In his book Material Culture Studies in America, Thomas Schlereth provides the following useful definition of Material Culture:
One of the problems that Garnsey and Saller cite in writing a history of the Roman Empire is that they fear that their sources are not enough to fully substantiate their analysis: as they note, "Many of the kinds of evidence on which historians of other periods rely never existed under the Principate or have not survived" (Garnsey and Saller 108). However, we can turn to material culture--the objects of everyday life--to help test their hypotheses when traditional sources are not forthcoming.
Through Material culture (the study of artifacts) we can learn about the "belief systems--the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions--of a particular community or society, usually across time. As a study, [material culture]...is based on the obvious premise that the existence of a man-made object is concrete evidence of presence of a human mind operating at the time of fabrication. The common assumption underlying material culture research is that objects made or modified by humans, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, reflect the belief patterns of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and, by extension, the belief patterns of the larger society of which they are a part" (Schlereth 3).
Thomas Schlereth suggests a number of models for studying material culture, but in this web page I have chosen to emphasize what Schlereth calls the "Art History Paradigm."
The Art History Paradigm is probably the most useful for us because it is the most familiar. In this paradigm, the interpretative objective of examining the artifact is to "depict the historical development and intrinsic merit" of the artifact (Schlereth 42). An example of this type of analysis can be seen in my lecture on Roman Houses ("My So-Called Roman Life") when I argued that the mythological scenes seen on the walls of the House of the Tragic Poet were indicative of the imperial (but not republican) period. Here I was interested in identifying the historical development of Roman wall paintings.
If you are interested in doing an "Art History Paradigm" reading of material culture you might look at an object and ask yourself the following questions (taken from Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Art). These questions will help us obtain information about the artifact so we can place it in a historical context; for example, you might ask yourself:
Let's use this mosaic from the House of the Faun as an example:
Yet, while this analysis of status is helpful, it doesn't explain why there would be a mosaic of Alexander the Great in particular. To answer this we need to ask at least two things. 1. What did Alexander mean to the citizens of Pompeii during this era? 2. What does this mosaic say in particular about Alexander? (You'll notice a parallel between these questions and the questions I asked about the Iliad paintings in the House of the Tragic Poet in my lecture.)
1.As you will remember from Suetonius, Romans of the late Republic and early Empire were obsessed with Alexander. On page 63 of our text, Suetonius details Augustus' pilgrimage to Alexander's tomb and of wearing a ring with his portrait on it. To style oneself as a new "Alexander" was to make claim to also be a great war leader against the East. Pompey went so far as to style his hair like Alexander and to take on the honorary title "the Great" (Zanker 10). Presumably, Alexander would have held a similar appeal to the citizens of Pompeii who had even closer ties to Greece.
2. But what does this mosaic say in particular about Alexander? The mosaic depicts "Alexander as conqueror and Darius [a Persian king], among his troops, overcome and himself constrained to flee" (Kraus 70). Art historian Theodor Kraus provides the following interpretation of the scene (you might look closely at the mosaic and see if you agree--click here for close-ups in a new browser window).
The scene as a whole is an expression of Greek ethos. Its subject is not only victory over the foe but also the human destiny of the enemy. To make the central focus of the picture the heroic sacrifice of the Persian nobleman and the tragic helplessness of the Persian king who, indifferent to his own fate, has eyes and ears only for the agony of the man who is giving his life to save him, is entirely in line with the classical way of thinking and is paralleled by the Greek reliefs of battle scenes in which the vanquished are portrayed with deeply felt sympathy. No later epoch of ancient art had the capacity to depict the conquered with such vividly gripping feeling (Kraus 70)
This interpretation begs a number of questions. Do you, as a viewer, feel this sympathy for the vanquished? Why might the citizens of Pompeii? Have you read about this sympathy for the vanquished elsewhere this semester (or last)? Do you see a decrease in empathy for the vanquished as the texts move from the Golden to Silver Latin periods?
In conclusion, You'll notice that in order to answer some of these questions I had to do a bit of research; however, some questions I could answer from the information given on the web page of the object or in the readings we have done so far this semester! Below are some links to Roman material culture. You might practice analyzing the objects using Barnet's method.
There are a number of fine books on Roman Material Culture in the Library (see for example the bibliography to my lecture "My So-Called Roman Life"). However, there are also some resources available on line.
For a history of how Rome's Ruins have been read click here for Learning to Read Rome's Ruins
The following is a list of more general Material Culture Sites
This page developed by Laura Leibman for Hum110 Tech.Comments and suggestions welcome. Updated 2/13/2000.