Exploring the Potential of Actor-Network-Theory for Roman Archaeology – Astrid Van Oyen (Cambridge)

The proposed paper will explore the potential of Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) for archaeological thought and practice. Whereas ANT is slowly making its way into archaeological theory (see the recent group on “symmetrical archaeology”, as well as the volume on material agency by Carl Knappett and Lambros Malafouris (2008)), it has largely been overlooked in Roman archaeology.

The main reason for its holding a promising potential for archaeological application lies in its rejection of the modernist nature/society dualism, which corresponds with similar polar oppositions such as objectivity/subjectivity and human/thing. Since archaeology tends to implement social theories that are based on empirical study of present-day societies, it often has a hard time moulding those to suit a database of ancient objects. If, however, the nature/society dualism is rejected – as advocated by Actor-Network-Theory – archaeology could contribute actively to the creation of interdisciplinary social theory, since all actors (animate and inanimate) would be granted the same a priori ontological position.

This paper will first identify the concrete archaeological themes on which an ANT-inspired perspective could shed new light, and then touch on the crucial question of how to relate the theoretical side to archaeological data. Which adjustments need to be made to ANT in order to suit the discipline-specific needs of archaeology? In particular, it is believed that cultural change in the Roman empire – and the by now well-rehearsed debate on Romanization – could benefit from an approach as sketched above, whose central tenet is to replace the often invoked vague causes and labels (be they ‘social’, ‘global’, or else) by concrete chains of human/non-human associations. Not aiming at presenting definite answers or developing extended case studies, this theoretical mind play will seek to provoke in-depth dialogue and debate.


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