CRACking remarks about slavery

So I'm reading up on archaeological perspectives on slavery in the ancient world, and I come across a reference to a session to which I contributed a paper in 2008, the Critical Roman Archaeology Conference at Stanford (Webster, J. 2008. Less beloved. Roman archaeology, slavery and the failure to compare, Archaeological Dialogues 15(2):103-123). Webster notes that she was the session chair for "Diaspora and Migration," in which I presented a paper that eventually became my in-press JRA article (Killgrove K. 2010. Rome if you want to: identifying immigrants to the Imperial capital. Journal of Roman Archaeology). I presented my work in the last session of the last day. It was a very poorly attended session, and there were only three papers: mine, one by (I recall) a European researcher that wasn't on migration at all, and one by British bioarchaeologists who couldn't come to the conference. Webster writes about this session (pp. 110-111):

"Given the central role of US-based archaeologists in developing an archaeology of the African diaspora... I was reasonably confident that the 'Diaspora' session would attract papers by American postgraduates developing innovative approaches to the study of Roman slavery. Not so: not a single abstract was received on any aspect of Roman slavery, let alone Roman slavery in comparative perspective. ... Thus it has come to pass that the 'agency' generation (following Sanjek 2003) have recast diaspora as voluntary rather than forced migration, and at CRAC the term was wholly used to discuss the movement of free migrants within the Roman world."

Now, I have no idea what other sorts of abstracts were received, but I can definitely believe none of them took a comparative approach to Roman slavery. The phenomenon of migration in the Roman world is woefully under-researched, and the topic of slavery is worse. Both of these research streams clearly require anthropologists - or at least comparatively-trained archaeologists - to point out why they're useful to our understanding of the past and the present and how to go about studying them. But I never used the term diaspora to talk about waves of free migrants, except in quoting others' redefinition of the term. So the reference to Sanjek? Yup, that was in my paper. Did I say that I agreed with him? Nope. The use of diaspora to talk about what is actually simply population movement? That was in the talk by the British researchers, a move that I similarly disagree with because diaspora has a specific meaning. If we want to talk about mobility, movement, and migration without force or threat, we already have perfectly serviceable words for them.

I also disagree, however, with the insinuation that taking an agency perspective to the study of Roman slavery is necessarily a bad idea; it's unfair to expect American postgraduates to engage in simple comparative research on slavery when we (anthropologists, anyway) have to justify our research to thesis advisors and grant committee members. Using information from other historically known slave societies to elicit information about Roman slavery? Not likely to be funded by NSF or Wenner-Gren. Using an agency perspective to discuss the experience of Roman slaves and their means of active or passive resistance? Much more likely to be funded. Migration theory has moved on to an individual, transnational perspective, even if archaeology (and especially classical archaeology) hasn't even caught up to systemic push/pull factors yet, just as diaspora theory has moved on to ideas of agency. Wanting better research about Roman slavery is one thing, but expecting it to come out of graduate students working within the American academic tradition (particularly the anthropological tradition) is a bit misplaced.

At any rate, I do recall having to answer a lot of questions during the discussion time because, as I mentioned, the other presenters didn't talk about migration, and the British bioarchaeologists didn't come - I even answered a question about their methods. And I do recall Webster using her role as discussant to discuss slavery - it was honestly a topic I had not even considered at that point because I bought into the Italian archaeologists' assumption that the skeletons from my sites belonged to the free poor. As I research further, however, it is clear that I can't know whether these individuals were free, freed, slave, or somewhere in between (e.g., peregrini, visitors) because of the integration of slaves into Roman society but also because of Roman archaeologists' and historians' long tradition of glossing over the fact that Rome was a slave society and therefore not researching the effects slavery had on life beyond the general economy. I'm doing my best to spread the word about migration to Rome - why it's important, how it can be seen archaeologically, ways that we can push this topic further with modern anthropological theory - but I think that a stronger foundation needs to be laid regarding documented patterns of migration to Rome, primarily through stable isotope analysis, before we can separate those patterns of movement into slave and free, occupational and circular, short- and long-term.


Popular Posts