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Greg Woolf, Director of the Institute of Classical Studies, has recently returned from a trip to Madrid, where he was co-organizing a conference on Sensory Perceptions in Roman Polytheism. In this week’s blog post he reflects on the conference and shares his thoughts on the value of collaboration in humanities research.

The modern investigation of Roman religion began (as so often in classics) with careful discussions of the source materials, some key dialogues by Cicero, a mass of Latin inscriptions, statues of the gods and the remains of temples. The first attempts to describe the religious system as a whole made use of law as an organizing principle, more recent ones examined institutions. All of this is fantastically valuable but somewhere along the line we lost sight of the experiences of individual participants. This has been a focus of research for sometime now, especially at the Max Weber Kolleg in Erfurt, Germany, where Jörg Rüpke and his team have run a couple of large conferences and projects on Individualism and on Lived Ancient Religion. Last month we were approaching the question from a new direction.

What we were exploring in Madrid were the sounds and smells of ancient rituals, the interplay of bright lights and dark space, the noisy, gaudy pageantry of great processions in which glimmering statues of the gods left their gloomy temples and paraded through the streets. We talked not just about how individuals experienced all of this, but also about how experiencing things together created common perceptions, shared knowledge of the divine. We talked about synaesthesia, and the way different senses worked together. Blasts of trumpets attract attention, visual stimuli hold it longer, incense and song are entrancing at short range, not so much at a distance. Many of the best documented rituals – triumphs, for example, or the funerals of emperors on their way to becoming gods – appealed to a number of senses in combination and played to vast publics. But we also spoke about the sensory overload involved in many initiation rituals, the use of fire in dark spaces, or masks and shadows, and even more unusual performances like fire-walking and marking the body.

Some of my friends who work in the physical sciences sometimes ask me what collaborative research means in the humanities. Don’t you just need to go and read books on your own, think about them and then write a new one? How does it help to bring in someone else, except to check facts at the end of the process? For those brought up in a tradition of large laboratory research in particular, the way we collaborate seems rather mysterious. One friend who works in chemistry told me he would go somewhere else to work if the other lab had a piece of kit they didn’t have at his own university, or if a member of another team was an expert in a particular kind of synthesis. But just to talk?

In a way our conference did pool expertise. Valentino Gasparini and I had both been part of the Erfurt project on Lived Ancient Religion. One of my co-organizers, and our host at Universidad Carlos III Madrid (UC3M) was Jaime Alvar Ezquerra, a world expert on the mystery religious that became popular across the ancient world during the last centuries BC and the first AD. His book Romanising Oriental Gods was a foundation for many of our conversations. We were able to invite a number of other expert participants, including Miguel John Versluys, an archaeologist from Leiden who led a major project on the goddess Isis and the spread of her worship from Egypt across the ancient world, and Nicole Belayche from Paris who works on connections between the cultic traditions of ancient Turkey and Syria and those of the wider Mediterranean world. In different combinations we have been working together on Roman polytheism for decades. But none of us were really knowledgeable about the new history of the senses that combines cognitive science, human biology and cultural history in highly original ways. For this we invited Mark Bradley from Nottingham and Adeline Grand-Clément from Toulouse who last year ran another workshop, Sensing Divinity, hosted by the British School at Rome. Mark also edits The Senses in Antiquity, the only monograph series dealing with these themes in relation to the classical world. Both Adeline and Mark have an excellent knowledge of where the cutting edge is right now (and were also able to stop us reinventing the wheel!). We had other participants too, each adding material from their past research or developing new projects out of it. It was a fascinating couple of days and the volume we produce out of it should be an important basis for further projects.

Jaime Alvar Ezquerra and Greg Woolf (Photo credit Miguel-John Versluys)

How does collaborative research like this come about? In my experience it is usually a combination of serendipity and hard work writing grant applications. In this case part of the serendipity was that another of the organizers, Anton Alvar Nuño, spent part of last year as a visiting fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies. As for the funding, part of that came from a research prize I held from the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and a part from UC3M and its constituent institutes. Almost every major conference or workshop relies on help from several sources and part of the skill – in this case Jaime’s – was bringing them together. Jaime and I are also participating this year in Catedra de Excelencia scheme sponsored by UC3M and Santander Bank. I will spend some time in Madrid, and Jaime at the ICS in London, and we will overlap our stays so that – among other things – we can edit the proceedings of this conference.

Among other things, because one fundamental lesson I have learned about research collaboration in the humanities is the need to leave space for serendipity. Institutions like the School of Advanced Study here in London, or foreign schools abroad, are particularly good places for incubating collaborations of this kind. Researchers come with their own projects, but then make connections, at a seminar, during a workshop, even just over coffee. A mathematician friend of mine once told me the best way to general original work in his field was to get a bunch of mathematicians together in a room with a big white board and unlimited coffee and eventually “something would happen”. Perhaps collaborative research in the humanities is not completely different from collaboration in the sciences.

by Greg Woolf