I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be speaking at the upcoming Roman Archaeology Conference in March 2016, to be held at ‘Sapienza’ Università di Roma and the British School at Rome. The Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference will be held at the same time. For now, the RAC website is a little sparse, but you can find out about the confirmed panels here (click where it says “elenco definitivo” to open a PDF).

I’ve been asked to speak on an interdisciplinary panel organised by Prof. Greg Woolf about different forms of standardisation in ancient Italy. There are so many media which appear to be “standardised” across the ancient world – including ceramics, city road layouts, architecture, language and alphabets. But how does this standardisation get started? And how is it maintained, sometimes over several centuries and hundreds of square miles? I’ll be talking mainly about epigraphy and orthography in the languages of Italy, and I’m excited to hear the perspectives of my colleagues on the panel, who work on many different specialisms within archaeology. And, of course, I can’t wait to get back to Rome after a year away.

You can read the full abstract for the session and the draft abstract for my paper below.


Session organiser: Prof. Greg Woolf, Institute of Classical Studies, London

Session abstract: One of the most obvious features of Roman material culture is the way in which so many artefact types conform to very particular stylistic criteria. That phenomenon is not without parallel. One of the distinguishing features of the early Mesopotamian civilization is the emergence of the first ‘mass produced’ object, including ceramic types, writing tablets and seal stones, and David Wengrow has drawn attention to how unusual this is in a world in which mechanical replication was rare. The successive dominances of particular ceramic and artistic styles comprise the central narrative for Classical Archaeology: technical developments are much discussed, taste less often. Functional factors are occasionally invoked by more often recourse is made to concepts such as Hellenization or Romanization, terms that describe but do not explain broad processes. For the Roman period the phenomenon has generally been dealt with under the sign of ‘Romanization’ and vague connections made between political conformity, cultural convergence and standardized production of material objects. Thirty years of critiques of Romanization have made most of those connections implausible, but without offering a new global explanation. Symbolic approaches fail when they attempt to make standardized objects simple ‘carriers’ of some cultural message about conformity: what message? directed from whom to whom? Economic and technological factors also explain too little about the diversity of standardized sizes, weights and shapes. Most are specific to one medium or another. Attention has shifted recently towards ‘hybridity’ with interesting results especially about cultural action on contact zones and in colonial situations, but as the most recent conference (at Brown) concluded, the very notion of hybrid forms implies the existence of their opposite, pure (or standard) repertoires. The aim of this panel is to confront these issues of standardization, imitation, replications and mimesis across range of phenomena not normally considered in parallel.

Competing Standards: Orthographic and Epigraphic Standardisation in Italy 500-100 BC

Speaker: Dr Katherine McDonald, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Abstract: Among the many written languages attested in Italy in the first millennium BC, there are varying levels of alphabetic and orthographic standardisation. A few languages, such as Latin, have a single strong orthographic standard centred on a single influential urban centre. Other languages which have multiple important and influential urban centres may show several competing standards. These competing standards often appear to have developed very quickly during the increased urbanisation of the sixth and fifth centuries, and can be maintained as stable regional differences over many centuries once they have been accepted. It is not always clear, though, how and why these standard orthographies have developed or what impression they are supposed to make on the intended readership.

Using Venetic and Oscan as particular case studies, this paper explores the different patterns of standardisation of alphabets and spellings systems in the languages of ancient Italy. In the Veneto, the nearby cities of Este and Padua maintain different standard orthographies and alphabets over hundreds of years, reflecting carefully maintained differences in the material cultures of the two cities. In Oscan-speaking Italy, however, there is wide standardisation of orthography across large geographical regions. But in Oscan, we also need to explain the development and maintenance of three different long-lived alphabets for writing the language. I suggest that alphabets and orthography were actively used – independently of the language of the inscription – to signal group membership, to reinforce ties to nearby cities or groups, or to reiterate the separate identities of different urban elites. I also suggest that the maintenance of different standards also had a part to play in differing regional reactions to “Romanization” and the adoption of Latin.


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