Stuart McKie – PhD Student, Open University
TRAC sessions attended:
- Charmed, I’m sure: Roman magic – old theory, new approaches
- Theorizing space and material culture in Late Antiquity (first half)
- Interdisciplinary approaches to Roman artefacts (second half)
- Contextualising coins, assembling contexts and interrogating agency
- Integrating Environmental and Theoretical Roman Archaeology
CA sessions attended:
- Smelling Rome
- The Senses in Roman Life
- Low genre and ideology (first half)
- Sacred space and the senses (second half)
- The experience of ancient polytheism
- The role of perception in making sense of space
- The Roman Empire
I attended both TRAC and the Classical Association Conference (CA) this year, and as they were so close together I thought that a comparison of the two might be interesting. Obviously this comes with plenty of caveats: TRAC and the CA differ in size, purpose and remit, and both are world-leaders in their respective corners of our field. I don’t intend to proclaim which conference was ‘best’ – how would I even decide, and what would be the point? Instead I thought I would focus on my experiences of attending the conferences, how I found the themes, formats and content of this year’s TRAC and CA.
Both adhered to the standard format of academic conferences. Panels consisted of a number of 20-minute papers centred on a specific theme. Although a few of the panel chairs reserved discussion and question time until the end of the panel, the majority gave the audience 10 minutes after each presentation to ask the speaker questions. At the CA there were also a couple of round-table discussions, which were a nice change from the standard format. It would be nice to see some more variety from the norm at conferences – modern technology might hold new opportunities, and actually both the CA and TRAC were great at encouraging engagement through social media, especially Twitter.
The most noticeable difference between the two, and something that is immediately obvious from looking at the brochures, is the sheer size of the CA compared to TRAC. This year the CA ran nine panels consecutively over almost three days, meaning that there were almost 200 papers given in total, not counting the roundtables, plenaries and film screenings. The whole thing felt like an academic version of Reading Festival, with so much going on that you could never hope to catch it all. Thankfully most of the rooms were close together, so switching panels was possible if needed. The benefit of the gargantuan size of the conference was that there was always something on that I was interested in. For me, the panels themed around the senses had the biggest draw, and there were some outstanding speakers across the three days. I enjoyed in particular the “Smelling Rome” panel, with Dr Eleanor Betts’ work using the theory of ‘pungent loci’ to navigate Rome by smell especially interesting. I also thought the way Jeffrey Veitch applied modern knowledge of sound engineering to Ostian bath houses was a great way to get closer to ancient experiences. Overall, the theoretical content of these sensory panels was good, and the speakers applied theories from a wide range of other disciplines to provide excellent insights into the ancient world. Alongside the academic talks, the CA excels at bringing in professionals from associated areas, especially in education. It is always great to hear about how Classics is being taken out into communities and schools – ultimately it is the only way our discipline will survive!
TRAC was somewhat cosier, but still offered more than 80 papers over the two days (had this been a RAC/TRAC year the size difference would have been smaller). My experience of TRAC was altered by the fact that I participated in a panel, namely “Charmed, I’m sure: Roman magic – old theory, new approaches.” Naturally this was the stand-out panel for me at TRAC, with a series of excellent presentations which were very close to my own research interests. Ancient magic can often seem like the black sheep in our field – it was barely mentioned at the CA, despite the huge number of researchers present – so getting a whole dedicated panel at TRAC was very welcome! On the whole, TRAC was more focussed than the CA. Being an archaeology conference the emphasis on material culture was expected, but although the rest of the empire was occasionally mentioned, most papers concentrated exclusively on Roman Britain. Despite this, the variety of materials discussed kept up my interest, and I particularly enjoyed the environmental archaeology session – a topic I knew very little about previously. Like many others I was impressed with Lauren Bellis, who made her TRAC debut off the back of her MA dissertation on social relations with dogs in Roman Britain: one to watch! The most theory-heavy panel was “Interdisciplinary approaches to Roman artefacts”, in which most of the speakers wore their influences very much on their sleeves. Nicky Garland studied small finds from a range of scales, and brought in theories of agency, identity and landscape. Jason Lundock’s use of material complex theory was also very enlightening, giving fresh perspectives on how objects were perceived and experienced in the Roman world.
I had a great time at both conferences. I met loads of great new people and heard some exciting, ground-breaking research. Engagement on Twitter added an excellent dimension to the experiences; something I hope will be developed and improved at future events.