One salient attribute of scholars engaged in Late Ancient Studies has been an overall openness to inter- and multidisciplinarity. Not only has this attitude helped us ask new questions about our sources and view them from a range of perspectives, it has also dramatically expanded our ability to contextualize and so understand them. For example, historians have become more interested in and more proficient in navigating archaeological site reports as well as thinking about the way in which place shapes and informs lived experience. On the archaeological side, an explosion of new scientific technologies has allowed scholars to understand the nodal character of places better by discerning more and more precisely the origins and content of the objects they discover. This issue of SLA features four studies that seriously consider place as a locus of interaction and as an environment that impinges on bodies, dramatically affecting the way in which our sources speak to us.
Place as a locus of interaction is critically important in Daniel Osland's article, “Text and Context: Patronage in Late Antique Mérida.” Seeking to interpret the so-called Bridge Inscription of ancient Mérida, the contents of which are recorded only in a ninth-century manuscript, Osland imaginatively restores its physicality and context. By considering it alongside several other inscriptions from that city acknowledging various patrons for their efforts to facilitate urban improvements, Osland demonstrates how the roles of imperial administrators, ecclesiastical elites, and Germanic kings shifted from late Roman to post-Roman Hispania.
The collaborative Viewpoint essay on teaching late ancient medicine takes place seriously as a locus of interaction in a different way. In this case, the place is the classroom, and each author considers how these sources—which are still quite marginalized—can be pedagogically fruitful in a wide variety of contexts. These sources be a useful lens through which science majors, for example, might learn about Late Antiquity, but even in more introductory courses, these sources—when juxtaposed with material from other periods and places—can speak to broader cultural themes in Mediterranean or World History.
When we think of a classroom, I expect that each one of us has a visceral sense of place: the smell of the chalkboard (for some of us!), the feel of the podium, the squeak of desk tops or the thump of seats as students materialize and begin to take up space. For Matthew Larsen, in “Carceral Practices and Geographies in Roman North Africa,” we have for too long read the letters of Cyprian of Carthage without situating them in a place. One of the major sources for the third-century persecutions, Cyprian's letters have long been well mined for the way in which they reveal how the Romans used the law to target Christian practice during the mid third century. If, however, we use archaeology to help us grapple with the way in which conditions in the mines impinged on human bodies, we then have a much better grasp on what Larsen calls the socially constructed nature of carcerality.
Finally, the article, “From Tusk to Town: Ivory Trade and Craftsmanship along the Red Sea,” co-authored by Ashley Coutu and Kristoffer Damgaard, explores the way in which place impinges on physicality in an even more material way. Studying a group of ivory finds from Aylah (Aqaba, Jordan) during the early Islamic period, Coutu and Damgaard used a range of techniques to explore the biomolecular and morphological aspects of the artifacts. As a result of this kind of contextualization, we have an even deeper appreciation of this port city as a nexus in Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade networks.