Abstract: Ancient Rome and the Clash of Civilizations: Or, the curious history of artifact H278


I am an archaeologist, and I study corroded bits of metal from Roman times, some of which I’ve dug up myself, though most are in museum collections. They comprise ancient martial material culture—or in plainer English, the kit of fighting men, from Rome’s armies, and those of her far-flung foes.  Many of these fragments look pretty non-descript, yet may have startling tales to tell us about our past, and the histories and fates of civilisations. I want to talk about one particular artefact in the store of Yale University Art Gallery in Connecticut, one of the world’s archaeological treasure-houses which contain many still-untold secrets in their stores and archives.

This object, given the bland identifier ‘H278’ when it was discovered in 1934, is especially close to my heart, as in this small decorative copper-alloy casting are brought together most of the themes of my research: the nature and construction of human identity groups, especially peoples and their communities of fighting men; of cultural conflicts but also the paradoxical interactions and exchanges which ensue; of the fates of the great ‘cultures’ of our standard histories—and not least how we, today, imagine them to have been.

For in its form, nature, origins and context of discovery, this small piece of metal involves not just the story of the rise of Roman imperialism, but the fate of the ancient ‘Celtic world’ at Rome’s hands—and also of the rise of the great Iranian empire of the Sasanids. It thus embraces more than one great ‘clash of civilizations’ in Antiquity, which apparently prefigure current global confrontations.

The curious history of H278 illustrates how the tiniest human artefact can have encoded within it clues to the grandest themes of history and scholarly research. It underlines the key independent contribution which study of ancient material culture can make to our understanding of history; and not least, it reiterates the importance of our museums and archives. 


Short bibliography on lecture topic:

James, S.T. 1993. Exploring the World of the Celts, London & New York, Thames & Hudson.

James, S.T. 1999. 'The community of the soldiers: a major identity and centre of power in the Roman empire', in P. Baker, F. C., S. Jundi and R. Witcher, Eds, TRAC 98: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Leicester,  1998, Oxford, Oxbow, 14-25.

James, S.T. 2004. Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report Volume VII, The Arms and Armour, and other Military Equipment, London, British Museum Press.

James, S.T. 2011. Rome and the Sword: How Warriors & Weapons shaped Roman History, London & New York, Thames & Hudson.

James, S.T. 2011. 'Stratagems, combat and "chemical warfare" in the siege-mines of Dura-Europos,' American Journal of Archaeology 115: 69–101.




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