(Not) The Final Frontier: Charting New Courses for Frontiers Theory

Posted on April 17, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference, but this time – 2018’s:

Session Info

Roman frontier scholarship stands at a crossroads. Recent scholarship has been innovating approaches to Roman frontiers which far exceed the traditional boundaries of the field, yet at the same time the decades-old theory of Romanisation is still the best known and most debated frontiers theory. We believe it is time to boldly go beyond traditionally defined ‘Roman frontiers’ scholarship, and interrogate the new ways in which scholars from across our discipline are engaging with frontiers both Roman and otherwise. Theory has progressed far beyond the days of Romanisation, and we suspect there are many theoretical approaches embedded within present scholarship that are equally worthy of discussion. Frontiers/borders with the associated movement of people remains a hot topic in contemporary society, yet it is Romanisation that is featured within political debates regarding UK immigration policies. This session aims to capture a range of diverse research which deals with aspects of frontier theory or self-identifies as related in any way to Roman frontiers, examples including (but not limited to) multiculturalism, mobility, bordering, networks, transnationalism, or globalisation. Discussion will be a key aspect of this session, and in order to make it so we ask speakers to consider how theory structures their research and impacts its relationship to contemporary society.

 Emily Hanscam (Durham University)

Andrew Tibbs (Durham University)

To Infinity and Beyond! A Social History of Frontier Theory


The concept of a ‘frontier’ as a region on the margins of civilisation is primarily rooted in Antiquity, but frontiers also appear often in American national history with the Western Frontier line and particularly in Alaska, a region still known as ‘The Last Frontier’. The term is linked to ideas about civilization and barbarism, the so-called ‘untamed’ wilderness, the need of humankind to continually explore, and the inevitability of our manifest destiny to extend our control. The frontier is typically the ‘region beyond’ settlement, but the term has also been employed for the nations like Turkey and Russia just beyond the European Union. Can a territory revert to ‘frontier’ status in the population imagination (post-Brexit UK)? How do innovations regarding the functions of Roman frontiers likewise impact our perception frontiers today? This paper explores the social history of frontier theory, aiming to highlight a number of ways in which our different perceptions of the contemporary world impact our views on landscapes identified as ‘frontiers’ in the past.

Emily Hanscam (Durham University)

Applying Plessner’s Eccentric Positionality to Virtual Roman Frontiers: Can We Learn Anything From Digital Posthumanism?


Virtual Archaeology is often used to present a site, but is there a way of exploring virtual sites like an archaeological record i.e. use these as the primary record of the site? I will attempt to explore virtual models in a way that may be possible in the future using Helmuth Plessner’s Eccentric Positionality. Humans experience a sense of dissociation with our bodies when we use certain types of technology e.g. flight simulators. One possible variant is that multiple virtual bodies can be controlled from a single mind, completing multiple independent tasks, hence poly-eccentric positionality.

Hadrian’s Wall will be the case study as it has a few virtual models already applied to it and it is so large it can be used to explore multiple time zones and geographical spaces. Through a desk-based assessment of current material I will attempt a poly-eccentric approach to Hadrian’s Wall. This could have implications for research on Hadrian’s Wall. Is it practically possible to do Poly-Eccentric Positionality today, or ever?

Alistair Galt (Independent Researcher)

Recycling Richborough: Living on the fringes in the 4th – 5th century


On the fringe of Empire in Britannia there is a depletion over time of continental material. Swift (2000) suggested that in Britain there was a lack of ‘official’ supply in certain forms of personal adornment. At Richborough, there is a growing body of evidence of recycled material. With Saxon piracy in the English Chanel and incursions from barbaricum over the limes, Britain appears cut off from trade, with the people of Richborough having to make do and mend. This isolation is reflected in the material from Richborough, which shows the desire of the inhabitants to retain as well as adapt their cultural identities on the frontier through recycling. In comparison to other shore forts, such as Reculver (only 8.28m (13.33km) away), there is a distinct difference in the cultural make-up of the inhabitants. This distinction shows that, even in a similar landscape, the community and its structure in different locations along the frontier, new and existing identities are being created and reaffirmed.

Philip Smither (University of Kent/English Heritage)

Roman West Cheshire: Disentangling Complex Landscapes


Until recently knowledge of Roman Cheshire was fragmented and poorly theorised. However, we now have a better understanding of the character and dynamics of the area, thanks to a more holistic approach using models by Whittaker on the economic development of frontier zones; by Hordern and Purcell on major settlements as nodes of connectivity and on dispersed hinterlands; and through the integration of coin evidence.
These ideas need to be elaborated: how far was west Cheshire reshaped as a landscape of colonisation? What agricultural strategies were pursued? How was local society reshaped through immigration, monetisation, taxation and sequestration of resources? What were the origins of civilian populations? What was the relationship of the industrial settlements of mid-Cheshire to Chester? Did Chester have a role as a ‘gateway’ to the northern frontier?
Advances will depend on fieldwork, scientific analyses, distribution studies and on theorising rural hierarchies and the use of money.

Peter Carrington (Chester Archaeological Society)

Whither Roman Scotland?


When it comes to the Roman Empire, northern Britain is very much frontier country, with Scotland occupying land that was both within and beyond the empire. Northern British Roman studies have long been dominated by Hadrian’s Wall, although there has also been a long tradition of studying Roman Scotland.

Recent research in Scotland has recognised that some of the theoretical frameworks in which we have been operating are decades old, whether relating to the building of the Antonine Wall, the reasons for abandoning Scotland, Burnswark Hill (siege vs practice), the value of Tacitus’ etc. Older excavations have recently been, or are about to be, published, meaning that the time is ripe for reevaluation and new ideas to come through. However, this potential opportunity for new ideas, theory and research to blossom is hamstrung by the loss of University research in Roman Scotland. There is no longer any specialist in Roman Scotland in a permanent academic position. How can we nurture the talent of the next generation?

Rebecca J Jones (Historic Environment Scotland)

The Western Frontier of Britannia: An Assemblage?


By considering a frontier as an assemblage it is hoped that the unique character of a diffuse frontier such as the Western Frontier of Britannia might be explored. Assemblage theories foreground the deliberate act of bringing things, beings and entities together, thus stressing the agency involved in the process. Hamilakis (2013) has proposed that a fruitful way to conceptualize and deploy assemblage thinking will be to consider assemblages within a framework of sensoriality and affectivity. Can approaching complex frontiers as ‘sensorial assemblages’ (by exploring the multiplicity and heterogeneity, the affective or sensorial, the mnemonic and temporal, and the political), help to develop our understanding of them?

Caroline Pudney (University of Chichester)

Roman Scotland: The Undiscovered Country?


In Britain, is a traditional view defining a Roman frontier as a physical barrier and series of fortifications, something influenced by Hadrian’s Wall. But can a frontier be much more than this, and do our own perceptions of what it should be affect our interpretation? In central Scotland is the Gask Ridge, a chain of forts, fortlets and towers, possibly forming a frontier, while beyond this are several contemporary forts, forming an outer limes and blocking the entrances to the glens or valley’s which run deep into the Highlands. Some archaeologists have interpreted their purpose as restricting the movement of the indigenous population, but this is based on assumptions that the forts block the glen entrances, and until now there has been little modelling of these sites and the surrounding topography. By undertaking GIS modelling, can we identify their purpose – glen blockers or invasion launchpads? Can GIS modelling challenge our perception of frontiers and if these sites were an outer limes of the Gask Ridge frontier?

Andrew Tibbs (Durham University)


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