This volume is part of the annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) proceedings series. The meetings, started in 1991 in Newcastle, UK, have already produced 23 volumes to date.
By and large, this is a typical TRAC volume, representing an eclectic mix of some original and stimulating contributions from post-graduate students and established academics, but also some that leave an aftertaste of sketchy undergraduate papers. The essays are arranged according to the sessions at which they were presented and therefore lack internal coherence. This uneven quality and flawed format is however a trademark of TRAC's egalitarianism and liberalism.
The best of what TRAC offers in the field of pioneering theories and well-argued takes on long-standing perceptions is represented by the following six essays, which are the most vivid, invigorating and sophisticated contributions in the volume.
The first is an essay by Anna Anguissola, on structural supports on marble copies of Greek bronze sculptures within Roman art, bringing to the surface questions related to the ancient viewer’s visual code, aesthetic taste, and power of imitations. Struts, regarded by many scholars as unappealing additions meant to provide extra support for sculptures during transportation, for Anguissola are “decorative elements in their own right, meant to enhance appreciation of the artist’s skills” (p. 3). This essay is a reminder that the way we now view and value ancient objects may stand in opposition to the “Roman visual code” (p. 4).
This is further supported by Eva Mol’s contribution, which discusses the meaning of “Egyptian/Egyptianising” objects in the domestic context of Pompeian houses (p. 118). By deconstructing the artificially created taxonomic entity, Aegyptiaca, through Heidegger’s notions of things and objects,1 Mol convincingly shows the multivalent dimensions and perceptions of ‘Egyptianness’ in Roman contexts. Usually viewed by scholars as being exotic or religious, the ‘Egyptian’ object, according to Mol, concealed a variety of layers of perceptions, which were fluid in meaning, depending on spatial, social, and material contexts.
The multivalent nature of ancient objects is also investigated in the essay of Jay Ingate, who focuses on bridges in the Roman world, proposing that they are “hybrid constructions that straddle many definitions” rather than the commonly accepted signs of ‘Roman’ urban identity (p. 138). Through critical treatment of the concept of Romanization, Ingate offers a concise exploration of why bridges should be seen as part of a (spiritual) transformative experience between ‘Romanized’ cityscapes and meaning-laden waterscapes, an experience that enhanced the senses of ancient people who respected and understood the power and spirit of water. Echoing Ingate’s paper on the significance of meaning-laden landscapes, Nicky Garland investigates the visibility and location of six Late Iron Age sites that continue into the Roman period in southern Britain and northern France. The author argues that the flow of objects and ideas through the network of trade between the areas contributed to a complete make-over of the architectural and sacred aspects of these sites even though the sites constituted part of the overall cross-Channel integrated koine of mortuary and ritual practices.
Roman Roth’s contribution is a well-argued take on the Romanization debate from the perspective of south-central Italy in the fourth to third centuries BC. Roth introduces the paradigm of an “internal frontier” as defined by Kopytoff2 and proposes to use it to understand “the dynamics of culture change” (p. 50). The paradigm offers the possibility, according to Roth, of considering the Roman conquered territories as an open, interactive frontier where multiple scenarios of cross-cultural encounters evolve, not only allowing cultural unification, but also variability in choices of what and what-not to appropriate from the dominant culture.
The paper by Renato and Luciano Pinto addresses the (dis)continuity in attitudes toward transsexuality and transgender in the Roman past and modern academia through a case study of an alleged gallus, a eunuch priest of the goddess Cybele, buried in fourth-century AD Catterick in Roman Britain. Anyone who did not conform to the expected gender roles in the archaeological record is usually associated by scholars with exotic religious rituals (p. 177). While not entirely dismissing this equation, the authors insist that other categories of gender might have existed in the past and Roman attitudes towards sex and sexual expression, as well as oppression of such, may have no match in modern times.
Another six essays in the volume, which can be divided by recurring themes, are of varying quality. Three papers are devoted to the city of Pompeii, which is viewed from the angles of spatial neighborhood relations and control over private and public spaces. Eeva-Maria Viitanen, Laura Nissinen and Kalle Korhonen look at the whole cityscape to analyze street activities by insula. Heini Ynnilä examines interconnectedness and cooperation within neighborhoods in the units of common ownership. Evan Proudfoot’s appealing contribution examines the existence of second inner doors to atrium houses, as opposed to just the outer doors in the entranceways. He successfully formulates a nuanced interaction between the public outer entrance space, which was open to all, and private space closed off by the intermediate doors, shielding the elite homeowners from unwanted visitors, who were allowed to have an intentionally controlled, limited glance at the interior.
Two rather descriptive essays deal with issues of continuity and change in social and religious spheres. Lennart Gilhaus’s paper attempts to offer an explanation of the sociocultural changes in third and fourth century Roman North Africa by looking at the development of elite self-representation and urban landscapes during the second and third centuries AD. Annalisa Calapà’s contribution is a review of epigraphic and archaeological evidence for the continuation of local cults in Volsinii after their defeat by Rome in the third century BC.
Sylvie Barrier’s contribution aims to quantify and qualify the “Romanization index” of Gaulish fine wares (p. 151) but does not move beyond the creation of statistics and concludes by saying that the reason behind the Romanization behavior of wares “remains undefined” (p. 167).
Overall, the volume reflects the current trends in the thought of post-graduates and early career scholars who are influenced by the new theoretical approaches in archaeological scholarship, sometimes taking the notions and theories without any grain of salt. For instance, both Mol’s and Ingate’s contributions, while well-argued and thought-provoking, deal to some extent with Heidegger, whose ideas are now widespread in Anglo-Saxon archaeological scholarship.3 The most substantial concern is however that the conference itself, followed by the proceedings, signaled the revival of the concept of Romanization, undermining TRAC's pioneering role in reshaping the discourse by bringing the dangers of Romanization to the surface.4 The editors had made a choice to publish essays in which this notion is taken at face value (e.g., the contributions by Calapà and Barrier) but they do not explain it, e.g., do they themselves believe in the validity of the concept of Romanization and aim to bring it once again to the forefront of contemporary archaeological theory?
1. M. Heidegger. Poetry, Language. Thought. (trans. by A. Hofstadter). New York: Harper-Collins, 1971.
2. I. Kopytoff. ‘The internal African frontier: The making of African political culture’, in I. Kopytoff (ed.) The African Frontier: The Reproduction of Traditional Societies. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987: 3-84.
3. For critical remarks on using Heidegger ‘uncritically’ in contemporary archaeological thought see U. Sommer. ‘Review on “Re-thinking archaeology” by H. Karlsson’, EAZ-Ethnographisch-Archäologische Zeitschrift 41, 2000: 285-289.
4. Cf. for instance C. Forcey. ‘Beyond ‘Romanization’: Technologies of power in Roman Britain’ in K. Meadows, C. Lemke and J. Heron (edd). TRAC 96: Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Theoretical Roman archaeology Conference, Sheffield 1996. Oxford: Oxbow, 1997: 15-21. N. Terrenato. ‘The Romanization of Italy: Global acculturation or cultural bricolage?’ in C. Forcey, J. Hawthorne and R. Witcher (edd). TRAC 97: Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Nottingham 1997. Oxford: Oxbow, 1998: 20-27. L. Revell. ‘Romanization: a feminist critique’, in A. Moore, G. Taylor, E. Harris, P. Girdwood and L. Shipley (edd). TRAC 2009: Proceedings of the 19th Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Michigan and Southampton 2009. Oxford: Oxbow, 2010: 1-10. On the role of TRAC in dismantling the concept of ‘Romanization’, see A. Gardner. ‘Thinking about Roman imperialism: postcolonialism, globalisation and beyond’, Britannia 44, 2013: 1-25.