Review of the Roman Finds Group Conference, Spring 2013

I’ve lost track of how much time I’ve spent beavering away at the PhD, but on Friday April 19th I escaped the writing desk to visit the British Museum for a one day conference organised by the Roman Finds Group entitled The Life and times of the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The conference was held in collaboration with the British Museum and including entrance to the temporary exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Julie Casidy’s image of the famous cast of a dog from the exhibition, which died whilst chained up outside a villa, probably belonging Vesonius Primus, a fuller.

The Roman Finds Group (RFG) is a special interest group for professionals and interested others who enjoy learning about, studying and researching Roman finds (that is, small portable objects that are not pottery sherds). Membership costs a very reasonable £8 a year, for which you get the twice yearly newsletter Lucerna, as well as discounts on meetings and conferences. The cost for the Pompeii conference was £30 – or £20 if you were an RFG member – so the membership is well worth it if you enjoy Roman archaeology.

The RFG have recently redesigned their website, and at the conference they were running a twitter feed using the hashtag #rfg2013. I’ve archived all the tweets over at Storify; these were largely factual and there wasn’t really any discussion or debate occurring on the twitter channel but Nicola Hembrey in particular made a valiant effort to communicate the conference’s content. This was particularly useful as there were no abstracts et c of the papers available online, so no one following along via twitter would have had a clue what any of the papers were about otherwise.

The layout of the conference was a bit of an oddity, in the context of many I’ve been to recently, in that the majority of the papers were at least 30 minutes long rather than the usual 15-20 minutes. In addition there were no opportunities for questions after any of the papers, and we simply moved from one half-hour paper to the next. This was not particularly problematic with papers such as Alex Croom’s Housework in the homes of Pompeii and Herculaneum which didn’t seem to make any particular argument and meandered through a general discussion of some of the evidence for this rather large subject. However for papers like Ray Laurence’s Pompeii: from the city streets to people and houses where the presenter put forward several theses based on his intensive study of how street space was used in Pompeii, the lack of question time seemed a bit of a missed opportunity.

Having not been to an RFG meeting before I’m not sure whether this is a common feature of their meetings, or whether it might have been a response to the large number of attendees at the conference: there must have been more than a hundred people in the lecture theatre. However I was particularly impressed by the wide age range and the good gender balance. Archaeology societies often seem to suffer from having a top-heavy age distribution, and whilst there didn’t seem to be many students there were certainly lots of young early-career researchers and professionals. Whilst archaeology is often male-dominated at the top, and female-dominated at the undergraduate level, the distribution of gender of both attendees and presents at the conference wasn’t noticeably skewed; there were five male speakers and three female speakers.

The approach presenters took to their papers was quite varied. There was probably a 50/50 split between papers which were ‘read’ and those which were given with limited reference to written notes, though the later were the easier to follow and engage with. The clarity of layout of the papers was a little variable, with some of the presenters wandering a little, and a few presenters didn’t seem to have any particular thesis, but overall the standard was pretty high. Oddly one of the best papers was the only short paper; Andrew Jones presented for ten minutes on One pot and its story: a newly discovered amphora from a bar on the Via Consolare, Pompeii. Perhaps due to my habit of attending archaeological science conferences I am more used to his form of tight, snappy paper, but I thought his presentation was technically the best. He synthesised evidence from multiple archaeological techniques, and managed not just to explain why this was important for our understanding of the object but to also use that find to then to hint at wider socio-economic changes in Pompeii, all in ten minutes! My kinda paper, I have to admit.

Despite that Jones’ paper wasn’t my favourite paper, as I was definitely won over by Hilary Cool’s Becoming consumers: the inhabitants of a Pompeian insula and their things. Why someone hasn’t given that woman a professorship I don’t know, because she has a brilliant mind and I’ve find her work consistently solid, engaging and sharp. Here she was discussing the rise of ‘thingyness’, that is the clutter of finds that we see in Roman contexts from the 1st century, and unlike many of the other presenters she contextualised her discussion almost effortlessly within theoretical approaches to Roman objects. I suspect most people didn’t even notice she was touching on theory at all! Whilst apparently a work in progress, her paper definitely got my brain cells turning things over, and she made a number of important points. In particular she pointed out that we often fall into the trap of assuming that Roman society was always object-rich… though if we look at pre-1st century AD contexts that isn’t true. In addition she used the example of loom weights to show that even objects that we perceive as highly practical artefacts may be used entirely symbolically and we can’t assume that distribution of any objects is purely functional within consumer societies such as the Roman.

Of interest to me were the two presenters who giving papers based on their PhD theses; Ria Berg discussing Did all Pompeian women have mirrors? Investigating gender, toiletries and domestic space in Pompeii and David Griffiths with a paper on From dusk ’til dawn: lamps and lighting in Pompeii. Both of the pieces of work presented here were obviously significant and solid pieces of research covering quite large subject areas, but I felt both struggled to find a clear, simple argument that could be presented in thirty minutes. I’m sure I face exactly the same problem with presenting my work, but it underlined how easy it is to make your exciting research harder to really understand than it actually is. Definitely something to bear in mind for the future.

In addition to the oral papers, the conference fee also included entrance to the Pompeii exhibition, and at the beginning of the conference Paul Roberts, the person who put the exhibition together, gave an easily accessible half-hour paper on it. To be honest, he showed so many images of the exhibition that by the time I visited it, there wasn’t much new. I’m not a fan of British Museum exhibitions as I’ve mentioned here before, and this didn’t change my mind so I won’t go into much detail, beyond saying that as usual the exhibition is frustratingly low on information unless you pay extra for the audio guide or app.

Overall the conference was a great success, and I think the RFG really excelled. They certainly drew in a lot of people, not just archaeologists but interested members of the public, and the papers chosen were generally solid and engaging without being too technical or challenging for the broad audience. The choice of relatively long papers was a definite success, allowing the presenters to go into greater detail and tackle slightly broader topics than I’ve seen at other conferences, but I would have liked to see five minute question times available to discuss some of these papers as the majority presented new research rather than syntheses of established knowledge. Thanks to several of the presenters I left the conference with some new ideas running round my head, and look forwards to seeing what the next Roman Finds Group meeting brings.

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