Roman Archaeology Conference in Split, Croatia (5th-9th April 2022)

On 4th April Daan van Helden and I, as members of the Arch-I-Scan Project, arrived in Split for RAC-TRAC 2020 (hover over the headings to see the full programme). This is the combined Roman Archaeology Conference and Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference and the most important international conference for Roman archaeologists. The former (RAC) takes place every two years and the latter (TRAC) every two years. Because of Covid-19 the conference to take place in Split was postponed from April 2020 to April 2022.

Ever since I first studied archaeology, I have wanted to visit the city of Split, which for centuries was situated entirely within the walls of palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian (emperor from AD 284 to 305). So I was particularly keen to organise a session for this conference, on ‘Approaches to Roman Pottery Use: New Perspectives and New Techniques’. Several scholars expressed an interest take part in this session and I was very disappointed when the conference was cancelled in 2020. Then, to be finally going to Split this month was very exciting and I was particularly thrilled not only to visit this city but to be staying in a hotel right in the middle of a former Roman palace! Arriving on Monday 4th April, before the conference started, I was able to wander around the city and its narrow streets, get my bearings, and be astounded by the remains of the palace everywhere, including in my hotel room!

Split Waterfront
The basilica and mausoleum inside Diocletian’s Palace
The so-called ‘Peristyle of Diocletian’s Palace’
A wall of Diocletian’s Palace and my hotel bathroom

On Tuesday 5th April Daan and I took the pre-conference excursion to visit Krka National Park, the museum and remains of the Roman fort of Burnum, and the waterfalls and water mills of Skradinski Buk.

The (heavily) restored amphitheatre at Burnum, with conference participants
Daan and I at the waterfalls and old mill at Skradinski Buk

I had hoped to have more time to explore Split but the conference started in earnest on Wednesday 6th April and there were so many interesting sessions, most of them within Diocletian’s Palace or in the magnificent Concert Hall or the Croatian National Theatre. I particularly enjoyed Andy Birley’s and Beth Green’s paper on ‘Cultural expression in a frontier settlement: Extramural occupation at Vindolanda in the early 2nd century CE’ on Wednesday morning. I also enjoyed the Thursday morning session, ‘What happens when we dig big’, bemoaning the lack of investment in post-excavation processing of excavated material, in favour of digging the stuff up.

Then it was time for my session which took place in one of the towers of Diocletian’s Palace. The session included papers on usewear and residue analyses that help us to identify the contents of Roman pottery vessels, whether they be dipping sauces for the meal (Alessandra Pecci et al.’s paper) or urine afterwards (Alessandra Pegurri’s paper). The other papers, like the Arch-I-Scan paper that Daan and I presented, were interdisciplinary papers, one presented by a mathematician (Danai Kafetzaki). These papers used advanced technologies and quantitative approaches to the big data that are pottery remains on Roman sites. They included Alasdair Gilmour’s and Jesús Bermejo Tirado’s papers which demonstrated techniques for identifying the types of tableware vessels found within or across Roman sites to investigate different eating and drinking practices by different people in different parts of the Roman world. We tend to think that Romans were all the same Romans who all ate in the same way, but this is most unlikely in this vast world made up of people from very diverse cultural backgrounds. The vessels they chose for their preparing and consuming their food can give us insights into their social behaviour.

On Friday, the last day of the conference, I attended a further session on Roman pottery – Maureen Carroll’s interesting session ‘New Perspectives on Roman Pottery Production, Storage and Transport’. What was evident from both her session and mine (i.e. Sally Gilmour’s paper) was that Romans recycled their pottery vessels, particularly large storage jars and amphorae. These were valuable commodities not be thrown away after a single use. Then I attended the TRAC paper by Daan van Helden, Dominik Maschek, and Sarah Scoppie, ‘De-colonising and diversifying Roman archaeology: a continental response’, which incited much debate from a great range of perspectives but all agreeing this needed addressing and that there were a number of ways of doing so through TRAC and the community of Roman archaeologists. The final session I attended concerned legacy data, and digital storage and dissemination of archaeological data, topics with which I have long been concerned.

Maureen Carroll presenting on wine transportation around Italy and the Adriatic

My trip to Split ended with a visit to the Split Museum which contains a wealth of pottery, and sculptural and epigraphical remains from the region’s long history. I was particularly interested in the remains of a marble statue labelled as the seated torso of a Roman emperor, but which recalled a not dissimilar torso, also seated and reportedly from a statue of the god Jupiter and used to identify the Temple of Jupiter in Pompeii. Have they got these identifications right?

Torso of a seated emperor in the Split Museum
Torso of Jupiter from the forum in Pompeii
(van Buren, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 1918 pl. 23.2)

Not only was it a privilege and a pleasure to attend this conference in Split but it was also great to attend it in person after the past two years of online lectures, seminars and conferences. And it was wonderful to catch up with colleagues in person over lunches and dinners in the wide range of beautifully situated restaurants, and then wind down with long philosophical discussions with my Arch-I-Scan colleague Daan.

Professor Penelope Allison (Principal Investigator, Arch-I-Scan)

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