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 (2013-2017) 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.

This blog is no longer updated, for any queries, please contact project leader Eivind Heldaas Seland

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A Manichaean Web

As a recently arrived co-researcher here at the NeRoNe-project I would like to give a presentation of my own work-in-progress. While Dr. Seland will be taking care of the political and economical networks, my research will deal with the emergence of new kinds of religious networks in the Roman Near East. Of course, such a huge field requires a more focused analysis. For my thesis I have chosen a case somewhat off the beaten track, namely the infamous Manichaean church. I will deal with the organization and distribution of the Manichaean network in late antiquity (roughly late 3rd–mid 7th century CE), with an emphasis on a particular community in 4th century Egypt. Here I want to give a brief survey of Manichaeism and the wider context of its development, as well as a basic sketch of the hows and whys of my project.

Manichaeism was a religion founded by the prophet Mani (216-c. 276 CE), who grew up in a Judeo-Christian monastic community in southern Mesopotamia, then part of Sasanian Iran. After having received revelations from a heavenly being he called his Twin, Mani broke away from the brotherhood in 240 CE. In the process he began to develope his own movement and doctrines by consciously adapting and developing themes from previous prophets. The list of prophetic forerunners was long and open to emendation, but at its head were the three figures of Zarathustra, Buddha and Jesus, representing the traditions of the north, the east, and the west, respectively. Mani, from his vantage point in the ancient land of Babel, was (naturally) at the center of the world, and could therefore claim to be a universal prophet. 

Mani, styled the Buddha of Light, at a temple in Fujian
"Prophet" is however a somewhat misleading term. Indeed, Mani himself preferred the term apostle: the apostle of Jesus Christ. In Manichaeism, both Jesus and (eventually) Mani were considered to be not only prophets or apostles, as we would understand the terms, but divine presences come to deliver a message of salvation. For Mani, every living being was part divine (identified with Light) and part demonic (identified with Darkness or Matter). Mani himself was a human with a powerful connection to the divine through his heavenly Twin; while Jesus was pure Light - though the distinction might often have been blurred. But if Jesus and the others had been sent from the same source, why was another messenger needed? The answer, according to Mani, was that their teachings had been twisted by subsequent generations. Through his divine revelations Mani had once and for all received the knowledge that Divinity had meant for man: knowledge of the first battle between the two principles, Light and Darkness, and the creation of the world from Light-trapped-in-Darkness; of the transmigration and liberation of entrapped Light (that is, souls); and of the final defeat and punishment of Darkness. An important reason for the corruption of truth was that his predecessors had not written down their doctrines. Mani would not make the same mistake. He therefore produced several books containing his revelations and interpretations, presented in myths, theological treatises, letters, hymns and paintings – none of which, in a case of historical irony, have been preserved for posterity.

The liberation of Light that Mani preached was not an abstract phenomenon. On the contrary; according to Mani, it was an observable physical process that had to be facilitated by the Manichaean ascetics, the Elect, in their daily ritual lives. Liberating Light was a precondition for salvation, to be achieved through a strict ascetic life-style. This consisted of abstaining from procuring food and having sexual relations, refraining from wealth accumulation and violence towards animals, plants and humans, the constant confession of one's own moral failings, and a dietary program that included the abstinence from meat, other animal produce and alcohol. The Elect were in addition expected to participate in the church organization, preaching, producing books and establishing new communities. To assist in their work they were supplemented by the order of the Hearers. These were adherents who were not required to live by the same strict rules, but whose support and charity to the Elect assured that they would be incarnated as Elect in their next existence.

Context and Competition
Mani formed his religion in what had once been a center of civilization, on the crossroads between the at the time greatest empires of western Eurasia – in a period when both empires were going through important transitions. The Roman administration was experiencing the so-called crisis of the third century, from which it would emerge a more centralized, Christian political entity, the Republic growing ever more distant. In Mesopotamia and to the east, the Arsacid dynasty faced great internal upheavals and was replaced by the Sasanian dynasty shortly after Mani’s birth. This shift was accompanied by changes in both the political and the religious sphere. In Mani's own lifetime the Sasanian king Shapur I twice defeated Roman emperors and sacked important cities – while founding several within his own domain and centralizing the court. After his death, and paralleling to some extent the development in the Roman Empire, the Zoroastrian priesthood significantly increased their influence at the Sasanian court. 

New religious movements
Great changes were also taking place beneath what might be termed the imperial level. The empires had helped facilitate increased movement of goods and people, and with them the movement of techniques and religious conceptions. Greek urbanism in the shape of the polis had been disseminated and appropriated in large parts of the Greco-Roman world, including the Near East. At the same time, the polytheistic religion of the polis was challenged by movements which invested a new group of agents and scriptures with independent religious authority, prominent among whom were various Christian, Jewish and Buddhists groups.

Fragment of a Manichaean church
history describing a missionary
expedition to Palmyra, Syria.
Manichaeism joined these on the road, and had by the late 3rd century spread to important cities in Central Asia and the Roman world. In the latter it became particularly influential in the 4th century, which has been characterized as “the great Manichaean century in the West” (Asmussen 1975, p. 18). The emergence of new religious movements was accompanied by increased hostility from the state, and few were more targeted than the Manichaeans. Notable examples of persecution include (but are not limited to) the campaigns of the Sasanian government in the late 3rd century, of the pagan emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th, of the bishop of Rome in the 5th, of the emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th, of Abbasid khalifs in the 8th and 9th and of Confucian officials in China in the middle of the 9th century. By the 12th century, Manichaeans seem to have been confined to southern China, where they were accused of stirring up revolts. The interaction between Manichaeans and their environment was as can be seen frequently a turbulent affair.

My Approach: Into the desert
The examination of the growth, development and disappearance of Manichaeism, especially in the west, is a field riddled with questions. Previous research on Manichaeism has been occupied with organizing source material, reconstructing the belief system, tracing its roots, or, more recently, reaching an emic understanding of Manichaean practices. These studies are of paramount importance, and any attempt at evaluating the religion without taking their questions into consideration is bound to fail. Nonetheless, my project will have a different emphasis and approach the religion from a sociological angle. The over-arching goal is to contribute to answer questions such as: How did western Manichaean monasticism develop? How strong were the institutional ties (if any) between the Manichaeans of the Middle East and those of the Mediterranean? To what extent can we speak of a unified Manichaean Church? But these issues are too broad, and the sources too sparse, to tackle head-on. To shed light on them I will make use of network theory, and concentrate on a specific community in a specific period of time, namely the Manichaean community of Kellis in the Dakhleh Oasis in south-western Egypt.

Sources for the social life of the religion’s adherents have always been scarce. For a long time one would have to approach these questions through the lenses of Christian church authorities (notably Augustine, who spent ca ten years in the church) and the fragmented texts from Central Asia and China. With the discovery of residues of Manichaeans in the oasis village of Kellis (present-day Ismant el-Kharab) in the late 1980’s, a material that makes such an attempt viable has finally been made available. The textual remains from the Kellis-excavations consist of assorted personal letters, an account book, pieces of Greek literature, as well as Manichaean liturgical material in Coptic and Greek – and small fragments in Syriac, Mani’s own language. The letters yield a unique glimpse into the daily concerns of a group of Manichaean adherents, as opposed to the polemical, theological or liturgical texts that make up the other genuine Manichaean sources from the Roman Empire. Several letters are addressed to or written from monks, and a few contain explicit references to officials in the Manichaean church hierarchy. 

Network Theory
In my work on Kellis I will consider topics such as the extent of the Manichaean presence in the village (as well as in the oasis at large), the relationship between Manichaeans, pagans and Christians in the vicinity, and the relationship between the Kellis community and Manichaeans in other parts of Egypt. In order to do this I will be using network theory in my analysis on several levels. In the first place, network theory will help to make connections between the writers and their family members, co-religionists and associates mentioned in the letters into a systematic set of relations that can be compared and contrasted to others. With this approach I hope to model the contours of the local Manichaean network. However, the fragmented and difficult nature of the documents means that network theory will have to be used along with other sociological tools to test these models. On a more global level, network theory will be useful to approach the way Manichaeism arrived in Egypt in the first place, and its distribution and integration into the Roman world. This two-tiered analysis represents a first step in the direction of a more complete picture of the Manichaean church.

Egypt in late antiquity. Kellis is located in the south-western corner,
far into the Great desert

Why Manichaeism?  
In some ways, the recovery of a lost world religion could be seen as a goal in and of itself. But research on Manichaeism certainly has much broader implications for our understanding of ancient religion. One reason is that Manichaeism seems to me to be an especially well-suited test case for the application of network theory to ancient religion. The Manichaeans were attempting to build an international church organization from scratch, without state support (in late antiquity), - in fact under ever increasing pressure from secular and religious authorities - by what might be termed social networking. In addition, by using network theory as a framework, the successes and failures of the Manichaean church can fruitfully be compared with other religious organizations.

Manichaeism also exhibits a unique pattern for its time, with implications for the development of church hierarchies, religious identities and asceticism – and perhaps the very notion of religion. Despite its status as a “late-comer” on the religious scene of antiquity, the Manichaean church was already from the time of its founder or shortly thereafter supplied with a set of canonical books and liturgies (i.e. a daily prayer), divided into a consciously stratified church hierarchy, run – in theory – by a pope-like authority known as the archegos, organized around an ascetic notion of religious authority, with a clear missionary statement and an awareness of the need to compete with other traditions for followers. It thus exhibits features that constitute the modern institution of 'religion', and often are said to have developed or been consolidated in the course of late antiquity or even early medieval times - already combined and articulated here in one organization by the late 3rd century. 

The huge geographical spread, achieved despite ubiquitous hostility from secular and religious authorities, gives us an interesting case to contrast and compare with more well-known movements such as those under the rubrics of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. It is my hope that uncovering the Manichaean network will yield valuable insights into how the "Western" conception of religion managed to spread, and came to dominate religious communities into modern times. 


Upper right: Mani statue from a former Manichaean (now Buddhist) temple in Fujian province. From Wang Lianmao, Return to the City of Light (Fuzhou, 2000), p. 130. Via Macquarie University.

Middle right: Manichaean manuscript in Parthian, ink on paper. © Depositum der BERLIN-BRANDENBURGISCHEN AKADEMIE DER WISSENSCHAFTEN in der STAATSBIBLIOTHEK ZU BERLIN - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Orientabteilung. Via The International Dunhuang Project.

Bottom center: Map of late antique Egypt, from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology's textile-exhibition. Via Kelsey Museum.

Further reading

Asmussen, Jes P. Manichaean Literature, New York: Scholars' Facsimilies & Reprints, 1975

BeDuhn, Jason D. The Manichaean Body in Discipline and Ritual, Baltimore/London: John Hopkins University Press, 2000

Gardner, Iain and Samuel N. C. Lieu. Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge: University Press, 2004

Ibscher, Hugo, Hans J. Polotsky and Carl Schmidt. Ein Mani-Fund in Ägypten: Originalschriften des Mani und seiner Schüler, Berlin: Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1933

Lieu, Samuel N. C. Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China, Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992 [1986]

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Proto-globalisation in the Indian Ocean World and network approaches

Last weekend I attended the concluding conference of the ERC-funded Sealinks project. The Sealinks group, headed by Nicole Boivin of Oxford University, has investigated the early maritime links that connected societies on the Indian Ocean rim, using primarily evidence produced by archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, genetics and linguistics. Many results have already come out, and these shed light on processes going further back in time and having more profound and lasting impact, than those evident from earlier studies based on artefactual, epigraphic and literary evidence.

The conference gathered researchers working with biological and environmental proxies, along with with traditional archaeologists and the odd historian. Indian Ocean trade and navigation, as well as the  early history of globalisation being among my other research interests, I found the conference immensely informative. It struck me, however, that although almost all presenters used the N-word, there was next to no discussion on what a network is, how past networks can be approached, and what insights this might give. This is not intended as criticism of the work presented, which was generally of very high standard. In fact the observation would be valid for most archaeological conferences I've attended, and I've worked with the Indian Ocean for more than ten years myself before starting consciously to think in terms of networks myself. Indian Ocean connectivity, however, is a subject that would readily lend itself to network approaches, and in this post I'd like to share a few thoughts on how different groups of material might have benefitted from being approached from a network perspective.

Networks of people
My own research on Indian Ocean trade is primarily on merchant networks: how they formed, cohered, operated and interrelated. In my paper in Oxford I argued that merchants from the Syrian city of Palmyra engaged with local and regional social networks of power, ideology/religion and commerce, in the process of expanding their own ethnically based network from the Syrian Desert into Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. Our data on merchant networks are of literary, epigraphic and ceramic nature – the Palmyrene network for instance being attested by circa 50 inscriptions recording the presence or activities of Palmyrene groups and individuals in settings certainly or very likely connected with Indian Ocean trade. Similar data would be possible to utilize for other groups. Ingo Strauch and collaborators for instance recently published more than 200 inscriptions in Arabic, Indic, Ethiopic, Aramaic and Greek script from a sanctuary in the cave of Hoq on the island of Socotra. Many of these should be possible to connect with places of origin, religion, language, and script used, reconstructing the network that intersected at the node of Hoq in a manner that would be possible to approach by the toolbox of Social Network Analysis.

Networks of objects
New inscriptions are occasionally still discovered, but in general, the written evidence relevant to ancient Indian Ocean trade is delimited and finite. The archaeological data available from Indian Ocean settings, however, has exploded over the last two decades, following major excavation projects  and better practices of documenting, identifying and publishing finds. In my opinion, there are cases where distribution patterns are not necessarily well suited for network analyses, as the presence of objects does not always reveal how, when and by which routes and agents they moved from point of origin to find-spot. In the case of the Indian Ocean, however, distribution patterns clearly do have potential for network analyses, as distances, topography and climate led to virtually all communication taking place by sea. Network analysis based on distribution patterns of ceramics, beads and glass – goods that can be traced to place of production on stylistic, chemical and petrographic grounds, could clearly reveal directions, bottlenecks and clustering of trade.

Networks of places
Clearly, the same would be the case with settlements. Attempts at modeling relationships between ports and their hinterlands and between ports, based on size, kinds of imports and exports, period of occupation, distance to other centers, season of navigation etc. might help us think about why some places and some regions were important, while others seem to not to have been taking part in long-distance exchange to the same extent.

Networks of genes
Many of the papers in Oxford were on the movement of crops, animals and people, studied by way of genetic material recovered from archaeological sited. Dispersal of genes was in most cases visualized by phylogenetic trees. This is of course also a network analysis, showing genetic connections between the varieties of crops etc. found in different settings. If sufficient numbers of dated examples exist from a sufficient number of sites, I think these would also be good for showing patterns of prehistoric seafaring.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Workshop at Durham University: A thousand worlds...

Just back from Durham, UK, where Assyriologist and PhD-candidate in archaeology, Rune Rattenborg, hosted the workshop A Thousand Worlds: Network Models in Archaeology (follow link for program and abstracts). The workshop gathered scholars bringing data such as roads and routes, place-names, settlements, temples, agricultural estates and cuneiform texts into play using a range of different network approaches. I especially appreciated the variety of approaches represented, from Network Science over Social Network Analysis to Actor Network Theory and Michael Mann-style networks of social power. I see these approaches as complementary rather than mutually exclusive, the theories of Latour and Mann being potential tools for the qualitative analysis of the results created by quantitative approaches such as Network Science and SNA. It remains to see, of course, how feasible this is to carry out in practice.

My own paper was about the challenges of tracing dynamic phenomena, such as trade and movement, through static proxies, such as archeological finds, texts and inscriptions. Here I think network analysis has much to offer compared to traditional, descriptive analysis, as it forces us to make the assumptions underlying our conclusions explicit.

Among the highlights in Durham, by the way, was Anna Collar's presentation on religious networks in the Roman Empire. Her book on the topic is coming out on Cambridge University Press in a few weeks. Being interested in religious networks myself I promise to blog about the book once its out.

Update 28.10.13:
Tom Brughmans gives a more comprehensive summary of the workshop at with a highly readable discussion of some of the main questions we touched on there.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Publication: Networks and social cohesion in ancient Indian Ocean trade: geography, ethnicity, religion

First publication from the NeRoNE project is out. Here I discuss how merchants traveling the Indian Ocean in the first centuries of the Common Era established an infrastructure of trust by building networks based on origin, ethnicity and religion. The article is published with open access and can be downloaded for free from the publisher.

Eivind Heldaas Seland (2013). Networks and social cohesion in ancient Indian Ocean trade: geography, ethnicity, religion. Journal of Global History, 8, pp 373-390. 

Monday, 30 September 2013

First NeRoNE meeting held at Voss, Sep. 25th-27th 2013

Last week saw the first research meeting of the NeRoNE project at Voss near Bergen. 12 scholars from 10 universities came together in order to discuss how we can approach the ancient world in general and the Roman Near East in particular in terms of networks. The speakers came from different traditions and disciplines, but all based their discussions on empirical case-studies. This proved to be a constructive way to foster discussion on how different approaches can highlight different aspects of network interaction. Below I summarize the proceedings. Please mind that this is my interpretation of the papers delivered, and that the authors might not agree with it.

As host, I started myself, introducing the NeRoNE project, and outlining how I believe that the methodological and theoretical frameworks from Social Network Analysis and New Institutional economics can be combined in order to help us map, explain and maybe even to some extent measure the importance of everyday interaction in the Roman Near East and other traditional societies.

Terje Stordalen, University of Oslo, followed up with a paper on Mapping potential ancient Near Eastern associations with Latour and Bourdieu. Terje’s presentation used the example of mass-produced Roman period clay figurines from Egypt, in order to show how networks are continuously reproduced by often unintended and unconscious practice. Imperial networks, for instance, might be said to be reproduced by the usage of roads, currency etc., without actors being consciously aware of this, but we also find example of anti-imperial practices, revealing alternative networks.  

Next up was Tom Brughmans, Southampton University, with a paper called From network pattern to network process: exploring tableware distribution networks in the Roman East, 150BC-200AD. Tom, who is a part of the Connected Past group, and at the forefront of archaeological network science, followed the process from data via theory and methodology to results and interpretation. To me, this highlighted the point that theory is there mainly because it can help you with your material and your research questions, but that it is also necessary to be explicit on your use of theory, because there are always theoretical assumptions underlying your work.

Kerstin Droß-Krüpe, Phillips University Marburg, gave a talk on Regional mobility and private good exchange - an interpretative attempt within the framework of agency theory. Kerstin’s talk gave a wonderful insight into everyday life in Roman Period Egypt, showing how ties of trust can be established between people with different kinds of relationship and thus contributing towards our understanding of how the ties connecting different parts of a network are constituted.

Michał Gawlikowski, recently retired from Warsaw University after more than four decades of research on the Roman Near East in general and the city of Palmyra in particular, then gave a talk on The Syrian Connection. Palmyra as the hub of the Syrian Foreign Trade. Here he argued that Palmyra was not only a node in a transit trade between Indian Ocean and Mediterranean, but primarily served demand for Eastern textiles and spices in the regional market. For me this came as a useful reminder that the Near East was not only a contact zone between east and west, but can also be seen as a system in itself, perhaps approachable as a small world, following the lead of Irad Malkins recent book on archaic period Greek networks in the Mediterranean.

The next speaker was Ted Kaizer from Durham University. His paper was about Lucian on the temple at Heliopolis. Ted showed how Lucian’s The Syrian Goddess, gives a narrative map of the Near East, where Roman Imperial presence is downplayed, while indigenous and local traditions are emphasised. Arguably, this is an example of the anti-imperial or at the very least non-imperial practices that Terje’s talk had mentioned, showing how underneath the superstructure of Roman rule, alternative networks continued to exist and reproduce.

Oystein LaBianca from Andrews University continued along the same line with Jordan in Global History: The View from Tall Hisban and the Madaba Plains, Jordan. Four decades of archaeology at the site of Hisban have revealed how changing imperial networks have formed life, subsistence and material culture at a site in present day-Jordan. Oystein’s talk called attention to how imperial “Great traditions” and local “Little traditions” meet, co-exist and interact.

Miko Flohr, Leiden University, gave a paper on Networks of the East in the Roman West. Miko discussed evidence of the presence of individuals and groups originating in the Near East from Delos, Puteoli and Rome, warning that it is not always possible to conclude on the existence of networks in general from the presence of individuals and on trading networks from the presence of groups of expatriates.

Leonardo Gregoratti, Durham University, followed up on this with Palmyra and Emesa or "Palmyre sans Emese", showing how contact between places should not be taken as evidence of interdependence, and how trajectories of imperial rule and long distance commerce not always follow the same patterns as those of everyday connectivity.

Michael Sommer, Oldenburg University, returned attention to Social Network Analysis with a paper on Networking the frontier. Roman soldiers and veterans in the Near East. Here he argued that Roman army veterans settling in border areas after service formed a dense local elite network that was closely affiliated with imperial culture, but also connected to local society. Michael’s paper, to me, was a good example of how it is possible to study the relation between networks on different levels.

In her paper The Palmyrene presence in Egypt, Katia Schörle, University of Oxford addressed the presence of people from Palmyra, Syria in Egypt. Generally viewed as a product of the situation on the border between the Roman and Sasanian empires and of Palmyrene territorial expansion into Egypt in the third quarter of the third century, Katia made a strong case for vertical as well as horizontal integration of Palmyrene commercial activities being factors behind Palmyrene activities in Egypt and the Red Sea.

The last paper was by Håkon Steinar Fiane Teigen, who will shortly join the NeRoNE project with his PhD project. A web of missionaries. Dynamics of religious networks in the Middle East in Late Antiquity. Håkon’s project uses the case of Manichaean communities in the Near East in general and in Egypt in particular to investigate the role of religious networks in Late Antiquity. The project clearly has potential for understanding the role of minority groups and for addressing the relationship between local, regional and empire-level networks.  I’ll ask Håkon to write a blog entry about his project as soon as he joins us in Bergen, which I hope will be soon.

To my delight, although not surprise, presentations with quite different points of departure came together very nicely. Just for the fun of it, I've made these two visualizations of their relationship based on the content keywords of network analysis, cohesion, trade, mobility, ideology, tradition, regionality and imperialism. The first is represented as a two-mode network, the second as a one-mode network.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Guest lecture: Miklos Sarkozy – Heterodoxy and Orthodoxy in Sasanian Imperial Ideology

Ideology can also be approached from a network perspective. Rulers of the past carefully constructed legitimacy by linking up to existing ideological currents. This is the topic when Dr. Miklos Sarkozy visits the research group Ancient history, culture and religion and the NeRoNE project, in order to give a talk on 'Heterodoxy and Orthodoxy in Sasanian Imperial Ideology: Achaemenid, Avestan, Parthian, Antique and Judeo-Christian elements of the Sasanian Legitimacy '. Dr. Sarkozy is Associate Professor at Karoli Gaspar University of the Hungarian Reformed Church, and currently a research fellow at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. He has published widely on Iranian history and philology, and is also contributor to the Encylopedia Iranica.

Venue: Seminarrom 1, Øysteinsgate 3.
Time: Tuesday Sep 17, 2013: 14.15-16.00

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Blog: archaeological networks

Check out colleague Tom Brughmans' blog on archaeological networks. Tom is PhD-candidate at Southampton University, and has over the last years established himself as a profiled advocate of network approaches to archaeology. Among other things he is part of the team behind the Connected Past conference in Southampton last year, which was a great inspiration for my own project. His blog is a great place for news on publications, projects and conferences as well as reflections on networks in archaeology.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Networks in history and archaeology, some early reflections

Just back from the 33rd Sunbelt conference on Social Network Analysis, and after hosting a stimulating guest lecture by Giovanni Ruffini from Fairfield University last week, I've had the pleasure of watching a number of accomplished social scientists, archaeologists and historians applying formal network approaches to their material. This gives rise to some observations and some thoughts on what Social Network Analysis (SNA) can, could and maybe should contribute towards the study of the ancient world.

This year's Sunbelt conference gathered 690 speakers from all over the world, almost all of them engaging with contemporary material, but there were also one panel dealing with archaeological networks and three addressing historical networks. Most researchers working with SNA gather their data from questionnaires, allowing them to ask their informers whatever they'd like to know, such as, if working with a group of students, "who do you turn to for advice?", "who are you spending time with outside class?", "name up to three persons in the group with whom you do not get along" and so on. This data can then not only be conceptualized and visualized as a network, but also be subjected to quantitative analysis. This of course is a major difference from working with historical or archaeological material, where the nature and availability of data severely restricts what questions can be asked. Historical material can often tell that people moved, or that they were in contact, but sources revealing attitudes or feelings will almost invariably be too anecdotal to useful for statistical purposes. Archaeology has to rely on objects as a proxy in order to understand understand social interaction. This can be done, but it goes without saying that it is challenging.

What then, do researchers working with past societies apply SNA for? There are at least three main approaches with varying degree of methodological stringency. Stringency in lack of a better word, as I think they all have their merits.

One school of research has used Social Network Analysis primarily as a framework for understanding and visualizing interaction in history. This is the approach of Irad Malkin's, A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean. Greeks Overseas (Oxford University Press 2011), where he addresses the formative stages of Greek society and culture in the Mediterranean from a network perspective, offering, in my view, an interpretative framework far superior to earlier competing diffusionist and minimalist, but invariably Aegean-centric narratives of early Greek history. My own first journal-published foray into network studies, which will be come out in November, is inspired by this approach, and addresses the social cohesion of early Indian Ocean networks. I'll put it online in due time. An objection to studies such as these, of course, is that they use the concepts and terminology of SNA, without actually carrying out the analysis. This is not necessarily a problem, but it is different from from the quantitative analysis that the concepts and terminology were developed for.

Scholars engaging with archaeological networks have perhaps even fewer options as to what questions their material can answer than historians. The movement of objects surely indicate contacts, but of what kind, by which roads and which carriers? Are distribution patterns suitable proxies for social networks? It is hard to see how purely archaeological network studies can get beyond the analysis of potential networks, but this in itself can be a great contribution in settings of incomplete or fragmentary data. Also, unlike historians, archaeologist dealing with the ancient world often have large amounts of data available, facilitating the kind of statistical analyses that make SNA a powerful tool in the hands of social scientists. The Sunbelt panel on archeological networks, organized by the people behind the new Nexus 1492-project, addressed issues such as these, focussing on how network theory can be adapted so serve the needs of archaeology, and proved a very stimulating methodological lesson. In the NeRoNE project I hope that archaeological approaches can help map potential religious networks by proxies such as the distribution of temples, churches, synagogues and votive inscriptions.

Closest to mainstream SNA is perhaps the approach advanced by Ruffini in his 2008-monograph Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt (Cambridge University Press), and by most of the contributors to the historical panels at the Sunbelt conference. These scholars use documentary evidence, attesting that people were actually interacting, whether in juridical or commercial transactions, or through ties of marriage, kinship, friendship and so on. This combines the advantage of testability with potential for mapping and visualizing interaction, but requires a suitable and sufficiently large set of data. The problem of course, which is also relevant to a number of studies of contemporary social networks, is that many such studies reveal little about the nature and depth of the relationships mapped. This could in some cases be addressed through qualitative analyses of parts of the material, but these in turn, face problems of representativity. These are possibilities and challenges I hope to take on in the NeRoNE project in studies of networks of power.

Ending this post on an optimistic note, as I really do think that SNA has a lot to contribute to the study of the ancient world, I'd like to mention John F. Padgett's keynote address to the Sunbelt conference, which was on Networks and History. Padgett is Professor of Political Science at Chicago University and is among the senior figures of SNA. Among other fields, he has published on economics, organization theory, law and probability theory, but primarily on history, and employing historical source material from renaissance Florence. In his plenary lecture in Hamburg, he made two important points: Everything is networks, because all change involves interaction and everything is history, because current networks are results of past processes.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Guest lecture: Giovanni Ruffini – Social Networks in the Ancient World

Photo: Cambridge University Press
Giovanni Ruffini visits the research group Ancient history, culture and religion and the NeRoNE project in order to give a talk on 'Social Networks in the Ancient World'. Ruffini is Associate Professor of classical studies at Fairfield University, Connecticut, USA. His 2008 monograph Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt was the first full scale study applying Social Network Analysis on the ancient world. In addition to revisiting his study of Byzantine Egypt in light of later work, Ruffini will also discuss the advantages and limitations of applying network perspectives to ancient history.

Venue: Seminarrom 1, Øysteinsgate 3.
Time: Tuesday May 21, 2013: 14.15-16.00

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

SAMKUL – Cultural conditions underlying social change

The NeRoNE-project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL-programme (2011-2020), which supports projects from the social sciences and humanities investigating the cultural conditions underlying social change. 15 projects were funded in the first call. Links to their web-pages can be found here.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Textiles and networks

Just back from Marburg in Germany, where I attended a great conference on Textile Trade and Distribution in Antiquity. The organizers from the Seminar für Alte Geschichte at Phillips Universität Marburg had gathered around 30 scholars from archaeology, history, philology, conservation and natural sciences with a common interest in textiles.

Textiles are historically important for several reasons. They represent a basic human need, but are also powerful markers of status and wealth. With light weight and high value, textiles were among the goods traded over long distances in the ancient world, despite high taxes and transport costs. When studying how textiles moved and changed hands, we tend to emphasize trade, but textiles were subject to processes such as gift-exchange, tribute, taxation and plunder, thus being important objects of redistributions. In that respect they are also very relevant to the networks studied in the NeRoNE project.

The organizers promise to publish the proceedings of the conference promptly. Meanwhile, a thorough summary by Teresa Traupe and Louisa Thomas can be viewed here.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Pre-project workshop: Local Dynamics of Globalization in the pre-modern Levant

Next week I'm heading to Oslo to take part in a pre-project workshop for an exciting project called Local Dynamics of Globalization in the pre-modern Levant. The project, headed by Terje Stordalen, Professor of Theology, Oslo, and Oystein La Bianca, Professor of Anthropology, Andrews University has been awarded Centre for Advanced Study (CAS) status for the academic year 2014/15. Nine scholars from Europe, North-America and Norway along with a wider "outer circle" of project participants will work together to "[investigate] how local cultures in the pre-modern Levant adapted policies, trends, habits, and technologies that reached them through imperial and other globalizing channels, and also how local discourse fed back into trans-local dialogue". Chronologically, our research stretches from the Bronze Age to the Ottoman period. You can read more about our group and our planned work here. My contribution will be a study of The In-Betweens: Studies of Traders, Soldiers, Administrators and Nomads in the Ancient Levant, which will fit nicely into my research on the NeRoNE project. The purpose of this first meeting will be to get to know each other personally and professionally, as well as to meet our hosts and se our facilities at the CAS.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Call for papers!

Together with Dr. Kerstin Dross-Krüpe, Marburg, I'm hosting this session at the ASOR annual meeting in Baltimore nov. 20-23.

Sinews of Empire: Networks in the Roman Near East

Most of the Near East was under Roman rule for almost seven centuries, representing the longest period of political stability in the history of the region. Since the 1990s there has been an explosion of scholarly interest in the field, with studies moving emphasis from the metropolitan to regional and local points of view, but arguably most contributions have continued to cast representatives of imperial rule as protagonists or antagonists in narratives of domination, resistance, integration and fragmentation. In this session we aim to move the focus of attention to the everyday ties of trade, religion and day-to-day regional politics connecting people and places in the Roman Near East. How did networks develop? What where the institutions underpinning interaction and fostering integration on local, regional and imperial levels? What impact did formal and informal rules have on economic, social and political activities within these networks? How did networks react to stress on imperial level, such as invasions, economic crisis or civil war? We especially welcome papers situating empirical data within theoretical frameworks such as Social Network Analysis or New Institutional Economy, in order to facilitate comparison between groups, over time and between different parts of the Roman Near East.

Details can be found here:
Deadline for abstracts is feb. 15.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

We're hiring!

The call for a PhD candidate at the NeRoNE project is now open (until Feb. 25th). Read the official announcement here and contact me for more information.