“The Seamless Web and the Empire without Limits: Society and technology in the Roman Empire and beyond”

Organisers: Owen Humphreys (University of Reading), Adam Sutton (University of Reading)

Technological development is one of the most important concepts within archaeology. Advancing complexity, ‘progress’, and the introduction of new objects and materials are the bread and butter of archaeological narratives. In many regions – and particularly in the western provinces – conquest by Rome is seen as a moment of particular technological significance, when a ‘practical’ culture brought ‘advanced’ Mediterranean technologies to ‘underdeveloped’ provincial societies. Obviously, archaeologists and historians have long since moved beyond this simple narrative; but in the drive for social interpretations of the ancient past, studies of technology have been left behind.

In recent years the theoretical focus of Roman archaeology has shifted towards the practical, emphasising how the physical actions and routines of life create, perpetuate and transform society. Technology studies have a clear contribution to make to this debate. Since the mid-1980s sociological studies of technological development have been re-characterised by the ‘Social Construction of Technology’ (SCOT) movement. SCOT advances a view of technological systems as part of a ‘seamless web’, consisting not only of technologies and technicians but also of socially embedded interactions between agents, materials, and world-views. New ontologies have broken down the barriers between ‘working’ and ‘non-working’ artefacts, and questioned the idea of materials as having innate properties. This has opened up the possibility of seeing ancient technology not as a linear path inevitably progressing in a demi-scientific manner towards the present day, but as a forking avenue of possible options in which knowledgeable actors were able to make socially informed choices.

In recent years ideas derived from SCOT have begun to be applied to the study of archaeological material. Prominent among these are works by Andrew Welton on the metallurgical analysis of Anglo-Saxon weaponry (2016) and – in Roman studies – Elizabeth Murphy and Jeroen Poblome’s work on pottery production at Sagalassos (2011; 2012).

This session will explore these themes further through a series of case studies which will ask; how SCOT’s vocabulary and methods can be used to expand archaeological thought; how the consideration of social factors can influence our understanding of technology; and how the nuanced study of technologies can be a fruitful avenue to understanding wider Roman society.

References and suggested reading:

Bijker, W.E., 1995, Of Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs: Toward a theory of sociotechnical change, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA & London.

Bijker, W.E. 2010, ‘How is technology made – that is the question!’, Cambridge Journal of Economics 34(1): pp.63-76.

Dobres. M.A., 2000, Technology and Social Agency: Outlining a Practice Framework for Archaeology, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford & Malden, MA.

Murphy, E.A. & Poblome, J., 2011, ‘Producing pottery vs. producing models: Interpreting workshop organization at the potters’ quarter of Sagalassos’, in M. Lawall & J. Lund (eds.), Pottery in the Archaeological Record: Greece and Beyond, Aarhus University Press, Aarhus.

Murphy, E.A. & Poblome, J., 2012, ‘Technical and social considerations of tools from Roman period ceramic workshops at Sagalassos (Southwest Turkey). Not just tools of the trade?’ Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 25(2): pp.197-217.

Welton, A., 2016, ‘Encounters with Iron: An archaeometallurgical reassessment of early Anglo-Saxon spearheads and knives’, Archaeological Journal 173: pp.206-244.

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