Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2016) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

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Saturday, 15 November 2014

The social in the past, some reflexions

I'm just back from a four-day workshop with colleagues at the Centre for Advanced Study, Norwegian Academy of Sciences, where both Håkon and I take part in the project Local Dynamics of Globalisation in the pre-modern Levant, which is housed at the centre for this Academic Year. Our workshop was called The Social in the Past. Things, Networks, and Texts: A Material Approach to the Pre-Modern (description and program). Speakers came from a range of disciplines, including theology, religion, anthropology, archaeology, history, and cultural studies, but the unifying interest was in how we can move from our things and text – the material that we are all interested in and the signs that have come down to us from the past – to understanding the social associations between these things, texts and the people who made and used them. The workshop was way too varied and rich for me to do justice to all of it in a short blog post, nevertheless I'd like to put down a few points that relate to networks, which is of course my main interest in this, that we discussed in the first session, and that I continued to think about during and after the workshop.

Our keynote was Professor Ian Hodder from Stanford University. Hodder spoke about his work at Neolithic Çatalhöyük  in present-day Turkey, one of the earliest (complex?) societies we know of, taking his recent book Entangled as his point of departure. Neolithic people, of course, produced no texts, and we rely solely on things, in a wide sense of the word, when we try to understand their social world. Hodder showed us how things are associated with things and also reveal interaction with people, for instance clay and temper are obtained – balls are formed – balls are fired – then stored – then heated in oven – placed hot in a basket – meat is cooked – broken balls are discarded and so on. Reconstructing relationships of contingence and dependence, leading to reliance and dependency, he drew what he called tanglegrams, showing how things at the site related to each other, and in some cases led to what he characterised as entrapment, resembling the economic term of path-dependence.

Hodder also shared examples of his ongoing cooperation with network analyst and archaeologist Angus Mol (Leiden), using the same dataset of thing-thing relations from Çatalhöyük in a computer based network analysis. Hodder argued that the tanglegram is different from network analyst in the sense that the network consists of dyads, whereas the entanglegram highlights chains.

To me both methods represent ways of approaching networks. I think we need to do both. The tanglegram takes the thing as the point of departure, and tries to see how it associates to other things (or to human agents), following these associations creates entangled chains, that very well demonstrates the complexity that Hodder underlines. Network analysis looks at the whole structure (to the extent that we know it), and let's us ask how the things and the associations between them fit into that structure. It is true that it is an agglomeration of dyads, but series of dyads are also chains (or rather networks), and if we combine the quantitative analysis with a qualitative one, we could trace associations in much the same way. One advantage of network analysis might be that it could enable us to identify which parts of the network offer themselves, and are in need of qualitative analysis.

These points illustrate what we are grappling with. During the workshop we discussed a number of theories, including those of Latour, Bordieu, Foucault, Braudel, Michael Mann, and Robert Redfield, and how they allow us to see the past through different lenses. Although I, as others, have my favourites, they all offer perspectives that allow us to interpret the relationship between things, texts and people. What I often miss are the models that enable us to make our assumptions explicit, and to test them. The tanglegram and network analysis are two examples of how one can develop or borrow models that make sense of some aspects of the data, but inevitably obscure or leave out others.

Is it rewarding for scholars of the ancient world to engage consciously with theory and model building. To me the answer is a clear yes. Our sources don't speak for themselves. Theoretical perspectives allow us to situate our data in a wider context, models allow us to test our assumptions.

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