Context and overall objectives

The STONE-MASTERS project aims at exploring and explaining one of the most startling problems in the global history of research on collective memory and commemorative practices, which is the transformation of Roman Imperial epigraphic traditions in the later third century C.E., and the subsequent rise of the so-called epigraphic cultures of Late Antiquity. It is the Romans who taught modern civilizations the habit of recording historical events and the lives of ordinary people in inscriptions on stone, often associated with statues.

Although the practice of carving commemorative texts was well known in ancient cultures, it was only in the Roman Imperial period that inscriptions acquired a new status, becoming omnipresent in nearly all aspects of life, to such an extent that making inscriptions came to be considered as a focal and correlational aspect of the Roman ‘cultural package’. But then, between the third and fifth century C.E. many formerly thriving epigraphic genres were abandoned, and new trends in phrasing and vocabulary appeared. The lettering was clumsier and less regular, and the material often sourced from spolia. In some regions, the number of inscriptions on stone dropped significantly. The practice survived but it acquired a thoroughly new face in the place of the former, well-established traditions. The original forms of Roman epigraphical commemoration were taken up only by early modern antiquarians, which resulted in the birth of a Roman-like epigraphy in Renaissance Europe, through which it came down to our times. Despite decades of research, we still cannot satisfactorily say why the entire Roman Commonwealth put to one side these constitutive instruments of their collective memory. And our lack of understanding pertaining to this prevents us from ascertaining a full overview of the way societies remember, and why they can suddenly abandon effective ways of shaping the public perception of their own past.

In this project, the PI anticipates that the new face of Roman epigraphy was first and foremost caused by the dissemination of changes in the elite’s approach to epigraphy through artisans’ workshops. Craftsmen and their ateliers were direct intermediaries between the processes which shaped Roman attitudes to epigraphy, and the very stones which we study today; and it is at this intersection where the PI expects to note the most profound changes. The PI discerns a pressing need to develop a wholly new approach to the study of the cultural impact of the third–fifth century stonecutters’ and mosaicists’ workshops.

The main goal of this project is to provide a complex answer to the question about the reasons for the great transformation of Roman commemorative traditions in the realm of epigraphy. The project will encompass the entire Mediterranean from the third to the fifth century C.E. The time frame is dictated by the occurrence of the first symptoms of changes in Roman epigraphical traditions. The closing date is different for every region, depending on when we observe the full establishment of the epigraphic traditions of Late Antiquity (more or less in the late fifth century).

Work performed and main achievements

The project will encompass the following research milestones:

  1. Developing a methodological framework for the project.
  2. Developing general guidelines for the identification of workshops of ancient stonecutters and mosaicists.
  3. Developing a digital instrument for collecting, mapping, and visualizing different types of evidence (on people, workshops, model textbooks, time and geographical range of their occurrence); and for tracking correlations.
  4. Using the above methods and instruments to collect data:
    • Collecting data on workshops and artisans mentioned in inscriptions (signatures, stonemason marks) and literary sources.
    • Collecting data on authors of unique texts: e.g., poems written to order, funerary epigrams, legal texts, etc.
    • Collecting data on third- to fifth-century styles of inscriptions and tracing the changes in their shape and outreach.
    • Collecting data on formulae and reconstructing the contents of model textbooks used by stonecutter workshops in order to compose ‘mass-produced’ inscriptions.
  5. Identifying workshops and artisans involved in the making of ordinary inscriptions between the third and fifth century AD, based on the data collected.
  6. Assessing the impact of the changes taking place in the workshop culture of the third-century and later on the Roman approach towards imaging its own past.
  7. Assessing the cultural impact of artisans on the Roman notion of collective memory and the commemorative practices.
  8. Placing the results of the project within a broader framework of the global history of commemorative practices and their impact on the modern European and world culture of commemoration.

Results beyond the state of the arts

Answering the key question will address one of the most troubling phenomena in the global history of collective memory and commemorative habits – a phenomenon which, if fully explained, may bring us to a most significant leap in our understanding of the changing concepts of public space, communities’ collective memory, experience of religion, and patterns of the public display of power. Such comprehensive research will also finally unlock the potential of workshop studies to historians and epigraphists. The PI’s supposition is justified by the results of research on the workshops of Greek vase painters, which proved extremely insightful for our understanding of cultural phenomena in Archaic and Classical periods, whereas studies on the cultural impact of scribes and scriptoria are also thriving. Quite counter-intuitively, workshop studies in epigraphy are far behind the above research strands, but this project will, hopefully, inspire a wide-ranging discussion for all periods. Assuming a new methodological lens will not only redefine the field but will re-focus our attention on the actual actors behind the production of epigraphy: the artisans and their workshops, being primary agents of top-to-bottom cultural transfer, and this same lens may entirely restructure our understanding of the way artisans disseminated elitist culture in the lower echelons of society.

Policy relevant evidence of the project

The project is in line with one of the four top priorities of the new strategic agenda for the EU, 2019–2024, “Promoting European interests and values on the global stage” and one of the Commission’s priorities “Promoting our European way of life”. It will help us understand how the European and Mediterranean communities of different cultures and ethnic origins, gathered under the umbrella of the Roman empire, adopted as their own a thoroughly Roman habit; how they subsequently decided on their community-driven ways of shaping the public perception on their own past, and how some views of the past and of its commemoration failed. It will explain the circumstances in which new, replacement patterns were disseminated throughout the region, and which social groups were instrumental in this process. The application of a wider perspective will explain how a habit of public commemoration on stone, admired by the Romans, became a universal European value. It may contribute to better shaping commemorative activities in culturally different environment of today’s Europe, or to predicting long-term responses to specific instruments of commemoration. The project will also cover the Commission’s priority “A Europe fit for the digital age” by building an innovative instrument of digital research for the humanities.