Dead Research Proposals: Marie Curie

Tis the season. People are finding out how they got on with their Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions applications. I applied for this last year, and thought I would share my proposal on here as part of my “dead research proposals” series. Two confessions first, though:

1- I only looked at the feedback for mine from the last round a few weeks ago. I struggle with peri- and post-natal anxiety, and didn’t want to read the feedback when I was feeling vulnerable. I’m really glad I did in the end, as it was positive, reassuring, encouraging and helpful.

2- I  would still love to collaborate with NUIG and my amazing colleagues there, I stand by large parts of the theoretical background of this project, and still love the idea of working with regional museums on material with vague provenance. BUT I learnt when I was writing this proposal that there were issues with the methodology and study design. At heart, I wasn’t happy with it. I would have been very surprised if it had been funded, and think it would have been a big ask to follow through if it had. In the process of writing it, I actually thought of an alternative project that I would really like to do, again at NUIG- maybe in a couple of years, if scholars marooned by bloody Brexit are allowed to apply. This is in contrast to another project I’ve posted as part of this series which I still wish I could do, on representations of the body in Italian terra sigillata ware. Please shout if you’d like to supervise or support this!

I’m only going to post part of the proposal here as it is LONG. But I am happy to share the rest with you, especially if you are applying yourself. Just contact me here or on Twitter and it’s yours. Here we go, deep breath:

1. Excellence

1.1 Quality and Credibility of the Research Action

Introduction: Context is central in archaeological analysis: relating objects to one another, to the places they were found, and to the ancient people who interacted with them. Unfortunately, many museum ceramics, excavated in response to the raging trend for painted pottery during the late 18th and early 19th century, are almost entirely decontextualized. The ITABIO project will develop new approaches to such pre-Roman Italian ceramics held in regional museums in Britain and Ireland. Through combining cutting edge x-ray fluorescence technology, experimental geological analysis and archival study, ITABIO will answer two straightforward but deeply important questions about this group of vessels: where did these vessels come from? And how did they come to be in British and Irish collections?

The ceramics in question are categorised as Etruscan, Apulian, Lucanian, Paestan, Campanian and Sicilian wares.[1]  Examples of all six classes of vessel are frequently to be found in the museum collections of Ireland and the UK. They were predominantly placed in wealthy burials, with the greatest number deposited during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. This phenomenon is largely associated with central and southern Italy, albeit with occasional manifestations further north, as at Spina. The ascribed value of these painted vases made them intensely vulnerable to poor excavation practices, poor recording, and professional looting, resulting in the weak provenances that so many examples are tarnished by.

The unique combination of hard science and archival research, involving scientific analysis and the exploration of unexplored historical sources will seek to resolve these issues. It will simultaneously pioneer new methods for ceramic study and explore the potential of newly developed geological sourcing techniques. While studies of individual archives and figures have been undertaken in the past,[2] ITABIO is the first project to deliberately set out to trace individual object biographies and rehabilitate decontextualized ceramics through a two-pronged archival and scientific approach.  The researcher will present her results in a series of 5 important research publications: a monograph, three journal articles and an edited volume, in addition to 2 popular articles and a series of events and micro-exhibitions.

State of the art: Within museum studies, ITABIO is influenced by exceptional pieces of innovative work which seek to creatively reconstruct the journeys of museum objects, many of which use the concept of object biography to drive their research.[3]This approach is not limited to national collections: biography is a central theme in gallery texts, a bridging concept for visitors that translates well in public dissemination.[4] However, traditional publishing formats continue to dominate ceramic research. The work of individual collectors, such as Giampietro Campana[5] or William Hamilton,[6] are often the topic of intense archival study. Larger collections may be incorporated within wider catalogues such as the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, but these have highly formalised structures and provide a very particular viewpoint, in addition to being costly to produce. In the case of smaller, regional collections, a lone stand-out artefact may be the subject of in-depth stylistic and archival analysis, but less imposing objects remain in the background.[7]

Stylistic analyses provide a rough idea of where certain ceramics originate: for example, there are clear patterns of manufacture visible in Etruscan bucchero pottery that allow the ascription of a vessel to a specific town or city.[8] In addition, many vessels were purchased by their current institutional owners with a named provenance, although in many cases this is vague, in that a pot is “said to be from” a particular city or site. This situation is profoundly unsatisfying archaeologically. New technologies are being developed that allow for the reconstruction of these long-lost contexts through scientific analysis. Portable X-Ray Fluorescence (hereafter pXRF) is a non-destructive technique which uses x-rays to obtain a record of the chemical composition of an object.[9] Archaeologically, pXRF can be used to establish the mixture of chemicals present in a particular clay source, and therefore identify the area from which the raw material of a vessel was obtained. The results from preliminary pXRF from pre-Roman Italian contexts have showed promising levels of detail.[10] While the data exposed the ancient exploitation of particular groups of local clays, in one case they also revealed connections with the distant site of Cerveteri, giving a new insight into trade patterns and the movement of luxury goods in Etruria.

Research methodology and approach: For this study, the researcher will perform pXRF analysis on a group of 300 Italian ceramics in museum collections in Ireland and the United Kingdom, made between 500 and 300 BCE. In order to limit the field of possible objects, the project will concentrate on vessels with a recorded provenance, however hypothetical or vague. These artefacts are located in the National Museum of Ireland, National Museum of Scotland, Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter, Cork Public Museum, the Great North Museum in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The focus on regional museums is entirely deliberate: their valuable collections are too often underrepresented in archaeological analyses, and in the current funding climate they will benefit inordinately from the research dissemination associated with ITABIO. Initial positive contact has been made with all six institutions, many of which are excited at the prospect of being involved.

This project will make use of existing pXRF technology to undertake research. The researcher will also undertake an experimental study on the feasibility of making use of emerging geological techniques for the analysis of archaeological ceramics. pXRF is an ideal technology to use: it is relatively inexpensive, entirely non-destructive and comparatively quick and straightforward to perform. It also provides detailed results, with the potential to expose individual clay sources and pinpoint shared origins. A pXRF unit will be hired from Oxford Instruments, a highly respected company, for the period of initial data collection. A pilot project will run concurrently with the analysis of museum artefacts, involving material from the site of Poggio Civitate (Murlo). Developed from the work of NUIG’s Dr XX, the researcher will test the potential of lead isotope analysis and single-grain isotopic microanalysis in the field of archaeological ceramics. These techniques were originally devised for use in geology,[11] for the analysis of sandstones and feldspars. In this case they would be applied to a group of 100 coarse-ware ceramic fragments, to establish whether these methodologies can work for archaeological materials. They could form an alternative sourcing methodology for ceramics, requiring only a very small fragment of clay for analysis and acting as the least-destructive destructive method. If the pilot project is successful, it will potentially open a completely new avenue of petrographic research. These twin analyses expose the origins and production places of each object, the start of their journey across Europe, and develop a new technique to acquire this information.

The pXRF results, potentially showing distinct groupings of particular clays, will be contextualised and informed by archival study. This phase of ITABIO will begin with work in the archives of the six museums, utilising their initial acquisition and donation records to identify the individuals who acquired and donated them. The personal stories of collectors and objects expose the complexity of the intellectual networks joining the Mediterranean with Britain and Ireland, and the pan-European links created by shared interests in the material culture of the ancient world. The historical phenomenon of trade in Italian ceramics is deeply relevant in a world in which intellectual channels and patterns are shifting and moving: the study of earlier systems of knowledge-transfer greatly informs our understanding of modern research outreach. From maps, letters, and surviving excavation records, distinctive individual vessels may be reconnected with their original places of excavation, and potential burial assemblages recognised. Modern pan-European links will also be established between institutions in Italy, Ireland and the UK, as ITABIO facilitates knowledge transfer between museums at point of origin and at point of display. The pXRF study will potentially reconfirm or question the veracity of these often patchy and problematic records, exposing the relationships between different vessels transported together, and possibly allowing the reconstruction of lost burial assemblages. If the study is successful, the methodology can be reapplied elsewhere as a cost-effective and non-destructive strategy for the investigation of pre-Roman Italian material in other collections.

Originality and innovation: This project is the first ever application of pXRF to a large dataset of pre-Roman Italian ceramics in museums in Britain and Ireland. It will expose hitherto unknown connections between different objects: it could illuminate entirely novel networks of exchange in pre-Roman Italy, and feed back into stylistic analyses, greatly expanding our knowledge about these artefacts. This is deeply important: the analysis of trade and exchange in pre-Roman Italy is still dominated by colonialist narratives focused on the aesthetic dominance of Greece and Greek settlers over indigenous communities.[12] More objective data on the origin of vessels is required to assess, and potentially challenge, these ideas. The discipline of classical archaeology cannot move forward and develop without integrating both new theoretical approaches and scientific techniques: this project is ground-breaking in its adoption and incorporation of both these drivers of positive change.

The unique research framework of the project is heavily informed by the concept of object biography. Developed from the work of Appadurai (1986) and Kopytoff (1986) on the ascription of value to objects and the process of their definition as commodities, this idea holds that things acquire meaning through the relationships they forge with the people who own, make, mend, encounter, and dispose of them. Tracing these relationships through an object’s life course, from its creation (birth) to deposition (death), exposes layers of significance that may be missed in conventional approaches based on functionality or aesthetics. Gosden and Marshall pioneered the use of object biography in archaeology in 1999, but a decade later their work was reinvigorated by Joy (2009), who demonstrated that archaeological uses of object biography have tended to focus upon the beginning and end of object lives, at the expense of their more complicated use-lives. ITABIO strengthens this approach by focusing the pXRF analysis and lead isotope experimentation on the production of vessels, and the archival investigation aiming to uncover the circumstances of their disposal. However, this is a misconception: by using scientific analysis to investigate vessel origins, and archival research to uncover their depositional contexts the researcher will develop nuanced and entirely novel interpretations of these ceramic lives, and their journeys from kiln to tomb to rebirth in the museum cabinet.

Interdisciplinarity: The publications to be produced during this fellowship (see Section 2.2) reflect the fundamentally inter-disciplinary nature of ITABIO as a project. The research methodology is a unique combination of historical archival research, archaeological science, and experimental geology. It is a prime example of the kind of joined-up research that can and will revolutionise archaeological practice, combining theoretical complexity with first class scientific investigation. It will also serve as an ideal training project, providing the researcher with an unparalleled opportunity to expand her skills in ceramic analysis. She will build upon her past experience with pXRF and gain important publications in this area, and will also develop her credibility as a scientist through her work on new methods for ceramic sourcing. She will also develop her archival research skills, gaining valuable experience that will increase her future employability.

Career development: Opportunities to develop skills in both hard science and historical research, will provide the researcher with a broad scope of employment opportunities. She will be able to develop a future career in either sub-field. In terms of re-starting the researcher’s academic career after time in the commercial sector and maternity leave, this prestigious project, involving wide collaborations with different institutions, the opportunity to present nationally and internationally, the curation of a major conference and the production of high impact publications, will demonstrate her great potential to become a major player in the archaeology of pre-Roman Italy, ceramic studies and the integration of archaeological theory into practice. More specifically, the researcher will be in a strong position to lead a specific collaborative EC project proposal in conjunction with colleagues in Italy, Sweden, the UK, and Ireland focused on excavation and ceramic analysis at the Etruscan site of San Giovenale, Lazio; or an individual project centred on an investigation of women’s experiences of Greek colonisation, two projects she is already developing. 

Collaboration opportunities: The project will also open up a host of new collaborative opportunities for the host institution: the Moore Institute and NUIG. There will be the potential to establish a working group of new generation Irish classical archaeologists, making connections that will last throughout the careers of the individuals involved. There will also be potential for major collaborations with all the institutions connected with the project, linking NUIG to some of them most highly esteemed European museums and collections. International links will be established between Galway and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, through involvement with the Poggio Civitate project as a source of material for lead isotope experimentation, providing a new collaborative opportunity for geologists and archaeologists to work together in future. Following up on the hosting of the Seventh Conference in Italian Archaeology at NUIG in 2016, this project will boost the University’s reputation as a centre for excellence in Italian Archaeology, and encourage other scholars from throughout Europe to come to Ireland to develop their theoretical and scientific skills further.

[1] Vessels made in Italy are often found in these contexts: however, they are excluded from this study as their place of production can be securely ascribed stylistically.

[2] E.g. Elia (2001); Williams (1992).

[3] Hicks and Stevenson (2012) is a particularly successful and pertinent example, the topic is theorised by Alberti (2005).

[4] See, for example, the new galleries of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (Kocamaz 2012).

[5] Sarti (2001).

[6] Jenkins and Sloan (1996); Ramage (1990).

[7] See, for example, Waite (2008, 2015).

[8] See Acconcia (2004), Naso (2004), and Rasmussen (2006) for examples of these ascriptions.

[9] For a review of the use of pXRF technology in ceramic analysis see Forster et al. (2011), and Frahm and Doonan (2012).

[10] E.g. Bonnizzoni et al. (2010); Jones and Garrigos (2004); Tuck et al (2015).

[11] Tyrrell et al (2007, 2009; 2010; 2012).

[12] For this argument in relation to ceramics see Bérard (1983, 1989); Boardman (1986), Spivey (1991a, 2006); Osborne (2001, 2007); Reusser (2002). Rasmussen (2014: 673-4) provides the most up-to-date and nuanced review of the evidence and the arguments.



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