Classically Inclined

September 6, 2013

Between Words and Walls: Material and Textual Approaches to Housing in the Graeco-Roman World

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:38 pm
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Last week was very much a week where all sorts of things seemed like very good ideas on their own, but in aggregate started to look just the tiniest bit over-optimistic. One of those things was attending the conference Between Words and Walls, organised by April Pudsey and Jen Baird of Birkbeck. I don’t think I have ever been to a conference before where I have had to explain why I’m there quite so often – and, let’s be honest, perhaps it’s not immediately obvious why I was there. The conference wanted to examine the study of ancient housing, how to combine the archaeological sources with the literary sources without privileging either, and consider new methodologies for studying the ancient house. It is an entirely fair question to ask how all that links in with what I do.

However, there is actually a very nice link between my stuff and ancient housing. A lot of the study of ancient housing has started looking at what, for want of a better term, you might call the sociology of living – that is, how the shape and layout of houses reflects the hierarchies of the families living in them, and what we might extrapolate about kinship relationships based on the space that families inhabit. This is where the link with my research comes in – although my work on Seneca’s concept of the family is currently based on his representation of the idealised philosophical family, I can’t discuss that without a good grounding in the social history of the Roman family, of which the study of housing forms a part. I told you it made perfect sense.

From mthat perspective, there were a couple of very interesting papers. Jen’s paper on houses at Dura-Europos included as a case study the records of a house which was given to four brothers as an inheritance, and the process of splitting one oikos into four oikoi – but within the same building. This is kind of mind-exploding from an ancient housing point of view, because when we think about houses, there’s a tendency to assume that one family unit inhabited one building, and that each building was a single oikos. If you have the sense of multiple households living in a single structure, that changes a lot of our assumptions about life in the ancient world – population density, the hierarchy of shared spaces within the shared structure, the practicalities of living in such small quarters, not to mention the difference between what the legal document says and what may have actually happened. The paper given by Heather Baker offered a brilliant counterpoint with evidence from Hellenistic Uruk, with tablet documentation of parts of houses being sold off to family members, or records of habitation that suggest multiple households in a single building again. Heather also bought out the evidence this gives us for female economic activity in this period, which for various reasons is not as well documented in other spheres of life.

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May 30, 2011

A further thought on slavery and the Pompeii exhibit

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:53 am
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I had a further thought about the Pompeii exhibition in Times Square over the weekend, specifically about the comparative absence of slavery.

My feelings about slavery are very different to those of the vast majority of the American audience who will see the current incarnation of this exhibition. I come from a British environment, where the inheritance of slavery is more or less invisible unless you specifically explore the Empire’s participation in the slave trade in the colonies, which was abolished by the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (followed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which made the practice of owning slaves itself illegal). We never had slaves in England itself on the same scale as America, and as such we do not have a similar legacy. We have no equivalent of Jim Crow, of segregation, of the Montgomery bus boycotts, of Martin Luther King. I have had to internalise these things and remind myself that this is the cultural world my students inhabit, even if it is not mine.

When I teach, I am very aware that the word ‘slavery’ has a certain resonance, certain implications, that I have to break down at once. I have to tell my students explicitly and with no messing about that Roman slavery is a very different beast, it’s not race-based, it has more fluidity to it than ante-bellum American slavery, and that they have to rewire their brains to work with this material. It’s hard, it’s delicate, and it takes at least fifteen minutes of focused, careful explanation to lay the groundwork for tackling the subject for the rest of the semester.

I can’t ignore the subject when I’m teaching. The topic is too interwoven into every topic, every source, that I want to use with my students. But Discovery don’t have the luxury of a captive audience, or of taking fifteen minutes of carefully prepared discussion to make sure that their visitors are absolutely clear on the differences between Roman and American ante-bellum slavery. They can’t afford to take the risk that something will be misunderstood when the topic in hand is such a loaded one for American culture. As they don’t have the luxury of giving their popular audience the kind of in-depth instruction that making this distinction requires, they simply elide as much of slavery as they can.

I still don’t think that you can give an accurate picture of Roman society without talking about slavery and acknowledging its role. But given the audience that Discovery is targeting, and the practical challenges you face when you educate people about something this tricky and delicate, I can see why they decided to gloss over this potential minefield.

May 27, 2011

Pompeii in Times Square

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 1:11 pm
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Yesterday I took myself off to see Pompeii The Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius at the Discovery Channel building in Times Square – it’s only a couple of stops on the subway, and being a professional classicist I thought it would be remiss of me not to go and have a look. I even treated myself to the audio guide. I will admit that I was expecting to raise my trained classical eyebrow and feel ever so slightly superior, but I am delighted to report that I actually got a great deal out of visiting the exhibition.

This is mainly because of the simply superb set of artefacts that the curators have gathered, many of which I had never seen, and some of which have become totemic for teaching and learning about Pompeii. (Sadly no photos were allowed, so you will have to make do with scavenged links.) The exhibition starts with a two minute survey film, including the pleasing factoid that Latin contains no word for volcano, that gives a brief summary of the eruption and its context before releasing you into part one of the exhibition, focusing on daily life. There is then a chamber which attempts, in a somewhat hokey way, to do a reconstruction of the day of the eruption, showing a video of the increasing piles of ash and pumice on buildings and so forth, ending with the pyroclastic surge – from which, with a dramatic cloud of smoke, you are ushered into the room where the body casts are laid out. The final portion of the exhibition contains more daily life material, but it also focuses on the historical timeline of Vesuvius’ activity, and mentions the current concerns about what will happen if the volcano erupts again.

As I say, I have few bones to pick on the general presentation front – Discovery have been very careful not to repeat too many Pompeii Myths, and there’s no mention (for instance) of the old “rich lady found in the gladiator barracks” chestnut (exploded inter alia by Mary Beard here). The objects are laid out clearly, well lit and well spaced, and while some objects are replicas of originals, there are also plenty of actual finds to enjoy. Speaking personally, I found myself wanting to know more and more about The House of the Golden Bracelet, which provided most of the frescos displayed in the exhibition – including this gorgeous garden piece, depicting birds flying and nesting in a garden surrounded by trellis work. What intrigued me about this work, the first thing you see when you come through from the film, is the prominence of Egyptian motifs – there are two sphinxes at the bottom of the right hand panel, and a wee Egyptian style godlet at the bottom of the left hand panel. Plus you have those fascinating circular things hung at the top of the frames of the left and right panels, repeated in other garden frescos from the house, in contrast with the Greek dramatic mask in the central panel. I really wanted to know more about the Egyptian element here, especially given the more ‘traditional’ elements, but frustratingly the guide and explanatory notes didn’t touch on it – although they did note the presence of ducks and lilies in the fountain from the same house as showing Egyptian influence, which I thought was far less compelling.

Anyway, the House of the Golden Bracelet clearly had a cracking interior designer, and I’m going to follow up what I can. Especially the portrait of the Greek poet and librarian Euphorian – how they identified him I do not know, but I want to find out more. (more…)

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