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Roman Artefacts and Society: Design, Behaviour, and Experience

Roman Artefacts and Society: Design, Behaviour, and Experience

By Ellen Swift. Pp. xiv + 305. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2017. $135. ISBN: 978-0-19-878526-2 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The increasing prominence and popularity of artifact-based or “small finds” studies, particularly among graduate students, has surely been one of the major success stories of the archaeology of northwest Roman provinces in the last decade or so, a story in which Swift has played no small part. One unifying theme of this new generation of scholarship, ostensibly linked to the success of TRAC (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference), has been the emphasis on using artifactual data to reveal new aspects of ancient Roman identities. In this regard, the focus of the present volume presents a refreshing change in theoretical direction. In place of the familiar search for identity is a return to the more fundamental issue of artifact function and in particular how the physical characteristics of objects may produce “affordances” that incline people toward specific ways of using or interacting with material culture. This new approach is implicitly aligned with the recent “material turn” in cognate social science disciplines, drawing heavily on the theoretical works of individuals such as Alfred Gell and Bruno Latour. Impacts of such thinking in archaeological studies so far include questioning the oft-assumed capacity of objects to stand for or represent social phenomena such as identity, instead turning attention toward what artifacts did in the past, and the ways in which they may have possessed forms of agency.

It is clear that Swift has adopted an entirely pragmatic approach to integrating the material turn into the methodological approach of Roman Artefacts and Society, outlined succinctly in the introductory chapter. With the concept of affordance at the forefront of the four substantial chapters that follow, the four aims of the book are to explore (1) the relationship between object form and object use; (2) how the physical properties of objects relate to social experience, behavior, and cultural practice; (3) assumptions about intended users inherent in object design; and (4) how production processes affected human relations with objects. Swift makes the case for this multipronged examination of Roman-period objects as arising from the largely uncritical ways in which archaeologists in past scholarship have tended to follow the credo that form follows function. As the author clearly points out (7), assuming that function follows form brings with it a raft of problems, including overestimating the extent to which function really does follow form, denying the possibility of artifacts with multiple functions, and not addressing the fundamental changes in function that objects undergo across their life histories from production to discard. Swift addresses the familiar issue of whether function should be determined by the producer or the user by drawing on design theory to make the distinction between system function, which is relative and defined by context, and proper function, in which past usage determines a preassigned function for a new object. These two concepts are helpful in explaining the fluid trajectories of archaeological objects and their functions in real-life scenarios: sometimes the two kinds of function might be the same, but divergence is also common, especially when objects travel over long distances. To do justice to these concepts and their exploration in the chapters that follow, Swift explains the need for a methodological approach that entails the direct handling of the objects in question, rather than the standard approach of relying on published reports and museum catalogues.

The introduction’s theoretical position is immediately put to the test in chapter 2, “Function.” Here, a combination of artifact use-wear, experimental re-creations, and contextual analysis are applied to a range of different kinds of Roman-period artifacts, with provocative results. By comparing affordance to use-wear, Swift ably demonstrates how the design and use of spoons changed over the course of several centuries, how finger-ring keys had practical functions, how different pen nibs were able to produce the same kinds of script but with different affordances relating to the speed of writing and the comfort of pen holding for their users, and how proper function and system function overlapped to varying degrees for different sizes of shears. In considering the example of shears, Swift highlights a bigger problem with “contextual” interpretations of Roman finds. Larger forms of shears, which the author argues are better suited to a range of utilitarian functions, are sometimes interpreted in other scholarship as having functioned for bodily grooming given their associations with razors in funerary contexts. Her research also raises the possibility that the razors in such contexts could have instead represented leatherworking tools. This kind of observation highlights the urgent need for more routine consideration of object function in bigger contextual studies (along the lines of those undertaken by Swift); otherwise archaeologists run the serious risk of misconstruing what their patterns are telling them.

Similar insights into the intimate uses of Roman-period objects abound in the following chapters. Chapter 3, “Behaviour/Experience,” considers, among other things, the functions of later Roman drinking horns and keys and locks, before providing a more extensive study of dice and gaming experience, where important distinctions are drawn between elite and nonelite objects and experiences. Chapter 4, “Users,” provides fascinating insights into the relationships between the designs, motifs, and users of Roman-period finger rings. Through a rigorous analysis of visual culture, osteological data on the skeletons of ring wearers, and ring diameters, Swift confidently elucidates a range of specific motifs that tended to be suitable for men, women, and children. Chapter 5, “Production and Users,” returns to the important issue of the agency of materials, showing, for example, that the selection of bone for making dice was more likely to lead to the production of dice that were flattened on the 1–6 axis, thereby having substantial impacts on the experience of lower-status social groups who made use of such objects.

All in all, this innovative book provides important food for thought for anyone working with Roman-period artifacts. While studies of function are not ends in themselves, they are nonetheless fundamental to realizing the long overdue potential of artifacts to make major contributions to the bigger picture of Roman social history.

Martin Pitts
Department of Classics and Ancient History
University of Exeter

Book Review of Roman Artefacts and Society: Design, Behaviour, and Experience, by Ellen Swift

Reviewed by Martin Pitts

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.pitts

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