Introducing MAARC: A New Network for Mediterranean Archaeologists in Australasia

In 2020, Gijs Tol (University of Melbourne) and Jeremy Armstrong (University of Auckland) led a new initiative aimed at bringing together Australasian archaeologists of the Mediterranean. The result is a new organisation, MAARC (Mediterranean Archaeologists of Australasia Research Community).

MAARC is set to hold its inaugural annual meeting, hosted by the University of Melbourne (in virtual format) in January 2021. Larissa Tittl spoke with MAARC’s instigators to uncover the genesis, motivations and future of this exciting venture.

First, Gijs and Jeremy, congratulations to both of you, and the rest of the MAARC Steering Committee, on this initiative – it’s long overdue and very welcome!

Let’s start by talking a little about Mediterranean archaeology. Why is it important? And why does it always attract such a strong interest, both in the academic and public realms?

There are lots of reasons why Mediterranean, or ‘Classical’, archaeology is such an important, and indeed booming, subject. Some of these relate to the same factors which have led Classical studies to play such a central role in western education, going back to the foundation of the universities and formal education systems in the Middle Ages.

The legacy of the ancient Mediterranean basin cultures has had a tremendous effect on modern society, from politics to language, art and architecture. The world around us is filled with Classical influences. Learning more about those ancient cultures, and how later people understood and received them, gives important insights into today’s society.

However, Classical studies has long been based on ancient texts written by and for elite men at a few specific points in time, and so provides views on only a narrow sliver of ancient society. The archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean, on the other hand, gives us information on a much wider cross-section of society and allows us to engage more fully with the totality of the population. 

MAARC Logo, designed by SHAPS Classics & Archaeology PhD student, Maddi Harris-Schober

How did the idea of MAARC come about?

The idea first came up in a coffee break at a conference (Exchanging Ideas: Trade, Technology, and Connectivity in pre-Roman Italy) hosted in Auckland in February 2020. In the midst of a four-day event, entirely focused on the archaeology of early Italy and featuring many local scholars, we commented on the tremendous depth of archaeological expertise in the region – and indeed visible in the room – and lamented the fact that we didn’t do this sort of thing more often!

Although conference participants had been working on related topics at various Australasian universities for years, this was the first time many had actually met each other. This is perhaps partly due to the focus of our work on Europe and the Mediterranean basin, coupled with the fact that our field is still largely dominated by northern hemisphere institutions (and indeed many of us were trained in the northern hemisphere). So, the vast majority of us have stronger networks and connections in Europe and the United States than we do in Australasia, and generally look to Europe and the United States for subject-specific conferences. However, as that conference in February illustrated, this need not always be the way. Australia’s strong and vibrant community of Mediterranean archaeologists seemed to be looking for a local outlet.

What was the main impulse behind the idea for MAARC?

The main goal behind MAARC is to provide a nexus through which the many Mediterranean archaeologists located in Australasia could meet, interact, and collaborate. While quite a few archaeologists focused on the ancient Mediterranean are located in this region, they are often outliers in their home institutions. There are clusters of us in the larger departments, like that of Sydney University (and its Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens); but, otherwise, we tend to be few and far between. Often, we will be the only one (or one of only a few) interested in our specific area within classical studies, history, or archaeology departments. In many ways this is fine, as our interests certainly fit within those structures, but it can be isolating.

So MAARC was conceived, first and foremost, as a mechanism to facilitate communication and collaboration between and amongst the scholars located across the region who are interested in the archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean – and particularly those located outside the major centres and large departments.

Why do you think something like this has taken so long to get off the ground in Australasia?

Several reasons, we suspect.

First, there are quite a few (typically excellent) cognate associations in Australasia – including the Australasian Society for Classical Studies (ASCS) and the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA) – serving this population of scholars. Indeed, the majority of MAARC members are also members (and often quite active ones) of one or more of these other local, professional associations.

However, none of these other groups catered specifically to archaeologists focused on the ancient Mediterranean. They have provided enough of a connection to satisfy most needs, particularly when paired with our existing networks, associations, and conferences in the northern hemisphere, but there was still a significant ‘gap in the (local) market’.

And this gap has grown with the increase in the importance and popularity of archaeology within ancient world studies. What was once a text-dominated field has increasingly embraced archaeological evidence as essential in understanding ancient Mediterranean civilizations, and this is reflected in the growing number of scholars with archaeological interests, and who use this type of evidence. So, a second reason for this sort of association emerging only recently is the recent increase in numbers of archaeologically engaged students and staff in departments across the region.

And third, technology has made this sort of network and initiative much easier than in the past. While previously associations often required a significant investment of money as well as time, the increasing shift towards online communities (accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic) has meant that many of the tools and resources needed were already available.

What do you hope will come out of MAARC?

On the more tangible side, we would like to see greater collaboration occurring amongst MAARC members in terms of teaching, supervision and research. Some of this is already happening. For instance, the conference which sparked this endeavour, and which featured many of MAARC’s core members, is already serving as the foundation for two edited volumes (one with Routledge and one with Brepols) currently in progress.

Additionally, we have initiated a new book series with Routledge, ‘Global Perspectives on Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology’, which we hope will serve as an outlet for more collaborative efforts, particularly those bringing the unique perspective of Australasian scholarship to the evidence and issues of the ancient Mediterranean.

There is also the inaugural MAARC conference, to be hosted by the University of Melbourne via Zoom in late January 2021, which has more than 80 papers across ten (themed) sessions. In the future, we hope to organise a similar conference each year rotating between the different institutions in the region with an ancient history or archaeology program focused on the ancient Mediterranean.

As for more intangible goals, we would simply like to see the discipline grow in Australasia. Although it might seem strange to study the physical remains of the ancient Mediterranean from a location which is, quite literally, on the opposite side of the world, the subject has tremendous resonance and importance in the region. This is demonstrated by its growing popularity, particularly among students. However, the growth is limited both by our distance from each other and the material we study. We hope that MAARC will help to mitigate that limitation, to a certain extent, and create a ‘critical mass’ of scholars, working together to propel the discipline throughout Australasia.

Are there particular challenges faced by Australasian researchers of the ancient Mediterranean? How does MAARC address these challenges?

As noted above, perhaps the biggest challenge is our location on the opposite side of the world from the material and landscapes we study. Archaeological work is always both time- and resource-intensive, and this is particularly true for researchers based in Australasia but whose work focuses on Europe.

Additionally, there is the issue of being dispersed across the universities of Australasia, often as the lone Mediterranean archaeologist in an institution.

MAARC aims to combat both of these issues, at least in part, by helping to pool the expertise we have in the region and put people in touch with others who might have access to resources (either in terms of local collections or funding opportunities) that might advance their research.

MAARC invites Australasian-based scholars of Mediterranean archaeology to register in the Directory of Scholars. Further information about the directory and MAARC’s research community is available on the website.

MAARC’s first annual meeting is being hosted (via Zoom) by The University of Melbourne from 28 to 30 January 2021. Program details are now live and registrations are open (please note that the call for papers has closed). We hope to see you there!

Mapping of a section at the Late Roman road station of Astura (Lazio, Italy). Photographer: Gijs Tol