Materiality of Incarceration in Mediterranean Antiquity

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Matthew Larsen


Associate Professor


University of Copenhagen


DKK 3,949,446




Semper Ardens: Accelerate


The project "Materiality of Incarceration in Mediterranean Antiquity" will establish a research group of historians, archaeologists, and digital humanities experts at the University of Copenhagen to answer the questions: what did prisons look like and what it was like to experience incarceration in the ancient Mediterranean world.


While often though to be a globally urgent and uniquely modern problem, prisons and incarceration must have been a ubiquitous part of everyday life in the ancient Mediterranean world. The problem is that the materiality and archaeology of incarceration has almost entirely escaped the grasps of modern researchers. Scholars lament that ancient prisons are now gone and wrongly assert that we have no secure architectural evidence. I have demonstrated in recent publications that it is possible to securely identify prisons in the archaeological record (e.g. through the presence of prisoner graffiti inside rooms in secure buildings, through stocks attached to wall and chains with human remains still within them) as well as catalogued a significant amount of other material culture related to incarceration (e.g. several paintings of prison scenes from Pompeii). The project's hypothesis, then, is that incarceration remains hidden in the archaeological record, waiting to be exposed to scrutiny and integrated into our sense of the human past. The project's impact will be to disrupt a broad and century-old scholarly consensus about the prison relatively absent from the ancient world (Durkheim, Mommsen) and as born in early modern Europe and the US (Foucault), with the potential to shift central assumptions in the ancient Mediterranean world, not only opening up new lines of inquiry in my field of early Christianity — so full of sources on incarceration — as well as ancient Judaism, classics, early Islam, and medieval Europe.


The project will first survey ca. 30 ancient prisons and sites of incarceration, producing high-resolution 3D models of each site through use of drones, ground and aerial imagery, laser scanning, and photogrammetry. With such survey and 3D models, team members will then study the different types and patterns of public prisons and other sites of incarceration. With a careful study of the archaeological remains of prison in place, the project will then synthesize the results with a catalogue of several hundred other material objects related to incarceration (paintings, statues, inscriptions, graffiti, etc.). The project's final phase will apply the material history of incarceration to our broader understanding of the the human past. The project will share its results not only through an international, interdisciplinary conference and scholarly publications, but also through a public website showcasing interactive 3D models of dozens of ancient prisons.

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