October 3, 2013 § Leave a comment


A stellar week in Rome on the extracurricular front, with an archaeological walk over the Palatine last Friday, a shoptalk by our Mellon Professor and world class archaeologist Kimberly Bowes, and an amazing lecture last night by medieval historian Chris Wickham on the governance of Rome during the 12th century.  Both fascinating in and of themselves, but the discussions afterwards on how we know what we know and what historians and archaeologists use to piece that knowledge together have been even more interesting.

Dr. Bowes’ work tries to understand what life was like for rural and poor Romans in late antiquity.  That’s a tough thing, because their histories never got written.  What we know from texts is really about Rome’s 1%, and she talked about a series of digs they’ve done that have tried to find sites of rural inhabitation.  And what they’ve found is that–they think–people were far more mobile than previously thought, and that while that life was difficult, Roman peasants were relatively well fed and that they were able to participate in markets and regional economies.  All of this from a handful of digs that found traces of huts and agricultural sites with evidence of trade, skeletal remains that allowed them to figure out what kind of diet existed, and even pollen samples that showed what sort of crops were grown.

Wickham’s lecture put forth the idea that for a few decades, the popes–especially Innocent X–essentially co-opted the Roman aristocracy, which had a long tendency by then of kidnapping, murdering, or banishing popes for whom they didn’t care.  This left a power vacuum in the city’s governance that, according to his findings, allowed the upper middle class to take the reins of the city for a while, a period of comparative stability.  And he managed to extrapolate this almost entirely from land records of the city during the era–which families lived where, which estates prospered from papal grants, and then comparing that with the sparse records of the city’s Senators–who, for this period, were by and large unknowns.

This sort of thing takes a disciplined imagination, and talking with one of the archaeological fellows afterwards, it became clear that there’s a real concern in ancient and medieval studies with balancing textual research with material research–or, in less academic terms, making sure that “books” and “stuff” coincide.  This rings a bell, since one of the hallmarks of Construction History, even in its comparative infancy, is exactly this interest in “stuff,” that is, the actual material fabric of construction along with the records of those things.  While the field ranges over all of history and the globe, what presenters at CH events seem to have in common is a deep skepticism of the neat stories that historians tend to tell, and a desire to find out what the bricks, stones, and steel have to say.  Sometimes that coincides with the received wisdom, but often it either opens up a deeper understanding or contradicts entirely the “books.”

Not, of course, to say that traditional histories don’t have their place.  But the rigor that ancient and medieval studies seem to put themselves through is sometimes sorely absent in our little architectural corner of the world–histories these days tend to be provocative and polemical, but often short on testable hypotheses.  Seeing the stuff vs. texts negotiation play out over the last few days has been both captivating and somewhat sobering.  There’s a model there for how we look at our history, one that would apply a genuinely skeptical conversation to both sides of the issue.

More to come, for sure…


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