Tuesday, 7 April 2015

TRAC and back

It is funny to be in a conference that is actually in your home town, but your name tag sports the name of another university and another country. On the way to this year’s 25th anniversary Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) at the University of Leicester I was asked for directions to the Mercure Hotel on Granby Road on New Walk by a conference delegate. I must have a friendly, unthreatening appearance, since I am asked for directions in many different cities across Europe, including some Italians asking me where the busses are going in Rome – as if I knew outside the city centre. Well, in the conference itself my smugness was somewhat grated, when I failed to find the registration. Reading the directions from the web page would have helped immensely.

During the conference I heard many times how the interlopers are taking over. These people were mostly ancient historians, but I did my part as a pre-Roman archaeologist who actually is a prehistorian. In the days when the conference was coming nearer and I actually returned for my son’s two last school days of the term, this became more and more a thorny issue. Phil who had mostly downplayed the programme and considered our less-than-splendid finances suddenly had a change of heart and was somewhat irritated by the fact that the Romanist of the family was not attending. But I have now been crossing frequently the period boundaries and had promised to give a paper, so there was no way back. TRAC coinciding with the end of the school term and Alex’s birthday gave me a little bad conscious when I headed to the wine reception after fetching my son from the school, but sending the Romanist as the representative of the Stockholm University to the TRAC party made that guilt magically disappear. Phil was happy to chat with his colleagues over some pints. Now, let’s see how much beer is needed for explaining my attendance in the RAC/TRAC for the Romanist next year...

Andrew Gardner giving the key note talk

This being an Anniversary TRAC a good chunk of the programme was devoted to presentations that either reflected the current state of the theoretical Roman studies or presented the latest or almost the latest in the study of the Roman world. The key note speaker was Dr Andrew Gardner from the UCL who assessed the recent trends. This presentation gave a fair review of the state of affairs, although there were a couple of places where I dared to have a different opinion. As I noted in my own talk, the period divide in archaeology may affect the literature we read and references we have. I have recently read some of the best work on identity – and it was not in prehistoric or pre-Roman archaeology I tend to follow. I should have read these works earlier. Andrew did not for some reason mention Punic and Greek colonisation and von Dommelen’s key contributions to postcolonial archaeology, who actually has commented on Roman colonisation. He was lamenting that the postcolonial general literature lacks archaeological components and does not discuss much Roman colonisation, even if the nativism and resistance within Roman archaeology have been hot topics. I also noted that he showed the ‘Death of archaeological theory’ book cover during his discussion on the general fragmentation of archaeological theory and a high turnover of ideas. I did sit in the said Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference session some years ago that book was based on and can assure that it perhaps reflected more the sentiment of the speakers than the true situation. The non-continuation of theoretical ideas probably has more to do with the short funding spans of people who are not Ian Hodders and the need to be original – as Andrew pointed out. In any case, Andrew emphasized the importance of pragmatic theoretical solutions – and who could argue with that.

The main reason of me sitting in the TRAC was hearing the Growth of Rome session. If we are even more specific, it was Tessa Stek’s (Leiden) presentation I wanted to hear more than any of the others. He did not disappoint me who am more than interested in Latin colonisation due to my ongoing research that has its origins in work at Nepi. I heard his presentation more than a year ago in the Frontiers conference in Cambridge and he did add a lot of detail from the Aesernia and Venusia projects. However, my Sunday morning was glorious, since Tessa was among about 15 listeners I had. We had a relatively enthusiastic exchange during the question time and continued our discussion throughout the coffee break. Those 90 minutes alone were worth every penny of the £55 conference fee!

Not that the Growth of Rome – or the other main session on Saturday on public Roman architecture – had been without other highlights. Amy Russell’s (Durham) analysis on gender and spatial experience was enthusiastic and gave new perspectives on where and how women were presented in Rome. And how easily Roman citizens (men) could be upset by female protesting so much so that they lamented it in their classical texts (but did not dare to tell the women). The contrast between the clean Forum and citizens’ space and Basilica Pompeiana with its delicious marble women underlined the difference Amy made in her talk between ‘spaces that make difference’ and those that ‘difference makes’. If the interlopers are like this, we need more of them!

Another gracious female presenter was Penelope Davies (Austin, Texas) who made a very strong argument on the development from conscious avoidance of single sponsor general development plans to the grand plans of Julius Caesar. She also pointed out how concrete and its latest datings made possible the creation of overarching policies. Of other quality contributions in these two sessions, one has to pinpoint Julian Richard’s (Leuven) discussion on the limitations of architectural building type typologies and the resulting avoidance of history and local context of the buildings. Similarly, Saskia Stevens’s (Utrecht) talk on Borderscape suggested that her study will be of importance. Willem Jongman (Groningen) also reminded us that the population in Rome could have kept their energy levels up with olive oil and wine – which were stables of Roman diet during the Imperial times.

It was a pity that Adrian Chadwick’s (‘one degree of separation from every single archaeologist in Britain’) and his colleagues’ coin session was on Sunday morning – not to mention Daan van Helden’s and Rob Witcher’s media session. These I could not attend due to the timing of the general session where my paper Claustra inde portaeque essent was placed. The first session mentioned would have been important from material handling’s point of view and the second would just have been TAG fun. Nevertheless, in the general session David S. Rose’s (Edinburgh) paper on the central places and lieux de mémoire in northern Gaul was truly innovative. If only he changes the central place concept. His talk had nothing to do with core and periphery or Wallerstein. Nice model to check from the conference proceedings.

Leicester and Richard III - in fire sculpture

Some giggles had already been provided in the conference by the fact that we actually decided in the Annual General Meeting that Rome will be the stage for the TRAC next year – even if it is always in the same place with the RAC on the RAC years and the University of Rome “La Sapienza” had already publicized the 2016 TRAC a week or two earlier on the RAC web site. On one hand the numbers of students, self-employed and commercial archaeologists will be down. But on the other it will be Rome. In March. A round of the 25th anniversary beer and wine and a slice of the anniversary cake to that!

More conferencing next week when I will tackle Siena and CAA 2015.

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