Blog Post #29: Water, Architecture, and the Senses with Dylan Rogers

May is “New Projects Month” at Peopling the Past, where we feature interviews with educators and researchers who have founded amazing new projects dedicated to making history, archaeology, and related subjects more inclusive.

What was the inspiration behind your project? How did it come about?

In the spring of 2021, I was asked to teach a graduate seminar in the Department of Art at the University of Virginia. In conceiving the course, I wanted to make sure to pick a topic that would have broad appeal to students of archaeology, art history, and architectural history. My current research explores the sensory experience of ancient Roman fountains in a variety of contexts. One of the approaches I am using employs the tenets of sensory archaeology, using archaeological and textual evidence, to be able to effectively recreate or at least reimagine what it was like to encounter moving water in an architectural context in the ancient world. So, I thought the ideal topic to explore with my graduate students would be: “Water, Architecture, and the Senses.” Over the course of the semester, we examined various case studies across time in ancient Greece, the Roman, Byzantine, and Incan empires, Renaissance gardens, Baroque Rome, and modern Egypt, in addition to exploring the nature of sensory archaeology, urbanism, water commodification, and blue spaces. Because there were still some limitations with library access at my university related to COVID-19 safety protocols, I knew that the traditional research-heavy term paper would be difficult for students. I decided, then, to have students create 20-30 minute podcasts on a topic of their choice related to the course, which would have a foundation in research, of course, but would also provide students with an outlet to be creative–and to learn a new set of skills, namely podcast creation and the nature of public scholarship (Fig. 1).

Screenshot of home page for the seminar with links to the podcasts accompanied by images related to the content.
Fig. 1. Screenshot of the top of the home page of my seminar’s website with all of the podcasts
Why is it important to understand water, architecture, and the senses?

The phenomenon of building structures that contain or display water can be found in nearly every culture throughout time. I believe that by exploring these examples of architecture we can understand these societies a little better. For example, why did the ancient Romans build large-scale fountains? Why are the fountain basins found throughout Machu Picchu particularly important (Fig. 2)? What was the purpose of flashy water installations that operated water organs in a cardinal’s palatial complex in the hills of Rome at Villa D’Este?

Oftentimes, the answer can be oversimplified to notions of power and conspicuous consumption. Naturally, numerous resources and money goes into building the water infrastructures that harness and transport water, in addition to the actual displays of water. But I also think that there can be more here, which is where the senses come into play. Water is a complex element–one that all humans need for survival–but one that can also elicit unique sensory responses. In terms of explorations of architecture and the senses, structures with water have the ability to explore all five senses–as we have the ability to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell water, especially water that is moving. (I imagine no one would want to taste a building–but you, in theory, can taste the water in a fountain…) One example that I often cite to understand the relationship between water, architecture, and the senses is the Trevi Fountain in Rome (Fig. 3). Anyone who has ever visited the monument, especially in the summer, remembers the experience: the Baroque facade punctuated by Neptune in the center, the water crashing down, cooling the air in the piazza packed with tourists. There is also the element of memory creation in sensory experience, as you might remember the Trevi Fountain in the film Roman Holiday, or your own previous visit when you threw a coin in the fountain with the hopes of returning to Rome in the future. While we cannot physically touch or taste the water these days, the fountain’s use of water is a tour de force that illustrates not only the power of the popes in the 18th century, but also the importance of the sensory experience of the built world that surrounds us.

What was most challenging about designing this project?

In 2020, I was fortunate to have been interviewed by two different podcasts (Peopling the Past and Garland Magazine) about my research. I really enjoyed the experience of being interviewed–and participating in a podcast, which was a first for me. So, when I was planning my graduate seminar, I thought that students would also benefit from being able to take their own research projects from the semester–and transform them into podcasts. But one of the challenges for this goal was that I myself had never created a podcast, so I lacked the expertise on the technical side of actually putting an episode together. I was able to overcome this obstacle by having folks from history-related podcasts (including Peopling the Past and Digital Hammurabi) come to our class to discuss podcast creation. In addition, I had one of my university’s digital media experts come to discuss the technical side of crafting a podcast episode–which was incredibly helpful.

Water flowing from a feature between two rock-cut stairways at Machu Picchu.
Fig. 2. Part of the water distribution system at Machu Picchu (Public Domain).
What was most rewarding, pedagogically, about this project (either from your perspective or the students’)?

I think one of the best rewards from this podcast project was challenging my students to engage with public scholarship. Graduate education can still be very traditional–getting students to engage critically with scholarship, and to learn to research and write effectively. But the audience is generally other academics. With the shifts in higher education (especially in North America), there are fewer jobs at the end of the PhD in academia. As such, there have been growing calls for graduate students to be exposed to (and hopefully to practice) other skill sets that will allow them to apply their graduate studies and experiences in a field outside of academia. So, in addition to the course content, I was pleased to engage students in this seminar on the nature of public scholarship. We explored how you can take specialized research and repackage it to make it more accessible to a wider audience. My students were keen to embrace the opportunity to be able to create podcasts–and I was so proud of their first efforts! I foresee many of them either making more podcasts–or transferring this new skill set to other situations (e.g., museum work).

What impacts have you made or do you hope to make with this project? What do you want people to take away from these podcasts?

My main goal, as I alluded to earlier, is for my students to actually engage with public scholarship. It’s one thing to go to a workshop on, say, creating a podcast–but to put it into practice, in a structured manner, I think was helpful in providing my students with the confidence to master the skills necessary to produce a podcast, from editing audio to understanding how to approach their material with a specific audience in mind. 

Water flowing from the Trevi Fountain, Rome.
Fig. 3. Trevi Fountain, Rome (CC BY-SA 4.0)
How does this project help shed light on real people, either those in the past, or those in the present?

My seminar had seven students (three classical archaeologists, three art historians, and one architectural historian)–and they all spanned numerous time periods and cultures. As such, their podcasts cover a lot of different topics–and thus together the students helped to shed light on the shared experience of the relationship between water, architecture, and the senses (Fig. 4). Topics included bridal rituals in an ancient Greek cave, using fountains in the ancient Athenian Agora (market place), comparisons of ancient Roman aquatic spectacles to modern synchronized swimming, holy wells in Medieval England, the water in the Alhambra Palace in Spain (Fig. 5), the experience of Bath (UK) in the 18th century, and a multisensory installation by a contemporary Icelandic artist. Through their research, my students helped to demonstrate the impact of water in the built environment of a number of different cultures. By prompting students to consider the sensory experience (not just presenting the architecture itself), they were better equipped to think about how an ancient person actually used a structure.

Many of the podcasts employ a variety of evidence to repopulate these spaces–especially textual sources from the past that are direct observations of actual experiences with the monuments–allowing us to see how people in the past were not so unlike ourselves.

Image of the Antonine Nymphaeum at Sagalassos, Turkey with tourists waslking in front of the structure.
Fig. 4. Antonine Nymphaeum, Upper Agora, Saglassos, Turkey (reconstructed, with flowing water) (Photo Credit: Dylan Rogers)
Small fountain held up by lions at Alhambra Palace, Spain.
Fig. 5. Fountain in the Court of the Lions, Palace of the Lions, Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain (CC BY-SA 3.0)
How can people learn more about your project?

In order to highlight the hard work that students put into their research this past semester, I thought it was important to create a website to host each of the podcasts to give the students a public-facing platform for their work. Folks are very welcome to visit our seminar’s website, which features a project overview and each of the seven students’ podcasts. Each of the podcasts includes an abstract, podcaster bio, and a select bibliography. 

And finally: any advice for other educators who want to incorporate podcasts into their teaching?

One of the biggest pieces of advice I have is to plan podcasts in stages, as a course should cover content conception to content creation. While podcast production itself is not difficult, it can take a little time for students who have never made one or used any sort of digital editing softwares to master those skills in order to complete their projects. In my seminar, I made sure to benchmark the podcast production process, including normal project assignments (e.g., topic; title and working bibliography; outline of podcast structure), along with having visits from other podcast creators and digital media experts at my university to expose students to the process in general. As such, our digital media expert joined our class about half-way through the semester to give a brief tutorial about microphones and the best places to record, along with how to use Audacity, an open-source audio software. His best advice for my students: budget two weeks for editing your podcast. 

Image of Dr. Dylan Rogers talking in front of a marble head in a museum.
Dr. Dylan Rogers

Dr. Dylan Rogers, lecturer in Roman Art and Archaeology in the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. He is a Classical Archaeologist, who specializes in Roman fountains and urbanism. From 2015-2019, Rogers served as the Assistant Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (Greece), where he often led students on study trips throughout the Greek mainland and the islands of Crete and Sicily. He is the author of Water Culture in Roman Society (Brill, 2018), and the co-editor of the volumes, What’s New in Roman Greece? (National Hellenic Research Foundation, 2018) and The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Athens (Cambridge, 2021).

Interested in hearing more of Dr. Rogers’ work? Click here for his own Peopling the Past podcast on sensory experience and monumental water displays from Season 1!

Published by Peopling the Past

A Digital Humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and the people who study them.

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