TRAC Workshop – Practice Theory – 2016

Making practice perfect: approaches to everyday life in Roman archaeology

The inaugral TRAC workshop took place on saturday 30th January 2016, at the UCL Institute of Archaeology (London, UK). The workshop was organised by Andrew Gardner (UCL) and Lisa Lodwick (Reading), and attended by 50 delegates from UK and beyond. The workshop consisted of a series of 11 papers exploring a wide range of applications of practice theory in Roman – and comparative – studies. The formal presentations were mixed with informal break-out sessions looking at the visualisation of theoretical concepts and the optimal data-sets for practice approaches. An extended discussion at the end of the day focussed particularly on how to expand some of these more interactive elements in future conference sessions.

A storify of the tweets from event is available here. Extended abstracts, selected slides and a bibliography can be found below.


Academic Abstract

Practice theories offer some of the most powerful ways of transforming patterns of archaeological material into animated interpretations of past life. Constituting a broad and diverse tradition, different forms of practice theory have been influential in archaeology since the late 1980s. Initially the works of sociologist Anthony Giddens and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu were most prominent in archaeological discussions about practice, but a range of other thinkers have been marshalled to illuminate the way humans act in the world, from Marx to Heidegger and from Wittgenstein to Goffman. More recently, the increasing interest in ‘materiality’, drawing upon theorists like Gell and Latour, also has a practice dimension. A number of scholars are currently engaged with these kinds of approaches in Roman archaeology (e.g. Eckardt, Gardner, Lodwick, Revell, Van Oyen).

The aim of this workshop is to bring out some of the similarities and differences across the spectrum of practice approaches, and to share ways of making practice theories applicable in the archaeology of the Roman empire and of other complex societies. In their focus on what people do, such approaches have huge potential to enliven our accounts of the past, yet there are numerous differences in the way particular theories handle issues like intentionality, material interactions, and the relationships between practices and social structures. As the inaugural TRAC Workshop, the goal of this one-day event is firmly to debate the ideas, with less time devoted to formal presentation and more to discussion and participant interaction. Position-papers and case-studies will still be important to prompt debate, but longer discussion sections and workshop sessions will facilitate more active dialogues about the issues. We hope that these will foster increasing critical application of practice approaches across Roman studies and beyond.



Session 1: Structuration & Related Traditions

Andrew Gardner (UCL)

Practice Theories: a Vibrant Theoretical Tradition

Theories of practice drawn particularly from the ‘structurationist’ tradition of Giddens and Bourdieu have been around in archaeology for a long time, having been a fairly central part of the post-processual movement in the early 1980s. Over time their currency has waxed and waned, critiques have been developed both within archaeology and without, and numerous other theoretical trends have emerged to take the limelight. Yet the fundamental insights of this brand of practice theory remain powerful and still have much potential to be explored, particularly in the domain of the archaeology of complex societies like the Roman empire. In this paper I will chart a brief history of this theoretical tradition in our field, addressing several of the critiques, and develop a forward-looking perspective on how it offers one of the most coherent and effective frameworks for understanding both past societies and the contemporary practice of archaeology itself.



Stephen Collins-Elliott (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)

Interstitium inter habitus: Quantifying Regional Difference in Food Consumption Patterns in Late Republican Italy

The way in which people eat food and the importance of these practices has long been a fixture of habitus and structuralist anthropology. In this paper, I look to material that directly pertains to the transportation, preparation, and consumption of food, in the thousands of fragments of ceramic and glass vessels from late Republican Italy. Whereas the ceramics and glass of Roman Italy have mainly been studied to obtain information related to vessel production, I look to this evidence principally for its intended function, eating and drinking, thereby showing how different material habitus can be indexed to measure mass societal changes in the language of food, ca. 200 BCE – 20 CE. My approach is based on large-scale, quantitative comparisons of data within a probabilistic framework. Such methods are grounded firmly in the traditions of analytical archaeology. But, they are also an essential part of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology, which frequently made use of multivariate statistics, such as correspondence analysis, to identify different cultural associations in contemporary society. This overlap in practical-theoretical and analytical approaches to archaeology deserves emphasis, as it raises questions regarding the value of practice theory and the successors of structuralism in explanations of long-term cultural change, as here in the habits of food consumption. While structuralist modalities might be interesting as a heuristic, I argue that they will be unsatisfactory in historical questions of change and causality.



Nick Garland (UCL)

Structuration, Society and Scale: Applying Practice Theory to Social Structure

Scale is a persistent problem in the study of the Roman world (Gardner 2013, p. 7). Often our analysis of Roman society across the empire, focuses on a specific social scale at the expenses of others, reflecting in part the usefulness of some theoretical frameworks and/or methodologies in examining sociality at some scales but not others. The use of Structuration theory can help overcome issues of scale; primarily through the principle that the examination of social structure is indivisible from a consideration of human agency. This is what Anthony Giddens (1984, p. 25) describes as the duality of structure; that “the constitution of agents and structures are not two independently given sets of phenomenon…..but represent a duality”, each forming the requirement for, and outcome of the other. Furthermore, in issues of scale, Giddens (1984, pp. 139–144) explicitly argues against the dichotomy between micro and macro level studies in favour of an integrated approach; one that is multi-scalar and specifically considers that agency and structure are present on each societal scale (Giddens 1984, p. 141).


The work of sociologists in particular have illustrated how social practices may be interrogated on multiple scales, e.g. the similarity and difference of practices helps to differentiate, and identify links between, personal and collective identity (Jenkins 2004, pp. 19–25). These theoretical and methodological approaches have been utilised in a number of ways within Roman Archaeology (e.g. Gardner 2007, Garland Forthcoming) and illustrate how the use of Structuration theory can examine different societal scales and determine how they form a cohesive structure in the past. Research into the different social scales apparent at Sheepen, Camulodunum in the 1st century AD (Hawkes and Hull 1947, Niblett 1985), illustrates the diversity of social practices undertaken at the site, the presence of two distinct social groups (Pitts 2010, Perring and Pitts 2013) and the importance of the site as a ritual place in the wider landscape (Willis 2007).

Hawkes, C.F.C. and Hull, M.R., 1947. Camulodunum: First Report on the Excavations at Colchester 1930-1939. London: The Society of Antiquaries.

Niblett, R., 1985. Sheepen: an early Roman industrial site at Camulodunum. York: Council for British Archaeology.

Perring, D. and Pitts, M., 2013. Alien cities: consumption and the origins of urbanism in Roman Britain. London: Spoilheap Publications.

Willis, S., 2007. Sea, coast, estuary, land and culture in Iron Age Britain. In: C. Haselgrove and T. Moore, eds. The Later Iron Age in Britain and Beyond. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 107–129.


Sarah Scheffler (University of Leicester)

Habitus and Code-switching: Theoretical Concepts as a Tool for Understanding Changing Identities in Pre- and Early Roman Northwest Italy

Prehistoric archaeology relies on theoretical concepts to link material culture to the immateriality of politics, social structure and identity. During a funeral these immaterial aspects of life were communicated through the selection of grave goods, which therefore constitute the basic framework of numerous studies of cultural change, including the Late Iron Age/Roman transition not only in Italy. The absence of written sources, however, results in a lack of tools to decipher the messages communicated through grave goods. The sociological concept of habitus by Pierre Bourdieu and the linguistic concept of code-switching can help us to understand them. Based on his study of contemporary society, Bourdieu traced the economic, cultural and social conditions through the personal selection of material and immaterial goods. The choice of language in reflection of discrepant identities represents the key to multilingual cultures. In my paper I will scrutinise the applicability of these two concepts for the understanding of the Late Iron Age communities of the Lomellina. The Lomellina (PV) represents a rural landscape at the margins of Rome’s interest during the expansion towards the Alps and beyond, though geographically within the boundaries of military intervention (‘battle of the Ticino’: 218 BC) and subsequent administrative integration. With my PhD research I try to answer the question which impact these events had on the rural communities and how cultural change and change of identities were communicated through grave goods.



Session 2: Practice Theory and Materiality

Astrid Van Oyen (Homerton College, University of Cambridge)

Material Practices: Can ‘How’ be the New ‘Why’?

The ‘material turn’ has shown that things do more than responding to human needs (instrumental) or slotting into human schemes of meaning (representational). People and things are intricately intertwined in perception, action, and meaning, and this interdependency is revealed most clearly when we ask ‘how’ people did things. While ‘how’ questions are at the core of archaeological analysis (and of practice theory!), they are rarely taken seriously when it comes to interpretation and explanation. In this paper, I will argue that the project of expanding human-thing relations cannot be separated from that of granting a historical, explanatory role to ‘how’ questions. Based on examples drawn from my work on Roman material culture, I will illustrate how this double theoretical project changes the content and shape of historical narratives.

Van Oyen, A. (2016). Historicising material agency: from relations to relational constellationa. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 23(1), 354–378.


Jeffrey Veitch (Kent)

Hearing Practice in Ostia

 In Critique of Everyday Life, Lefebvre comments that the ‘human world’ is made up of human bodies and physiological activities just as much as it is made up of material objects (2014: 484). While Roman archaeology has been mostly concerned with the material side of social structures, the theoretical approach of Lefebvre, followed by de Certeau, offers a way into the experience of spatial practices, and their influence on the urban landscape. By analysing the acoustic characteristics of particular spaces (apartments, streets and baths) in Ostia Antica, a hierarchy of acoustics, from ‘dead’ (unreverberant) space to ‘live’ (highly reverberant), can offer insights into the spatial practices afforded by the space. Drawing on the theoretical work of Lefebvre and de Certeau, the acoustic character of these spaces offer insights into the potential spatial practices and corresponding social activities contained within the space. The acoustic character of the spaces is explored through the use of contemporary sound design measurements, such as absorption coefficients, reverberation time and transmission loss, to describe the acoustic nature of the space and its influence on surrounding spaces. These measures provide the foundation from which the materiality of the space will influence the sounds produced in that place. Through the acoustic analysis of apartments, streets and baths the social implications of the space can be measured and compared. The interaction between sounds and spaces is dependent on particular practices, which are often derived from the experience of the space.



Ben Naylor (St. Andrews)

The Rain in Spain

Since at least the publication of The Corrupting Sea, the idea of Mediterranean communities taking advantage of easy interconnection and a diverse environment to pursue mixed and opportunistic production strategies has been very influential. Such a model obviously has profound implications for how we understand ancient lives: both in terms of agency and as entangled in a wider range of people, places and things. Actor-network approaches can help us to think about the instantiation of this model. We can ask what role non-humans played in shaping these communities. This presentation looks at the role of rainfall in particular in Iberian communities in eastern Spain during the pre-Roman and Roman republican period. Ethnography and human-plant geographies both stress the importance of timing agricultural operations to take advantage of autumn rainfall. Using modern daily precipitation measurements across individual stations within a small area, we can consider whether differences in the timing of rainfall across short distances were sufficient to allow Iberian communities to share labour, oxen and equipment during the ploughing and sowing season. This has implications for our understanding of community relations and interchange at a small scale.



Lisa Lodwick (University of Reading)

Plant Materiality in Practice: tending to evergreen trees in town and countryside in Roman Britain

Applications of practice theory in Roman archaeology have focussed on the analysis of architecture and material culture as ways to explore social identities, drawing on Bourdieu and Giddens. Following the wider turn towards studying non-humans, notions of plant agency and materiality are tentatively entering the archaeological debate. So far these ideas have been applied within the broad concepts of ‘meshwork’ or ‘entanglement’ (Van der Veen 2015), which as of yet, do not offer a way for quantitative archaeobotanical data to be deployed in the same intra- and inter-site way that brooches and pottery have within analyses of practice (Gardner 2007). Yet through the daily activities of farming, eating and dwelling, plants are engaged with humans in some of the most meaningful routine activities in which social identity is negotiated. In this paper I will draw on recent work in human geography to illuminate the material aspects (colour, smell, temporalities) of two particular plants. Box shrubs and stone pine trees are both evergreens, introduced to Roman Britain. Their particular characters draw people into relationships, through social practices of gardening and dwelling. The implications of these interactions with humans in towns and villas in Roman Britain will be explored. By treating plants as active participants in daily human practice, they can inform upon shared human experiences and what this means for mico- and meso- level social structures. A theory of practice is essential for figuring the essentially mundane experiences with plants into models of social structure in the Roman world.



Session 3: Comparative perspectives

Bill Sillar (UCL)

Constructive Practices – The Social History of Walls

This paper draws on ethnographic and archaeological work in Peru to discuss the social context of building practices. The construction of domestic houses and Inca monumental architecture involved decisions about the coordination of labour and materials in relation to the aspirations of the builders. These construction choices are made within the dynamic setting of rapidly changing social and economic relations that affected access to materials and labour. The identification of construction materials and building sequences is a mainstay of excavation reports, but can we do more with this data by interpreting it with reference to practice theory?

Sillar, B. (2013) The Building and Rebuilding of Walls: commitments and tensions within an Andean community and the archaeological monument they inhabit Journal of Material Culture 18(1) 27–51.

Jennifer Peacock (Worcester)

Jack of all Trades, Master of None?: Specialism and Scale in Multi-Period Archaeology

In attempting to formulate a research project spanning the Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods I have often found myself worrying whether, in doing so, I will be viewed as a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’; after all, it has been noted that researchers who lack a specialism are often ‘frowned upon, decried as fickle and said to never know any material properly’ (Lucas, 2002: 108). Yet need this be the case? This paper will explore the concepts of specialism and scale, and in doing so will demonstrate how a multi-period archaeology can help to create narratives which challenge the clearly defined ‘temporal blocks’ and specialisms which underpin archaeological discourse (Jones, 2002: 56; Thomas, 1996: 38). It has been argued that ‘temporality must be central to any understanding of agency in relation to either cognitive or social processes’ (Gardner, 2004: 45) however with the incorporation of additional ‘temporal blocks’ there is a corresponding change in the scale of analysis/interpretation which, in turn, affects the degree to which we can discuss agency. This paper will therefore concentrate on how the concept of time might help us to reconcile the apparent divide between the study of microscale activities and events, and that of macroscale processes (Koerner, 2004: 223-224), and in doing so will argue that being a ‘jack of all trades’ can in fact help to create archaeological narratives far less affected by the conventions of writing which shape (and are turn shaped by) working within individual ‘temporal blocks’.


Victoria Keitel (Reading)

A Capacity of Greekness: Skyphoi and Wine Consumption in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC 

This paper examines the capacities of the different types of Greek skyphoi to study how drinking trends inform on social practices during the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Data were collected by taking physical measurements of skyphoi pots and by creating 3D models in AutoCAD from profile drawings. While this study has informed on the degree of standardisation between pottery workshops and also helped linked different painters to the same workshop, the capacities of skyphoi also reinforce and reveal social practices imbedded into different vessel sizes. Ancient texts report that standardization of portions was a technology imperative to Greek armies controlling rations, and this volumetric analysis exposes that these standards spilled over into daily life. An analysis of skyphoi volumes reveals that there were four categories of vessels that were used for different types of practices, specifically revealing more about the function of certain types of skyphoi as a form of habitus. Skyphoi were used as a form of social display used to establish hierarchies in both public and intimate spaces, such as the agora and symposia. Changes in social drinking reflect a change in social organisation in Classical Greece brought about by relative peace and prosperity in the fourth century BC. These hierarchical distinctions could be real or imaginary depending on how full the skyphoi was with wine. Large capacity skyphoi were primarily exported out of Athens and Southern Italy, indicating that these vessels were being imported by individuals who wished to appear hyper-Greek through consumption practices.

The workshop attendants were finally posed with the questions “Draw you Theory” and “Imagine your dataset”. Here are some of the results.



Barrett, J. C. “Fields of discourse: reconstituting a social archaeology. Anthony Giddens: Critical Assessments 4.3 (1997): 249.

Barrett, J. C., and K. J. Fewster. 2000. “Intimacy and structural transformation: Giddens and archaeology.” Philosophy and archaeological practice: perspectives for the 21st century (2000): 25-38.

Barrett, J.C.  2001. Agency: the duality of structure. In Ian Hodder (ed.), Archaeological Theory Today. Blackwell Publishers 141–64 (2001).

Dobres, & Robb. (2000). Agency in Archaeology. Psychology Press.

Dornan, Jennifer L. “Agency and archaeology: Past, present, and future directions.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 9.4 (2002): 303-329.

Fewster, K. 2014. On Practice. In A. Gardner, M. Lake and U. Sommer (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gardner, A. 2002 “Social identity and the duality of structure in late Roman-period Britain.” Journal of Social Archaeology 2.3: 323-351.

Gardner, A. 2004. Agency and community in 4th century Britain: developing the structurationist project. In: Gardner, A. (ed.) Agency Uncovered: Archaeological Perspectives on Social Agency, Power, and Being Human. UCL Press: London, pp.33-50.

Gardner, A. 2007. An Archaeology of Identity: Soldiers and Society in Late Roman Britain. Left Coast: Oxford.

Gardner, A., 2013. Thinking about Roman Imperialism: Postcolonialism, Globalisation and Beyond? Britannia, 44, 1–25.

Garland, N., Forthcoming. Agency, Structure and Place: Finds in the Landscape in the Late Iron Age / Early Roman transition. In: Proceedings of the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference 2015. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Gero, J. M. (2000). Troubled travels in agency and feminism. In M.-A. Dobres & J. E. Robb (Eds.), Agency in Archaeology (pp. 34–39). London and New York: Routledge.

Giddens, A. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jenkins, R., 2004. Social Identity. London: Routledge.

Jones, A. 2002. Archaeological Theory and Scientific Practice. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Gero, J. M. (2000). Troubled travels in agency and feminism. In M.-A. Dobres & J. E. Robb (Eds.), Agency in Archaeology (pp. 34–39). London and New York: Routledge.

Koerner, S. 2004. Agency and views beyond meta-narratives that privatise ethics and globalise indifference. In: Gardner, A. (ed.) Agency Uncovered: Archaeological Perspectives on Social Agency, Power, and Being Human. UCL Press: London, pp. 211-240.

Lightfoot, K. G., Martinez, A., & Schiff, A. M. (1998). Daily practice and material culture in pluralistic social settings: an archaeological study of cultural change and persistence from Fort Ross, California. American Antiquity, 63(2), 199–222.

Lucas, G. 2002. Critical Approaches to Fieldwork: Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice. Routledge: London.

Pauketat, T.R. 2001. Practice and history in archaeology: an emerging paradigm. Anthropological Theory 1, 73-98.

Pitts, M., 2010. Artefact suites and social practice: an integrated approach to Roman provincial finds assemblages. Facta. A Journal of Roman Material Culture Studies, 4, 125–152.

Reckwitz, A. 2002. Toward a theory of social practices: a development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory 5, 243-263.

Revell, L. “Constructing Romanitas. Roman public architecture and the archaeology of practice.” TRAC 1998. Proceedings of the eighth annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Leicester.

Robb, J. 2010. Beyond agency. World archaeology 42.4: 493-520.

Sillar, Bill (2013) The Building and Rebuilding of Walls: commitments and tensions within an Andean community and the archaeological monument they inhabit Journal of Material Culture 18(1) 27–51.

Simpson, B. 2009. Pragmatism, Mead and the practice turn. Organization Studies 30, 1329-1347.

Stones, R. (2005). Structuration theory. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Thomas, J. 1996. Time, Culture and Identity: an Interpretative Archaeology. Routledge: London and New York.

Van der Veen, M. 2015. The materiality of plants: plant-people entanglements. World Archaeology 46 (5): 799-812.

Van Oyen, A. (2016). Historicising material agency: from relations to relational constellationa. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 23(1), 354–378.


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