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Becoming, material agency, and historical explanation in Roman archaeology: the (un-)making of terra sigillata pottery

  • Astrid Van Oyen, Homerton College, Cambridge
Thursday 9 October 2014
University Library
Witte Singel 27
2311 BG Leiden
Heinsius room

In many ways, Roman terra sigillata pottery is the archaeologist’s dream: a type of material culture so well-defined that we can date any one of its potsherds to within a decade, identify its production source at a glance, and name its potter and decorator.

But our firm analytical grasp on terra sigillata does not always lead to the best historical accounts. Paradoxically, the more fully determined a type, the less interesting it is as an object of study (we already know everything), and the more powerless it is in our historical accounts (its historical agency is placed fully with external agents).

This paper identifies the problem as a retrospective one: the firmer our grasp on a type’s defining traits, the more we forget about how these traits became defining, both in present practices of study and in past practices of production, distribution, and use. We thus need to “un-make” terra sigillata in order to reveal the practices that “made” it into a well-defined category – a type – in past and present. This is a necessary exercise not only theoretically – to bolster our understanding of material agency, but also historically – to write better history, in this case of the Roman empire.

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