Material Connections: Mobility, Materiality and Mediterranean Identities


Much current thinking on mobility, materiality and identity in Mediterranean studies is framed by long-standing colonialist attitudes (e.g. the Hellenic roots of European civilisation) and by outdated perceptions of how the classical world and its material representations influence contemporary practices in modern (often postcolonial) contexts. Such viewpoints and prejudices demand reassessment. Moreover, the past encounters themselves necessarily require more meaningful, effectively theorised representations if we wish to develop new cultural and historical understandings of how factors such as mobility, materiality, conflict and co-presence impact(ed) on the formation of identity and subjectivity.

Mediterranean studies have been characterised by an acute ‘hyper-specialisation’ that continues to discourage comparative research of the many material, cultural and socio-economic features and trends that overlap and interconnect in this region. As a consequence, Mediterranean archaeological research has yet to explore adequately the multiple ways that material culture was used to establish, maintain or alter identities, especially during periods of transition, cultural encounter and change. Moreover, the rich material record of the Mediterranean tends to be described or classified in myriad ways rather than studied analytically: material culture studies have gone largely unnoticed in Mediterranean archaeology, while interpretations of material remains, even when mapped onto social, political or ethnic relations, are often derived directly from other (written) sources.

Research carried out in this project, by contrast, adopts a new perspective, namely the perception and use of material culture by prehistoric and historic Mediterranean peoples in formulating and/or changing their identities. It considers how objects and social identities are entangled in various cultural encounters and interconnections. Because current fieldwork and research in the Mediterranean typically focus on a local or at most a regional scale, and lack any systematic comparison of distinctive cultural developments in different regions, there is ample scope for pioneering perspectives to study material culture. This holds true particularly for our themes of materiality, mobility and identity. Engaging these concepts in the study of a wide range of objects and ideas should breathe new life into current theoretical and methodological approaches, facilitating new dialogues and understandings of trans-regional and trans-cultural practices.

Studying material culture is an interdisciplinary undertaking by its very nature, as objects are always examined in their wider context. This context may be scientific, when the material make-up of objects is analysed, or it may be social and cultural, when the ways in which they are perceived and used come under scrutiny. Either way, material culture studies are situated at the interface of several disciplines. In the social sciences and humanities, the notion of materiality is central to attempts to explore objects as an integral dimension of culture, and to demonstrate that human behaviour or social existence cannot be understood fully without taking into account the role of objects. This project subscribes to a social perspective on material culture in order to pursue novel and dynamic avenues of research into the multiple complexities of human encounters in the past.

Satellite view of the entire Mediterranean