Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2016) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

Project manager / blog editor:

Thursday, 28 April 2016

New publication on Palmyra

Together with colleagues Jørgen Christian Meyer and Nils Anfinset I have a new edited book out. Very little networks, but lots of Roman Near East. These are the proceedings of a conference we hosted at the Norwegian Institute in Athens in December 2012 as a part of a research project on Palmyra. It brings together results of international fieldwork and research on the Syrian caravan city until the start of the Syrian civil war. The book can be bought in paper or as e-book from Archaeopress. See their web-site for full details on contents. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Petition without Response: Diplomatic Language in the Christian Apologists

'a rescript from Hadrian in Justin Martyr's 1 Apology, in the medieval manuscript Parisinus graecus 450, fol. 239
(Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

By Birgit van der Lans

The Easter break – when Norwegian cities depopulate but the traditional Påskekrimi provides for some excitement – gave me opportunity to write a few words to introduce myself and my research on this blog. For about two months now I have very much enjoyed being associated with the NeRoNe project, after moving from Groningen to Bergen to join the research group "Ancient History, Culture and Religion" as a guest researcher. The coming year I will be working on a project (funded by a contribution from the Niels Stensen Fellowship) on the roles and expressions of religion in the diplomatic networks of the early Roman Empire.

Birgit van der Lans joins the
NeRoNE group as a guest-
researcher for 2016.
When we think about ‘diplomacy’, we associate it with international relations, with foreign affairs and with a professional diplomatic service to negotiate relationships between autonomous nation states. In the context of the Roman Empire – as Fergus Millar has made clear – the distinction between external diplomacy and internal affairs is less appropriate. The relationship between Rome and the local polities that had become part of the Empire was managed by a system of ‘internal diplomacy’ in which the emperor and other Roman officials received embassies and responded to the countless demands and requests by very different types of subjects.

Just like contemporary diplomatic practice is no longer the exclusive terrain of nation states, the social agents who took part in diplomatic exchange were diverse: besides cities, provincial councils or client kingdoms, embassies were dispatched by local religious associations, ethnic communities, and the ‘world-wide’ organisations of athletes and theatrical performers. City magistrates, high priests presiding over different sorts of associations and skilled rhetors were selected as envoys and amassed prestige by acting as brokers. Diplomatic connections were formed by such travelling persons, but also by the exchange of written documents: petitions, honorific decrees and imperial rescripts were copied, circulated, archived and displayed by interested parties.

This complex administrative system can be analysed as a social network with nodes, hubs, edges and clusters and flows. I think that the network perspective helps us to understand change and continuity in the imperial administration, but I will be looking mainly for the religious practices, concepts and agents that constituted – or impeded – diplomatic relations.

My chronological focus will be on the Hadrianic-Antonine period, when Christians began to participate in diplomatic networks – or at least claimed to do. From the second century onwards we hear of several Christians - Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, Athenagoras of Athens, among others – who addressed petitions to the emperor and used diplomatic forms and language to package ‘apologetic’ writings, in which they defended Christianity against accusations of atheism, incest and cannibalism. I suspect that the activities of these new diplomatic agents, who can be placed among other ‘intellectual’ diplomats associated with the Second Sophistic, offer a fruitful entry point to understand the intersection of religious and diplomatic networks in this period.

I hope to give some updates on this blog about developments in research and other planned activities – starting with my first talk for the research group "Ancient History, Culture and Religion" this Thursday (the 31st). A few days later I will travel to Canada for 6 weeks of research at York University, where I will be working mainly on the diplomatic activities of Greco-Roman associations, and a talk for the Ottawa Early Christianity Group. When I come back to Bergen, the Påskehare is long gone, but the 17. Mai celebrations will soon offer the next occasion to explore Norwegian traditions.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Conference: Sinews of empire: Networks and regional interaction in the Roman Near East and beyond

Finally the time has arrived for our project conference, which takes place at the Norwegian Institute in Athens over the next few days (Dec. 2nd-4th). Proceedings will be published in due time. For now this is a list of our speakers: 

Vincent Gabrielsen, University of Copenhagen: Alongside the State, Beside the Temple, Next to the Market: Exemplifying the Network as a category of historical analysis

Kasper Grønlund Evers, University of Copenhagen, Crucibles of collaboration: a comparative study of associations and other organisations in ancient Near Eastern commerce

Michael Sommer, University of Oldenburg, The mechanics of empire. Personal networks and the modus operandi of Roman hegemony

Tom Brughmans, University of Konstanz, Simulating Roman economic integration: correlations between transport distance and price in a network model of tableware distribution in the Roman East

Henrik Gerding and Per Östborn, University of Lund, Brick makers, builders, and commissioners in the Hellenistic world: modelling social networks to fit archaeological data

Lara Fabian, University of Pennsylvania, Numismatic communities of the South Caucasus: Geospatial analysis of 3nd c. BCE- 3th c. CE coin finds

Leonardo Gregoratti, Durham University, Sinews of the other Empire: Parthian Great King’s rule over vassal Kingdoms

Kerstin Droß-Krüpe, University of Kassel, Businessmen and local elites in Roman Asia Minor

Yanne Broux, Leuven University, Trade networks among the army camps of the Eastern Desert of Roman Egypt

Rubina Raja, Aarhus University, Networking beyond death: Social networks in Palmyra - the funerary evidence

Ted Kaizer, Durham University, Networks between Palmyra and Dura Europos

Katia Schörle, University of Nice, Mapping Economic Integrations in Palmyrene Networks  

Giovanni Ruffini, Fairfield University, The Social Networks of Late Antique Thebes

Håkon Teigen, University of Bergen, The Manichaean Church in Roman Egypt: church officials and their networks

Mattias Brand, University of Leiden, Exploring speech patterns in social networks as indicators of religious change: the Manichaean community in late antique Egypt

Anna Collar, Aarhus University, Sinews of belief, anchors of devotion: the cult of Zeus Kasios in the Mediterranean

Taco Terpstra, Northwestern University, Mediterranean Connectivity, State Institutions, and Phoenician Trade.

Eivind Heldaas Seland, University of Bergen, Networks in the Roman Near East: Cases, perspectives, lessons

Monday, 23 November 2015

New publication: Writ in water, lines in sand

I've got a new article out. It is called "Writ in water, lines in sand: Ancient trade routes, models and comparative evidence" and deals with the problems of tracing connectivity in the distant past. It started as a paper at  the workshop A Thousand Worlds: Network Models in Archaeology, Durham October 2013. Thanks to Rune Rattenborg for inviting me to the workshop and to Kristoffer Damgaard for his extensive comments to the manuscript.

The article is published in Cogent Arts & Humanities, a new Open Access mega-journal for the humanities, and can be dowloaded for free from their website. They demand a public interest statement for each article, explaining why it is interesting and important. I've pasted mine with the abstract below:


Historians and archaeologists often take connectivity for granted, and fail to address the problems of documenting patterns of movement. This article highlights the methodological challenges of reconstructing trade routes in prehistory and early history. The argument is made that these challenges are best met through the application of modern models of connectivity, in combination with the conscious use of comparative approaches.

Public Interest Statement

Trade is a driving force in the global economy, and among the prime agents of wealth distribution as well as cultural and political change. Historical and archaeological research has demonstrated that this is no recent phenomena, but that forerunners of the processes today labelled as globalization have been at work within all spheres of society throughout human history. While acknowledging the central role played by long-distance trade in the past, I argue in this article that scholars often take connectivity for granted, overlooking the major physical and institutional obstacles to travel in the premodern period, as well as the problems inherent to reconstructing the dynamic process of trade from the static evidence of texts and archaeological data. By insisting that scholars should not limit themselves to observing that objects moved and changed hand, but also ask how, we may not only increase our understanding of premodern economies, but also be in a position to better appreciate the nature of contemporary exchange.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Meanwhile in Bergen...

It's been too long since I updated this blog, which does not, however, mean that we have been idle. Here is a brief report on some of the things that has happened since May and that will take place over the next few months.

In late May I went to Singapore where I organised a panel at the Asian Association of World Historians  together with Japanese colleagues Masaki Mukai, Hisatsugu Kusabu, and Yasuhiru Yokkaichi. The session was called Pax Romana and Pax Mongolica: New Approaches to the Anatomy of Pre‐modern Martitime Networks (session 4.3 in the program) and proceedings will eventually be published in the open access Asian Review of World Histories, pending peer review. The conference gave the opportunity to indulge in one of my other academic interests, namely world/global history, which interestingly looks different from an Asian perspective despite the disciplines aim to transcend old, Eurocentric paradigms of history. For my interest in networks a splendid session was World Maps as Knowledge Aggregators: from Renaissance Italy Fra Mauro to Web Search Engines (session 5.5. in the program) where the panelists discussed renaissance texts and maps as early examples of hypertext, and how modern software can be used to mine them for information.

Summer started with the Sunbelt Conference om Social Network Analysis in Brighton, where I presented on the social networks of so-called client rulers in the Roman Near East (an updated and hopefully improved version of the study I've written about here. This year there was one archaeological session and several on historical networks. Interest in historical and archaeological networks is certainly up only in the two brief years since I attended the Hamburg conference, and the Sunbelt is becoming a great place for thinking about and discussing methodology with people working with other periods and empircal settings, and for engaging with the social sciences in general, a useful exercice for scholars working with distant periods.

Next stop was in Konstanz, where Tom Brughmans had invited me to visit the Network Science group of professor Ulrik Brandes and to give a lecture on a network analysis of ancient Indian Ocean trade based on the Greek merchant handbook known as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. In addition to the opportunity to have a critical and constructive discussion of some of my case studies with a group of experts on network analysis and graph visualisation I was introduced to the Visone graph visualisation software, which contains a lot of nice features for historical network analyses, such as animations of time sequences, which will come in very handy for the above study of ruler networks that I need to write out for publication soon.

One of the reasons that this blog has been silent over the summer is that the terrible events in Palmyra, Syria has taken time, attention and energy. I had the privilege of visiting Palmyra every year from 2004-2010, and did my postdoc on a project called Palmyrena: City, Hinterland and Caravan Trade between Orient and Occident (2009-2013). Suddenly and tragically expertise on the Roman Near East became much more relevant than I would ever have wanted it to be, and some of my time and much of my attention over the last months have been directed at trying to get information on what has been going on, and telling anyone who cares to listen what Palmyra is and why Palmyra is important. Some of this can be found under media on the publications and talks page or on my Norwegian language blog. On a more positive note the events of Palmyra prompted me to return to my half-finished book manuscript on the trade of the city. It is now finished and submitted. Depending on publisher and peer reviews I hope soon to be able to reveal how social networks is the key to understanding the rise and fall of the remarkable city in the Syrian Desert.

Håkon has also been busy, presenting his work on the Manichaean community in third century Kellis, Egypt at the Historical Network Research Conference in Lisbon this September. He has some really exciting networks of the economic and religious interaction of this religious minority group, which I hope he'll blog about himself.

Lots of nice things are planned for the next months. I'll be giving two talks on Red Sea/Indian Ocean trade at two different conferences, one on trade in minerals, the other on textiles. In both cases network analysis provides opportunities for integrating archaeological and historical data, and arguably gives a better understanding of the interactive and mutual activity of trade than traditional approaches. In November Professor Nicholas Purcell (Oxford) will visit our research group Ancient History, Culture and Religion. Purcell's work with Peregrine Horden on The Corrupting Sea has been instrumental in the surge of interest in network studies within classical and medieval studies, and I'm looking forward to hear hvis view on where the study of connectivity stands now. There's going to be a NeRoNE project conference in December. I'll post details on that when the abstracts are all in, and last but not least Birgit van der Lans, Groeningen, will come to Bergen for her postdoc on a Niels Stensen Fellowship. Birgit works on Jews and Christian in the Roman Empire, partly from a social network perspective. She will join our research group and also be associated with the NeRoNE project.


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Seminar: Social Networks in Ancient and Medieval History

Social Networks, not swords, civilised
the northern barbarians, or so it appears.
Italian WW1 war-bond poster.
 Photo courtesy of J.C. Meyer.
Last week I was invited  to take part in a small seminar organized by the research group for premodern history, department of archaeology, conservation and history, University of Oslo. The seminar was aimed at students writing their MA-theses within ancient and medieval history, in order to make them think about how different kinds of social network approaches could inform their research. I got to talk about my networks of local rulers in the Roman Near East and of water sources in the Syrian Desert, but more important to me I got to listen to some really great presentations on social networks in early medieval northern Europe.

Pierre Bauduin (Caen) spoke on "Social networks, mediation and competition in the Viking Age: the Frankish example", where he demonstrated how the Frankish elite and their Viking neighbours in present day Denmark cultivated ties by way of hospitality, and exchange of spouses, hostages and foster-children. This facilitated trust between groups who had common interest in peaceful relations, but who shared few institutional ties, notably the Danes were still mostly adherents of the pre-Christian Norse religion, and social networks paved the way for the first Christian missionaries to Scandinavia.

Philadelphia Ricketts (independent scholar) gave a talk on "Snorri Sturluson and his daughters". Snorri (1179-1241) is a famous poet, but was also a powerful chieftain in 13th century Iceland, and a key player in the bloody events leading up to the takeover of the island by the king of Norway in 1262. Philadelphia showed how Snorri, with variable success, married off his daughters as part of his political power games, but also how his daughters were not always willing to or able to play their part. The talk showed how women were instrumental in creating links between otherwise separate social networks in clan-based, pre-state Iceland, and how resourceful individuals were able to utilise this situation to improve their own position.

Richard Gaskins (Brandeis) addressed "Political Development in Early Iceland: Applying Network Theory to the Sagas", where he argued that Icelandic society in the settlement period (870-930) show the characteristics of a "small-world" network, while in the following period of chieftains (930-1080) networks were of the "distributed" kind, giving way to "hub and spoke" networks in the late pre-state period of larger domains (1080-1246). Gaskins use of network models gave very evocative descriptive accounts of the situation in premodern Iceland, and also opened the way for discussing how and why networks changed.

Apart from all papers giving insight into fascinating historical settings and source material, I was intrigued by the explanatory potential of social network approaches to pre-state societies. These were situations where few or no formal political and legal institutions were in existence, and social networks were thus allowed to operate undisturbed so to say. Part of the idea behind the seminar was to get the students interested in network approaches, and I hope we can look forward to some exciting  MA-theses from Oslo in a year or so. Meanwhile I have to admit that I am a tad bit envious on the people researching medieval Iceland for their incredibly rich source material.