From multiple narratives to multiple voices: challenging multivocality in Roman archaeology

Organisers: Elisa Cella (Museo Civico Etrusco Romano di Trevignano Romano), Alessandro Pintucci (Sapienza Università di Roma), and Martina Revello Lami (University of Amsterdam)

Drawing on postmodernist criticism of the objective nature of knowledge, the concept of multivocality in archaeology breaks down grand or unifying narrative and facilitates multiple interpretations of the past (Trigger 1984; Hodder 2004; Fawcett et al. 2008). It is a core responsibility of archaeologists to critically assess such alternative explanations as well as to determine the extent to which they can be integrated in order to produce a more comprehensive understanding of the past.

In a seminal article, Trigger (1984) argued that archaeological interpretations are inextricably intertwined with the socio-political contexts in which they are produced. Consequently, there are many different interpretations expressing not only different theoretical approaches (e.g. culture-historical, processual, post-processual, behavioural), but also different political and spatial scales (e.g. local, national, global) and the needs of different audiences (e.g. scholars, heritage professionals, general public, tourist operators). Moreover, multivocality is often seen as a way of empowering subaltern groups to contribute to the reconstruction of the past recognising and emphasising their own identity and heritage.

In practice, however, simply acknowledging the existence of multiple narratives does not bridge the gap between the global archaeological profession and local marginalised voices that struggle to be heard against the dominant discourse. To effectively empower underrepresented groups, archaeological theory and practice should reframe the traditional approach to heritage that emphasises binary oppositions (local vs. global, indigenous vs. exogenous) and fully investigate the complex interdependencies triggered by a multivocal engagement with the past.

The application of a multivocal approach to Roman archaeology represents a particular challenge. Dominated by grand narratives and polarising interpretative arguments, Roman archaeology provides a perfect testing ground to evaluate the concept of multivocality. In this session, we will bring together specific cases such as Alatri, Italy, where the Roman Republican sanctuary has been locally reinterpreted as a Neolithic astronomical observatory, as well as more general phenomena such as the recurrent use of the Limes through which to promote the Roman past in northern Europe, or the systematic destruction evident in current conflict zones of heritage linked to Rome’s legacy. By doing so, we seek to explore the validity and implications of multivocality within Roman archaeology in terms of:

  • The dynamic relationship between archaeological practice, political agendas and the construction of people’s identities
  • The reception of Roman culture in historical and contemporary societies through mechanisms of inclusion, hybridity and rejection, with reference to mythmaking or appropriation processes
  • The links between archaeological tourism, authenticity, contextualisation, media coverage of archaeological discoveries and globalisation.

We particularly encourage contributions that illustrate various theoretical and methodological approaches to multivocality through a wide range of case studies from around the Roman world and which deal with the material evidence of Roman cultural heritage. Our principal objective is to gather and debate concrete examples of the potential and problems of engaging with multiple interpretations of the past.

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