Discuss the contribution of material culture studies to the understanding of social identity.

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Discuss the contribution of material culture studies to the understanding of social identity.

The aim of this essay is to explore how useful material culture studies is to understanding societies which existed under Roman rule, especially those of Gaul and Britain. These provinces of Rome adopted Roman culture and used Roman objects for their own use, which could come under the heading of cultural bricolage, where new cultural items are obtained by attributing new functions to previously existing ones, however I shall address this later on in the essay. Woolf comments that anthropologists and archaeologists use the concept of culture as a way of making sense of the diversity of human societies that cannot be expressed simply in terms of biological variation. It is seen by many to be a more precise way of understanding societies rather than seeing how advanced or rich a society was. Studying and understanding social identity can also be seen as an excellent alternative to relying on narratives written by Roman authors who were biased and wrote from a 'Romano-centric' position, and it also allows us to consider other elements, for instance class,status, gender, age, occupation, and religion.  

Material culture can be defined as “the study through artifacts (and other pertinent historical evidence) of belief systems--the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions--of a particular community or society, usually across time. As a study, it is based upon the obvious premise that the existence of a man-made object is concrete evidence of the presence of a human mind operating at the time of fabrication. The common assumption underlying material culture research is that objects made or modified by humans, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, reflect the belief patters of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and, by extension, the belief patterns of the larger society of which they are a part.”   Concerning Roman culture, Woolf defines it as “the range of objects, beliefs and practices that were characteristic of people who considered themselves to be, and were widely acknowledged as, Roman.” It is believed that every man-made object required the operation of some thought and design. Therefore it is the assumption of material culture studies that this thought is a reflection of the culture that produced the man-made objects. With this theory we can see, in some way, how a culture, which had no written records of its existence, lived. One advantage of material culture studies is that it is beneficial to social historians who wish to know about an entire group and not just the elites of a particular society. A useful definition of the term archaeology is that it uses “fieldwork and excavation, and the comparative study of sites and objects to compile information about the past...which can illuminate aspects of Roman life which were never recorded”. However it does have its limitations as it cannot achieve certainty as “all known sites and artefacts are merely a surviving sample of what once existed- and not necessarily a representative sample.” So in understanding identity we may be able to place these artefacts in context as we will know what particular objects are used for certain practices, for instance burial customs or forms of pottery produced. Jones defines cultural identity as “that aspect of a person's self-conceptualization which results from identification with a broader group in opposition to others on the basis of perceived cultural differentiation and/or common descent.”.

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Concerning material culture, Pitts chose 12 areas of study, these were: “architecture, art, epigraphy (inscriptions in stone), faunal remains(animal bones), floral remains, funerary evidence, literature, monumentality, pottery, settlement (morphology and landscape archaeology) and small finds(portable material culture other than pottery)”. Epigraphic inscriptions allows us to observe how literacy spread through Gaul and Britain, along with helping us to trace an “outline of the cultural geography of Roman Gaul” Woolf also comments that inscriptions are useful as they represent a wide range of Roman cultural customs which included political, cultic, and funerary practices. He adds to this by suggesting that inscriptions should ...

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