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Still on Trac?

If physicists want to study weird distortions of time then they could do worse than to observe academic conferences. A twenty-minute paper can either fly by or feel like it lasts forever when you’re listening to it. When you’re standing before the audience yourself trying to squeeze your elaborate argument into the allotted slot it can feel as though you’ve only just started speaking when the person chairing the session gives you the signal to wrap things up. A conference that lasts a couple of days can feel like a week because the experience is so intense – listening to so many presentations, learning so many new things, meeting so many new and interesting people. Yet once its over it can feel as though it whizzed by in the blink of an eye. Now that I’ve been back in Oxford for three whole days the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (or TRAC) already feels like it was weeks ago.

The event was hosted by Leicester University – soon to be renamed King Richard University (I know April Fool’s Day was yesterday but I’m still allowed to pass on someone else’s joke aren’t I?). The weekend kicked off with an excursion to see the Hallaton Treasure and Burrough Hill Iron Age hill fort on Friday, in perfect weather, which was followed by two days jam-packed with papers on fascinating topics ranging from cult places to Mithras in Roman Britain to the reuse of Greek funerary reliefs in Imperial Rome, from Christian destruction and transformation of pagan shrines in Hierapolis in Turkey, to the mystery of the lack of evidence for Roman occupation in Jerusalem. My own paper was about how we approach the transformation of the Roman Forum under the first Roman Emperors. I’m not an expert on the site but it was a nice opportunity to try out some of my ideas relating to public space in the Greek part of the Empire on the most important public space in the imperial capital itself. It was also great to catch up with some familiar faces and to make some new contacts.

All in all there were nearly eighty presentations, running in parallel sessions of course so that some hard choices needed to be made. I was particularly sorry to have to miss a session on ancient magic because it clashed with the one I was presenting in but it’s impossible to plan these things to please everybody and the organisers (PhD students in Leicester) really did a fantastic job. Often at conferences the papers can be a pretty mixed bag but here – at least in the sessions I went to – the quality was impressively high.

If I am allowed one critical note, however, I did find myself wondering at several points during the conference if the focus really was theoretical enough considering that this was supposed to be the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Most of the papers did draw on exciting new theories – some borrowed from other disciplines like sociology, anthropology or geography – to find innovative ways of looking at the past. There weren’t many papers, however, where the focus was really explicitly on the theory itself. The discussions after the papers, at least in the sessions that I went to, were also very much focussed on the material and not on the way we approach it.

On the one hand, I think that the problem is that really doing archaeological theory properly – debating the assumptions we make about the way we interrogate our evidence and arriving at new ways of thinking requires a certain type of mind. Scholars that actually publish about archaeological theory are a rare breed and include Andrew Gardner, of UCL, who gave the thought provoking keynote speech and David Mattingly, of Leicester University, whose inspiring summing up closed the proceedings. Most of the rest of us, I think, go along to events like this keen to talk about the ancient world, to show what new insights we’ve arrived at through our own particular approach and hopefully to pick up a few new theoretical tricks from others that will be useful in our research.

On the other hand, I think that the other reason that there wasn’t too much explicit focus on theory in either the presentations or discussions is that nowadays the majority of us take it for granted that faced with a limited body of evidence we need to use theory if we are to arrive at new understandings of past culture or society. There can’t be many archaeologists, historians or even Classicists who graduate now without haven’t been made to realise the importance of thinking critically about the assumptions we make when we think about our evidence. And thinking critically and trying out new ways of thinking about the past is what theory is all about.

Still, the fact that most research these days does have such a strong theoretical component means that most of us the papers at last weekend’s conference could have been given in exactly the same form in a completely different setting. Indeed I suspect that most of us probably would have given the pretty much the same paper in a different setting – say in a smaller conference with a theme more closely related to our research interest or perhaps at the RAC (Roman Archaeology Conference).

TRAC was founded 25 years ago because a group of up and coming Roman archaeologists at that time thought that the subject wasn’t theoretical enough. That a quarter of a century later so much research in the field is so purposefully theory driven shows just how effective their initiative has been. TRAC is clearly a big success story. At the same time, however, there does seem to be a danger of the event becoming a victim of that very success and no longer having anything to distinguish itself from its slightly younger and ostensibly atheoretical brother (RAC was founded three years after TRAC).*

I’ve never attended RAC but browsing through the programme of last year’s event online there seem to be quite a few papers that must have been pretty much as theoretical as those I attended at this year’s TRAC. I have been invited to contribute to a panel at RAC next year when it will be in Rome, which I am of course looking forward to already. I’ve heard that TRAC will be held together in the same venue – they’ve organised the two events in tandem before. I’m very curious how easy it’s going to be to distinguish which sessions belong to which of the two conferences. But even if the two events do merge into one in yet more weird distortions of space and time, if the quality of this year’s TRAC papers are anything to go by, I am sure it will be an enjoyable and stimulating event.

*My thanks to the official Twitter account of TRAC (@Trac_conference) for pointing out a mistake in the first version of this post. TRAC was founded first (1991) before RAC (1994). Post amended 2/4/2015 at 11:12.

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