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Workshop: Exploring Publicness in Towns in Roman Britain


Christopher Dickenson and Rubina Raja (Aarhus University)

Date 16 January 2020
Time 09:00 - 17:00

Moesgaard Museum, Moesgaard Allé 15, 8270 Højbjerg, bldg. 4240, room 302



Until recently, the use of public space in Roman cities is a subject that was taken for granted. It was assumed that the use of forums, bathhouses, sanctuaries, theatres and amphitheatres was well understood and was uniform throughout the Empire. At individual sites, excavations tended to focus on buildings — on dating architecture and ascribing functions. Comparative research focused largely on urbanism—the development of towns across time and space—with far less attention for the experience of life within towns. The resulting picture was one of implausible homogeneity across time and space that does little justice to the vast diversity of regions and local cultures that made up the Empire, which has not brought us very close to understanding the rich texture of daily life within Roman towns and has led to a limited understanding of how urban society and culture was produced through interactions in public.

Recently this situation has begun to change. There is a growing acknowledgement that there is much about public space in Roman cities that we do not understand. This is reflected in a number of recent monographs and edited volumes focussed on publicness or public spaces like forums or agoras (e.g. Dardenay and Rosso 2013,Eck and Funke 2014, Bouet 2012, Russell 2015). There has also been a surge of interest in Roman streets, long overlooked in scholarship, as public spaces where a significant amount of day-to-day life played out in less formalized ways than settings framed by more monumental architecture (Hartnett 2017, Laurence and Newsome 2011). One of the reasons that public space deserves our attention is because, as sociologists and anthropologists have argued for modern culture, it is space in which power relations between different groups within urban communities are contested and negotiated (Low 2003, Mitchell 2003). Work that has taken such a theoretically sophisticated approach to the ancient world has, however, mainly focused on Classical Athens (Millet 1998, Vlassopoulos 2007) or, for the Roman world, Rome and Pompeii (Russell 2015, Hartnett 2017, though Cf Revell 2009). There is considerable potential for exploring the nature of publicness in other parts of the Roman Empire and to draw more heavily on archaeology in investigating this subject. Roman Britain presents fertile ground for such research for a number of reasons.

Britain’s position on the fringes of the Empire, its relatively late history of urban development and the distinct regional character of its Roman towns all make it a useful place to explore how the use and experience of public space potentially diverged from other parts of the Empire. The towns of Britain have been studied systematically for well over a century and though the evidence is fragmentary, it has been well published and is readily available. Many details of urban development throughout the province have been much discussed and are familiar. The lack of literary sources and scarcity of inscriptions, while creating obstacles to interpretation, also usefully creates a necessity to place more emphasis on the archaeological evidence. For all of these reasons Britain is a useful place for asking new questions and developing new methodologies to explore publicness. A growing body of work has already begun to move away from the more conservative approach that has characterized much writing on the towns of Britain to place more emphasis on the experience of life within the towns (Esmonde Cleary 2005, Fulford 2001, Rogers 2008, Perring 1992, Revell 2009). Yet much remains to be done. Preservation conditions in Britain also offer advantages over more arid regions of the Empire surrounding the Mediterranean particularly regarding the potential to retrieve organic material and to use the techniques of geosciences to investigate the use of space. Such techniques have already been fruitfully applied to excavations of Insula IX at Silchester and it would be exciting to consider how they might now be applied in future fieldwork to cast more light on the use of public spaces (Banerjea, Fulford et al. 2015).

The aim of this one-day workshop is to bring together a small group of experts who have all taken innovative approaches to the towns of Roman Britain in order to explore how we might cast new light on the public life of these towns. It is hoped that the discussion will lead to a published volume. Issues that might be explored, either through focussing on case-studies or through a more comparative approach, include:

  • How were notions of publicness potentially different in this part of the Empire from those in Rome or elsewhere in the Empire?

  • What can be said about pre-Roman notions of publicness and how did they influence the life of the later towns?

  • To what extent did the non-Roman, non-civic experience of space (rural, non- elite, religious) permeate the public spaces of the towns?

  • How can we detect the presence of different groups of users archaeologically in different open parts of towns and what does this tell us about how local power relationships were structured through the use of space?

  • How can we move beyond drawing inferences about the use of public space from architecture and how can move away from looking at buildings to exploring the spaces between them?

  • What role can small finds play in examining uses of space? What role can soil sciences play?

  • What scope is there for new investigative fieldwork in Roman Britain to cast new light on the use of public space?


Simon Esmonde Cleary (University of Birmingham) 

Penelope Goodman (University of Leeds) 

Richard Hingley (Durham University) 

Louise Revell (University of Southampton) 

Adam Rogers (University of Leicester)  

Lacey Wallce  (University of Lincoln) 


Practical information for speakers


For invited speakers, up to two nights of accommodation will be covered as well as travel expenses (economy class only). Please book your own travel to Aarhus (see also further information under 'Travel to Aarhus'), and we will reimburse you after your stay (please note that we are only allowed to reimburse tickets booked directly through an airline and not via Momondo or other search engines). We would appreciate it if you could book sooner rather than later, in order to get a reasonably priced flight. Once you have organised your travel, please forward your itinerary, and we will proceed to book accommodation.

To claim back your travel expenses, please

1. fill out this this reimbursement form (disregard the bottom part - it is for internal use). 

2. Forward the reimbursement form as an Excel file (no need to sign) along with scanned copies of your travel receipts to Mie Egelund Lind.

Please note that it can take a couple of weeks for Aarhus University’s finance dept. to process your claim, especially when international transfers are involved.     

NOTE: As soon as you have booked your flight, please forward your itinerary to Mie Egelund Lindso that the hotel booking can be finalised.


Initial reservations have been made at hotel Scandic Aarhus City: 

Scandic Aarhus City
Østergade 10
8000 Aarhus C  

Tel.: +45 89 31 81 11 

Email: aarhuscity@scandichotels.com 

Transport to workshop venue

From the city centre, you can take Bus 18 (see timetable). The closest stop to the hotel is at H. H. Seedorffs Stræde (see route on map), and the bus leaves three times an hour (direction: Moesgård). Enter the bus through the back or the middle door and purchase your ticket at the ticket machine (coins only). Get off at the bus stop "Moesgård Museum" (end station) - the ride takes approximately 25 min. From there, walk up to the museum and enter through the back of the building.

Map of AU Campus Moesgaard including the museum 


A speakers’ dinner will be held 16 January, and we will of course cater for you during the workshop.

The speaker's dinner will be held at: 

Restaurant Slap Af
Studsgade 8
8000 Aarhus C    

See map here

If you have any dietary restrictions (incl. allergies), please let Mie Egelund Lind know no later than 6 January, so that she can notify the restaurant/caterers.