BMCR 2021.08.29

New approaches to ancient material culture in the Greek and Roman world

, New approaches to ancient material culture in the Greek and Roman world: 21st-century methods and Classical antiquity. Monumenta Graeca et Romana, volume 27. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. xiv, 212. ISBN 9789004440692 €109,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This edited volume, based on a 2015 University of Winnipeg conference, Methodologies in Ancient Material Culture, brings together an introduction and nine contributions demonstrating a wide range of approaches to material culture produced between the Late Bronze Age and the Late Antique period. While some of the papers originated as conference presentations, others were specially commissioned by the editor, C.L. Cooper. All stem from larger research projects, most with one or more previous publications, though plenty of new material and novel approaches are included.

Innovation, of course, has long figured in the interdisciplinary history of Classical Archaeology, presented from its origins by Cooper in her extensive introduction. After brief discussions of earlier periods, she gives more attention to the 20th and 21st centuries, aiming with this volume “to encourage interdisciplinarity and to reunite the separate strands of the discipline” (11). She then describes six types of approaches to ancient material culture—Contextual, Interconnected, Experiential, Technological, Multi-Scalar, and Revisionist—referencing both recently published examples and chapters within the current volume (each of which adopts multiple approaches).

Anna Collar (Chapter 1) demonstrates the growing utility for classical archaeologists of the terms “networks” and “interconnectivity,” now so prevalent in daily discourse. After first defining essential terms—Network, Social Network Analysis (SNA), Scale-Free Network, Proximal-Point Analysis (PPA), and Actor-Network Theory (ANT)—she explores their application, both within studies of the ancient Mediterranean world and in important philosophical, sociological, and anthropological work. A second section addresses potential challenges to network analysis, particularly connected with methodology, data, and scales of analysis. Clearly written and amply referenced, this chapter underscores how much ancient relationships matter. Surprisingly, it includes no diagrams, maps, or images, which might have helped to illustrate certain types of complex relationships discussed (though the diligent reader can find many sources for clarification in the ample bibliography).

Sarah Murray (Chapter 2) examines how data analytics can aid archaeologists working with large datasets (or “big data,” even if small by comparison to corporate databases), especially to help offset the often-disproportionate influence of relatively few “big dig” sites. After surveying potential benefits and pitfalls of big data analytics, she presents a case study from the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age (EIA) transition in Greece. This comprises a geodatabase with some 4000 data points, each representing a component of a site with documented remains from the Late Bronze IIIB, Late Bronze IIIC, Protogeometric, or Geometric period, plus an accompanying bibliographic database with 800 digitized publications covering the same chronological periods. From these datasets, Murray has addressed numerous archaeological and historiographical questions, some previously published elsewhere. Perhaps most notably here, she shows how settlement patterns changed differently between mainland Greece and Crete, “with the mainland seeing a movement toward the coast in the Protogeometric period, and Krete seeing a movement inland” (71). Additionally, a “nearest neighbour analysis” confirms a mainland EIA depopulation, with Protogeometric sites both less numerous and more sparsely distributed than those of LHIIIB.

Cooper (Chapter 3) scrutinizes a chryselephantine figurine in the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, using the object biography approach.[1] This strategy works particularly well for certain museum items, since their collection and public display often constitute a sort of “afterlife” creating additional levels of meaning, even without archaeological findspot or context information.[2]  On the basis of several 2013-14 ROM blog posts, Cooper details the figurine’s modern history, beginning with its unprovenanced 1930 sale by antiquities dealer/professor Charles Seltman. The preeminent Minoan archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans soon published it as “Our Lady of Sports,” or the Minoan Great Goddess as Bull-Leaper, precisely in line with his conception of Minoan religion. Despite doubts from other experts, for decades the figurine remained on view, a source of pride for the museum. Only in 2005, as similar statuettes elsewhere were shown to be modern fakes, was the ROM figurine finally removed from display. But two divergent characterizations of the object remain plausible today, even after more recent scientific and art historical studies—either a Bronze Age antiquity with modern restorations and enhancements, or a 20th-century creation made in the vision of Evans’ Minoan civilization. Cooper’s accomplishment lies in showing how the figurine retains value in either case.

Philip Sapirstein (Chapter 4) uses experimental archaeology in a case study of the Protocorinthian roof-tiling system of the Archaic “Old Temple” at Corinth (ca. 675-650 BCE). Following close analysis of hundreds of tile fragments, together with ethnographic analogy, he replicated several tiles. Here, he elaborates on his previously published reconstruction and hypothetical ten-step manufacturing sequence with more details on the time and labor entailed in their production. Sapirstein’s model estimates about 4,250 craftsperson-hours—or 80 working days for a team of four workers and a donkey—to produce the 2,000 tiles needed for the whole roof, plus additional time for planning and production of tools, molds, and kiln. The entire temple would have required much more labor, with a low estimate—if modestly decorated—of at least 25,000 hours. Even this number, however, pales in comparison to the massive amounts of labor required for other large-scale ancient monuments, and the Old Temple “should be understood as ‘monumentally scaled’ primarily in comparison with the smaller shrines built of perishable materials in previous generations” (119).

David Saunders, Karen Trentelman, and Jeffrey Maish (Chapter 5) represent a diverse team of researchers collaborating on the Athenian Pottery Project to explain production processes of Athenian black- and red-figure pottery, particularly its characteristic black gloss.[3] Using previously unavailable technology, they present three brief case studies, each somehow questioning the widely accepted production procedure (a single, three-stage firing of vases made and decorated with similarly sourced iron-rich clay). In Case Study 1, two different methods of spectroscopy suggested that the same clay was used for potting and painting, but with the addition of zinc to the slip (perhaps as vitriol, a zinc-rich byproduct of metal mining). Case Study 2 measured the elemental composition and morphology of relief line, contour line, and black-gloss background on a single Kleophrades Painter fragment. Despite compositional similarities, the relief line showed more melting, suggesting two firings—first with relief line alone, then with additional decoration. Case Study 3 looked at black gloss and an underlying layer of red gloss on a different (and very unusual) fragment, again finding structural differences suggesting two separate episodes of painting and firing. Although small in sample size (due to expense and the need for removing and consuming minute quantities of ancient material), these results are remarkable, countering a nearly century-old understanding of Athenian pottery production. Next steps will require developing non-invasive and less costly techniques for expanding similar studies to significantly larger bodies of material.

Moving from Greece to Rome and from ceramics to glass, Nicola Barham takes her title “Everything Impossible” (Chapter 6) from a passage in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius (2.19), where beautiful glassware sits alongside cups crafted from gold, silver, and other expensive materials. Seeking to correct perceptions of mass-produced ancient glass objects as relatively common and inexpensive in antiquity, she applies a data-mining technique to online databases of ancient Greek and Roman texts. Through analysis of references to the medium of glass (found primarily by searches for the stems vitr-, ὑαλ-, and ὑελ-), she notes that glass appears frequently in high-value contexts, from architecture to personal adornment and fine glassware. Multiple authors also speak of the wondrous qualities of glass, whether in magnifying, glittering, transmitting, or reflecting light. Thus, Barham closes by praising the curatorial strategy of spotlighting exquisite ancient Roman glass—also shown in some of her illustrations—as not only attractive today, but also in accordance with ancient aesthetic values.

Dimitri Nakassis, Kevin Pluta, and Julie Hruby (Chapter 7) present their work on the Pylos Tablets Digital Project (PTDP), launched in 2013 with the goal of publishing all surviving Linear B tablets from the “Palace of Nestor” in a digital format. Inscribed while wet with administrative texts in the earliest known form of written Greek, the clay tablets were fortuitously preserved by the palace-destroying fire of ca. 1180 BCE. Traditional publications present the tablets, usually leaf- or page-shaped, primarily as textual documents, using transcriptions, line drawings, and black-and-white photographs. By augmenting these publication methods with Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a form of computational photography, the PTDP produces files that can be published online and provide a viewing experience much closer to autopsy. Additionally, three-dimensional scanning together with macroscopic analysis and X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) increase understanding of the tablets as material objects, not simply texts. The illustrations in this chapter suggest great promise, raising questions about when the PTDP files will become digitally available.

Sarah Blake and Jennifer Dyer (Chapter 8) interpret ancient material culture by applying object-oriented theoretical approaches to classical literature. After first introducing Bill Brown’s Thing Theory, they briefly discuss Object-Oriented Ontology and “the unknowability of objects” (174). Next, turning to armor and weapons in texts, they demonstrate another side of object biographies (already familiar from Ch. 3). Homeric objects, such as the silver bowl awarded to Odysseus by Achilles for his victory in the footrace at the funeral games of Patroklos, for example, or the arms of Achilles, often play large roles, “as markers of time, as objects of exchange within social networks, and as co-participants in the warrior-figure” (176). For Vergil, similarly, Homeric-style objects carry special meaning—especially arms and armor, as indicated from the opening words of his epic, arma virumque. But rather than a clear duality of material things and human agents, Blake and Dyer show how this phrase encourages a deeper reading of the inhuman world, with “its agential networks of relations in which things, objects, and subjects participate meaningfully” (180).

Öhrman (Chapter 9) combines experimental archaeology with comparative textual analysis to uncover numerous instances of poetic sound-mimicking related to Roman textile production. After introducing evidence for warp-weighted and two-beam looms in the Roman world, she describes her weaving trials using recreated looms and tools. Spectrograms from video and audio recordings show distinct patterns associated with three main “soundmarks” of weaving, present on both loom types: shed change, beating of weft with weaving sword, and insertion of weft thread. Importantly, based on sounds, only the presence of tinkling or clanging loom weights can indicate the use of a warp-weighted rather than two-beam loom; an author might also mention this sound, or indicate the loom type by specifying the direction in which the weave grows, or how the warp is fixed to the loom. Four case studies follow, showing elements of weaving soundscapes in poetic descriptions ranging from Tibullus in the Augustan period to a Late Antique riddle.

Two Indexes (Ancient Sources and General) close the volume, each thorough and helpful, but with numerous cross-references necessitated by strict adherence to Monumenta Graeca et Romana style for ancient names (e.g., Korinthos for Corinth, Ovidius for Ovid). Separate bibliographies follow each chapter, convenient for readers but also sometimes repetitive. Illustrations, where included, are finely reproduced, some in color. In sum, this volume deserves a place in every major research library, where readers from a wide range of specialties will find several essays of interest. One only wonders, looking back at terms like “New Archaeology” and “New Art History,” which of the New Approaches presented here will have the greatest impact on the future of Classical Archaeology.

Authors and Titles

C.L. Cooper (Kate Cooper), Introduction: Old and New Approaches to Ancient Material Culture

Part 1, Adopting Approaches
Anna Collar, Networks, Connectivity, and Material Culture
Sarah Murray, Big Data and Greek Archaeology: Potential, Hazards, and a Case Study from Early Greece
C.L. Cooper (Kate Cooper), Biography of the Bull-Leaper: A ‘Minoan’ Ivory Figurine and Collecting Antiquity

Part 2, Material Approaches
Philip Sapirstein, Labour Organization and Energetics of Early Archaic Architecture in Korinthos
David Saunders, Karen Trentelman, and Jeffrey Maish, Collaborative Investigations in the Production of Athenian Pottery
Nicola Barham, “Everything Impossible”: Admiring Glass in Ancient Rome

Part 3, ‘Reading’ Material
Dimitri Nakassis, Kevin Pluta, and Julie Hruby, The Pylos Tablets Digital Project: Prehistoric Scripts in the 21st Century
Sarah Blake and Jennifer Dyer, Objects and Things in Classical Literature
Magdalena Öhrman, The Soundscape of Textile Work in the Roman World: Old Sources & New Methods


[1] Registration number 931.21.1 (pp. 84, 212), not 1931.21.1 (p. 77) – one of very few typos I found in the volume.

[2] For similar approaches to other museum objects, see now Object Biographies: Collaborative Approaches to Ancient Mediterranean Art. Eds. John North Hopkins, Sarah Kielt Costello, and Paul Ramey Davis. Houston: Menil Collection, 2021 (too recently published for reference in the present volume).

[3] Athenian Pottery Project – The Getty Conservation Institute. A note in the interest of transparency: I invited Saunders to present some of these results in a 2016 lecture at the Tampa Museum of Art (as indicated on p. 124, n. 1). I was not involved in the research.