I have just returned to the UK after a weekend in Paris, and though I admit to a certain amount of touristy frivolity, the purpose of my trip was to attend a one day conference showcasing network based research for archaeologists and historians. This was organised by The Connected Past, whom have been responsible for a few other workshops and seminars I have attended. As someone relatively new to network studies, having the chance to hear what other people are doing and discuss the practical issues of data collection and visualisation programmes is invaluable. The papers are interesting too.
I am routinely stunned by the variety and breadth of the research that is being conducted using network analysis. There seems to be little limitation on the time or place to which this methodology can be applied. I have previously written here about the project mapping Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence, but add to that fifteenth century ties between the elite of Tours and the king, networks of Bronze Age archaeological contexts, connections between early twentieth century Swiss scientists, and the exchange of gifts amongst natives and Spaniards during Columbus’ Caribbean voyages. There was, of course, more, (the full programme is online and the proceedings were documented on Twitter at #tcp2014), but this demonstrates the richness of the potential for network theory as a methodology. The question was raised during discussion after the conclusion of the papers whether or not this is a fad or a valid methodological approach to our studies: Is network analysis the only way to access a specific set of data? To some extent, the answer to this question depends on the research questions one has in the first place, but for those in the room, the answer was certainly yes.
Undoubtedly the best aspect of this conference was being introduced to three other projects applying network theory to antiquity of which I was previously unaware. There is an ongoing project led by Henrik Gerding and Per Östborn at Lund University that is using network theory to chart the distribution of new technologies – specifically brick and tile production. The paper presented focused on Hellenistic fired bricks as an example of the diffusion of innovation, and presented a number of different hypothetical models in an attempt to discover how and why new production techniques were adopted.
Shifting further east, Networks in the Roman Near East (NeRoNE), is a relatively new project led by Eivind Heldaas Seland at the University of Bergen. His paper focused on finding trade routes between Palmyra and the Persian Gulf in the first three centuries AD. This uses archaeological and ethnographic data and maps, amongst other features, available water supplies as the basis of a network in order to determine the routes used by caravans across the desert.
The final presentation on the ancient world was a literary one. Anthony Glaise (Paris IV-Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure) and Thibault Clerice (King’s College London) developed a programme that maps mentions of Cicero in literature from the time of his life until the fifth century AD. This resource, available online, allows connections to be drawn between one of the more prolific writers of the late Republic with people, places, gods and other literature. This approach (much like Elton Barker’s Hestia project) seems to have great potential for challenging the way we study ancient literature.
As most scholars will relate, research can be an incredibly solitary thing. This is one reason why conferences such as this are so important – not just for the opportunity to learn about other projects, but in order to discuss your own. For someone working with a methodology that has (relatively) few participants in Classical studies, this has been, once again, an experience from which I come away feeling reinvigorated about my own work, and the potential for the future. Besides that…..Paris.