Category Archives: Identity Studies Theory and the Methodological Challenges

Session Abstract – Identity Studies Theory and the Methodological Challenges

Humans produce and use artefacts not only for physical tasks but to mediate social, economic and political relationships and to create, express, and maintain social, economic and political identities. For this purpose artefacts possess what appears to an endless variability over space and time leading to choices between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, which is how we differentiate ourselves and others. Until the middle of the 20th century, archaeologists focused on the stylistic variabilities as a means of discriminating chronologically between artefacts and their contexts, whereas modern archaeology recognises a much wider range of artefact variability. For instance technological artefact studies tease out the practices followed by producers in detail and use these to map the world of the producer. Whether or not we apply formal typologies, ethnoarchaeological or experimental archaeological analogies, artefact variability continue to be the two main archaeological tools for classifying material culture. Classification lies at the core of human conceptualisation of the world around us by identifying, grouping, and naming different kinds of objects and phenomena. The scholarly change in focus from cultural history to processes of social and cognitive history has developed our sensitivity to a growing range of artefact variability. Under the influence of theory borrowed from sociology and anthropology this process has developed as a continued breaking down of analytical units, for instance in acculturation studies where we have moved from cultures to ethnicities to identities. The monoliths of Greek and Roman culture have become fragmented though the concept of ideas of subcultures, regional cultures and identities, which arguably formed the constituent parts of a heterogeneous yet comparatively unified way of life. Identities are flexible and dynamic social constructs emerging within the context of an individual’s multiple overlapping social relationships and locations and the challenge to archaeology continues to be the definition of criteria of material culture to mediate this analytical unit.


Burials and Brooches Collective Versus Personal Identity – Dr. Stijn Heeren (Amsterdam)

Brooches are considered to be an important indicator of the bearers’ identity (Jundi/Hill 1998; Eckardt 2005).  Since identity is sometimes expressed in the burial ritual, one would expect to find brooches in cemeteries. However, brooches seem to be virtually absent from cemeteries in the Dutch river area. Given the good properties of the riverine clay soils for preserving metal, this is surprising. Some sites in the Dutch river area yielded over one thousand brooches, but almost all come from settlements and military camps and only a very small number from cemeteries. At the same time, other classes of grave goods (like ceramics) are present in large numbers. The sets of ceramics are quite uniform sets of a plate, a beaker and a jug. These standardized sets of ceramics and the absence of items referring to a person’s identity (fingerrings, brooches) can be understood as an indication of deliberately anonymising the deceased. The ritual at these rural sites is aimed at the transformation of the deceased into an anonymous ancestor, instead of acknowledging the person’s identity. Since this is a new phenomenon (the burial ritual in the Late Iron Age is very different), this could relate to the establishment of the Roman military camps in this area.

There are some exceptions, and these are found in and near the town of Nijmegen. The city population handled brooches very differently – as much as five brooches were placed in individual graves sometimes. Clearly, their grave ritual did not limit the expression of personal identity.

Aarts, J.G. and Heeren, S. (in prep.): Buried Batavians: mortuary rituals of a rural frontier community

Eckardt, H. (2005) The social distribution of Roman artefacts: The case of nail-cleaners and brooches in Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology 18, 139-160.

Jundi, S. and Hill, J. D. (1998) Brooches and identity in first century AD Britain: more than meets the eye? In C. Forcey, J. Hawthorne and R. Witcher (eds.) TRAC 1997. Proceedings of the seventh annual theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference Nottingham 1997, 125-137, Oxford, Oxbow Books.

To Curse or not to Curse? Divergent Uses of Literacy in Aquae Sulis – Daan van Helden

This paper investigates the different ways in which people sought to express their identity in literate religious practice in Aquae Sulis, Roman Bath. The contents of inscriptions on stone and the curse tablets from the sacred well are analysed to get a handle on the way people of different status and backgrounds engaged in literate communication with the gods.

When close attention is paid to who it was that dedicated these texts, the type of text and their content, and these are analysed in concert, interesting patterns are visible. These patterns can inform our interpretation of religious practise and the uptake of the epigraphic habit. Moreover, it provides a very interesting glimpse into life in Roman Bath and the way people negotiated their identity there.

Consuming Social Identity: A Case Study from Roman Galilee – Rick Bonnie (Leuven)

The debate around social identity in Roman archaeology has for a long time been focused on the production of identity in material culture, rather than on the question how people have consumed it. Through this, the recipient of the material has been given a rather passive voice. It has been the production of different (e.g. Roman or native) styles of material culture that has been studied to discuss changes in people’s lives, rather than the material composition of these people.

This paper tries to put it the other way around by concentrating on the changing material composition of people. Put differently, it studies the people’s consumption of a (through the incorporation into the Empire) produced surrounding. Thus it does not focus on the ‘grand strategy’ of Empire in the construction of identity (where too often the actor has been passive), but on the changes in people’s interaction with this changing surrounding.

The aim of the paper is to demonstrate this theoretical framework by a case study from the Roman region of Galilee (northern Israel). The archaeological material from this region has often not been studied in the manner as proposed above, but instead has relied heavily on a more traditional, static culture-historical approach. This case study, however, tries to show that the proposed theoretical framework is helpful in finding answers to questions as to why, how and when various changes occurred, in what kind of context, and their effect in a long-term regional and empire-wide process of development.

Pottery for the Roman Peasants: Patterns of Persistency and Change in Southern Tuscany – Emanuele Vaccaro (Cambridge)

This paper focuses on patterns of persistency and change of the ceramic repertoire utilised by the Roman peasants in an inland area of southern Tuscany, as it emerges from an in-progress project aimed at shedding light on the material culture of the Roman rural communities. The material culture of small settlements in inland territories is frequently considered less sophisticated than that of the broadly connected coastal sites and major towns. How much this simplified assumption is true? Is there any difference between the early and late Roman period? Did the distance from the more globalised coastal sites determine the development of a specific ceramic culture that can identify the Roman peasants living in inland and less-connected territories? Although the research project is only at the beginning, some evidence is now available and it will be discussed to define if and how the social composition of rural communities can be investigated through the use of their ceramics.

Identity or Habitus? Changes in Cypriot Cooking Wares During the Hellenistic-Roman Period – Kristina Winther-Jacobsen (Copenhagen)

Identities are flexible and dynamic social constructs emerging within the context of an individual’s multiple overlapping social relationships and locations. Depending on the context and audience, different identity positions are taken in order for the multiple overlapping social relationships and locations to be successfully negotiated. Habitus is a system of lasting and changeable dispositions developed through practice framing the way the individual agent experiences, thinks and acts as well as synthesising both the position of the agent in social relationships and locations and the mental position of the agent. Identity and habitus are clearly related begging the question in which specific cases these individual concepts contribute to a better understanding of material culture.

The paper explores the introduction of quartz rich cooking fabric in Cyprus during the Hellenistic and Early Roman period, a period of great change in Cyprus when the island’s city-kingdoms were annexed first by Ptolemy I and later by Rome. Mapping the tradition of cooking vessels on the island, the paper investigates how the technological change of introducing quartz rich fabrics affected the types of cooking vessels produced and the repercussions to consumption patterns in Cyprus. Did the Cypriot potters adapt the new technology to their local cooking styles? Did the new technology led to morphological experiments in Cyprus? Did the change of technology also bring about a change of style in cooking? These questions are used to discuss the difference between identity and habitus.