Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.30

Darian Marie Totten, Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels (ed.), Making Roman Places, Past and Present: Papers Presented at the First Critical Roman Archaeology Conference Held at Stanford University in March, 2008. Journal of Roman archaeology supplementary series, 89.   Portsmouth, RI:  Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2012.  Pp. 176.  ISBN 9781887829892.  $89.00.  

Reviewed by James F. D. Frakes, University of North Carolina at Charlotte (


This volume collects several conference essays to illustrate the deployment of place-making theory in a variety of ancient archaeological fields. The first of two groups (five articles and summary) takes on place-making in the Roman past, while the second (four articles and summary) takes on place-making in the scholarly and political present. These two sections are preceded by a preface by David Mattingly (on which more later) and a guiding introductory essay by the editors, Marie Darian Totten and Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels. The volume maintains the expected high standards set by the Journal of Roman Archaeology series.

The editors position the volume within the evolving space/place debate, referring to (among others) seminal contributions of De Certeau, Bourdieu, Butler, and — of course — Lefebvre. Edward Casey’s work on “place” is also cited throughout the contributions. Casey’s synthetic Fate of Place may interest readers who are less familiar with this discourse (from philosophy, social geography, and architectural theory, among others), the main thrust of which guides this volume of critical archaeology. Regarding Roman Archaeology specifically, to this reviewer’s knowledge, some of the most sophisticated theory on place-making has been produced by Dutch archaeologist Ton Derks (whose work appears only once in the volume’s bibliographies).

While both “space” and “place” are human constructs, “space” is rejected for its tendency to present the world as a totalizing abstraction, a theorization that may be useful to science, geography, or architecture, perhaps, but that otherwise tends to abstract or dehumanize our understanding of social experience. “Place”, on the other hand, highlights the material conditions of lived experience, producing “an embodied routine, defined by the movements of the body, with place even inscribed onto or extending the body itself” (p. 12). Totten and Samuels go on to describe specific ways in which place can be deployed by archaeologists to create more nuanced understanding of human social experience (both ancient and modern) as it intersects with a variety of conceptions of “the Roman Empire”: including how places are inhabited (p. 13ff.), for example as urban, as domestic, as rural (p. 13ff.); how places are conceptually situated (p. 18), for example, as proximate, liminal or distant; and how places are inherited and identified (p. 20ff.), for example, as markers of a group or individual past, as property or asset, or as communal heritage. Finally, given the goals of the second half of the volume, some time is also spent articulating how heritage politics have intersected with debates on property, tourism, and governmental power. The overall argument is not that ancient place-making somehow correlates neatly with modern place-making, but that both must be considered together to produce theoretically critical archaeology (p. 25). Beyond this unifying agenda, the contributions vary widely in location, time period, and topic. In the main, the articles taking up modern place-making practices are more successful at pursuing the volume’s agenda.

The volume begins with J. A. Baird’s solid contribution on the cultural sifting of excavated remains from Dura Europos. Baird asserts that the Greekness of this peripheral community is an artifact of twentieth-century archaeology, which gave primacy to textual remains from the site, and has been greatly overstated (p. 36). She writes persuasively; “What does it mean to be Greek…if a population is Greek despite its architecture, despite its art, and despite the presence of other languages?” Looking at material remains changes the overall picture significantly. The original excavation reports marginalize terracotta lamps, for example, and recent attention to these artifacts shows strong eastern connections. Baird’s essay uses place-making theory more successfully than some of the others in this section by being mindful of how the knowledge of a place has been generated by scholarship, as much as by being attentive to its material traces.

Next, Cecilia Feldman Weiss revisits the processional route of Roman Ephesus, seeking to supplement Guy Rogers’s donor-focused interpretation of the civic event (funded in perpetuity by the estate of C. Vibius Salutaris) with greater attention to how the built environment itself created a social experience.1 In Weiss’s treatment, the buildings are given agency in the formation of culture, creating processional experience even at times when there was no parade. Perhaps she overstates the degree to which Rogers’s work neglects the general audience for this elaborate benefaction, but in any case it is good to be reminded of what makes the remains of Ephesus so compelling — in the language of this volume, such a “place”.

With Rob Collins’s essay, we find ourselves again at the limits of empire — this time with an analysis (using “occupational community theory”) of a poorly documented period (textually) at Hadrian’s Wall. Here again, it is by looking closely at patterns excavated widely in the built environment that we may theorize ancient place-making practices. The communities along the wall during the 4th century, Collins claims, saw continued prosperity, but with greater local production and shared identity than in earlier times when importation of goods and the free movement of peoples had dominated. The demolition of warehouses, and the installation of housing blocks and churches within garrison walls are adduced as evidence of changing social structures. If at times the theory used here reads as formalized common sense, we nevertheless benefit from the clear explanation of its interpretive modes.

Bradley M. Sekedat’s presentation of the Fasıllar Valley, Turkey, takes on a vast expanse of time (from the Hittite to the Byzantine!) in its perusal of modern interpretive possibilities for ancient place-making. Perhaps because of this breadth, Sekedat is unable to suggest anything specific here. Although this reviewer was in sympathy, for example, with attempts to read the quarry remains from one of the valley’s archaeological sites as suggesting the ancient production of cultural memory, there was not enough evidence to build a convincing case. Sekedat illustrates, rather, one of the perils of a priori theorization — specifically, that being able to identify ancient places does not necessarily allow a theoretical reconstruction of what those places were doing and when they were doing it.

Finally, Dirk Booms’s analysis of imperial villas seems an odd fit here, not because he takes up an Italian rather than a provincial place, but because he is less interested in social experience than he is in understanding a specific ancient idea of privacy — the privacy desired by an emperor holding court. Booms analyzes the layout (at Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli, at Domitian’s in Albanum, and at Trajan’s in Arcinazzo) of crowd-management architecture intended for visitors during large entertainments. This reviewer wonders if security issues may have been more pressing in the minds of the villas’ architects (and residents) than privacy, and Booms’s reference to public-private debates from the study of Roman domestic architecture feels forced.

The four articles of the second section (benefitting from abundant modern source material) are better able to build a case for place-making theory, and might spur the field to grant greater scope to speculation when theorizing the ancient. In any case, they caution us to be attentive to the discursive agendas of our secondary sources before researching the primary.

Jody Michael Gordon looks at how the political division of Cypress has produced two different historical narratives from its archaeologists, and demonstrates how the political investment in tourism has shaped not only the situation on the ground at Cypriot sites, but also in the field more broadly. In Greek Cyprus the tourist is given a story of Mycenaean antiquity, Greek rootedness, and Romans as preservers of culture. In Turkish Cyprus, tourists learn of Phoenician and Hittite influences and are given an invasive Rome that suggests a history of frequent ethnic and political changes. Among the interesting observations offered here is how website knowledge is so rapidly destroyed, updated, or replaced — a digital whirlwind that at any one moment can give only “a didactic snapshot of how Roman material heritage has been, and continues to be, strategically marshaled to make places” (p. 112).

Darian Marie Totten’s essay also takes up the ways that politics are invested in archaeological presentation, but in this case in the realm of cultural heritage rather than of tourism, and concerning the Etruscan sites of Cerveteri and Tarquinia. Totten sketches a fascinating history of how Etruscan archaeology has figured in various nationalist and localist agendas in Italian politics, including nineteenth-century attempts to unify the region of Bologna with Rome, separatist regional attempts to resist the narrative that Etruscans colonized northern Italy from a purer heartland, and early twentieth-century fascist narratives of renewed empire. Totten pays interesting attention to how the late 20th century’s unified Europe has developed a discourse of cultural heritage, and how the elevation of Tarquinia and Cerveteri to World Heritage Site status played out as an Italian argument for its unique contribution to Europe even as it argued for pan-European identity.

The following essay, by Carsten Paluden-Mueller, sketches a brief but familiar history of how the idea of the Roman Empire has been put to use by a variety of empires since, including the Ottoman, the British, the Spanish, and, most recently, the American hegemony. There is little to surprise us here, save for a tantalizing suggestion of how the European Union makes its own use of the Roman Empire (quite differently from the blunt and obvious American use of it). Is the European Union the first “empire” to recognize the networked nature of identification that characterizes our digital and globalized world? An empire less vulnerable to territorial warfare and in which the boundaries are less valuable for separating out the barbarians than is the access to nodes of power?

Finally, Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels explores the social and political tensions created between Tunisian locals and tourists by global investment in tourist archaeology, particularly at the site of Dougga. Samuels recounts a brief history of French colonial and post-colonial dominance of Tunisian archaeology before touching on how the Ben Ali regime used tourist archaeology to foster an illusion of Tunisian democracy. The essays seems to have come together just after the Arab Spring began, and although Samuels anticipates interesting consequent changes in the local/global dynamic for Tunisia, she was unfortunately as yet unable to suggest what those will be. Samuels describes a Dougga in which the attempts to exclude locals have been thwarted by resistant pasturing of animals on the site itself, and where the living experience of locals is erased by tourist literature that describes visitors, rather than residents, as “breathing life into the sites” (p. 165). Samuels claims that the business of tourist archaeology is to create “heritage citizens” — and the bigger question highlighted by her essay is what exactly it means to be such a citizen, whether as a scholar, as a tourist, or both.

To end with the beginning, the preface by David Mattingly throws down a provocative gauntlet (perhaps reflecting a theme of the 2008 Critical Roman Archaeology Conference at Stanford), aimed at Roman archaeologists in the U.S., who he characterizes as abundantly supported but little engaged with recent British/European critical debates. He asserts that the U.S. “punches below its weight” in setting agendas for critical archaeology. Europe, he suggests, has moved productively beyond the traditional archaeological foci of “art, architecture, and the Roman army” towards emphasis of “landscape archaeology, economic themes, material culture and identity.” It strikes this reviewer that if the terms “art, architecture, and the Roman army” are changed to “visual culture, the built environment, and the material/institutional framework of the Roman military” there is not much separating the old from the new. After all, how could one ask questions about the landscape, the economy, the material culture, or the identity of ancient Romans without reference to visual culture and built environments? Indeed, in this very volume, wherever such attention has been given, a stronger theorization has resulted. Perhaps the difference is as much one of style than of a moving debate — but whatever the case, these essays carry the conversation.


1.   Guy Rogers, The Sacred Identity of Ephesos: Foundation Myths of a Roman City. London: Routledge, 1991.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010