra Guglielmi
Some references for further reading:
Gardner, A. (2012). Time and empire in the Roman world. Journal of Social Archaeology, 12.2, 145-166.
Gardner, A. 2013. Thinking about Roman Imperialism: Postcolonialism, Globalization and Beyond? Britannia 44, 1-25
Gosden, C. 2001. Postcolonial archaeology. Issues of culture, identity, and knowledge, in I. Hodder (ed.) Archaeological Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press, 241-261
Hingley, R. 2010. Cultural diversity and unity: Empire and Rome, in S. Hales and T. Hodos (eds) Material Culture and Social Identities in the Ancient World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 54-75
Mattingly, D. 2010. Imperialism, Power and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire, Princeton University Press
Van Dommelen, P. 2005. “Colonial interactions and hybrid practices: Phoenician and Carthaginian settlement in the ancient Mediterranean” in G. Stein (ed.) The Archaeology of Colonial Encounters: Comparative Perspectives. Oxford: School of American Research
Woolf, G. 1997, “Beyond Romans and natives” World Archaeology 28(3), 339-350

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