Space the Final (Archaeological) Frontier

Posted on April 13, 2016


From the TAG conference, a session that we videoed as part of the crowdfunding campaign

Session Abstract:

Settlement archaeology is the study of lived space, however, while archaeologists have
given great thought to the temporal aspects of past life, they have under theorised the
spatial. Space is typically presented as fixed, passive, a container or backdrop for the
unfolding of history- the space of the phased plan or map, for example.

Contemporary approaches in archaeological theory and, particularly, in the field of human
geography, have much to offer our analysis of lived and produced settlement spaces, both
interpretively and methodologically. In particular, they stress the socially produced nature
of space and reject the longstanding dominance of the temporal over the spatial in critical
social theory and history.

This session aims to explore, through the use of specific examples, how we can reconceptualise
settlement space in archaeology and what theoretical tools exist in order to achieve this aim. Areas for discussion may include, but not be limited to:

  • The exploration of settlements as more-than-spatial assemblages or actor-networks.
  • Analyses of concepts of space in the past through the use of historical records and
  • The application of approaches drawn from other disciplines, including human
  • Critical engagement with the notion of geographical scale, both as a analytical
    construct and as a material reality (or not) in the archaeological record.
  • ‘Practice’ and ‘experiential’ readings of space and ‘movement’.

Session organisers: Ben JERVIS (University of Cardiff) and Benjamin MORTON (University
of Newcastle)

Analysing space in the Roman world: a new model

Studies of space in the Roman world focus traditionally on two categories of evidence: (1) the architectural remains found in Rome and other urban centres and (2) the Latin and Greek literary sources that describe life in the urbs . Despite distinct temporal and geographical disconnects, the pair are regularly employed in unison to identify connections between human actions and the ancient built environment. The architect Vitruvius’ 1st century BC account of life in the elite dwellings of Rome, for example, is regularly employed to identify activity areas in the remains of Imperial period townhouses in Provence, Spain and North Africa. The problems associated with this conflation of the source materials are manifold. As such, this paper offers an alternative approach to the use of the historical and archaeological records for the study of space in the ancient world. Rather than connecting literary descriptions of particular environments directly with archaeological comparanda , the model proposed here seeks to detect interactions between universal cultural beliefs (i.e. general perceptions or standards that appear throughout the canon of Roman literature) and spatial practices identifiable in the archaeological record. The efficacy of this methodology will be tested utilising the concept of lateral asymmetry — that is, the well – established Roman preference for the right side of the body over the left. In Roman culture, the right wa s associated with benevolence and good luck; the left with evil and misfortune. As we shall see, the preference for right over left was also expressed in the material world, influencing the organisation of and movement.

M. Taylor LAURITSEN (Cardiff University)

City-states in early Medieval Southern Italy

Urbanism was a key tool of power politics in early medieval Italy, especially in the South. The vast majority of the events and activities which permitted rulership, brought about political legitimacy, and facilitated diplomatic relations happened in cities. More than anywhere in Europe at the time, the elites of Southern Italy channelled resources into the built environment, infrastructure, and social networks established in urban contexts. The built environment was no mere backdrop to this process, rather it was one of the means by which ideas about power were communicated, and through which cultural and political hegemony was practiced. Our theoretical toolkit for understanding the archaeology of medieval urbanism is, however, a bit out of date and mostly borrowed from elsewhere (architectural history, anthropology, sociology). We rely strongly on decoding the symbolic expressions of buildings and social space, between, for example, ‘patron/maker’ and ‘viewer’, or the reciprocal persuasions between ‘actor’ and ‘network’, or qualifying the economic effects of population density. This paper will review the state of the question of medieval urbanism in Europe, seeking to identify some new pathways forward in our analysis of the cities of the past. I will address both the built (architecture and infrastructure) and the unbuilt (in particular urban cultivation and rubbish) in the period between 600-1100.

Caroline GOODSON (Birkbeck College, University of London)

Assembling urban space: an exploration of Medieval town ‘planning’

Two arguments have characterised the study of later medieval town foundations. The first concerns the definition of the term town and the second concerns the extent to which towns were ‘planned’ or ‘organic’. Increasingly intricate analyses of urban form have shifted the focus towards understanding how urban space developed over time and, to a certain degree, the social implications of changes to the urban landscape. Here a new approach is furthered, which argues that rather than seeing towns as planned or as organic, that they are emergent – places become urban as social relations are played out at multiple scales. Towns are more than buildings and streets, they are social assemblages which are reiterated and transformed as the people, materials and things interact within and around them. Utilising the concept of ‘lines of becoming’, this paper traces trajectories of urbanism, to view towns as dynamic processes rather than static plans to address two questions – how did places become urban, and what was the role of space in this process?

Ben JERVIS (Cardiff University)

Religious and allegorical iconography and the production of medieval space

This paper will draw upon Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) conception of the socially produced nature of space and Alfred Gell’s (1998) theory of the agency of art to explore the ways in which medieval religious and allegorical iconography may have shaped medieval space. Specifically, the paper will explore the ways in which the codification of medieval agricultural spaces and practices, within religious spaces; such as depictions of the labours of the months in parish churches; may have shaped trajectories of change within the medieval countryside.
The paper will start by proposing that arable themed imagery found in parish churches in the twelfth-and-thirteenth centuries; where the practices and rhythms associated with arable farming, alongside associated institutional structures, were both explicitly and implicitly valorised; shaped agricultural practices in the landscape beyond the confines of the church. The second part of this paper will examine the ways in which the changing nature of such imagery, increasingly the pastoral way of life, at the expense of the arable, was valorised from the early fourteenth century onwards, may have shaped the late medieval countryside.
In so doing, the arguments put forward in this paper will break free from traditional narratives of change in the medieval countryside, which have been dominated by accounts where material culture, beyond that of agricultural technology and space, are seen as mere passive backdrops. Furthermore, it will provide a means of moving beyond the art-historical approach to medieval religious objects and iconography where both are typically studied in isolation from the wider social and material medieval world. Lastly, it is hoped that it will serve as a reminder to landscape archaeologists that such objects should not be excluded from their analysis as sorely the concern of the art historian or ‘social’ archaeologist, but as objects which can inform us of change in the landscape.

Benjamin MORTON (University of Newcastle)

Berkhamsted Castle and the Countess of Bridgewater’s soup house: magic kingdoms and heterotopias in Hertfordshire

In 1841, the Countess of Bridgewater built a soup kitchen for the local poor in the middle of the ruins of Berkhamsted Castle, which, even at the time, had been recognised as a site of historical and archaeological importance. Although the Countess’s soup house still stands, it has been almost erased from the history of the Castle and town. This paper explores the relationship between the romantic landscape of Berkhamsted Castle and the poor by considering the soup house building, place and space as a heterotopia, a place whose meaning can shift and where a variety of lived experiences can co-exist. Although the concept has never been fully developed and is used differently by different scholars, the concept of heterotopia allows us to interpret a place from a variety of perspectives without the boundaries imposed by a traditional, objective and compartmentalised analysis based on artefact, architecture, building or landscape.

Phillip CARSTAIRS (University of Leicester)

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