Monumenta and Monuments for the 21st Century

This blog has been dormant for a long time (eleven years!). It is unlikely to become a lively platform with frequent posts, but a global pandemic at least makes (re)launching a blog seem like a relatively sensible thing to do.

Over the last couple of years, I have become involved in the editorial side of the Brill series, Monumenta Graeca et Romana, dedicated to “the material and visual culture of the Greek and Roman world from later prehistory to Late Antiquity.” The volumes are nice: hardback, A4-format, and with plenty of colour illustrations. We have just published a volume on “New Approaches to Ancient Material Culture in the Greek and Roman World”, edited by Kate Cooper. I would really like the series to publish further volumes of this kind that set new, innovative agendas for the field and participate in broader theoretical debates in archaeology and beyond.

Before taking on the editorial role, I must confess that I had no familiarity with the deeper history of the MGR series that goes back to the early 1960s. My main familiarity with it in fact came from much later volumes, such as Eric Varner’s dissertation book on damnatio memoriae (2004) and Brian Madigan’s tome on Roman ceremonial sculptures (2012).

The series was first founded by Herman F. Mussche (1928-2014) who was professor of archaeology at the University of Ghent and excavated at the site of Thorikos in southern Attica. In the Preface to Civil and Military Architecture, Mussche describes the aim of the series (confusingly published as MGR vol. 2, even if it preceded vol. 1 by fourteen years): “to supply ample documentary evidence in all fields of the Pre-Hellenic, Hellenic, Etruscan and Roman civilisations. This documentation is to cover well-known monuments, as well as recent finds and unreported remains and objects. The text if restricted to a concise technical commentary for quick guidance and a succinct bibliography of the sources: the excavation reports, or, in default of these, the most authoritative publications.” This grand ambition was to be completed over the course of 30 fascicles (in ten volumes), “containing well over 500 pages of reading-matter and 5000 pictures.” The preface also briefly outlines Mussche’s methodology of autopsy: “With a few exceptions, I took the photographs myself, always aiming to preserve a maximum of objectivity.”

MGR II.2 (1963).

The back cover of Civil and Military Architecture presents an outline of the the volumes that were planned to appear in the series:
I. Pre-Hellenic Civilisations.
II. Greek Architecture (with individual fascicles on religious architecture, civil and military architecture, and technical problems, reconstructions, plans.
III. Greek Sculpture.
IV. Greek Pottery.
V. Greek Minor Arts.
VI. The Etruscans.
VII. Roman Architecture.
VIII. Roman Sculpture.
IX. Romain Painting and Pottery.
X. Roman Minor Arts.

All of this is, of course, very conventional and reveals a typical hierarchy in the ordering of material; architecture, then sculpture, painting, pottery and, finally, a smattering of Kleinkunst, often taken to mean bronzes. To my knowledge, the project was never completed, and those three fascicles that did appear (the first in 1963 on civil and military architecture (II.1), the second in 1967 on bronzes (V.1) and the third and final in 1968 on religious architecture (II.2)) received fairly mixed reviews (see, for example, E.W. Marsden in JHS 86 (1966), 293-4).

Is there anything to learn from this ill-fated project in the dusty publication history of classical archaeology? Perhaps….it’s certainly an interesting starting point to reflect on the development of the field since the 1960s, and some of the ways in which people have followed or rejected the “let the monuments speak for themselves”-kind of logic that is implicit in Mussche’s preface. The age of “innocent” monuments is certainly over (think of Colston and the excellent work done by Monument Lab).

What should “monument”-based volumes then look like in modern classical archaeology? One advantage of the MGR series is the large-scale, hardback format, and the liberal provision of images that are usually both above and beyond what Anglo-Saxon academic presses are willing to take on (certainly without subventions). If the catalogue raisonĂ©e has a future, MGR may well be a good avenue for it. The disadvantage, of course, is the price tag of individual volumes that make them out of reach for a wider public. I would be happy to hear from anyone with ideas how to develop the series and how it may help to advance new approaches to ancient visual and material culture.

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