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:

Sunday, 30 November 2014

New publication: Early Christianity in East Africa and Red Sea/Indian Ocean Commerce

I've got a new article out in a special volume of African Archaeological Review, on Africa and the Indian Ocean. Inspired in particular by Rodney Stark's work on early Christianity, and Michael Mann's on social power networks, the article makes use of social network perspectives in order to understand how religions spread into new regions, and how the process of conversion might have taken place. In my opinion the network perspective adds value, by reconciling our literary and archaeological sources with modern sociological models of conversion, and by showing how networks of ideology, trade and political power interact.

The ancient East African kingdom of Aksum gradually adopted Christianity from the early- to mid-fourth-century reign of Ezana onwards. The well-known narrative of the late Roman church-historian Rufinus relates a top-down process of conversion, starting with the ruler himself. The report, corroborated by the adoption of Christian symbolism on Ezana’s late coinage, and monotheistic as well as overtly Christian references in royal inscriptions, is generally considered trustworthy. While not challenging the significance of charismatic and powerful individuals, this article argues that Christianity was present in the region before Ezana, and that the introduction of Christianity should be situated within the context of early Red Sea/Indian Ocean commerce. Trade was the carrier of ideological impulses from communities in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean worlds and created the social infrastructure that expatriate believers, early converts, and later, church officials and local elites could draw upon.

The article is open access, and can be downloaded from the journal website. It is published online first, and volume and page numbers will be added when the printed version is out.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The social in the past, some reflexions

I'm just back from a four-day workshop with colleagues at the Centre for Advanced Study, Norwegian Academy of Sciences, where both Håkon and I take part in the project Local Dynamics of Globalisation in the pre-modern Levant, which is housed at the centre for this Academic Year. Our workshop was called The Social in the Past. Things, Networks, and Texts: A Material Approach to the Pre-Modern (description and program). Speakers came from a range of disciplines, including theology, religion, anthropology, archaeology, history, and cultural studies, but the unifying interest was in how we can move from our things and text – the material that we are all interested in and the signs that have come down to us from the past – to understanding the social associations between these things, texts and the people who made and used them. The workshop was way too varied and rich for me to do justice to all of it in a short blog post, nevertheless I'd like to put down a few points that relate to networks, which is of course my main interest in this, that we discussed in the first session, and that I continued to think about during and after the workshop.

Our keynote was Professor Ian Hodder from Stanford University. Hodder spoke about his work at Neolithic Çatalhöyük  in present-day Turkey, one of the earliest (complex?) societies we know of, taking his recent book Entangled as his point of departure. Neolithic people, of course, produced no texts, and we rely solely on things, in a wide sense of the word, when we try to understand their social world. Hodder showed us how things are associated with things and also reveal interaction with people, for instance clay and temper are obtained – balls are formed – balls are fired – then stored – then heated in oven – placed hot in a basket – meat is cooked – broken balls are discarded and so on. Reconstructing relationships of contingence and dependence, leading to reliance and dependency, he drew what he called tanglegrams, showing how things at the site related to each other, and in some cases led to what he characterised as entrapment, resembling the economic term of path-dependence.

Hodder also shared examples of his ongoing cooperation with network analyst and archaeologist Angus Mol (Leiden), using the same dataset of thing-thing relations from Çatalhöyük in a computer based network analysis. Hodder argued that the tanglegram is different from network analyst in the sense that the network consists of dyads, whereas the entanglegram highlights chains.

To me both methods represent ways of approaching networks. I think we need to do both. The tanglegram takes the thing as the point of departure, and tries to see how it associates to other things (or to human agents), following these associations creates entangled chains, that very well demonstrates the complexity that Hodder underlines. Network analysis looks at the whole structure (to the extent that we know it), and let's us ask how the things and the associations between them fit into that structure. It is true that it is an agglomeration of dyads, but series of dyads are also chains (or rather networks), and if we combine the quantitative analysis with a qualitative one, we could trace associations in much the same way. One advantage of network analysis might be that it could enable us to identify which parts of the network offer themselves, and are in need of qualitative analysis.

These points illustrate what we are grappling with. During the workshop we discussed a number of theories, including those of Latour, Bordieu, Foucault, Braudel, Michael Mann, and Robert Redfield, and how they allow us to see the past through different lenses. Although I, as others, have my favourites, they all offer perspectives that allow us to interpret the relationship between things, texts and people. What I often miss are the models that enable us to make our assumptions explicit, and to test them. The tanglegram and network analysis are two examples of how one can develop or borrow models that make sense of some aspects of the data, but inevitably obscure or leave out others.

Is it rewarding for scholars of the ancient world to engage consciously with theory and model building. To me the answer is a clear yes. Our sources don't speak for themselves. Theoretical perspectives allow us to situate our data in a wider context, models allow us to test our assumptions.

Monday, 13 October 2014

New publications

Ancient West & East 13 / 2014 / Textile trade and Distribution in Antiquity, Kerstin Droß-Krüpe (ed.) 2014

As I got back from fall-break, the print versions of our two latest publications, one article and one book chapter, were on my desk. Call me old-school, but I enjoy holding the book in my hands, and book chapters are really best read in context with the rest of the volume.

Eivind Heldaas Seland (2014) Caravans, Smugglers and Trading Fairs: Organizing Textile Trade on the Syrian Frontier. Pages 83-90 in Kerstin Droß-Krüpe (ed.), Textile Trade and Distribution in Antiquity. Harrassowitz Verlag.

Eivind Heldaas Seland (2014) The  organisation of the Palmyrene caravan trade. Ancient West and East 13, pp. 197-211. doi:10.2143/AWE.13.0.3038738.

As a word of warning to Network Analysis enthusiasts, there is nothing of that in these articles, both, however, address how networks operated, and how we can approach this by means of modern models, in this case New Institutional Economics.

The AWE article is available online, the book chapter unfortunately not. Also, it was not possible to publish these open access. Preprints should appear in Bergen Open Research Archive (BORA) in time (they are not there yet). Meanwhile, drop me a line if your library does not have these and you require an offprint.

Friday, 26 September 2014

SAMKUL conference 2014

Networks in the Roman Near East is funded by the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, which brings together 24 projects from the humanities and social sciences, addressing societal development and social change. This years open SAMKUL conference, in Trondheim on November 3rd,  addresses the technology, politics and culture of food, and boasts some really interesting keynotes addressing food from the Roman period until today. Follow the link for program and registration.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Workshop: Networks and interaction in the Red Sea

Together with colleagues from the research group "Ancient History, Culture and Religion", and the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, both University of Bergen, we are hosting an informal one-day workshop on the history and archaeology of the Red Sea in the pre-islamic and early Islamic period, bringing together scholars from Bergen with some really exiting international guests in order to discuss work in progress. The workshop is open to the public.

Networks and interaction: The Red Sea Region in history and archaeology

University of Bergen
Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion
Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies

Sep 18 2014

Venue: Jekteviksbakken 31, Seminarrom 240 (Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies)

The Red Sea connects the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean, and has served as a corridor of exchange at least since the second millennium BCE. The sea, however, has also always been an arena of commercial, religious and military interaction between the people living along its coasts and in its hinterlands. This workshop brings together contributions addressing the Red Sea and the neighbouring regions in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods, with the aim of transcending traditional scholarly divides based on period, region, and discipline, by focusing on the common relationship with the sea.

09.00: Welcome

09.15: Vasileios Christides, Institute for Graeco-Oriental and African Studies (IGOAS): The Countries around the Red Sea in the Hagiographic Works.

10.00: Randi Haaland, University of Bergen: Meroitic Empire Sudan; cultural influences and trade in an Indian Ocean context.

10.45: Coffee

11.00: Alexandros Tsakos, University of Bergen: Christian Nubia and the Red Sea.

11.45: Richard Holton Pierce, University of Bergen: Pharaonic Egypt and the Red Sea

12.30:  Lunch

13.30: Zbigniew Fiema, University of Helsinki: To Hegra by Land - New Investigations

14.15: Kristoffer Damgaard, University of Copenhagen: Political Imperialism or Mercantile Expansionism? An archaeological assessment of Islam’s osmosis into Northeast Africa (7th – 10th cent. CE)

15.00: Kasper Grønlund Evers, University of Copenhagen: ‘No Man Is an Island’ — the role of networks, diasporas and associations in the organisation of long-distance trade passing through the Red Sea, 1st–3rd cent. CE

15.45: Coffee

16.00: Michaela Reinfeld, Phillips University, Marburg: Written Sources, Facts and Rumors. The Underwater Archaeology Project of the University of Marburg

16.45: Eivind Heldaas Seland, University of Bergen: Routes, circuits, itineraries: A network analysis of the Periplus Maris Erythraei.

19.30: Dinner (by invitation)

Organizing committee: Anne K. Bang, Alexandros Tsakos, Eivind Heldaas Seland.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Mani in China I: A Very Brief History

This July I finally had the opportunity to travel to China, and to experience a country which I have read much about but never previously visited. The stay was somewhat short - I only had two and a half weeks - and hectic - it included visits to five different cities, - which meant I only got to witness a small fraction of a fraction of the great equation that is China. But I did manage to fulfill one of the goals I set out with: a visit to the world's last remaining Manichaean temple. It lies nested in a hillside at the outskirts of Quanzhou, a city long known in the west as Zaiton and one of the most important ports of China, eulogized by among others Marco Polo. The temple was built in the 13th or 14th century when China was ruled by Kublai Khan's Mongol dynasty (the Yuan) and thus about contemporaneously with Polo's stay. It seems in fact clear from his narration that Polo met with Manichaeans in Quanzhou, perhaps the very same who made use of the temple.

Before I describe my own visit to the site, which will be published in part II of this post (now available here) , I want to give an account of the Manichaeans of China, a largely forgotten chapter in the history of religions - so much so that even specialists long doubted claims of their existence. Finds in the early 20th century from western China, and subsequent research on other Chinese sources, decided the issue. It has revealed a Manichaean presence here that lasted at least a thousand years, and one that included a flourishing indigenous Chinese Manichaean community.

The initial spread
Recent evidence point to the existance of Manichaeans among the Western traders in China already in the 6th century CE. These communites consisted of Sogdians, a people who controlled much of the trade between China and the Sasanid or Persian Empire, many of whom had been converted to Manichaeism by the early missionary work of Mani's apostles (see a previous blogpost). The first chronicled presence is that of a mu-che (a Manichaean Teacher, one of their most important clergy officials) that preached in China during the mid-7th century, although little more is known of his activity. The first official - that is, court-registered - preacher was a diciple of this mu-che, a man named Mihr Ormuzd and designated as fú-to-tàn ("Attendant of the Law"; a Manichaean bishop), who visited empress Wu in 697 CE bringing with him a book named "The book of the two Principles". Twenty years later, in 719, the king of Tokharistan (present-day northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan) recommended a great mu-che and astrologist to the Chinese court, and he seems to have been the first to ask for permission to build a Manichaean temple in the country.

Their welcome was however a chilly one. Chinese government officials were constantly wary of the new religion, which also had to contend with hostile reactions from certain Buddhist authorities. In 732 an imperial decree warned: "The doctrine of Mòní is entirely a perverse belief. Falsely they profess Buddhism. But since it is the religion of the teachers of the western Hú-people and others, and since its disciples are to be found among themselves, they shall not be judged criminals." In other words, the religion could be tolerated - as long as it was influential among the Western barbarians only and did not try to reach out to Chinese people. The fact that the government felt it necessary to issue this warning does point to a degree of missionary propagation. With the conversion of an Uygur khagan (khan) visiting China in the 760s, the Manichaeans received more clout in their dealings with China, due to the temporary alliance between the empire and the Uygurs. Manichaean clergy were used as representatives from the Uygur khagan to the Chinese emperor, and they were allowed seven temples in China proper, amongst them in the capitals Chang'an and Luoyang.
A Move to the South
But the alliance did not last. With the collapse of Uygur power after defeat at the hands of a Kirghiz army, the Chinese government decided to get rid of the Manichaeans. In the 840s, it waged a campaign against various Western religions; first Manichaeism in 843, then Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity and Zoroastrianism in 845. The official Manichaean temples were closed, and Manichaean priests were shaved and dressed as Buddhist shamans before they were executed. The remaining clergy was either exiled to Uygur Territory, or fled to other parts of China. A certain priest named Hulu in the sources escaped the persecution, and found a safe haven - and especially fruitful missionary soil - in the southern coastal province of Fujian and its neighbours. It seems likely that he would have fled to a part of the country were he could already expect to find some support, but the presence of Manichaeans here before his arrival is undocumented. Certainly the religion flourished along the Southern coast in the subsequent centuries.

However, rumblings among Chinese officials and Buddhist writers were often heard. Instances of violence were blamed on Manichaeans especially from the early 12th century onwards, as in the case of the Fang La-rebellion in the 1120-21. In the medieval period Manichaeans were often labelled "vegetarian devil-worshippers", a designation that was later extended to Buddhist sectarian or lay groups that government officials deemed troublesome. The Manichaeans attempted to adapt themselves to more indigenous Chinese religious traditions, and seem to have drawn many supporters who thought of the religion as a kind of Taoism. Seeking legitimacy, one of their writings was for a time accepted into the Taoist scriptural kanon. Despite these attempts, harsh laws were put into place against the group, and they were often suspected of formenting unrest. Yet there was also a high level of co-existance, especially in such cosmopolitan centres as Quanzhou. A curious, though little understood, connection existed at the official level between the Manichaeans and the recently arrived Nestorian Christians of Quanzhou.

After the fall of the comparatively religious pluralistic Yuan dynasty in 1368, Manichaeism began to face more active hostility from the Ming-emperors. A major persecution broke out at the beginning of their reign. The Chinese name for Manichaeism was ming-chiao, "Light sect", and the newly proclaimed emperor Zhu Yuanzhang did not like the Association of the sect with his dynasty. The sect was forbidden on penalty of death in 1370, along with a few other "dangerous sects" such as the lay White Lotus-movement. This renewed persecution will certainly have contributed to the religion's disappearance. But there were, as we shall see, still Manichaeans around at the turn of the 17th century.

Further reading

Grenet, F.  2007, "Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-Century China" in Comparative studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Vol. 27 nr.2, pp. 463-78

Haar, ter B. J. 1999 (1992), The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese History. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

Lieu, S.N.C. 1998, Manichaeism in Central Asia and China. Leiden: Brill Publishing

See also:

Thursday, 17 July 2014

From Palmyra to the Euphrates: Tracing trade routes as networks

This post summarizes parts of a paper presented at the Connected Past conference in Paris, April 24 this year, and parts of a paper offered together with my colleague Professor Jørgen Christian Meyer at the ARAM conference in Oxford on July 14.

The challenge we’re dealing with is tracing the ancient caravan route from the city of Palmyra to the Euphrates. This part of the Near East is inaccessible to archaeologists, and has been so for a long time. Most existing research dates back to the 1930s, when Antoine Poidebard and Aurel Stein surveyed the route from the air and on the ground, from the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border respectively.

The network analysis is only part of the wider case study, which besides publsihed archaeological work also considers GIS modelling, satellite images, ethnographic accounts, travel descriptions, and the physical environment of the Syrian Desert. Pending peer review, the study will be published in a forthcoming volume of the journal ARAM.

Step one of the Network Analysis was to locate all known archaeological sites in the relevant part of the Syrian Desert (below). This was done on basis of archaeological reports as well as British, French, German and Soviet Maps of the region, cross-checked with Google Earth, the Corona Atlas of the Middle East and Bing Maps. These were plotted in Google Earth, and then imported into Arcmap. Still, considering the scarcity of past archaeological work, we had no idea whether there were not also other sites out there, that might equally well have been stations on the trade route.

We decided to approach this by looking at hydrology. If you want to move through the Desert with a caravan, you’ll need to know where to find water. Utilizing 1:100 000 maps imported as overlays into Google Earth we plotted all hydrological features in Google Earth. Imported into ArcGis they look like this (below). Altogether there are 244 of them, wells, springs, cisterns. Can we trust that they were the same in antiquity? To a large extent we think we can. The climate has not changed much. Most wells draw on groundwater and are placed at the bottom of wadis, seasonal watercourses that were the same in antiquity as they are today. Finally, our experience from the area North of Palmyra, where we did survey for four years, is that these wells and cisterns are associated with pre-Islamic pottery, and have thus been in continuous use by the nomadic population.

This, however, still did not enable us to trace the route. In order to do that, we turned to network approaches.

First, I added a 20km buffer to all hydrological features (below). 40 km is a long day’s march for people and camels alike, and wherever two circles intersect, you can reasonably walk or ride from one point to another within a day, if you know your way of course. You see here that the region close to Palmyra has a high density of wells. Also, close to the Euphrates, the availability of water is good. Whereas in the middle, you have stretches of up to 100 kilometer without perennial water sources. This is a strong argument that a caravan route needed to be created and maintained, and this was something that the Palmyrenes needed to deal with in their period, regardless of the actual age of the ruins that early explorers in the Syrian Desert visited.

(The map also shows the routes proposed by Poidebard and Stein as well as the theoretical cost path suggested by Arcmap).

I then wanted to turn this into a network. This I did in Arcmap, by automatically creating lines from all hydrological points to all other hydrological points within 40 kilometers. I then exported all points and lines as spreadsheets, keeping information on geographic location intact. These I imported into the Graph software Gephi, using the Geo-layout algorithm plug in developed by Alexis Jacomy. Below you can see what the result looked like.

I did the same with the archaeological sites identified by earlier scholarship. Here, inspired by Cyprian Broodbank and Anna Collar’s use of Proximal Point Analysis, I added the minimum number of edges needed in order to connect nodes to their closest neighbors on all sides. This, I admit, is probably the weakest point of the analysis, as it involved a certain amount of personal judgment.

I then merged my two networks by combining the spreadsheets. This is the result, with nodes sized according to betweenness centrality. We see very clearly how the areas with good access to water, were connected by places where we find archaeological evidence in the nature of defensive structures or inscriptions, and that these nodes act as gateways, that serve to integrate the network.

Calculating shortest paths proved not to be so useful, because there are so many nodes very close to each other and because this treats minor cisterns in the same manner as large fortified stations and major wells, but the measure of betweenness-centrality gives a very good indication that there are some places you simply need to go if you want to have something to drink on your way from Palmyra to Hit. By the way, the shortest path from Palmyra to Hit is 11, coinciding very with recorded travel times of 10 to 14 days. Indicating that the proximal point approach works fairly well.

So, in conclusion. What did we learn from this, and what did Network approaches contribute with?

In terms of the identifying the trade route, it seems safe to say that Poidebard was correct in Syria and Stein was correct in Iraq. What did we contribute with then. Well, while they followed tracks on the ground, there was no guarantee that there were not other tracks around that they never saw. We have made their conclusion testable, by showing that there simply was no other feasible route if you wanted to go the whole way between Palmyra and Hit in the dry season. In that way the question about the date of the ruins in the desert becomes less important, because whether there were fortifications there or not in the Roman period, the network layout shows that the Palmyrenes needed to pass through this places.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Some news from Mani's corner

While research certainly takes pride of place on the agenda of the NeRoNe-project, dissemination is another key item on our agenda. Friday last week I got to make a short presentation of my project, "A Manichaean Web," for a group of present and former students and staff at UiB's Alumni event. The presentation was, unfortunately, not recorded. However, a more thorough description of Manichaeism and the urban life of Kellis, as well as some preliminary thoughts on the Manichaeans' role in the city, can be found in an article I wrote for the latest issue of the magazine Replikk, published on April the 25th (all in Norwegian).

Further updates on my progress with the network itself will unfortunately have to wait for another day - but the plot, as they say, is thickening.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Case study: The social networks of client-rulers in the Roman Near East

John the Baptist before Herod Antipas,
Albrecht Dürer 1509. Source: Wikipedia
This week I went to the annual meeting of the UK Classical Association, which was hosted by the University of Nottingham this year. Colleagues Leonardo Gregoratti (Durham) and Eran Almagor (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) organized a session on "the Eastern Client States", where I took part. Client states in this context refer to polities in the Near East, that held a large degree of autonomy and were rued by local princes, but which were part of the Roman Empire or the Parthian Empire. Herod the Great, king of Judea 37-4 BCE and universally infamous due to the infanticide ascribed to him in the Gospel of Matthew, is perhaps the most famous of these rulers. In fact there were many of them, and even if there is a clear tendency towards direct and centralized rule over time, the Roman Empire always remained a patchwork of cities, tribes, and principalities with varying degree of autonomy, although there was never any doubt that the real power was in Rome and later in Constantinople.

The client rulers are one of the cases I am studying, with the aim of better understanding the fabric of Near Eastern society in the Roman period. In time I plan to make a study of them for the whole period of Roman rule in the Near East, but for the presentation in Nottingham I started in an end, and attempted a network analysis of the system in the first century BCE and the first century CE. Below is a short summary of my preliminary ideas and finds. Comments and advice on how I could develop this are greatly appreciated.

I started by plotting 163 members of ruling dynasties in the Near East from 63 BCE (the start of Roman Rule) until 125 CE and the 369 ties of full siblinghood, marriage and descent between them in Excel. The entries were based on Richard Sullivan's invaluable prosopographical articles for the Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, bolstered with information from classical encyclopedias. The resulting spreadsheet was saved in csv-format and easily imported into the open-source graph visualization software Gephi using this great tutorial from University of Wisconsin Green Bay Digital Humanities blog. After some time spent identifying and correcting errors in my database that became evident during the import-process, i got this unprocessed graph (below). It does not immediately make much sense. The thick lines represent connections between individuals sharing more than one tie, in effect people marrying their siblings, an unusual, but not unheard-of practice among royals at the time.

The next step was to find a good way of visualizing the whole network. I used the force atlas 2 algorithm in order to arrange nodes and edges in a pattern where they did not overlap. Then I assigned the different dynasties different colors, based on the dynasties people were borne into (as opposed to those they married into. This I did by assigning different series of node id's to different dynasties in my spreadsheet, for instance all individuals belonging to the Herodian dynasty got an id-numer starting with 3. In this way I was able to easily filter out all members of this dynasty in Gephi. Now the network looked like this:

Here, the network is organized according to dynasty, showing the different connections of marriage, descent and siblinghood for the period from 75 BCE until 150 AD and colored after which dynasty people were born into. On one hand of course this is problematic, because dead and living people are included in the same network, on the other hand it is useful, as dynastic connections were used for claims to legitimacy as well as territory and position, and it helps us see which families were important local players and who were more marginal. In that sense it gives us a more comprehensive picture than the stemma we usually look at when we study dynastic networks.

Then I wanted to see how the network changed over time. The problem with this is that we don't have secure information about when all the people in question actually lived. I've tried to overcome this by assigning them quarter centuries when they were politically active, either as rulers or simply as marriage partners and parents. Some were active in dynastic politics for almost 75 years, others only briefly. By assigning each period a unique value in Gephi and using the software's partition feature I was able to create time-series of the network. I've made a short movie of these (below).

Here individuals have been sorted into overlapping 25-years intervals, according to the periods in which they were active. Some of them were political figures for three quarters of a century, others only briefly The slides show how the different dynasties engaged with each other over time, making it possible to discuss questions of integration, fragmentation and marginalisation. It shows very well, for instance how the Herodian dynasty of Judea emerges as the regional power-broker in the late first century BC, and how Armenia is constant arena of dynastic competition, where different dynasties vie for influence. Dynasties such as Emesa never really becom important, while Commagene and Cappadocia remained in the game, but were marginalized over time.

Next, I used the really useful Geo Layout algorithm developed by Alexis Jacomy in order to arrange my nodes according to geographical position (which I had included in my spreadsheet). Now all nodes belonging to the same dynasty were gathered in one point, and thus indiscernible, but instead the geographical development of the network over time became visible:

In this example we no longer see the individuals, but ties between the different dynastic centres instead. They move slightly because the scale of the network varies over time. In terms of geography, we have three main clusters, centered on Anatolia, Northern Mesopotamia and Judea, with Armenia and Commagene as not only the geographical, but also the main dynastical links between them. Also this allows us to look at interaction across the so-called border between the Parthian and Roman worlds or spheres of influence. Doing this, we see that these networks are geographically very expansive, spanning from Mauretania and Rome in the West, to Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia in the east at their greatest. We also see that the great rivals of the Romans, the Arsacid dynasty, by way of Parthia and Media Atropatene, are active participants in the dynastic networks of the Roman Near East, although they seem to become less important over time.

I had great fun while trying to model the client king system, but I also found it scholarly very rewarding. More on this at a later stage, but network perspectives allow us to move the focus from the imperial center to a multiplicity of peripheral points of view. Each of the 163 individuals in the network were at the centre  of their own world, and approaching them as a social network allows us to appreciate this in a different manner. At this stage this is very much work in progress, and I'll continue to develop the technical as well as the scholarly side of this in months to come.

Thanks to the audience and my co-panelists in Nottingham for a good discussion!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

NeRoNEproject in the news

Latest issue of Hubro, the University of Bergen Norwegian language magazine on research and education, features interviews with four historians on their research, among them me. Story starts on page 6.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Ancient networks and New Institutional Economics

Some weeks ago, I visited Marburg, Germany, to attend a conference on Ancient Economies and Cultural Identities (2000 BC - AD 500). The common interest of the speakers, who included economists and philosophers as well as the usual crew of philologists, archaeologists and historians was that of New Institutional Eonomics as an analytical approach to the study of the ancient economy.

For much of the 20th century, the field of ancient economy was ridden by repeated controversies about the nature of the subject itself. Did the ancient economy work according to the same rules as the modern economy, e.g. with regard to the role of the market as the most important way of distributing wealth – this position was called formalism or modernism, or were economic relations in the ancient world embedded in social and political contexts, such as gift-giving and tribute – the so-called substantivist or primitivist stance?

The third round of this controversy, following Moses Finley's classic The Ancient Economy, (now available in full text online!)  reached its climax by the 1980s By the time I studied ancient history, in the late 1990s, the debate had grown completely stale. The study of the ancient economy had to a large extent been transformed into a discipline of cultural history, and the insistence on the uniqueness, even exoticism of the ancient world, effectively barred economic historians of other periods from taking an interest in antiquity, and students of the ancient economy from making their field relevant and interesting to scholars dealing with other empirical and chronological settings.

Meanwhile, however, the field of economics had moved forward. While specialists of the ancient world were debating whether ancient people acted rationally in economic respects, economists had long started to realize that modern people frequently don’t. Scholars developing the field of New Institutional Economics investigated how institutions shape economic behavior. The market is certainly an important institution in this respect, but there are also many others. Transaction cost theory and the realization that rationality is bounded – restricted and shaped by lack of information, cultural and social constraints etc. also helped explain how different economic mechanisms can come into play at the same time.

Ancient historians may be slow learners, but as many of us have come to realize with regard to the study of the ancient economy over the last few years, the beauty of New Institutional Economics is that it allows us to treat social, political and economic relations within the same analytical framework. Of course it mattered to people in the past whether goods changed hands as a result of market exchange, gift-giving or robbery, but for the historian, it can be useful to treat the three as complementary institutions regulating economic exchange in the ancient world, thus giving us the opportunity to ask, and try to answer, what this reveals about ancient society, thus giving us the opportunity to write what Manning and Morris calls «Social Science History»: Comparative, testable and methodologically explicit.

How does this link up with networks? Well, Douglass C. North, among the leading figures of New Institutional Economics, suggests that the world should be interpreted by means of the analytical terms of «organizations» and «institutions». By organizations, he describes groups of individuals, working towards a mixture of common and individual goals by partially coordinated behavior. In the modern, developed world there are all kinds of organizations, including sports-clubs, universities, private corporations, NGOs, municipalities and governments. In traditional societies, including the ancient world as well as parts of the world today, there were a lot fewer organizations, and most of those that were in existence were of political nature: Tribes, city-states, kingdoms, empires etc. These (with varying success) specialize in generating revenue for their members, and in containing violence inside the group as well as with other groups. Institutions, North says, are «the rules of the game», the formal and informal patterns of interaction between individuals and groups.

My point of departure for the NeRoNE project was that Network Analysis is great for mapping, visualizing and even measuring interaction, but that when we deal with the ancient world, we also need to think carefully about the nature of the ties that constitute our networks. New Institutional Economics is one way of doing that. Networks might be conceptualized as organizations, the ties between the actors as institutions. On one hand this adds a qualitative dimension to network analysis, on the other hand network analysis is a possible strategy for making New Institutional Economics operational on data from the ancient world.

The Marburg conference featured lots of stimulating papers on how institutional approaches can inform the study of economic interaction in the ancient world. I look forward to the proceedings that are promised in due time.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Two PhD scholarships at the University of Bergen, Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion

Our department has announced two open PhD research fellowships within the disciplines of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion. This is an open call for the whole department, but candidates who would be interested in attaching themselves the NeRoNE project are very welcome to apply. Please contact Eivind Heldaas Seland for more information. The positions are for four years, with 25% teaching and 75% research. The deadline is March 10th.

The full call can be found here

Friday, 24 January 2014

School visit: research methods in the humanities and social sciences

Yesterday I paid a visit to Bergen Katedralskole, in order to lecture and advise students in their final year of high school on research methods in the humanities and social sciences. My university each year awards the Holberg International Memorial Prize for outstanding research within these disciplines. In connection with that they also organize a research competition for senior high-school students. Bergen Katedralskole has entered two classes this year, and I am their appointed university liaison. Going there was a great chance to meet and talk with the people who will be starting college or university studies this August, and hopefully also convey why research in the humanities and social sciences is fun as well as important. For me, it was also an opportunity to think about some aspects of what we are doing and why we are doing it. 

The humanities and social sciences engage in the study of human life and culture. Their importance should be obvious, nevertheless it still has to be repeatedly emphasized and also justified. Doing research is about creating narratives. Narratives about the human experience, past and present, tell us who we are and where we come from, and in thus shaping identity, they also serve to create groups and draw boundaries between them. History, identity, and culture are continuously invoked in political and public discourse, for better and for worse. An important role of researchers is to create, uphold, question and dismantle these narratives. We do that by doing research, by teaching and by taking part in these discourses. Engaging with the distant past and far off corners of world is equally important as engaging with the present and the close by, not because we learn directly from history, but because it widens our horizon of what it means to be human, and thus allows us to better understand others as well as ourselves. That is certainly fun and useful on a personal level, but also, I think, relevant to society at large. As far as I'm concerned, there is no crisis in the humanities.

That said, those of us who are so fortunate as to make a living from research certainly have an obligation to make what we do available and relevant to the public This is also the idea underlying SAMKUL program of the Research Council of Norway, which has funded the NeRoNE project. "The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome" of Edgar Allan Poe is hardly a useful narrative of the past for the 21st century. Researching social networks in antiquity gives insights into how traditional societies work, and by better understanding historical dynamics, we also, hopefully, better appreciate how we ended up were we are, and how traditional patterns of interaction continue to influence interaction in many parts of the world, albeit to different degrees. 
As for recommending the students I met yesterday to pursue degrees in the social sciences or in the humanities, I am unapologetic. The competition they are entering now, will give them a chance to see how research is produced, and this will give them a platform for understanding and also evaluating the products of research, so often relied upon by policy-makers and bureaucrats. If they decide to go on to university studies in Old Norse, French literature, ancient history, social anthropology, or any other among the multitude of exciting subjects we can offer, the education they'll receive will enable them better to understand the world and their place in it. Few of them will continue doing research in their professional lives, but their education will train them in amassing, processing and presenting information, and it will make them highly qualified, flexible and independent candidates, able to adjust to a changing labour market for the approximately 45 years they will spend working after studying human culture and society for three to five years. 

Friday, 17 January 2014

Call for papers, session at the 2014 ASOR annual meeting

Together with Dr. Kerstin Droß-Krüpe, University of Kassel, we are hosting a session on "Sinews of Empire": Networks in the Near East" at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, which will be held in San Diego, November 19-22.

Here is the abstract for our session:

Sinews of empire: Networks in the Near East

This session addresses the role of networks and social relationships, as facilitators of interaction and integration between imperial, regional and local levels in the history and archeology of the Near East. Contributors are encouraged to situate their papers within theoretical frameworks that facilitate comparison between periods and empirical settings.

From the Neo-Assyrian Empire to the end of the colonial period, the Near East was dominated by a series of large, multiethnic empires, most of them centered outside the region itself. Recent studies have moved emphasis from metropolitan to regional and local points of view, but arguably most have continued to cast representatives of imperial rule as protagonists or antagonists in narratives of domination, resistance, integration and fragmentation. In recent years, a resurgence in interest in network approaches has offered new tools to conceptualize, visualize and arguably even measure interaction in past societies. In this session we aim to utilize network perspectives in an attempt to shift attention to everyday ties of business, religion, power and social interaction. How did networks develop? What where the institutions underpinning interaction and fostering integration? What impact did formal and informal rules have on interaction within these networks? How did networks react to stress on imperial level, such as invasions, economic crisis or civil war? We especially welcome papers situating data within theoretical frameworks such as Network Analysis, Social Network Analysis, Actor Network Theory and Agency Theory, in order to facilitate comparison between groups, over time and between different parts of the Near East.

If you are interested in participating, paper proposals can be submitted via ASOR's online submission system