Roman Anatolia

This weekend I read Filipe Rojas’s new book on Roman Anatolia, The Pasts of Roman Anatolia: interpreters, traces, horizons (2019). It’s the kind of book that I’m prone to like because it considers how individuals in the past thought about their own past largely outside the realm of literary texts. The book brought together evidence for the Roman reuse of Bronze Age and Iron Age artifacts, monuments, and landscapes to create meaningful dialogues between their past and present. 

These dialogues were not naive, and often reflected critical and sophisticated readings of ancient remains that were deployed to articulate local identities. Rojas often looks to the relationship between ancient and more recent (i.e. Roman) monuments as a clue to ritualized interaction between the past and the present. Significantly, many of the monuments around which these rituals and Roman period accretions emerged dated to millennia earlier suggesting an effort to connect contemporary communities to their Iron Age and Bronze Age pasts.

Anyone familiar with the archaeology of Greece is, of course, aware of similar practices, from Classical efforts to incorporate evidence from the Mycenaean period into the architecture of the Acropolis to the reuse of the Bronze Age tholos tomb in the Hellenistic period at Orchomenos and the deliberate reuse of Greek and Roman spolia in Byzantine architecture at places such Skripou, the Panagia Gorgoepikoos in Athens, or the church at Merbaka.

Rojas describes this ancient interest in the past as archaeophilia to distinguish it from contemporary archaeology and antiquarianism. While it seems useful to distinguish ancient ways of understanding the past from the modern convention that define archaeology and antiquarianism, I do wonder whether this distinction assumes a greater degree of consistency among contemporary archaeologists than is realistic. After all, over the past forty years archaeologists have come to recognize and integrate a range of practices associated with indigenous communities and have recognized pre or even anti-modern tendencies in our own professional genealogy. (I explored some of this, albeit in a fairly superficial way, in a short paper on “dream archaeology” from a few years back). Whether this means that contemporary archaeologists can also be archaeophiles of the kind described by Rojas’s book or that some elements of archaeology existed in antiquity seems like a topic worth some consideration especially in light of the rampant concern for matters of ontology in contemporary scholarship. 

Rojas himself delves into such matters of ontology when he explores the ways in which ancient communities produced assemblages that made the past manifest in their present. The appearance of mountain-men, for example, blurred the line between the human and the geological and made “natural” features of the Anatolian not simply agents, but individuals that combined aspects of the human, the divine, and the natural. Rojas likewise shows how toxic gasses, distinctive smells, and particular sounds connected the human to the divine and the present to the past in antiquity. These broadly articulated assemblages demonstrated that ancient communities often rejected modern distinctions between the cultural and the natural as well as the deep past and the present.

While this is hardly surprising to anyone familiar with indigenous views of the landscape in contemporary times, it does serve as a useful reminder that the lines between “Classical” (Greek and Roman) antiquity and “Prehistory” in Anatolia reflect modern efforts to distinguish between traditions associated with our European past (i.e. with it putative roots in Greece and Rome) and earlier traditions that were distinctly non-European in the mind of 19th and early-20th century scholars (e.g. the Hittites). While it is easy for us today to reject this kind of thinking with its racist and nationalist overtones, the implications of these forms of categorization continue to impact the way in which our disciplines are organized. 

Rojas’s work represents another example of the continuing interrogation of our ontological, institutional, and genealogical assumptions about antiquity and the past more broadly. It’s a comfortable and often entertaining read. It was a perfect book for the last weekend before the start of the academic year. 

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