Civitá Project Research


This research project is result of my residency as a Rome Prize Grantee in the Royal Academy of Spain in Rome. In collaboration with other institutions such as the Finnish Institute or the American Academy in Rome, I immersed myself in an investigation which dealt with Ancient Roman material culture. This gave me the platform with which I could arrive at a definition of the object as a physical entity and understand its cultural and material relevance within a specific society.
The research phase is presented as an examination of the objects and material culture of the Roman imperial era. This involved an immersion in various texts, archives, museums and heritage in order to first understand the Roman culture and from there the everyday objects. Both subjects are studied independently, with the goal of understanding how they relate. In this sense, the process was oriented from the most general information to reach the specific.
This research is formalized in a conceptual model (below) which refers to the relationship between words (ideas) and relationships. This allows to draw the link between the culture and the experience of the object within the Roman context. Within this model, it is concluded that the point of contact between the experience of a culture and its materialization is found in the practice of ritual. In the following section the sociologist Émile Durkheim defines it as:

“The means by which collective beliefs and ideals are simultaneously generated, experienced and affirmed as real by the community, therefore, ritual is a means by which individual perception and behavior are socially appropriate or conditioned." -Emile Durkeim
    In this way, the object becomes the mediator of the ritual, contributing and creating new meanings to the experience. This allows to associate the theatricality of the classical world with the most basic activities of the day to day.


Object (human scale) - a physical form which a person uses in order to accomplish a particular objective / activity

                                                            Personal Scans

Manifestation of material culture = object
Life cycle of object (object biography) 

  1.     production

  2.     distribution

  3.     consumption / experience

‘The biography of an object should not be restricted to an historical reconstruction of its birth, life and death. Biography is relational and an object biography is comprised of the sum of the relationships that constitute it.’ - Joy, Jody 2009.'Reinvigorating object biography: reproducing the drama of object lives', World Archaeology, 41: 4, 540-556

‘The study of material culture centers upon objects, their properties, and the materials that they are made of, and the ways in which these material facets are central to an understanding of culture and social relations. It challenges the historical division between the natural sciences as being the place for the study of the material world and the social sciences as being where society and social relations can be understood. Instead, culture and society are seen as being created and reproduced by the ways in which people make, design, and interact with objects. It also challenges the assumption, perpetuated by disciplinary divisions and also philosophical trajectories, that the object and subject are separate, wherein the latter is assumed to be immaterial, and the former is assumed to be inert and passive. In seeing the material properties of things as central to the meanings an object might have, much work within material culture studies is critical of the idea that objects merely symbolize or represent aspects of a pre-existing culture or identity. “ -Sophie Woodward, Material Culture

'Profound cultural diferences may have led to a complete misunderstanding of the functions of objects that were associated with regional cultural practices in the Roman Empire. Artefacts singular to Roman britain for example include pierced flat spatula-like bone 'spoons' , oval bone plaques with numbering that appear to have been some kind of dice or lot casting equiptment, and other objects identified tentatively as 'nail-cleaners' and 'cosmetic grinders'. The affordances of such objects rely on specific cultural knowledge to associate them with the social practices for which they were designed' -pg 197 , Roman Artefacts & Society, Swift


                  Experience of material culture 



                           Ritual Practice

    (physical + spacial)
(beliefs collective conscious)


The Ritual

    Before plugging in the object (object understood from designer lense), it is important to understand ritual as itself. (using meaning in a prescribed way) The study of ritual is derived from an increased interest in culture as a category of analysis (Hubert,Mauss). It is described as a “window for the cultural dynamics by which people make and remake their worlds”. It is therefore a central sociological concept and universal category of social life. (Catherine Bell). Beertz distinguishes between culture & social system describing culture as an “ordered system of meaning and symbols in terms of which interaction takes place” and social system as “the pattern of social interaction itself”. Therefore the social system becomes the form that action takes.
Within these interactions, ritual is understood as a category of experience and analysis. Many describe ritual as an ‘action’ therefore distinguishing it from other religious aspects such as belief and creeds. Even so, it can be argued that ritual and belief are both intertwined yet separable. “Beliefs could exist without rituals, rituals however, could not exist without beliefs” (Edward Shills).
    One underlying component within the concept of ritual is the opposition between thought and action. This dynamic establishes many of the propositions posed within ritual theory. The problem lies in the notion that ritual differentiates action from thought whilst it acts as a mechanism for integrating both simultaneously. The result is an action that gives expression to thought, therefore constructing meaning (Bell). What provides continuity to this mechanism is formality, defined as a matter of embellishment or repetition.
    “Ritual as means by which collective beliefs and ideals are simultaneously generated experienced and affirmed as real by the community. Hence ritual is means by which individual perception and behavior are socially appropriated or conditioned.”  - Durkeim
When contextualizing, the work of Tambiah becomes useful, where he describes ritual as an arena, distinguishing between the ritual observer and actor. Following this train of thought, the “drama analogy” appears. This embraces the idea of ‘cultural performance’ where bodies enact social roles and bring forth cultural meaning. Cultural performances become the ways in which the cultural content of a tradition is organized and transmitted on particular occasions through specific media. Grimes uses the analogy to break down the parts of a ritual. The ‘performance’ has a limited time span, a beginning and an end, an organized program of activity, a set of performers, an audience, and a place and occasion of performance. One example of this is Strauss’ definition, describing ritual as “the performance of gesture and the manipulations of objects”. This, along with Jean Comaroff’s argument dictating that the body “mediates” all action, provides us with a sense of hierarchy in the performance. The body functions as a central mediator, the second ‘body’ become the objects, as if they were extensions of the prior. Hierarchy is intrinsic to ritual and vice-versa (T.Turner). This hierarchy of rituals is what forms what Sangren described as “ritual system”, tightly linked to the territory.
    As a ritual becomes consolidated, certain specific social interactions can become modified as well. The term ritualization arises, arguably as an activity both result and causative of ritual practice. Ritual has a program (context, timeframe, participants), ritualization does not, lacking the formality. It is the strategic way of acting in particular social situations. It is a form of acting orchestrated to distinguish and privilege what is being done in comparison to other more quotidian activities (Julian Huxley). It becomes a production in differentiation (social, hierarchical, confictual). I would define it as a specific method for adding new meaning to something previously lacking it or as a tool for resolving a specific conflict (social).