Empires are expansive, swallowing whole populations that stand in their way. What happens when things fall apart? This conference examines life on the frontier of imperial polities at the point when central hegemonic power breaks down.
Lines on a map are complex and paradoxical places on the ground. During periods of expansion, frontier zones of empires are characterised by an extreme imbalance in power. Empires demarcate boundaries between who is in and who is out, those who belong and those who are classed as external. People, structures and things are defined in relation to a centre or heartland that can be very distant from the frontier. Yet borderlands are also areas of intense and complex interactions between populations on either side. This can result in the development of cohesive identities which may funnel energies that challenge centralised authority. Frontier zones play a crucial role when centralised power breaks down. Fragmentation, population mobility and shifts towards localised authority challenge and transform the heartland at its core.
Focusing on four temporal and geographic areas – frontiers of ancient empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia, Romans and barbarians, colonial frontiers, and the Iron Curtain – this conference aims to trace the role of imperial borders through deep time. An explicitly inter-disciplinary focus, crossing intellectual boundaries, will address the politics of inclusion, exclusion and resistance along the frontiers of empires, in particular during periods of collapse. It is hoped that a wide range of evidence (material, scientific, written, photographic, cartographic, oral, and others) can be brought to the discussion. The view from the edge will provide a new perspective on what holds empires together and on what ultimately causes their demise.
Contributions are invited to consider the following themes:
1 The physical construction of frontiers
Frontier studies have often focused on the function of architectural structures, such as military installations, gateways, walls or bridges in maintaining the frontier. Recent work on architecture and the spatial environment has opened up new ways of studying the impact of buildings and how they exert power and control. This theme seeks to examine frontier structures as active spaces. How does architecture control and facilitate the movement of people and goods? How is it challenged by the people it intends to control?
2 Frontier zones as sources of identity
While frontiers exist to demarcate and separate populations, they are also areas of close social interaction with intense population mobility. As well as being potential arenas for conflict and competition they can also generate new forms of identity, through the movement of people, ideas and customs. How do populations respond to definitions of who belongs and who does not? How do they deal with experiences of difference in those on the other side? What effects do migration and mobility have on identity?
3 Frontier remains
Imperial frontiers in the past can have long echoes in the present, affecting modern-day populations. They can continue to exert power long after authority in the centre has ceased to exist. Religious, linguistic and ethnic divides can live on, drawing on memories of former frontiers. A critical examination of the biography of frontiers can highlight some of the enduring sources of identities today.
The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research is located on the Downing Site of the University of Cambridge, in the city centre. The Institute exists to further research by Cambridge archaeologists and their collaborators into all aspects of the human past, across time and space. It supports archaeological fieldwork, archaeological science, material culture studies, and archaeological theory in an interdisciplinary framework. Since its inception, the Institute has played a particularly leading role in cognitive archaeology, broadly defined. It sponsors seminar series, workshops and international conferences. It produces the Cambridge Archaeological Journal and publishes the McDonald Institute Monographs.
Please confirm your attendance by sending a title and short abstract by 15 June 2012. Since there are no parallel sessions, slots for speakers are limited. Reasonable travel costs, accommodation and meals will be provided.
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge
Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3ER, UK