Athens: Material Culture Approaches to the Classical City

For much of antiquity Athens was one of the foremost cities of the Mediterranean world, famed for its power and creativity. Modern accounts tend to draw heavily on the rich literary traditions, describing Athens’ achievements in art and literature—as the reputed birthplace of drama, philosophy, political theory, and naturalistic representation—against the vertiginous backdrop of invasions, revolutions, and civil war. All too often, material culture is introduced only for eye-catching illustrations to bear out points previously gleaned from texts. The aim of this course is to challenge the marginalization of objects in traditional historiography by bringing into play recent debates in material and visual culture, craft studies, economic anthropology, and network theory. To explore Athens’ material legacy as a source of historical information in its own right we will pursue two interrelated strands of investigation, engaging with the perspectives of historical actors and modern observers respectively. On the one hand, we will try to understand how humans and materials co-produced each other in Athenian everyday life: that is, the work which different types of resource (from clay to metals and marble) and artefact (such as clothes, furniture, coins, and measuring pots) performed in different contexts of production, exchange, and consumption. On the other, we will examine the role which visual media played in establishing Athens as a modern site of cultural imagination and disciplinary inquiry. Such sources range from archaeological drawings in field diaries to travelers’ photographs and allow us to make use of the world-leading specialist collections in New York.

3 credits. Satisfies the pre-1800 requirement.