One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.
What topic do you study?
I am an archaeologist and art historian, studying for my PhD in the departments of Art History and Visual Studies and the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies at Cornell University. My dissertation focuses on ancient Greek art through an environmental lens, taking into consideration the role of the natural sciences and its associated materials such as stones, minerals and earths, in the production and reception of ancient art.
The interest in material origins has often been restricted to high-value, luxury materials such as marble, ivory, or expensive dyes and pigments. While these materials can tell us a lot about trade and export in the ancient world, the lesser-valued materials have often been overlooked, yet they have equally valuable insights to offer to the study of ancient crafts and technologies. This is especially true when we consider the multiple uses that some of these materials had. In their solid forms they could be shaped and carved to be worn as amulets or talismans, when ground into powder they could be consumed for medical purposes, and some were believed to be charged with specific powers or healing properties which could be activated by merely looking at the material. Did these multiple connotations travel with the materials when they were fashioned into artistic forms, or were they then merely viewed as aesthetic? And how did accessibility of materials impact the cultural associations attached to them? My research tries to address these questions by following the technological production of ancient art, tracing the chaîne opératoire from material extraction through to their final form, to understand how they were perceived and functioned in ancient society.
What sources or data do you look at?
My work engages with ancient sources on the natural sciences, specifically Theophrastus’ On Stones and Pliny’s Natural History, in addition to environmental and geographic works by Aristotle, Strabo and Pausanias. These texts offer a critical insight into the development of the field of natural sciences in antiquity. Theophrastus writing in the 4th century BCE offers the first comprehensive study on the history of mineralogy and the perceived development and origins of many of the materials found in the ancient Mediterranean environment. These early studies are then advanced by Pliny in the 1st century CE who presents a more in-depth analysis of the materials used in the Roman world. While these texts provide an important resource for the history of natural sciences within the ancient context, they are by no means exhaustive and are best studied alongside supplementary materials and using different methods.
Landscape analysis is another important part of my research, especially when dealing with environmental resourcing. Through investigating ancient quarries and mines, I look at the process of materials extraction, and what impact this had on how the materials were later worked, traded and valued. I’m fortunate to be spending this year undertaking fieldwork in Greece where I’ll be visiting some of these sites to study the patterns and methods of extraction and to what extent these methods may have been implemented at smaller, regional sites.
In addition, I study pigments and painted wall plasters from archaeological contexts to determine their organic and inorganic material compositions. I carry these analyses out using portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) and optical microscopy to characterise the elemental and microscopic structure of the material. I then use the data to study and map regional variations to understand if this had any impact on how materials were worked. Through combining literary, art historical and materials analysis approaches, I hope to bridge the art–science divide in the approach to archaeological material.
How does this research shed light on real people in the past?
Craft production in antiquity involved many people throughout the process. Recent scholarship has increasingly focused on the chaîne opératoire of technological production, yet many materials are yet to be studied with this approach. However, in studying the quarrying, mining and sourcing of material, it not only affords us a better understanding of a material’s journey, but also the social history surrounding it. Current work on labour-cost studies have highlighted the complex processes of material sourcing and the social agents taking part in these tasks.
Luxury materials such as precious metals are known to have been sourced using large enslaved populations at the mines. Yet we often disregard the possibility of similar arrangements at sites for lesser economically valued materials. Materials such as ochres were mined in vastly different ways depending on the region in which they were located. While some studies have demonstrated the feasibility of these materials being discovered and extracted from the local environment by members of the community, in areas of rich landscape resources, a large labour population was deployed in the mass-mining and extraction of lesser-valued materials alongside more costly metals and ores. This demonstrates an industrial effort in the acquisition of these materials, suggesting not only a demand for the material, but a value not necessarily reflected in its economic cost. My work aims to highlight the roles of the many people involved in the acquisition of resources and production of crafts in antiquity, and to discuss the relationship between humans and the environment in the production of ancient art.
Brecoulaki, H. (2014) “Precious Colours” in Ancient Greek Polychromy and Painting: Material Aspects and Symbolic Values. Revue Archéologique, 1, 3–35.
Crowley, P. R. (2016). Crystalline Aesthetics and the Classical Concept of the Medium. West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History & Material Culture, 220-251.
Rapp, G. (2009). Archaeomineralogy (2nd ed.). Berlin: Springer Verlag.
Rosenfeld, A. (1965). The Inorganic Raw Materials of Antiquity. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Tilley, C. Y. (2004). The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology 1. Oxford: Berg.
Alice Clinch is currently a PhD candidate at Cornell University, and a Leverhulme Trust SAS Fellow at the British School at Athens. Her research investigates the branch of natural sciences in the ancient Mediterranean, and the use and impact of environmental materials in ancient art, specifically through the study of painted wall plasters and pigments. Prior to her PhD, Alice attained a Masters in Ancient Visual and Material Culture from the University of Warwick, and an MA (Hons) in Classics from the University of Glasgow. She has excavated in Greece and Sicily and is currently engaged in the publication of wall plasters and pigments from field projects at Stymphalos and Olynthos. Her work has been generously supported by the Leverhulme Trust, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, and the Fitch Laboratory at the British School at Athens.
Interested in learning more about the study of pigments, stones, and other materials in the ancient world? Listen to Peopling the Past’s podcast with Jennifer Stager on polychromy in the ancient Mediterranean and Peopling the Past’s podcast with Hilary Becker on the role of pigments in the ancient world.