TRAC25 Review 1: the TRAC first-timer

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Sessions attended:

  • Charmed, I’m sure: Roman magic – old theory, new approaches (first half)
  • Socio-corporeal practices in the provinces (second half)
  • Interdisciplinary approaches to Roman artefacts
  • Socks & sandals: historical fiction as archaeological technique?
  • Integrating environmental and theoretical Roman archaeology

As a first-time TRAC-goer I signed up for the conference expecting a wide array of sessions and talks reflecting both archaeological and ancient historical research themes, on a great variety of interesting and relevant topics. Needless to say that on reading the conference programme I was not disappointed, and found a number of sessions related to my interests.

The Friday evening opening session succeeded in setting the scene for the following two days with a fascinating talk in which Dr Andy Gardner endeavoured to ‘take the pulse’ of theory in Roman studies and posed the question as to whether, in the wake of Romanisation theory, archaeologists and historians had fragmented into many theoretical strands, or simply become “multivocal” in all working towards similar ends. The implication was clearly that fragmentation can only be to the detriment of a constructive scholarship, though the question was left appropriately open-ended in advance of the sessions the following two days. Dr Gardner also reintroduced the concept of “tough-minded” versus “tender-minded”, derived from early 20th-century philosophy, which provided the basis for a series of interesting and reflective conversations over coffee the next few days!

On the Saturday morning I decided to attend the first half of the session on Roman magic, followed by the second half of the session on socio-corporeal practices in the provinces. What I saw of each of these sessions was both interesting and engaging, although interestingly the talks given during the second half of the socio-corporeal session were in my opinion some of the least theoretical of the conference. Nevertheless, Stuart McKie’s work on curse tablets was a fascinating start to the day, while Siân Thomas’ talk on Roman Cornwall was a welcome attempt to shine some light on an oft-neglected region using the evidence of the brooches and imported ceramics.

After the lunch break came the session on interdisciplinary approaches to artefacts, sponsored by the Roman Finds Group. This session provided one of the standout talks of the whole conference, delivered by Dr Ruth Shaffrey of Oxford Archaeology. Dr Shaffrey’s talk, on the analysis of stone artefacts, drew attention to the potential of these objects for producing completely new bodies of archaeological data, and – following recent attempts to reinvigorate archaeological petrography in this area – successfully demonstrated the potential of this data. It aptly concluded with a plea for finds specialists to be open with their knowledge in assisting colleagues and students – a welcome sentiment appropriately made, given the venue.

The Sunday began with the session on historical fiction as archaeological technique. I was pleased to find this session so geared towards some of my own interests, providing a contrast to the predominantly intense archaeological content of the previous day. What is more I was pleased to find that this session was running at all – while historical fiction can perhaps be seen as often marginalised as not a subject for mainstream academic debate, I believe that this is something that all Romanists have at least some exposure to, and which indeed constitutes a significant component of the media by which the Classical world is presented to the general public. It was therefore welcome to find the subject addressed in an arena as well renowned as TRAC. The talks were lively and thought provoking, all sharing the common interest of the reception of the ancient world by the general public. Particularly interesting was the insight provided by Dr Victoria Whitworth that there had been a recent shift towards ‘fetishizing’ historical accuracy in fiction; this is apparently not present in older works and led to questions of the role of the academically-conceived past in creating fictional narratives. This dynamic was then reversed by the simply engrossing story of the Skouriotissa Miner provided by Dr Michael Given, which succeeded in bringing into focus the possible roles of the fictional narrative in archaeological interpretation.

Following lunch came the session on integrating environmental and theoretical archaeology; in my opinion the outstanding session of the conference. Each of the talks given was of high quality and presented well, and a final plenary session allowed thoughts to be collected on the role of environmental analysis in Roman archaeology. Here it seemed that there was some anxiety from some of the presenters regarding this role, perhaps with self-consciousness that environmental techniques remain peripheral to the research agenda in Roman studies. However the well-packed lecture hall and liveliness of the questioning seemed to confirm that this is not the case. Several key themes relating to interactions between humans and their environment (particularly animals) came out of the session and have remained in my mind ever since. What is more, the balance of theory and data seemed just right here, and this was exemplified by Naomi Sykes’ ideas around elemental philosophy and Lauren Bellis’ work on Human-Canine interactions. The latter in particular stood out as interesting, engaging, and original, which is all the more impressive from a talk derived from the results of a Masters’ dissertation.

One final note, however, concerns the lack of any papers dealing specifically with ceramics, which is alarming given the number of artefact-oriented talks presented on the conference programme. This possibly reflects a concern in Roman archaeology that pottery studies is a largely a-theoretical area – an assertion I would certainly contest and hope to see addressed in future years.

That said, overall my first TRAC experience was a fascinating and lively one in which I had the opportunity to meet a number of new and interesting people in the field – I will certainly be returning for TRAC 26 in Rome next year!

Adam Sutton

PhD student, University of Reading

Thanks very much to Adam for sharing his thoughts on TRAC25. If you would like to share your experiences of TRAC25 in a short conference review, please get in touch with us here


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