Research

Globalising Roman Plant agency: Finding the Plantiness in Roman Museum Collections

Lisa Lodwick

Fragment of a tombstone of a soldier's daughter depicting a funeral banquet, featuring a cone of the Stone pine. RIB 769, Kirkby Thore, Cumbria. Image from the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

As components of ornamental gardens, public parks, and private villas, plants were of key importance to Roman society. Botanical motifs were often depicted on public buildings, too – a famous example being the acanthus scrolls on the Ara Pacis. This project aims to advance our understanding of the role of plants in Roman society by analysing their presence and distinctive “planty agency” in sculptures and artefacts. Building on previous research on the meaning and symbolism of plant depictions, the present project will explore the distinctive plant agency of individual taxa, whereby affectiveness arises from relations between humans and plants. Informed by interdisciplinary studies stemming from the social sciences, the study will further enliven the “plantiness” of botanical depictions and highlight new social realities. The focus will be on ritual plant offerings, cereals, and vegetal motifs. The pictorial motifs will further be contrasted with ancient archaeobotanical records from the Roman world – with particular emphasis on plant remains recovered from religious spaces and burials. The second part of the project will focus on the curation of archaeobotanical material within museum collections. It will explore how the presence/absence of plant bodies within Roman assemblages impacts their role in narratives of the Roman period, and how archaeobotanical materials can be deployed in today’s historical collections to tell stories about the past that have the potential to “enchant” the viewer and inspire a more ethical stance towards plants.

This project is part of the Research and Fellowship Program 4A Laboratory: Art Histories, Archaeologies, Anthropologies, Aesthetics, a cooperation between the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz.  

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