Institute of Archaeology


RAC/TRAC Session 33: For a fistful of Daleks: scholarship, popular culture, Roman world

Details of the RAC/TRAC Conference session 'For a fistful of Daleks: scholarship, popular culture, Roman world.'

Conference Sessions and Abstracts - Friday 12 April 2024

33. For a fistful of Daleks: scholarship, popular culture, Roman world

Ljbuica Perinic – Hrvatska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti
Anton Ye. Baryshnikov
Andrew Gardner – University College London

June of 2023 is the month when Queens of the Stone Age release their new album, ‘In Times New Roman’. This is not just good news for all Josh Homme’s or Dean Fertita fans but also a reminder that images of Rome and her imperial past still matter today. But the same can be said about the popular culture itself; it matters more than it seems, it continues to impact scholars who study the realm of Rome, and the realm of Rome is still impacting society and popular culture.

Some manifestations of such impact were discussed during TRAC 2023. But that debate is far from being over and not because we failed to agree on what Doctor is the best. There are a lot of sources of influence and inspirations to be talked about. How may Conan and the snake cult help those who study ancient religion? How may professional wrestling contribute to social archaeology and history? What can modern music and improvisation tell us about religion and hegemony in ancient polities? Many things, from strips to movie trips, contributing to the popular and academic image of Rome and her Empire remain unseen and unnoticed. So, this session aims to make them visible and enhance our understanding of antiquity (let alone creating popular images of better quality).

Session schedule 

Friday 12 April (PM)              Room 4 - Clarke (Level 3)
14:10Quatermass and the Trench: The influence of London’s archaeology on Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Horror (Owen Humphreys)
14:30Meditations on popular cultures, hegemonies, and archaeological horizons of “Roman Britain”, as compared with personal experiences of the sound ritual (Jake Weekes)
14:50“Was there any message with the bracelet?” “…I think the bracelet is the message.”, Values and Material Culture in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain (David Walsh)
15:10 Verso pollice - Gladiatorial combat, preconceived notions and common misconceptions in popular culture (Ivan Radman-Livaja)
15:30Catilina: The Villain and His Virtues (Anna Markina)
15:50                                BREAK
16:20Obliti privatorum, publica curate (Ljubica Perinić)
16:40Gorgeous George on Roman ruins: the concept of ‘kayfabe’ and identities in the Roman world (Anton Ye. Baryshnikov)


 Quatermass and the Trench: The influence of London’s archaeology on Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Horror
Owen Humphreys – Museum of London Archaeology

In 1958, workmen on a bomb-damaged construction site in central London uncovered a mysterious capsule. Archaeologists were brought in, and the site became a national sensation, with queues around the block and fevered public debate. But the contents of the capsule threatened the world in a way that only Professor Quatermass could avoid. The trenches, archaeologists, workmen, and the public response to them in the landmark Sci Fi mini-series Quatermass and the Pit were almost exact replicas of the scenes reported on in London four years earlier, when archaeologists unearthed a Roman Temple in central London. This marked the start of a long connection between London’s archaeology and genre cinema, both domestic and international; from buildings archaeology in Hammer Horror to Crossrail in The Mummy. Whilst blockbuster pop-cultural depictions of archaeology (Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, Uncharted, etc.) are typically rooted in exotic pulp adventure fiction, this paper explores the interplay between domestic archaeology (and its depictions in news media) and works of speculative fiction, focusing on London as a case study. In doing so, we will show how archaeology has become worryingly Flanderised, shifting from being a locus for public debate to mere set dressing.

Meditations on popular cultures, hegemonies, and archaeological horizons of “Roman Britain”, as compared with personal experiences of the sound ritual
Jake Weekes – Canterbury Archaeological Trust

In his insightful In Small Things Forgotten (1977; 1996), James Deetz included an extraordinary example of the impact of mass media popular culture on traditional material. Deetz was considering music as material culture, the creation of sound waves in the air (I would like to qualify this excellent idea by describing music as sound ritual). In this light Deetz looked at the transformation of a traditional creole via a medium of mass communication in the United States. In small and isolated frontier communities a musical and dance ritual had developed around “the string band”, generally based on a banjo (instrument of African origin) and a fiddle (violin of European origin). A somewhat sedate image of country waltzes at feasting events can be invoked. In the early twentieth century this was shattered by radio waves that could channel music westwards across large distances into the interior, and fast picking Bluegrass music was pumped out to remote homesteads, creating a new craze and changing their particular music rituals forever! Many similar such occurrences have occurred, with new groups being inspired by, and taking up, new music and related culture from remote and very different places and backgrounds. Consider the “British Blues Boom” of the 1960s, for example, which saw mainly middle classed young people pick up on the electric blues of African American Chicago that they sought out on vinyl records, and eventually popularised their version of it on a global scale, with bands like the Rolling Stones actually materially changing the career opportunities of Blue Greats from the heartland itself. How new people make these new cultural things their own is surely the most interesting thing. Music has a hegemonic aspect in broader polities, which have imagined communities that require an idea at least of shared ritual and community: in modern commercialism the cultural “product” becomes increasingly homogenised and branded, stifling improvisation and free expression. In my own experience, having been told by 1980s ideologues that music of the electric guitar and drum kit was a thing of the past, with synthesizers and drum machines taking over, I was personally in a group that resisted, and I still do, in various groups. The music I/we used to play in my first band was a version of “the Boogie”, of John Lee Hooker fame, which I heard from a remote source (an LP) in my youth, just like those people mentioned by Deetz and their Bluegrass, and just like the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Cream and Jimi Hendrix (a fascinating creole subject in his own right!) and all those of their ilk had done before my own time. OK… Do reflections on these things have a place in the archaeology of Roman Britain? I will look at some examples of how provincials adapted their rituals and identities in the face of “Romanness” (or rather various provincial versions of that cultural horizon), at the same time considering both improvisation and structuration as the forces that lie behind creole archaeological horizons. Maybe a “popular culture horizon” is a good description of “Romanness” actually!

 “Was there any message with the bracelet?” “…I think the bracelet is the message.”, Values and Material Culture in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain
David Walsh – Newcastle University

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of the most successful and prolific authors of historical fiction in the twentieth century. Primarily considered a children’s author, although she wrote several novels for adults, Sutcliff’s works have sold millions of copies and have been translated into a variety of languages. Sutcliff’s narratives were set in various periods and locations, but she is most famous for her novels and short stories set in Roman to post-Roman Britain, beginning with The Eagle of the Ninth (1954). This paper will discuss how Sutcliff drew upon the archaeological record to advance the didactic aspects of her narratives. Sutcliff was aware that she had a platform to instil certain values in her young readership, and these values were repeatedly exhibited by her protagonists, particularly bravery and fortitude in the face of adversity. In many of her narratives, certain objects are passed down through the generations as symbols of these values. These objects were often drawn directly from the archaeological record or display close parallels with real-world objects. Consequently, for Sutcliff’s readers the real-world version of the artefact, or a similar item, becomes encoded with these values as they draw on Sutcliff’s narratives to ‘fill-in-the-gaps’ in the object’s biography.

 Verso pollice - Gladiatorial combat, preconceived notions and common misconceptions in popular culture
Ivan Radman-Livaja – Arheološki muzej u Zagrebu

When people think of Roman civilisation, one of the first things that come to mind is gladiatorial fights. One may hardly encounter someone who never heard of the games in the arena and it is certainly a topic that everybody believes to be quite well-informed about since this appears basically as common knowledge, even for people who never paid much interest to ancient history. Obviously, it is not knowledge acquired through reading written sources and scholarly literature, but through popular culture, especially movies as well as cartoons and novels since the 19th century. But how close is the nowadays widespread vision of Roman games to the historical facts? As a matter of fact, one should rather say how far this commonly accepted image is from what was actually going on in the arena. This paper aims to present the most common clichés and contrast them with what Roman sources and archaeological discoveries actually tell us about gladiatorial combat. 

 Catilina: The Villain and His Virtues
Anna Markina

Sallust, being the one who witnessed Catilina's conspiracy as a youth, the one who saw Caesar's dictatorship and its consequences as an adult, seems to have a rather clear view on of the former: «Catilina fuit ingenio malo pravoque … animo audace subdolo vario … alieni adpetens sui profusus, ardens in cupiditatibus». Such harsh judgements can be seen through the whole book up to the very last chapters when, all of a sudden, within the description of the final battle between consul's army and Catilina appear some real, seemingly hidden from the contemporaries, traits of his character. At the death's door he is a noble commander indeed, vir virtutis, the one who does not betray himself, his former actions and intentions, as well as the people whom he has led to riot against Rem Publicam. Of all surviving ancient texts this monography of Sallust may be the first to demonstrate a good trait of an undoubtedly villain person; it also may be the first example of usage of this feature as rhetorical device. This paper presents an attempt to analyze such an image of 'a virtuous villain' from the perspective of the folklore motif, that has been a common feature of many later texts. The earliest stages of its existence can reconstructed on the basis of classic scholarly publications (such as books by Campbell and Propp), it had been changing since then and still exists as an important of a contemporary pop-culture, from books and movies to cartoons and comics (hey, Loki, I am looking at you). Such cultural-philological approach can be helpful for Roman historians and archaeologists (and for anyone who deals with ancient history); it helps to put the evidence in a wider cultural context, it inspires the quest for some real meta-disciplinary agenda, it saves from trusting any of the ancient witness too much. But most important, it serves the ultimate goal of the research — reaching a better understanding of the past and a better understanding of the present.

 Obliti privatorum, publica curate 
Ljubica Perinić – Hrvatska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti

Roman religion per se, no matter how many volumes or pages have been written so far, is a field in which we still struggle. Which cult was private, which was a matter of public observance, how do they intermingle, or do they intermingle – it seems that every answer we give is equally correct or equally wrong. How exactly did the Romans conceive and think of religion and how does it differ from our understanding of it, if at all? How did the cults spread? The above sentence, or now a local proverb, Obliti privatorum publica curate is the 15th century inscription that stood above the entrance of the Rector’s palace in the Republic of Ragusa, what today is the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia. The Rector’s palace was the seat of the rectors of the Republic of Ragusa between the 14th century and 1808, the seat of the Minor Council and of the state administration. It was the centre of political power. This same maxim, ‘Forget the private, take care of the public’, can be easily transferred to Rome which is no wonder since the sentence was a paraphrase from Cicero’s De officiis. Especially effortless is the sentence’s transposition to the Roman army with its division to the official and unofficial cults. Through movies or series like Gladiator, Conan, and HBO’s Rome, the aim of this paper is to validate or not religious moments depicted there.

 Gorgeous George on Roman ruins: the concept of ‘kayfabe’ and identities in the Roman world
Anton Ye. Baryshnikov

In 1941 the attendants of a wrestling show in Eugene, Oregon saw how a man dressed like a French aristocrat entered the ring. It was George Raymond Wagner, also known as ‘Gorgeous George’, ‘Human Orchid’ and ‘Toast of the Coast’. His influence on pop culture is enormous and surely cannot be overestimated. Still, one must be truly surprised to see his name in the abstract for Roman archaeology conference. For us it is more important that persons like Gorgeous George convey so-called ‘kayfabe’, a key concept for the world of professional wrestling, a word that has a very complex meaning and reflects a very complex social reality where the simple division of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ does not work. This paper is focused on the ‘kayfabe’; the author believes that it can be useful at least as a productive and inspiring research metaphor for social history and archaeology. In particular, it may be beneficial for the ever-growing field of identity studies where the blurred lines between the reality existed and the reality declared are sometimes hardly noticed.