Roman Archaeology: Crisis and Revolution. (Debate)

By James, Simon | Antiquity, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Roman Archaeology: Crisis and Revolution. (Debate)

James, Simon, Antiquity

Keywords: Roman archaeology, Roman empire, post-colonialism

Study of the Roman world is underrepresented and marginalised in mainstream archaeological discourse, at least in Anglophone scholarship. This is astonishing, given Rome's role in the creation of western culture. The histories of over thirty modern countries include extended periods as part of the Roman empire. Archaeology presents few issues more important to explore greater than the reasons this vast empire came into being, why it eventually transformed into the medieval world, and not least, how such an entity, exceptional in Old World history, stayed together so long.

What is the reason for Roman archaeology's relatively low profile? Is it because Rome is over-familiar, or just plain dull? Perhaps, as a notoriously ruthless and successful imperial power, for many it is now ideologically or morally suspect. Maybe it is that Roman archaeologists are boring, old-fashioned and have nothing of interest to say to their colleagues. Is their work anyway devalued because it is hopelessly compromised by colonialist baggage?

Or could the explanation really lie elsewhere? Perhaps the biggest problem is now other archaeologists, hindered by their prejudices about what Roman archaeology is--or rather, was. For in recent years the subject has exploded into a multiplicity of schools of thought, generating theoretically-informed, post-colonial perspectives which are totally transforming our understandings of a key historical era. Lingering prejudice based on outmoded stereotypes may have blinded many outsiders to these radical changes--and to what Roman archaeology now his to offer the discipline as a whole. Whatever the reasons, the result is everyone's loss: for Roman archaeology has unique riches, with some of the biggest and finest archaeological data-sets anywhere, complemented by a vast body of texts providing unrivalled opportunities for doing historical archaeology.

Some of these issues were discussed during the recent seminar entitled `Whither Roman Archaeology?', and intensive day of presentations and discussions, held in London on 16th November 2002, organised by Ian Haynes and Richard Hingley, Chair and Secretary respectively of the Archaeology Committee of the UK'S Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Over seventy people took part in the lively debates, to which I contributed as a discussant. What follows is a personal perspective, necessarily selective, on the current place and future potential of Roman archaeology as practised by British researchers, based around the presentations and discussions at the seminar.

The day was initially a response to the results of a survey on the state of Roman archaeology in UK universities (Allason-Jones 2000), itself prompted by a perception that university teaching and research on the subject are sliding into crisis. Dedicated lectureships were apparently not being replaced, and study of Rome seemed to be vanishing from curricula. However, the organisers wisely framed the seminar on the wider issue of which university archaeology is at most the dominant component: the place, and potential value, of Roman archaeological research as a whole. Like prehistoric or medieval studies, Roman research is by no means confined to university departments. Government agencies, museums, contract and independent archaeologists, and even parliamentarians participated (although non-university sectors were not as strongly represented as hoped).

Given the number of theoretical viewpoints represented, and the wide range of potential constituencies to be considered (from university, contract and independent `amateur' archaeology to heritage agencies, tourism and popular media presentation), it is not surprising that debate was often lively. Notably, some of the younger contributors felt that the discipline's internal revolution remains incomplete, and that some senior establishment figures remain significant obstacles to change. …

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