There is a challenge in the study of the Roman past which can be put quite simply – who used the various artefacts that have been found? Our textual sources produced by a male elite provide some guidance, but there is a fundamental problem – their writing often intellectualizes the meaning of words and the study of how material culture is represented by this elite is hardly a subject of literary analysis (unlike for example, objects of artistic merit). More importantly, as can be seen from a survey of the modern literature, to contemplate the use of material objects by, for example, slaves in Britain leads to the conclusion that there is a scholarly lacuna waiting to be ﬁlled. When there are speciﬁc studies of slavery and material culture, there is a tendency to focus on the use of space in houses and villas in Italy to look for slave quarters but then to shift attention to the representation of slaves in art (see George 2011, especially the bibliographic essay). The absence of written documentation is regarded as a hindrance to the development of an artefact-based approach to the subject, that is further hindered by an absence of a deﬁned ‘material culture’ of slavery – possibly because material culture was less available to slaves, just as it was less available to peasants and the poor. This exempliﬁes a problem that aﬀects the study of artefacts – how do we identify who may have used an object? This is especially true of uses that need not conform to the function of the item – for example, children use a variety of items today which serve a quite diﬀerent function for adults. Once we begin to question the use of an object in this way, it moves on to a discussion of which objects should be associated with a particular gender or age-group, and how do we prevent the mapping of our own preconceptions of gender and age onto the Roman past? However, objects themselves are coming to be seen to have a life course
starting with their production or their formation, often via craft activity, that then leads to a moment of economic transaction and then usage (Hurcombe 2007: 38-43). The life course of the object to this point is well attested in the archaeological record through the study of the production
of, for example, Samian pottery that has a long tradition in the study of production sites and of its distribution (for example, Willis 2005). An amphora that was designed to transport a particular liquid was produced in, say, Spain and then disposed of in Italy establishes a trading connection (Pena 2007: 47-56). The primary function of transportation could be followed by subsequent or secondary usage –many amphorae are found empty in the impluvium or in other parts of houses in Pompeii (Figure 10.1, see Pena 2007: 299-300, see also 119-92 on other uses). Their function had been changed and could be changed again if broken and utilized as a building material or disposed of in the massive pile of amphorae in Rome known as Monte Testaccio (Pena 2007: 300-306). It is notable that deliberate breakage and organized disposal characterizes this deposit. More complex items, such as furniture, were purchased for longer-term usage and pleasure – examples of wooden furniture found in Herculaneum include a lararium, basically a cupboard with doors for the storage or deliberate placement of ﬁgurines of gods relevant to the household members (Mols 1999). The container and its objects had a quite diﬀerent life-course from a pottery vessel or an amphora; these objects were acquired with the intention of preservation and their relevance to the daily existence of the inhabitants of the household was maintained across time (a concept also found in literary texts, see Foss 1997).