Teaching Thursday: Contexts of Classical Sculpture

One of the fun things I’m doing this semester is teaching a new graduate seminar for our graduate students in classical archaeology on “Contexts of Classical Sculpture.” With them previously having been schooled in the basics of chronology and style, the seminar dives straight into current discussions about the meanings and uses of “context” in the study of sculpture and introduces them to a selection of new approaches and methods, including global, comparative agendas. To some extent, the course represents my own response to some of the issues that I address here. The short version of the course syllabus is available below.

“Contexts of Classical Sculpture” consists of 11 three-hour weekly sessions, eight of which are meant to prepare and inspire the students for their own presentations (and later, final exam) in which they will work with specific case studies of their own choosing and put some of the approaches and methods that we’ve covered into practice.

In the first couple of sessions we’ve discussed some of the ways in which two recent “handbooks” on classical sculpture may or may not reflect the state of the field more broadly: De Gruyter’s Handbook of Greek Sculpture, edited by Olga Palagia (2019), and OUP’s Handbook of Roman Sculpture, edited by Elise Friedland, Melanie Sobocinski and Elaine Gazda (2015). Whereas Palagia begins in a traditional vein with the textual record and then turns to function, portraits, style, regional variation, the impact of Rome, techniques, and “afterlife”, the OHRS first looks at collecting, conservation and museum display as three very important “filters” to how we view the sculptural record.

We’ve also explored the spectrum of archaeological “contextualism” – from the perspectives of the Robin Osborne/James Whitley debate in JMA, Chris Chippindale/David Gill’s AJA dossier on the state of collecting, Liz Marlowe’s insistence on working with and from grounded objects, and, way at the other end of that spectrum, Philippe Montebello’s “two percent“.

The case studies that we will proceed to in coming weeks are a little idiosyncratic but reflect some of my own current and past interests. Ideally they should bring together both legacy and new data with more systematic forms of archaeological documentation. In reality, the selection of sites does not matter too much as they are meant to be paradigmatic of different approaches and inspire the students to ask new questions about assemblages from altogether different sites. Feedback welcome!


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