Material culture and society: processes of recognition, analysis and interpretation.Roman archaeology and material culture: directions and prospects

The study of Roman archaeology today, in the international research context, reflects demands which appear strictly related to the aspect of archaeology under investigation, whether it is a specific class of artefacts, a region, an urban or rural environment, or even political, social and ideological movements which find their concrete expression in the material traces of the society being examined.
The category of pottery represents a particular case in point, inasmuch as the significant amount of information that can be obtained from it and which can contribute to an innovative dialogue between archaeologists, historians, geographers, ecologists, economists, ethnographers etc.
depends on an approach and a mode of study which is necessarily multidisciplinary.
The study of regional and social development models amongst societies of the ancient world has emphasised the necessity to embrace an ever more broadly based archaeology. Archaeology is admitted to be - and is, I would say, by its very nature - a discipline characterised by a distinct capacity continuously to 'zoom in and zoom out' with regard to any theme. And all of this can become very clear when any line of study, as in the case of craft products, is pursued with the aid of different disciplines and a range of perspectives. This is happening now in certain international research projects which bring together pottery, production centres, territories, landscapes and economies and in which the unifying element which brings all these diverse threads together seems to be that represented by the social aspect, and by Man in particular.
The study of Roman pottery today can be divided essentially into three major clusters, each of which has further subdivisions.
The first cluster concerns the approach to the object and its decoding. This operation is effected essentially by means of three key activities, which include:
1. Typo-chronological analysis. The approach which has been used in studies of various eastern and western Mediterranean productions, down to the most recent contributions on the African workshops, is fundamental in the construction of a typo-chronological grid as a constant base of reference.
2. Analysis of models of marketing and distribution developed strictly in relation to the economic networks of both the individual site and the whole Mediterranean. The necessity to go beyond the simple typological data has enabled us, in the last ten years, to broaden the field of study and to integrate typo-chronological data with systems of production and distribution in which history, archaeology, economics and society all interact with vigour.
3. Functional and contextual analysis. This is a line of study which, starting from the relationship form→function→purpose→context of use→context of discovery, is decisive in reconstructing ways of living, customs, habits and traditions of past societies.
The second cluster concerns, by contrast, the study of the system of production. In this case too, it is possible to identify at least three key activities which set out to investigate:
1. The infrastructure of production. To understand and to investigate the context of production on its own account is the starting-point for any process of analysis of the environment within which the vessel has been created; leading, therefore, to the investigations which have been carried out on the important production centres of central Italy.
2. The study of the finished products. Works of synthesis in which various aspects are taken into account and set in relation to one another, in order to construct a unified and comprehensive vision of the artefact under examination.
3. The study of the processes of production and their projection upon the social environment of the time.
The third cluster, finally, is concerned as a natural conclusion with the theme of archaeometric analysis, where the application of chemicophysical analyses or the petrographic description of the components of the clay have become obligatory stages in pottery study, which cannot be omitted or postponed. In this cluster, too, there are three key factors:
1. Choice of analytical technique. It is necessary always to identify the most appropriate and informative analytical technique to apply to the potsherd, in a procedure where the evaluation of multiple factors (context, composition, geological origin) plays a decisive role.
2. Access to specialised laboratories. There is no greater error than to entrust archaeometric analyses of any kind to laboratories which have little or no experience of the work.
3. Procedural aspects. Here, the words of S. Zabehlicky encapsulate clearly the more specifically procedural significance of the 'archaeometric analysis' cluster: "We cannot demand from archaeometry the solution of every archaeological problem, but in good collaboration - and asking the right persons the right questions - it should be possible to get somehow nearer to the truth and to improve our knowledge about provenance, production technique and distribution of our beloved sherds... choose the right samples for the right means of analyses and the right question to connect with it".
It is now clear that none of the clusters defined above is capable of functioning or of governing the whole complex procedural business of applying and testing methodologies and techniques, without the definition of a rigorous path which provides for the organization of an integrated system of approaches, guided by a single objective. Each of the clusters listed here requires, in this respect, appropriate specialisations and, above all, close collaboration between different specialists.
The recently elaborated concept of a chaîne opératoire serves to articulate and to give structure to the complex archaeological data which the archaeologist - here, specifically, the ceramologist - has available to him or her, allowing the development of working models which help to address studies and investigations on single artefacts or classes of artefacts, combining effectively technological knowledge with study of the complex social system to which they belong.
A significant point on this path was marked, in 2007, by the launch in the context of the activities of IBAM of the journal Facta. A Journal of Roman material culture studies, which has now been succeeded by HEROM. Journal on Hellenistic and Roman material culture. These publications underline how the study of material culture can no longer be understood by following a traditional analytical-descriptive approach. It must instead be constructed through due attention to the processes of invention and production, to the skills of the craftsmen, to recognition of the varied workforce involved in the production process, to the cultural transformation of the object into an asset and so on. Certain passages in the editorial introduction to HEROM 1 (2012) set out its clear objectives and strategic aims: "HEROM" acknowledges that the study of past material culture should contribute to our knowledge of this "complex structure of past life". Complex matters are worse than complicated ones. Something complicated, like an engine, has lots of bits and parts that need to function together for it to work. An engine is thus supposed to perform within a relatively narrow and predictable range of behaviours. Archaeology and the study of ancient artefacts, by contrast, are complex matters, which display properties and behaviours that cannot be attributed to any particular part, but only to the system as a whole.
As a matter of fact, archaeology harbours the fairly unique potential to explore societal development by combining the dimensions of materiality and cognition with time and space. With its focus on the Hellenistic and Roman periods, including Late Antiquity, "HEROM" seeks to contribute to the wider field of historical archaeology. Also this field is complex. Where archaeology as a scientific discipline, in general, approaches the analysis of social complexity and its evolution in the long-term, historical archaeology is mostly concerned with periods and regions where the functioning of society in itself has become quite complex. In consideration of this, we have to consciously avoid not to present our assemblages of material culture as the result of a homogeneous, evolutionary process of social and regional development (such as from chiefdom to polis to state), but to make the particularities
and inconsistencies of that part of the archaeological record we study contribute to debates in social, economic and regional archaeology.
"HEROM" consciously opts to move away from cultural and social evolutionism, which still characterizes much research, particularly in classical archaeology (e.g. the debate on r/Romanization or imperialism). The concept of social evolution (the 'logical' evolution from hunter/gatherers to complex civilizations) has placed an intellectual straightjacket on the archaeological discipline, representing "one of the most persistent metanarratives in western thought". Alternatively, "HEROM" aims to move towards an understanding of social complexity rather than evolution. While, through time, society has become more complex, "complexity should not be conceived as the ultimate goal of social evolution". Different
communities within the Hellenistic kingdoms and Roman Empire were able to evolve in different yet complex ways based on how inequalities were established and contested. Social complexity and its development existed on many levels and scales, and in many contexts".
I cluster sopra menzionati funzionano perché ad essi si vanno agganciando ulteriori filoni di ricerca innovativa che hanno come punto centrale il manufatto e le sue "storie".
1. Cultura materiale come strumento di comunicazione;
2. Biografia di un manufatto;
3. Costruzione e decostruzione di un contesto;
4. Vita di un manufatto dalla produzione, distribuzione, primo uso, mantenimento, riuso, riciclo, fino alla sua riparazione e al suo riutilizzo.
Archeologia della produzione, archeologia dei consumi, archeologia cognitiva rappresentano, dunque, quel sistema di "networks" di saperi attorno a cui è articolato oggi lo studio della cultura materiale.
Tutto ciò implica necessariamente la costruzione di un articolato processo di analisi in cui la nozione di "cultural bricolage" coniata in tempi recenti serve per riconoscere quelle interazioni sociali e tecnologiche di emulazioni tra produzioni artigianali diverse dove pesi e ruoli sono costituiti da "hybrid identities, human agency and the concept of cultural relativism".
Lo spirito, oggi, è quello di lavorare, specie nei grandi progetti di ricerca quali sono alcuni attivi presso l'IBAM e coordinati da chi scrive, per costruire "solid bridges between this traditional body of knowledge and the more conceptual agenda of the wider archaeological discipline". Innovative insights in the functioning of Roman pottery as proxy evidence for the functioning and potential trajectory of moderate growth of the ancient economy sustained by specific technological developments, indicate the ground-breaking potential of combining tradition with the new disciplinary research agendas".