Mary Beard is clear: “I think classical archeology has been a bit unfairly criticized” The great English classicist, a long career as a professor at Cambridge, Yale, King’s College, an impressive following of fans for her television documentaries, dozens of best sellers on antiquities translated into all languages, has no qualms about saying inconvenient things about her environment. So, she is credible in its defense.
“I think classical archeology has been a bit unfairly criticized because it’s been very easy to say ‘Oh those classical archaeologists, what do they do, they go and dig in the Mediterranean in order to find sculpture and treasure… Classical archeology has often been criticized for being very focused on the èlite. Now, to some extent that’s true but you have to go an awful long way back to find that. In part I think classical archeology has been really at the cutting edge of changing the ways that we think of what archeology can offer. I think of the work in Greece early field survey in Greece by people like Anthony Snodgrass and Colin Renfrew…“.
Mary Beard granted a long interview to ArchaeoReporter on the occasion of her visit to Italy, where she gave a crowded Padua Freedom Lecture “On the absence of liberty: living and writing under a Roman emperor”, on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the founding of the University of Padua.
Her book, Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern (Princeton University Press) is the starting point, together with what is in preparation on the Roman emperors, to talk about the perception of freedom, or rather of non-freedom, under tyranny -autocracy of these men of power. A point of view that follows that of Beard’s entire career, always attentive to the interpretation of written sources as conditioning of the contexts that produced them.
The relationship between archeology and cancel culture was also discussed:
“I think that by and large the way that we we do think about our own issues and our own debates and think about archaeology through those is one of the ways that archeology moves on actually, because we learned to put different questions and we learn to see different things. If we go back, let’s say 50 years to when I started out in as a student,you can see very clearly that second wave feminism changed the way we did we studied the ancient world whether it was the material culture of the ancient world or the textual culture of the ancient world, it changed our understanding of the past so and I think that’s the same kind of thing that’s going on now”.
What does Professor Beard think of volunteer archeology? The answer is complex. On the one hand she believes that the professionalisation of archeology has had benefits for the discipline, on the other she thinks that the expulsion of volunteers from excavations in the United Kingdom in recent decades, a process which she has known well (she started excavating herself as a volunteer at the age of 14), has on the one hand favored the spread of the “metal detectors” , on the other it has distanced archeology from the territory, from citizens, from local museums, from the same understanding of the reasons why archeology itself should be funded:
“Spreading an interest and a commitment to archeology is actually going to help the professional archaeologist, it’s not necessarily threatening the professional archaeologist”
ArchaeoReporter uses “There is nothing more contemporary than archeology” as its claim. Do you think like us that it is possible to do archeology of the contemporary, of the present?
“I have friends who do actually do that absolutely literally and they excavate 1940s Bungalows. I think ‘yes’ has to be the answer to that. The one thing we don’t want to have is an archaeology which is stuck in the past. Why would it be interesting if it was stuck in the past? What’s interesting is the way that we talk to the past we ask it different questions and we ask different questions of the evidence that we have, and yet it’s a contemporary subject. I don’t think archeology could answer the problems we have of living in the 21st century but it can help us think differently about ourselves and about now not you know I don’t study in Romans just to find out what Julius Caesar did ”
Lastly, do you follow the excavations in Italy, for example that of the Volterra amphitheater?
“This will make you laugh I mostly know about the amphitheater of Volterra through Twitter the very modern way of keeping up with a real archaeological discoveries but you’re right I mean I think that um that what’s fun and exciting about archeology of the classical world in the 21st century is that it both is looking at that kind of monumentality but it’s also looking at all the other things which give a context to that monumentality”