Toward an Embodied Roman Place (Space): Henri Lefebvre & Roman senses

I presented a paper yesterday, at the Senses of Place conference put on by Sensory Studies in Antiquity at Roehampton Univeristy, London. I was a bit jet-lagged so, my oral presentation was not quite as clear as I would feel it could have been. The presentation was recorded so, when the video is available I will post a link on the blog. The manscript of the presentation is posted below.

Toward an Embodied Roman (Space) Place: Henri Lefebvre’s Interpretation of Roman Senses

Jeffrey D. Veitch

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‘For reasons I am unaware of, I have always preserved a very strong sense of my own body. Stronger than the majority of those I have questioned. It is inspired by a kind of wisdom that can only be called instinctive or organic. My body knows what it wants, what it needs (even in love, although here the causes of the disturbance pile up – which could be said to be alienating). I know which boundaries mustn’t be pushed through work or fatigue, and the stress from eating and drinking. When I exceed these bounds, it’s because something is not right: I want to punish myself, destroy myself. It is to my fortunate bodily makeup that I own my unshakable health and vitality. Neither my lucidity nor my thoughts are foreign to this body; it is my body that reflects, that tries one thing or another, not an ‘I’, a ‘cogito’, a ‘subject’, a cerebrality lodged in my brain. Philosophically, this practical experience is similar to Spinoza’s arguments concerning the unity of space and thought, and the materialist statements found in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and Nietzsche’s aphorisms in The Gay Science.

I owe to this attitude not only a kind of solidity through the labyrinth of contradictions but also an absolute resistance to the external causes of destruction and degradation. This is part of physical and mental health. I believe that it is to this that I owe my long-standing interest in space, an interest whose conceptual and theoretical formulation has taken shape very slowly, but cannot be reduced to that formulation. There is also a poetic side to this, and a poetic practice, that attempts to vivify the entire body with all its rhythms and senses (it is not a question of giving in to a nostalgia for nature or of emphasizing the use of one of our senses – sight, for example – or of exalting the sensory organs in general). In almost methodical fashion, although there is no method in the strict sense of the term, what I refer to as ‘poetic practice’ intensifies lived experience by associating it with the perceived world, by accelerating the interactions and interferences of the body and its surroundings: roads and streets, countryside and cityscape, forests and metal, lakes and streams, and stones’ (Lefebvre 2014, pp. 34-5).

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Henri Lefebvre was 72 at the time of writing, or more precisely dictating to his wife at the time, this passage and it comes at the peak of his writing on space, when he is most active in 1973-4. This was the culmination of over a decade of writing on space, urban and rural sociology and everyday life in the transition to modernisms urban totality with six books being written between 1964 and 1974. Pointedly autobiographical, the passage draws together a series of theoretical formulations that are central to what I will argue is Lefebvre’s sensory-spatial theory.

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To label Lefebvre’s spatial theory sensory is a bit at odds with common rereading of Lefebvre, which owes more to David Harvey and Ed Soja than to Lefebvre (see Harvey 1973; Soja 1989, 1996). However, at the core of this personal reflection is a theory of the senses and body in the production of space, or place-making (Yi-Fu Taun’s discussion of ‘place’ implies Lefebvre’s spatial triad, Taun 1979).

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I want to suggest that a rereading of Lefebvre, following this autobiographical passage, indicates the way the senses and body are central to his spatial theory and this theory offers key insights into our interpretation of past environments, whether built, natural or imaginary.

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As an example, or case study place, I will draw on one of Lefebvre’s own favourite examples, Rome. ‘Roman space, though encumbered by objects (as in the Forum), was a productive space’, Lefebvre states in The Production of Space (1991, p. 237). Again and again, Lefebvre draws on the ancient world in the formulation of spatial history in both Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment and The Production of Space, as well as in his other urban writings.

In this paper, I will therefore set out the central pieces for Lefebvre’s spatial-sensory theory, namely 1) the total body, 2) senses as theoreticians and 3) poetic practice drawing on Lefebvre’s own use of Roman space as an examples. At its base level, this is a combined rereading of Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment and The Production of Space, although I will open up Lefebvre’s own theoretical formulations for conversation with some more recent discussions and other theorists.

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Total Body

The total body, in Lefebvre, is made up of the spatial qualities of the body, which indicate the ambiguity of the body as occupying a space and producing a space (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 149). Lefebvre restates this duality as a natural body (physical, material, using gestures and members) and a social body (using language), as well as another duality of energetic processes (accumulation and expenditure of energy) and infrastructural process (receiving and storing information) (2014, p. 149). These two dualities are useful in setting out the place and role of the senses within Lefebvre’s total body, as well as leading to his critique of the readability of space.

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‘Among the Romans, until their long decline, we find a powerful sense of civic involvement that connected individuals to the city. The most important pleasures were experienced within the social framework; in other words, public and private were not yet separated, and the public did not yet have the unpleasant, almost ridiculous, character it has assumed in our society, where the social and socialisation are generally met with disapproval. […]

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‘Take, for example, the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. This enormous space, covering nearly fifty-seven acres, was a small city in the City of Cities, and surrounded by a vast park. Intended to cultivate the body as well as the mind, the Roman baths are one of the most original architectural creations that history has known. A succession of rooms followed one another along an axis, which served as both hallway and vestibule and which led to a gigantic open-air pool more than half an acre in size. This followed by a vaulted hall, also surrounded by pool. Around the large pool were palaestrae, gyms, and massage rooms, together with a variety of sporting and domestic paraphernalia for the patrons (client, visitor, consumer – none of the words are suitable). Once they had warmed their muscles, the patrons crossed a series of rooms, the heat increasing as one progressed, to ultimately reach the caldarium. Even today, the building themselves appear to be characterized by a degree of luxury to which our own cultural institutions and stadiums appear to descend from barbarians and puritans, more ascetic than they are subpar. What can we say about the interior? The pools were a marble lake surrounded by colonnades, covered with mosaics of which the statues were reflected. The rooms contained flowing fountains, colonnades, niches decorated with statuary; paintings and mosaics adorned the surfaces of the walls, which were covered in stucco and precious materials (onyx, porphyry, marble, ivory). The baths contained, in addition to the gymnasiums and palaestrae, a number of rooms devoted to physical development, promenades, works of art that turned those rooms into museums, and spaces for permanent exhibitions. There was also a park were visitors could meet and talk, and a public library. No one was excluded from partaking in this luxury (women were admitted on certain days) from the slave to the emperor himself, who made the baths his personal project and who was not adverse to making use of the sumptuous palace he had offered the people of Rome’ (Lefebvre 2014, pp. 136-7, emphasis my own).

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For Lefebvre, it was the cultivation of the body and mind within the gestures of bathing that produced the ‘most original architectural creation’. Body and mind within the social framework of Rome marked the spatial practice and activities.

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Lefebvre was not the only one to emphasise these aspects, although the two books shown here mark distinct differences in approach and argued meaning of architectural design. For Lefebvre, the total body of brain, gestures, sensory organs, needs to be considered, and the body’s plurality of interpretative, creative and productive processes recognised. This has implications for understanding space, as space does not present an intellectual representation, arising ‘from the visible-readable realm, but that it is first of all heard (listened to) and enacted (through physical gestures and movements)’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 200). MacDonald, as has been noted, emphasised the movement and action of street space in the second century CE, although I do not think his urban armature gives enough credit to physical interaction in the street space (and is dependent on the visible-readable correlation). Sennett, in contrast, wants to draw political implications for today from the physical heard and enacted space of the city. While an interesting notion, spatial histories, along with sensory histories, are much to pluralistic for such endeavours. What results is an underdeveloped imaginary of city space (in MacDonald’s case) or an overcooked political agenda set out in moral terms (Sennett).

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Lefebvre falls back on a dialectical relationship between spatial practices and productions of space, which entails a pedagogy of the senses and body. The experience of space is first and foremost the sensory perception of space. This is not to place sensory perceptions before the social and cultural spatial relations (‘proxemics’ in Hall’s terms). Certain spaces, led by the total body, provide opportunities for the body to break from the spatial and temporal constrains of labour, the division of labour, localisations of work and the specialisation of places (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 384). In this way, the physical body takes on a critical role as generative in the production of space (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 384; 2014, p. 149). In this way, the pedagogy of the body and senses is founded on the second point in Lefebvre’s spatial-sensory theory, the senses as theoreticians.

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Senses as Theoreticians

Reference is made to Marx and Nietzsche in the opening passage for their materialist approach in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and Nietzsche’s aphorisms. These two theorists (and Lefebvre uses them as theorists, more than as philosophers or thinkers) suggest a particular form of theoretical engagement. Although Lefebvre draws them together, I want to focus on what each provides in the next two points of Lefebvre’s spatial-sensory theory. In sum, Marx pushes for the senses as theoreticians, while Nietzsche indicates that the action of such a theorisation is poetic practice.

As active in the production of space, the senses become theoreticians. Lefebvre draws this idea from Nietzsche and Marx:

‘The truth of space thus leads us back (and is reinforced by) a powerful Nietzschean sentiment: ‘But may the will to truth mean this to you: that everything shall be transformed into the humanly-conceivable, the humanly-evident, the humanly-palpable! You should follow your own senses to the end. [Eure eignen Sinne sollt ihr zu Ende denken.]’ Marx, for his part, called in the Manuscripts of 1844 for the senses to become theoreticians in their own right. The revolutionary road of the human and the heroic road of the superhuman meet at the crossroads of space. Whether they then converge is another story’ (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 399-400).

For Marx, the senses, and sensory organs, are not passive receptors, simply responding to what is around them. Instead, the senses, like labour, create objects and, in the cases of the senses, create reality, which is a social construction (Marx, 1992, p. 352). Following Marx, the senses are active in the creation of objects, as well as the creation of the human senses (Lefebvre, 2016, p. 127).

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The sensory organs, as conceptualised within Lefebvre’s total body, are critical theoreticians of space. The senses work on an object on the model of human labour working on raw materials. Marx makes a critical distinction between human labour and sensory perception, which is fundamental to each form of work. The distinction is that sensory transformation of the object is in terms of potential meanings, rather than the object as artefact (Feenberg, 2014, p. 46). Lefebvre, for his part, is breaking down this distinction in terms of space; human beings both produce spatial meanings and spatial artefacts. The senses can therefore be conceived as theoreticians, being both produced by the social relationships, the division of labour and gestures of work, and raising these productive relations to a critical level through the sensory perception of objects. For example, noise, as out-of-place sound, can also define the limits of understanding, being unpatterned or unknown sounds, beyond the horizon of meaning, that will in time (through repetition) become known (see Truax, 2001, p. 97).

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The mapping of transmission loss, the amount of sound that passes through a material, can therefore relate to the conceptualisation of geographical limits of auditory understanding, a literal horizon or threshold of auditory perception. In this way, the measurement of acoustic properties of architectural interventions by Augustus become measurements in conceptual and social horizons of audibility.

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Poetic Practice

Nietzsche, for Lefebvre, provides a practical and theoretical model for using ‘the body as a guide’ (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 103; see also 2016, pp. 122-26). Lefebvre comments that Nietzsche’s emphasis on visual metaphors to constitute abstract thought, which over time has reduced thoughts and actions derived from the other senses, is one of ‘Nietzsche’s great discoveries’ (1991, p. 139). We can reformulate Lefebvre’s four points, from The Production of Space, on Nietzsche’s discoveries in relation to the senses: 1) the actions of metaphor and metonymy are guided by the body’s experience of space through the senses; 2) expression of this sensory/spatial experience is constrained by an overreliance on visual metaphors, limiting language’s ability to express the total body; 3) the mental and social architecture of language, constrained by readability-visibility, is constantly reformulating connections due to the limits of its expression; 4) power, in the form of social and political structures, are aligned to visibility by the implicit reason and logic in visual metaphor and metonymy, their ‘common sense’ understanding.

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The twin critique of visual metaphors, what Lefebvre refers to as ‘visibility’, is a critique of ‘readability’. How do we ‘read’ the urban arrangement and architecture of the Roman period? Lefebvre cites Roland Barthes’ five codes for reading a text (hermeneutic, proairetic, semantic, symbolic and cultural) and applies them to the experience of Venice (Barthes, 1990; Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 160-1). This raises two unexplored areas when decoding is constrained to reading and texts (a visual object): on the one side, the body and, on the other side, the power (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 162). Due to constraints of space, I will leave power for discussion elsewhere, but I find Foucault’s use of ancient sources, especially the Stoicism of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, a interesting comparison in terms of the body, governmentality and issues of space/place. Central to the argument here, Lefebvre emphasises the body’s experience of place through the total body of the senses,

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‘[w]hen ‘Ego’ arrives in an unknown country or city, he [sic] first experiences it through every part of his body – through his sense of smell and taste, as (provided he does not limit this by remaining in his car) through his legs and feet. His hearing picks up the noises and the quality of the voices; his eyes are assailed by new impressions. For it is by means of the body that space is perceived, lived – and produced’ (1991, p. 162).

The perception of space by the body is part of spatial and social practices, which are excluded from the codes of reading and writing according to Lefebvre (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 125).

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Within this argument is a critique of certain formulations of interpreting urban forms or places. The most common, and referenced in ancient history and classical archaeology, interpretation of urban space and place along the lines of readability and visibility is Kevin Lynch’s conception of ‘urban image’ and ‘mental maps’. Lefebvre is not the only one to critique this formulation and Tim Ingold (2000) critiques Lynch’s ‘mental maps’ directly as a product of a modern cartographic conception of place:

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‘It is rather that the world of our experience is a world suspended in movement, that is continually coming into being as we – through our own movement – contribute to its formation. In the cartographic world, by contrast, all is still and silent. There is neither sunlight nor moonlight; there are no variations of light or shade, no clouds, no shadows or reflections. The wind does not blow, neither disturbing the trees nor whipping water into waves. No birds fly in the sky, or sing in the woods; forests and pastures are devoid of animal life; houses and streets are empty of people and traffic. To dismiss all this – to suggest that what is excluded in the cartographic reduction amounts, in Monmonier’s words, to a ‘fog of detail’ – is perverse, to say the least (Wood 1992: 76). For it is no less than the stuff of life itself. Were one magically transported into the looking-glass world behind the map, one would indeed feel lost and disoriented, as in a fog. But the fogginess is a function not of the amount or density of detail but of the arrestation of movement. Detached from the flow of which each is but a moment, details settle like an opaque precipitate upon the surface of the earth. Little wonder, then, that the cartographer feels the need to sweep them up, or that the navigator prefers to brush them aside in plotting a course!’ (Ingold 2000, p. 242).

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In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre criticises readability through the reversal of the practice of reading (2014, p. 125). In order to read architecture, there must be an assumed message or code within the building or urban form and since it is addressed to people (another assumption), it can be read and compared to writing (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 125). Lefebvre points out, however, that in practice the operation is reversed (2014, p. 125). It is not the building or space that is decoded, but space decodes the social practices of human beings. Human beings transmit a plurality of codes, which are not all directed at the intellect, such as emotions, passions or feelings. Architectural space refracts messages in the form of injunctions, proscriptions and proscribed acts, rather than signs; that is to say, architecture refracts social and spatial practices (2014, p. 125). Architecture, in this process, intensifies certain messages and transforms them into rules and assigned gestures, spatialising social practices and defining ‘places’ (2014, p. 125). In this case, the senses are not directly referenced by Lefebvre, but can be incorporated into the process. If architecture produces living bodies, part of that production is a range of sensory hierarchies and practices. At the level above sensory perception, language of space (point 2 in the reformulation of Lefebvre’s points) is taken for experience (sensory perception of physical space) and perceived to reflect ‘common sense’ sensory hierarchies, in this case, based on visual metaphors (in modernity). This links the history of the body to the history of space through the development of the senses within a given periods, cultures or other differences in spatial practices (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 195-6).

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The senses as theoreticians and poetic practice critique the architectures of power through the senses, body and gestures. As argued, the senses as theoreticians are tools for critical thought and open up subversive responses to the strategies of the state and power. Foucault and de Certeau hover in the background behind that last sentence and offer comparative conceptions to what I am arguing is at work in Lefebvre. In historical terms, Lefebvre argues that the senses as theoreticians reveal the logic of visualisation that developed over centuries and eventually was built into cities and urbanism and is the central point in the middle of The Production of Space. Poetic practice critiques the actions and gestures that take place within the theoretical space opened up by the total body. For Lefebvre, the issue was to draw out the active, creative and productive side of the senses and body, the total body, to open up space to all its possibilities. At the end of Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre suggests that the total body, sense as theoreticians and poetic practice set out a direction, echoing the ‘sense’ at the end of The Production of Space, for a revolutionary orientation of life (2014, p. 149). Here Lefebvre brings his own theory to the present situation of capitalism. For us, as ancient historians, archaeologists and classicists, the direction of such interpretations is a conceptualisation of the past. A past understood through the total body of sensory perceptions and imaginary conceptions, indicating hierarchies and strategies of power based on the senses, and enacted in the everyday sensory-spatial practices of ancient peoples.

January Update

This month has been a busy one for me with a move, some writing and lots of books. Here is a brief round up of some of the things that have happened and some things that will happen. As an aside, I am going to try post a monthly review of various academic related activities at the end of each month.


January saw the submission of an article on Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the senses and body in relation to his spatial theory. I have been working on, and using, Lefebvre’s spatial theory and use of ancient cultures for some time with a series of posts on ancient cities as examples within Lefebvre’s urban writings. This article did not go into the ancient sources and instead developed Lefebvre’s idea of the total body as central to his three-part division of space. I also drew out Lefebvre’s critique of readability-visibility-intelligibility as key to understanding his historical work in the second half of The Production of Space. Much of this work involved a close reading of The Production of Space and Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment. This article is the first in a larger (and longer) project on Lefebvre, some of which grows out of the posts on this blog.

I also (currently) am wrapping up a chapter on Roman porticoes in Ostia. This chapter is for an edited volume, but has some overlap with the monograph manuscript I am slowly pulling together. I used the conclusions from the Lefebvre article as a theoretical starting point to try and understand the movement, gestures and conceptions of space that were embodied in the experience of street porticoes. I place the archaeological and literary sources for Rome and Ostia in comparison to argue for a transition within the conception of porticoes from enclosed to open spaces following the developments of the Roman streets as the principle public spaces. I use Lefebvre’s discussion of monastic cloisters as a complete space (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment) to bring together the archaeological evidence, which indicates the movements, gestures and bodily practices within porticoes, and the literary evidence, which indicates the perceived, social and moral values of the concept of porticoes.


The holidays were filled with books… I read several new books that all revolve around neighbourhoods, rumours, streets, Roman politics and religion: Public Opinion and Politics in the Late Roman Republic by Cristina Rosillo-López, Origins of the Colonnaded Streets in the Cities of the Roman East by Ross Burns, Harriet Flower’s The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner, The Roman Street: Urban Life and Society in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Rome by Jeremy Hartnett, and I reread Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment. Many of these books will appear in the coming posts, as well as current writing.

Odds and Sods

I moved back to California as my visa expired and University bureaucracy muddled up an extension. Not what I was planning, but I am making the most my time with family and have been using the UC Berkeley libraries.

I will be back in London at the end of February to present at a workshop. My presentation will develop some bits from my Lefebvre article and connect that work with Lefebvre’s use of Rome as an example of productive space. Like the majority of my presentations, I will post the manuscript on the blog here following the presentation.

Finally, I have started to pull together the manuscript for my Acoustics in Roman Ostia book. I have been continuously and slowly working on it and now I am starting to systematically work through sections and chapters. Bits and pieces of my other writings all feed into this monograph and its been interesting to see it develop.

SBL Paper: ‘Mithraic Noise’

I presented a paper this morning in the Session of Archaeology of Religion in the Roman World with the panel title, ‘Ritual and Religion on the City Streets of the Empire’. I post the draft of the paper below. I have references to my forthcoming work, which are all listed on the second slide for the bibliographic details. With any further intro, here is the paper.

Mithraic Noise: Negotiating Sound and Vision in the Ostian Streets


[Intro] Thank you to the organisers of this panel, as well as fellow speakers for fascinating discussion. My own contribution comes from my ongoing research into the role of noise in the production of Roman space at Ostia. [Senses of the Empire] In a recent edited volume and a forthcoming chapter, I have outlined my methodology for modelling the acoustics of fragmentary Roman buildings and urban space, which lies in the background of my paper today. I will touch on general and necessary elements of that methodology as needed, but will for the most part avoid the technical physics involved in the process of modelling. This is good for you, as I will not subject you to complex mathematical equations in auditory form, and instead will draw out the key properties of Roman construction, urban layouts and acoustics that relate to noise, Mithraic cult sites and the street network of Ostia.

[Defining NOISE] To begin with, a quick functional definition of noise is useful in conceptualising the interactions between streets and Mithraic sites, as well as between different forms of evidence. Barry Truax (2001) provides a definition that centres on the concept of auditory communication, or the ability to interpret meaningful sounds in the environment.

Noise therefore can refer to three different forms of diminished auditory clarity: first, noise can be conceived as sound, which elicits a negative response. Evidence for this form of noise comes primarily from literary sources (Horace, Martial, Juvenal or Seneca being the most cited). This is a reactive response to sound and categorical in definition (like/dislike). Second, noise can be conceived as sound that obscures auditory clarity, such as an AC unit in an office. This form of noise is referred to as background noise and functions as an agent within the environment. Evidence for these types of noise can come from material remains, including wheels, shoes, or hooves, as well as construction materials or forms of paving. This is not a reactive response to sounds, but noise as an active agent. Acoustics, in this context of noise, becomes important as the measure of potential influence of architecture on noise. Finally, noise can be conceived of as unknown or unrecognised sound, as not-yet-meaningful sound. This is noise in a non-pejorative sense, or noise as the periphery of knowledgeable sound.

Using these definitions of noise, Mithraic activities and sites can be conceptualised as progressing through these moments of noise. That is, outsiders to Mithraism interact with Mithraic activity within the space of negative response the street (type 1), in which architecture obstructs auditory clarity (type 2), and then through initiation pass from unknown noise and meaningful sounds (type 3).

[Type 1] Reactive responses to noise were made through literary conceptions of space. Certain terms used to describe noise were associated with movement, especially animal movements, as well as being associated with the spaces of movement. Strepo (confused noise, din, or clash), fremo (rushing or resounding loud noise), and murmur (roaring, growling, or humming) being the key terms; these terms that indicate the character of the noise, rather than indicating who or what created the noise (Veitch forthcoming). In these cases, the particularities of the sound are kept at the general level of animal like sounds. Without a quantifiable measure of sound intensity of noise, the literary authors resort to language of strepitus, fremitus or murmur, which were both associated with animal sounds, roars or buzzes, and busy activity, which provide insights into the mental image of the noise and associated spaces.

 [Noise/Silence refs] There are over 5,000 references in Latin sources to noise and silence, while the majority of spatial references to noise were to streets and public space (Veitch forthcoming). For simplicity, I do not differentiate public squares or spaces from the street space, unless architectural defined as separate (doors, walls, etc.). Within the Latin literary sources (those within the PHI), the forum is associated with noise and silence more than any other space (29.1%), followed by via and vicus (16.4% and 15.9%).

[Network Graph] If we graph the connections we see son– and clam– words associated with forum, while via and vicus have a more even spread across all the terms. Clamo and sono, as well as their associated words, are the most specific form of noise, indicating to shout, call out, or to make a sound. In the adjectival form, clamosus, it indicates loud resounding or full of noise, suggesting undifferentiated sounds. The emphasis of sono and clamo is on who or what makes a noise in comparison to the other three noise terms, which characterise the type of sound. These terms suggest a particular urban image, in this case not a visual image, but a mental conception of space, which relates to moral and social judgements. Thus, the street was a space of noise, which elicited negative responses and moral judgements (Veitch handbook). Street space, in literary conceptions, was part of the relative perceptions of topography from the immoral angiportus (Wallace-Hadrill 2003) to the famed or renowned locus celeberrimus (Newsome 2011).

 [Type 2] Noise can also be conceived as an obstruction to auditory clarity. In this context, architectural acoustics plays a significant role in providing the framework understanding the potential thresholds for obstruction.

[Construction TL] Ostia has a limited range of construction techniques all using mortar and reticulate with brick-facing. In general, these construction techniques have a limited range of transmission loss measurements, which indicates the sound power level that pass through the material (Veitch forthcoming). The differences in TL between opus incertum, opus reticulatum and so-called brick-faced concrete are minimally experienced differences, but centre on the average sound level for a conversation between two people (65 dB). I say ‘minimally experienced’ as a change of less than 2 dB is inaudible to the human ear. So, the difference between opus incertum and opus reticulatum would not be heard, while the difference between opus incertum and brick-faced concrete could be experienced.

[Street dissipation] In the context of the street, acoustics are best represented in the sound dissipation, or the drop in sound intensity as you move away from the sound source. The three widest streets were modelled and are shown here. Building height was found not to influence the sound dissipation across the street widths at Ostia (Veitch forthcoming). Architectural features, in particular porticoes, did, however, dramatically alter the acoustics of the street space., as indicated by the uneven dissipation along the Via Epagathiana and the increased drop along the N Cardo Maximus.

[Augustus] Of central importance to my argument here is 1) the low minimum threshold of noise (65 dB) above which architectural boundaries obstruct sounds, making them harder to interpret, but do not isolate sounds. In the context of Mithraea, noise made inside would pass through the walls into neighbouring space. 2) Noise from the street had a distance of around 35 m before it dropped below audible levels. [VGA Analysis] From the perspective of the street, this auditory distance boundary was distinctively different from the visual axis of streets. The combination of audible noise beyond the street boundary and the geographical spread of noise created perceived auditory boundary that were experienced through movement. [Augustus] As someone moved through Ostia they would reshape the auditory boundaries based on their location. Audible distinctions were produced through different construction materials, architectural features and social/spatial practices.

[Type 3] Within the context of the street, Mithraic activities are usually conceived as separated. Jonas Bjornebye, in his chapter of The Moving City, categorises all the Ostian Mithraea as small neighbourhood groups in terms of movement (Bjornebye 2015). However, this categorisation is based on size and dimension of the Mithraic space, not patterns of movement, despite his insistence that size and movement patterns correspond. As we have seen, the street space was conceived and experienced as a space of noise and movement. Interactions were mediated by personal choices of speed, direction and use of porticoes, sidewalks or the carriageway.

Michael White has recently re-evaluated the dating, finds and spatial distribution of Ostian Mithraea (2012). [White Map] I follow his dating of the development of Mithraea at Ostia, as well as his capacity figures for the Mithraic podia.

[Rose Map] I want to finish by analysing the Mitreo delle Parenti Dipinti (3.1.6), which was installed in the back portion of a house along the Via della Foce, just off the intersection with the east and west Decumanus. [White Plan] The earliest Mithraea, the Mitreo delle Parenti Dipinti is dated to 162 CE by a dedicatory inscription (CIL 14.58, 59). In it’s final phase the Mithraea could accommodate around 21-28 people, which would produce around 76-8 dB of conversation noise. This is roughly 10-12 dB higher than the ‘conversation threshold’ of transmission loss. In practical terms, sounds associated with Mithraic activities would be heard through the walls so long as it was louder than a single conversation.

The neighbouring buildings included a roofed market space and an open street with shops lining the sides. The Mithraea was located at the back of the house, which placed it audibly closer to the neighbouring shops and market space, while making it visibly separate from the those spaces. Specific Mithraic activities are only generally known, such as initiation and dinning, but some specific features of the acoustics and sensory experience can be summarised based on the analysis here.

Iconographic representations of initiation, such as the ones from Capua (CIMRM 187, 188, 191, 193-5), often display the initiates blindfolded; suggesting sensory deprivation in the initiation rites. The experience of initiation would entail a partial knowledge of the process as the full sensory faculties were not in use. In this sense, the initiation itself should be conceived as noise, an experience of an unknown that will later be fully realised. However, sensory deprivation adds another layer to the initiation as noise: by depriving vision the initiate has to rely on other sensory faculties to interpret the gestures, sounds, smells and haptic experiences, as well as drawing on previous expectations of what the initiation entails. In this way, the initiation is not an experience of mental comprehension, but an embodied experience of partial knowledge. Likely, only once the initiate moved further up the Mithraic grades would complete comprehension be possible.

If we return to the experience of a Mithraic outsider, who overhears the initiation, an interesting comparison can be made. Both the outsider and initiate are deprived of some sensory aspect, which would help to interpret the activities; both, also, experience portions of the process mediated by the senses and architecture. While the outsider was excluded from all but the noise of the activity, the initiate through the noise was brought into the process of embodied knowledge acquisition. The same could be said for the activities associated with dinning, although in that activity other senses would play a more prominent role.

[Conclusions] In conclusion, I would like to make three points that I have hopefully made clear in this presentation. First, noise as a concept is a useful tool for interpreting the different experiential qualities of streets, religious and social activities. The street was imagined as a space of noise, which included sounds, movements and increased activities. The experience of the street extended beyond it’s architectural boundaries, as well as the spaces just off the street extended into the street. Second, auditory boundaries were constructed in different terms to visual boundaries. Noise as an obstruction to auditory clarity can thus be reformulated as boundaries to audible space. In this way, acoustic measurements, such as transmission loss discussed here, become measurements of the field of social participation. Third, and finally, knowledge formation was intertwined with the experience of space, including the experience of auditory space. Movement and sound were both processes of interpreting space, a process founded on the bodily experience. Embodied forms of knowledge were gained through the experience, and the repeated experience, of certain places or activities, as shown through the Mitreo delle Parenti Dipinti. Both adherents and outsiders experienced Mithraic activities, although to varying degrees. These experiences formed part of the framework for interpreting other spatial experiences; a framework that included sensory perceptions, movements and mental expectations. In this way, noise as unknown or potentially meaningful sound indicates the central role of the body in the production of urban, religious, social, or any other type of space.

[Final] Thank you.

The Roman City in Motion Presentation Kiel, Germany

Image: North Cardo Maximus, facing south towards the forum, at Ostia (Jeff Veitch)

I am in Germany for an international workshop (details here) and presented some of my work on porticoes. Unlike the majority of presentations last year, I presented from a manuscript, as I wanted to stay focused on some key points of discussion. I had not originally planned to discuss porticoes (was going to save it for another paper), but did not have the time to develop my work on the Vicus Iugarius in Rome to a presentable point.  The majority of questions following the paper were aspects of clarification, many of which were due to my ownpresentation style. I continually struggle with a good balance between spatial theory, physics of sound, and my case studies. In this paper there is a clear preference on the theoretical framework, at the expense of the physics of sound and sound analysis. I have included a summary of the discussion following the paper at the end.

The Roman City in Motion: Senses, Space and Experience

Jeffrey D. Veitch, University of Kent

[Title Slide] Thanks to the organisers of the session and to you all for being here.


Image: Lefebvre on Roman space

[Lefebvre Rome] At several points, Henri Lefebvre makes reference to two topics taken up in this paper: the senses and Roman space, although neither is in reference to the other. For Lefebvre, following Nietzsche and Marx, the senses are theoretical tools for understanding space,[1] while Rome serves as a concrete example of the social production of space within Lefebvre’s history of the city.[2] In this paper, I take Lefebvre’s twin suggestions as a starting point for a theoretically informed interpretation of Roman urbanism. That is to say, the senses serve as tools for understanding the reciprocal influence of the body and space in the formation of urban experience.

Using the senses as a theoretical tool, following Lefebvre, I want to make this argument: by placing the sensory experience of street acoustics under the microscope, I argue for an experiential agency of portico space that is shaped by physical architecture, bodily movements and literary perceptions. Each of these aspects will be addressed in that order and set the framework for the argument of this paper. In this way, I draw together the two elements of Lefebvre’s suggestions and argue for experiential agency as sensory perceptions of urban space and its formation of the Roman sensorium.

The Senses as Kinaesthetic Tools

[Lefebvre books] Let us begin by listening to Lefebvre and bringing his insights in line with recent emphasis on kinaesthetic and embodied forms of knowledge. Recent studies of Roman space and spatial concepts have drawn primarily from the work of Henri Lefebvre. Writing in the late 1960s to mid-1970s, Lefebvre formulated the groundwork for what was letter termed the ‘spatial turn’(See Harvey, Social Justice and the City (University of Georgia 1973); Soja, Postmodern Geographies (Verso 1989)). Lefebvre suggests a ‘pedagogy of the body’ that ‘would connect the conceived to the lived (and conversely), assumes a form of qualitative knowledge still in a state of germination and promise. Rhythmanalysis, for example’.[7] The invocation of rhythmanalysis draws the senses and times into this ‘pedagogy of the body’, as the rhythmanalist ‘thinks with his [sic] body’.[8] This further elaborates the nature of Lefebvre’s tripartite division of space between the conceived, perceived, and lived. The knowledge derived from the connection of the conceived and lived is sensory knowledge. Lefebvre draws on smells and musical metaphors to describe the rhythmanalist’s methods and emphasises the measurement of space by the body.[9]


Image: Libet Diagram (Source on the slide)

Lefebvre does not develop these ideas into a method and they are scattered throughout his diverse writings. Here I want to draw in some more work, which grounds these ideas in movement and embodiment. [Libet Diagram] By the end of the 1970s, several experiments had verified that between an event and our sensory experience there was a half-second delay.[11] In following experiments it was further confirmed that unconscious reactions had delays of 100 ms, or a tenth-of-a-second delay.[12] What this suggested is that conscious reflection or action based on sensory stimuli was, in fact, a reflection on a past event, all be it a very recent past event.[13] To put this in Lefebvrean terms, lived space precedes conceived space in its mediation by the senses. Or simply, we sense the world before we act, think or reflect on that world.

This places human agency at the start of interactions with the built environment, rather than beginning with language or thought. I like the emphasis on agency; performative acts do ‘something’ to space (I am also keen to keep the ‘something’ ambiguous). Here reflexivity becomes important, especially in terms of atmosphere and the social action of participants. I want to extend the reflexivity to the space of action, as well as the action itself. The reflexivity of architecture coincides with the reflexivity of the senses.[15] In my own work, I stress the role of architecture in social construction based on auditory experience; the human bodies auditory system interprets space in the act of hearing. At the same time, what, where, and how we hear are part of the social and cultural understandings (habitus) we learn through repetitive experience of space.

Interpreting Streets through the Senses


Image: AC & TL Diagram (Veitch 2017)

[AC & TL] The embodied knowledge carried within a cities inhabitant’s places agency as central to knowledge formation.[16] Simply put, human agents create the social, cultural and physical world through sensory experience, first unconsciously and then through cognitive reflection. However for Romans to be social agents a mass of infrastructural material must already be in place.[17] The infrastructural materials can be assessed and measured to analyse the kinaesthetic experience in terms of comparative figures. Physical dimensions and construction materials shape the auditory experience of the streets, which can be measured using modern acoustic design tools.


Image: Eleanor Betts recent publication (Routledge 2017)

[EB Book] In my chapter in Eleanor Betts’ recent publication, I focus on Absorption Coefficient (AC) and Transmission Loss (TL). I explain the physics of these measurements in that chapter and here point out the basic difference as sound reflected, AC, or sound passing through the material, TL.[18] [Augustus] The reflection, resonance and other auditory effects of sound create the experience the body interprets in the half-second delay. These auditory effects are directly related to the dimensions, size and shape of urban space. In particular, I want to look at the basic architectural structure of streets in Ostia, with some comparisons to Pompeii and Rome, to assess the kinaesthetic experience and knowledge potentially created.


Image: Streets and Shops in Ostia (Veitch 2017)

[Ostia] At the scale of the city, by the second century CE Ostia had developed beyond any formal grid system. However other forms of standardisation were at work within Ostia. Ellis has shown a clear preference in Ostia for shop entrances on the right-hand side of the threshold.[19] Street widths in Ostia display an uneven geographical distribution, same as Pompeii, although with a clear preference in width of 4-6 m.[20] However Ostia has a limited number of streets roughly 8 m in width, the other major grouping in Pompeii.[21] Instead, 94% of the streets in Ostia are less than 7 m in width. The widespread use of basalt on streets across Ostia suggests a certain foundational auditory experience, as the absorption coefficient is low (0.01-0.02) and sound would reflect off the surface.


Image: Streets and Porticoes in Ostia (Veitch 2017)

In terms of auditory experience, the limited range of widths in Ostia suggests building height and architectural elements being prime motivators of auditory differences. Unlike Pompeii, street architecture, such as benches and sidewalks, are primarily reconstructed and there are limited remains for analysis. [Portico map] Porticoes appear in Ostia, although again, in an uneven geographical distribution across the city. Beginning in the early 2nd c. CE, several large-scale building projects, with associated porticoes, began to reshape the city’s urban experience.[22] Unlike benches, fountains, or shrines, porticoes create a space of experience defined by the architecture. The semi-enclosed area is experienced as acoustically separated space from the roadway beyond, even as sounds will pass between the two auditory fields. In this way, the two auditory fields influence each other. Sounds from one bleed into the other. What becomes an issue is the terminology and language of description, which we will return to at the end.


Image: Sound Dissipation on 3 Streets in Ostia (Veitch 2017)

[Sound dissipation] Turning to the kinaesthetic experience of porticoes and streets in Ostia, the acoustic properties of street canyons can be modelled using based on the materials and dimensions of the street. Here the sound dissipation on 3 streets, all with porticoes along some part, is modelled. Measurement is made based on a noise in the centre of the street. The Decumanus is the widest (10 m), while the N Cardo is the only street with porticoes on both sides for the whole length (130 m). What the graph indicates is the steep dissipation of sound in the Decumanus, while N Cardo mimics this experience due to the addition of porticoes. In the case of the Via Epagathiana, with a portico on one side and for a limited length the dissipation is skewed on one side of the graph. However, the experience of sound in all three streets shows similar trends. Chronologically, the N Cardo is the earliest large-scale redevelopment with a portico as a defining feature in Ostia (116 CE). Porticoes are constructed along the neighbouring Via dei Misuratori del Grano and Via della Fortuna the next year (117-8 CE), while the forum is finished in the 120s.[23]


Image: Chronology of Porticoes and large-scale building projects (based on DeLaine 2002)

[Portico chronology] It is worth briefly concluding on the chronology of porticoes and shop standardisation outside of Ostia. Pompeii does not have any porticoes along it’s streets in the 79 CE plan. Rome, on the other hand, sees two distinctive groupings of portico construction, namely the late Republican/Augustan period and the Flavian period.[24] However these porticoes were a distinct architectural form, one that does not continue after the Flavian’s in Rome.[25] In roughly the same time period, the regulation of street porticoes is prescribed following the 64 CE fire in Rome.[26] While the literary sources, from the 2nd c. CE (Tacitus and Suetonius), set the motivation for porticoes in the need to control and prevent fires, it is worth noting that it is in the same time period as the last series of portico structures. Here the distinction between experience, in the streets of the 2nd c. CE, and narrative reflection, instigated in the 1st c. CE, is evident. Returning to Ostia, it is not during the Flavian period that porticoes begin to appear but rather at the start of the 2nd c. CE. That is to say, the experience of the portico street was an experience in Rome that reappeared between Pompeii’s destruction and the start of Ostia’s large scale rebuilding.

That the auditory experience is important is obvious, however the connection of that importance to understandings of Roman space is subtler. At the start of this paper, I drew on Lefebvre’s suggestions to use the senses as theoretical tools and the role of Rome in the production of (social) space. Porticoes, I argue, serve to bring together these two points. I noted the unconscious experience of space as being the first point of interaction between humans and the built environment. In the case of the N Cardo, the two porticoes lining the street created a comparable auditory experience to the wider and more limited portico frontage along the east Decumanus. The Via Epagathiana showed the way portico frontage, in that case on the west side, altered the auditory experience of the street. Further study of other streets and porticoes will nuance these findings further.


[Concluding slide] Finally, I want to end with a brief comment on sensory and spatial metaphors as ways of describing the changes in perception. Out of the experience of space, and in particular the changing experience of streets at the end of the first, beginning of the second century CE, Romans perceived of space differently, although not in complete rejection of previous perception.

The associations and metaphors used to describe this translation of experience into literature give clues to the power these experiences could have. Today, we rely on visual and spatial metaphors to describe social relations and urban environments; cities are images, the public eye, we ‘map’ and ‘explore’ social relations and networks. However, these visual and spatial metaphors reduce spatial and social relationships to static and abstract understandings.[29] In the translation of experiences of space to literary reflection vision is given power over other sensory experience.

In the Latin literary context, the verb incedo and its noun incessus refer to walking, which also carries associations with bearing or how one carries oneself.[30] The association of movement with comportment is key. In moving through the city, inhabitants carried themselves, or, in Bourdieu’s terms, enacted their habitus. By drawing movement and comportment together the metaphor places the power on walking, not seeing. The person walking/carrying themselves is the subject. What are necessary are a need to critically evaluate the experience of space, as I have tried to show, as well as the metaphorical conceptions of space. Non-visual, sensory metaphors offer a way forward in understanding the metaphorical architecture of Roman urbanism.


1. If sounds could happen anywhere on the street or in the portico, why is the model based on a sound in the centre of the street? i.e. carts, sellers in the portico, people walking in the street or in the portico.

The model of the acoustics is based on generic sound (white noise, or sound across all frequencies) in a fixed location. This gives us the acoustic foundation from which we can then move to particular sounds. In this paper, I focused on the architecture along the street and the role of porticoes in altering street acoustics. I was less concerned with the catalogue of sounds possibly produced along the street.

2. As a medievalist, we have evidence for mud and dirt along streets and these would dampen sound. Is there any evidence of this in the Roman period?

Short answer: no. There are anecdotal stories of magistrates not cleaning streets (Suetonius, Vespasian 5), legal regulations of what can be left outside of properties (Dig., duties for magistrates to clean and maintain streets and sewers (Dig. 43.23.1-2). Mud and dirt would dampen the sound dissipation of the streets.

[Later thought: this dampening would suggest that the sound dissipation curves for the N Cardo and Via Epagathiana would decrease at the top, moving closer to the Decumanus curve. In the case of the Decumanus, the dampening would happen at the edges of the curve, due to the streets extended length]

3. I am working on urban ecology, what would be the role of birds in your analysis or are there any studies on bird noise?

I do not know of any studies of bird noises in Rome. Particular sounds, such as bird noises, can be modelled in the street space. These would produce different sound dissipation curves to the ones I showed.

4. a) You do not use the term ‘soundscape’ but surely it plays a part in the social porduction of space; b) you ended with [Latin] words, but these would be aspects of the perceived sense, in a theoretical definition of ‘perception’. For example, my husband could snore and this sound would bother me, but may not bother others.

First, soundscapes: I am growing uncomfortable with the term [although, I have used it in publications]. I find its use unclear in defining its geographical extent and it being associated with cataloging all the sounds in a space (again, without reference to the flexibility of this term). That leads to the second point. Yes, ‘perception’ is culturally constituted and that is why I looked to Roman usage of metaphorical walking was associated with comportment. This offers a critique of our own reliance on visual metaphors to describe cities and urban space.


[1] Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell 1991), 399-400; a point also made by Terry Eagleton but with no reference to Lefebvre, Eagleton, Materialism (Yale 2017), 62-3.

[2] cité: Lefebvre, Metaphilosophy (Verso 2016), 142, 209-215; The Production of Space (Blackwell 1991), 239; see my own review of Lefebvre’s use of Rome and the ancient city at Ancient Noise (blog,

[3] Laurence, Roman Pompeii: Space and Society, 2nd ed. (Routledge 2007), 103.

[4] Laurence, Roman Pompeii: Space and Society, 2nd ed. (Routledge 2007), 107-9.

[5] Poehler, ‘Measuring the Movement Economy: A Network Analysis of Pompeii’, in Flohr and Wilson (eds.), The Economy of Pompeii (OUP 2017), 204.

[6] Poehler, ‘Measuring the Movement Economy: A Network Analysis of Pompeii’, in Flohr and Wilson (eds.), The Economy of Pompeii (OUP 2017), 204.

[7] Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment (University of Minnesota 2014), 149.

[8] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury 2013), 21.

[9] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury 2013), 21, 27, 33.

[10] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury 2013), 32; cf. Lebas and Kaufman, ‘Lost in Transposition – Time, Space and the City’, in Writings on Cities (Blackwell 1996).

[11] See Libet et al, ‘Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience: A functional role for the somatosensory specific projection system in man’ Brain 102 (1979), 191–222.

[12] Libet et al, ‘Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience: A functional role for the somatosensory specific projection system in man’ Brain 102 (1979), 191–222.

[13] See also Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (Routledge 2008).

[14] Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment (University of Minnesota 2014), 151.

[15] Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment (University of Minnesota 2014), 41.

[16] Eagleton, Materialism (Yale 2017), 65-6.

[17] Eagleton, Materialism (Yale 2017), 67.

[18] See Veitch, ‘Soundscape of the Street: Architectural Acoustics at Ostia, in Betts (ed) Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture (Routledge 2017), 54-70.

[19] Ellis, ‘Pes Dexter: Superstition and the State in the Shaping of Shopfronts and Street Activity in the Roman World’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (OUP 2011), 160-173.

[20] Pompeii, Hartnett, ‘Si quis hic sederit: Streetside Benches and Urban Society in Pompeii’, AJA (2008), 110.

[21] Pompeii, Hartnett, ‘Si quis hic sederit: Streetside Benches and Urban Society in Pompeii’, AJA (2008), 110; Ostia, Veitch, Acoustics in Roman Ostia (unpub. PhD).

[22] See DeLaine, ‘Building Activity in Ostia in the second century AD’ in Bruun and Gallina-Zevi (eds.) Ostia e Portus nelle loro relazioni con Roma (AIRF 2002), 41-102 for discussion of large-scale building at this time.

[23] See DeLaine, ‘Building Activity in Ostia in the second century AD’ in Bruun and Gallina-Zevi (eds.) Ostia e Portus nelle loro relazioni con Roma (AIRF 2002), 41-102 for dates.

[24] Macaulay-Lewis, ‘The City in Motion: Walking for Transport and Leisure in the City of Rome’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (OUP 2011), 274.

[25] Macaulay-Lewis, ‘The City in Motion: Walking for Transport and Leisure in the City of Rome’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (OUP 2011), 274-5.

[26] Tacitus Annales 15.43.1-2; Suetonius Nero 16.

[27] Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell 1991), 40.

[28] Agricola 19-21⁠; Laurence and Trifilò, ‘The Global and the Local in the Roman Empire’, in Pitts and Versluys (eds.) Globalisation and the Roman Empire (CUP 2015), 103.

[29] See Smith and Katz, Grounding Metaphor: Towards a spatialised politics’, in Keith and Pile (eds.) Place and the Politics of Identity (Routledge 1993), 67-83; Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Polity 2002).

[30] Jenkyns, God, Space and City in the Roman Imagination (OUP 2013), 148.

Reflections on Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience: Contemporary and Classical Perspectives, Part 3: Sensory Experience

‘Among the Roman’s, until their long decline, we find a powerful sense of civic involvement that connected individuals to the city. The most important pleasures were experienced within a social framework; in other words, private and public were not yet separated, and public did not yet have the unpleasant, almost ridiculous, character it has assumed in our society… [The Baths of Diocletian in Rome], covering nearly fifty-seven acres, was a small city in the City of Cities, and surrounded by a vast park. Intended to cultivate the body as well as the mind, the Roman baths are one of the most original architectural creations that history has known… Even today, the buildings themselves appear to be characterised by a degree of luxury next to which our own cultural institutions and stadiums appear to descend from barbarians and puritans, more ascetic than they are subpar.’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 136-137 (emphasis mine).

Sensory experience was the last theme of the conference Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience. In the last two posts, I took up the themes of theory and methodology, which overlapped in several key ways. However, sensory experience moves the discussion outside of approaches to material and physical sources and into the realm of the sources themselves. In the previous posts, I argued for the senses as critical tools in theorising space and society. Methodologically, the senses are reflexive, requiring inventories that shift due to space and time. The senses also serve as thick descriptors of the reflexive nature of space and society. Sensory experience entails the combination of space, time and reflexivity. In a way, sensory experience is the result of a sensory theory and methodology of the body in space. To that end, let’s see where the theory and methodology of the previous posts have to lead us in terms of sensory experience.

Sensory Experience

I began, once again, with a quote from Lefebvre. In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre draws on the Roman baths as some of the ‘most original architectural creations’ of a space of enjoyment (137). As discussed in the first post, Lefebvre has a broad definition of architecture that includes the physical building as well as the feelings, desires, pleasures that it entails and the space it produces. In the context of Lefebvre’s exploration of enjoyment, the Roman baths do not have enjoyment as their goal; rather the baths allow it, prepare for it and lead it (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 151). We can easily substitute experience for enjoyment. Sensory experience is not the goal, but rather a product of the space.

The body takes the central position in this respect and Lefebvre sees this placement as requiring a new paradigm (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 150). Lefebvre suggests a ‘pedagogy of the body’ that ‘would connect the conceived to the lived (and conversely), assumes a form of qualitative knowledge still in a state of germination and promise. Rhythmanalysis, for example’ (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 149). The invocation of rhythmanalysis draws the senses and time into this pedagogy of the body, the rhythmanalist ‘thinks with his [sic] body’ (Rhythmanalysis, 21). This further elaborates the nature of Lefebvre’s tripartite division of space between the conceived and the lived. The conceived is the body, or space, of scientific knowledge of anatomy, or of physiology, which is focused on the subject, while the lived body, or space, is one of imaginary appropriation and makes symbolic use of the body’s objects (H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 39-40). The knowledge derived from the connection of the conceived and lived is sensory knowledge. Lefebvre draws on smells and musical metaphors to describe the rhythmanalist’s methods and emphasises the measurement of space by the body (Rhythmanalysis, 21, 27, 33). The senses bring with them a multiplicity of meanings (sens), which can mean ‘sense’ or ‘meanings’ (Rhythmanalysis, 32; cf. translation by Kofman and Lebas, Writings on Cities). But this is exactly the point. There are a multiplicity of senses and meanings, which the body constantly negotiates, interprets and reflects upon. Sensory experience is the multiplicity.

This sensory experience also entails a multiplicity of times. Lefebvre draws a distinction between linear and cyclical time, however temporalities extend beyond this simple division (Rhythmanalysis, 30). Doreen Massey argues for the reintegration of space and time within a conceptualisation of space-time, that is seeing the spatial form of social relations constituted in time, as well (Space, Place and Gender). Massey draws on contemporary physics to conceptualise space-time as n-dimensional (see her quotes in the previous post). By this way of thinking, social relations who constitute space are dynamic and simultaneously coexistent in time (D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 265). Time, like space, has a perceived, conceived and lived element (to use Lefebvre’s division). This is a useful way of drawing together the elements of space-time, the body and the senses into the concept of experience. The body interprets the multiplicity of sens, both meanings and senses, which constitute space-time, as sensory experiences.

To return to the Roman baths, the site is one of multiple temporalities. Daily routines of bathing were based on different times of attendance. Changes to temperature in the bathing rooms further differentiated the temporality of the space. Choice was another factor, especially choice as to which bath one attended. Other temporalities are evident, such as construction and maintenance in the inscriptions. Naming of baths connected the location with a family, person and time. Fires, extensions or contractions of the space also mark temporalities. Yet all these times, overlap with the space of the baths. The mediation of the temporality and spatiality of the bath was the sensory experience of the bath. Bathers moved through the different rooms from cold to warm, as well as from areas of activity to more passive areas. Movement serves as the basis of interpretation of the space-time of the baths. Informed by the senses, the body moved through space-time in both the present, as well as being drawn into the historical pasts and other time through interaction with inscriptions, statues, mosaics and other pieces of art. As Lefebvre notes, there was a social framework that Romans experienced, which gives clues to the way society worked (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 136). The sensory experience is implicated in the production of history through its mediation of space-time (D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 254). Here we come back to Lefebvre’s point, by way of Nietzsche and Marx, that the senses are the theoretical tools by which we produce and interpret space-time. This history of sensory experience is the history of space-time, a history of movements.

Reflections on Sensory Theory, Methodologies and Experience: Contemporary and Classical Perspectives, Part 2: Sensory Methodologies

‘What I propose to understand by ‘architecture’ is the production of space at a specific level, ranging from furniture to gardens and parks and extending even to landscapes… This sense of the term corresponds to the way it has been used since the beginning of the twentieth century, which is to say since architects began to design furniture to express their views and present their projects on what is commonly called ‘the environment’ – although I shall be carefully avoiding this expression because it has no precise meaning and has been corrupted by abuse.’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 3.

 The second theme of Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience was methodology. In many ways, the overlap between theory and methodology was constantly negotiated by presenters and respondents, which lead to fruitful points of contact and divergences. In particular, much of the discussion centred on the concept of ‘atmospheres’, drawing on the works of Tonino Griffero, Peter Zumthor and others. While I found the discussion helpful, it, at times, lacked a spatial grounding. No surprise, I was drawn to Soja, Lefebvre and Massey and I want to explore the way atmosphere might lead to methodologies which bring together senses, space and time.

Sensory Methodology

There is no singular sensory methodology, a point brought out in the range of speakers and respondents at the conference. Robin Skeates presented on fieldwork and archaeological practices from a sensory perspective, highlighting three key elements of reflexivity, inventory and thick description (Sensory Archaeology). While particular to archaeology, these three elements are useful in critically engaging with the methodologies discussed, especially the concept of atmospheres. I open this post with another quote from Lefebvre, as I find his expanded definition of architecture to be similar to atmosphere, but the crucial dimension of space is shot through Lefebvre’s redefinition. Martin Walton’s presentation (The Silent Transformations of Rosemary Lee’s Meltdown with a response by Helen Slaney) brought the challenge of the senses and space to the forefront in discussion of Rosemary Lee’s Meltdown, a choreographed performance by Dance Umbrella in London’s Brunswick Square (2011). Stillness and silence opened up affective space in urban space. As discussed in the previous post, the senses served as interpreters of the change in atmosphere of the space. The separation of ‘space’ and ‘atmosphere’ highlights the distinction implicit in the discussion, namely that the two elements were distinct. The discussion was reminiscent of Soja’s description of secondspace (Lefebvre’s conceived space), a space of imagination, reflexive thought or symbolic representation (overview in Postmetropolis, 10-12). The space was altered through the affect of the performance, or the atmosphere changed the quality of the space in the act of performance.

I like the emphasis on agency; the act of performance does something to space (as I am also keen to keep the ‘something’ ambiguous). Here reflexivity takes on importance. Atmosphere is a reflexive term, building on the social action of participants. I want to extend the reflexivity to the space of action, as well. I should note that many of the presenters and respondents would agree with this and I do not wish to imply that they were opposed to object or architectural agency. This is also at the base of Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space. Starting from the body, Lefebvre notes that there is a possibility of multiple codes and encodings (citing the visual, or the sensory, or the communication in space), without privileging any one, since there is no encoded architectural or spatial effect (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 151). The reflexivity of architecture coincides with the reflexivity of the senses (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 41). As a methodological pointer, the body as interpreter of space uses the senses to interpret atmosphere. In my own work, I stress the role of architecture, in Lefebvre’s broad definition, in social construction, while the senses are interpretive tools, which are used to analyse the process of social construction.

The reflexivity of senses, spaces and social constructions was further brought to the forefront in Matthew Nicholls’ response to Ben Jacks, who first raised atmosphere as a theoretical concept. Nicholls focused his response on his own digital reconstructions of Rome, which lack the social reflexivity implicit in atmosphere. The visual dependence of 3D reconstruction has yet to move beyond the display of already known facts of space (usually in Soja’s firstspace sense). In this way, atmosphere is completely missing from the reconstruction and spatiality is no better than a hyped-up 2D plan. This tension was brought up by Jacks in response, noting the unease he has with VR, AR and other reconstructions. My own unease comes from the reduction of lived space to what Lefebvre calls a ‘lunar landscape’ where space has lost the ability to attract and tempt the user with objects, people, encounters, or enticements and adventures, namely space without atmosphere (H. Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, 603). Or as Massey comments,

‘A first requirement of developing an alternative view of space is that we should try to get away from a notion of society as a kind of 3-D (and indeed usually 2-D) slice which moves through time… Instead of linear process counterposed to flat surface (which anyway reduces space from three to two dimensions), it is necessary to insist on the irrefutable four-dimensionality (indeed n-dimensionality) of things. Space is not static, nor time spaceless.’ –D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 264.

My own discussion of reconstruction in terms of sound requires not simply a model but the archaeological detail of the site, space or building. Materials, dimensions and construction methods, as well as decoration are all necessary in order to place sound with in the model. The same should be done for the producer, which is also a function of time, of the sound to even closely approximate the soundscape. In this way, my own method entails a fair degree of inventory, as well as reflexivity in the inventory itself. However, to only include inventory (categorisations, lists, etc) or reflexivity limits the possibilities of the methodology.

I am somewhat less inclined to thick descriptions, although I do see the use and value in Skeates’ own work (see his An Archaeology of the Senses: Prehistoric Malta). My emphasis on space and spatiality however, indicates a different form of thick description. The importance of the interaction between senses, space and society coincides with the importance of mediation. As Lefebvre states,

‘[t]here is no sensation without mediation or activity, and, therefore, no sensation as such, no sensation without appreciation with its implicit judgement. Pure sensation has never existed. Immediacy is found within the bounds of the sensory, within the indiscernible ambiguity of the sensory and the sensual. It is also found beyond it, in the unity of the sensual and the sensory of a space.’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 115.

A sensory methodology, like a sensory theory, needs to grapple with the way sensory modalities mediate space and time. Space and time are at the centre of experience, which I will deal with in the following post. However, the bringing together of the senses and society in space has methodological implications for understanding senses. In particular, it is the ‘mixity’, as Doreen Massey puts it, of space, where a multiplicity of histories are brought together in specific places, that produce tacit knowledge gained through the senses (D. Massey ‘Cities in the World’, in City Worlds). In this way, the multiplicity of histories can be told as thick descriptions of space.

In a way, the senses serve as thick descriptors of space. Spatial work and architecture, in a limited sense of buildings, are mediators between the sensory and metaphysical perception and conception of objects, but fail to mediate between the sensory and the active perception of space (H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 95). Taken as thick descriptors, the senses serve to construct specific places and times, that is atmospheres. Lefebvre makes reference to this possibility in a footnote, noting that noise, as the residue of sound, can be taken as means of constructing ‘contexts for a life to be created (‘moments’)’ (H. Lefebvre, Metaphilosophy, 303 n.7). Writing thick descriptions of the senses are therefore one methodological approach, which can serve to encapsulate the complexity of senses and society for any given period.

In the next post, I turn to the theme of experience, which draws together much of the discussion from the last two posts. The role of sensory experience in theorising and formulating methodologies is central and needs further nuance than often given. The movement here from theory to method will continue to experience. In particular I have mentioned the centrality of time, the senses grounded in space-time and can serve, again, as a useful tools in understanding the experience.

Presentation: Sound, Space and Soceity: Urban Acoustics After Pompeii

I will be presenting a paper at the European Association for Urban History, Reinterpreting Cities, 13th International Conference on Urban Hisotry at the end of the month and as I was asked to upload a summary of my paper on the EAUH site, I have also posted it below. I have been busy finishing my PhD, which is now a full draft being edited for submission. In many ways, this presentation is a summary of some of the conclusions, although being a 20 min pres it does not cover everything. Anyways, here is the summary and key points I’ll be talking around Thursday morning, 25 August, in Helsinki:

[Opening Quotes] The production of space, according to Lefebvre, is just as much about the physical buildings and imaginary worlds as it is about the sensory activities and bodily functions.[1] For Lefebvre, the senses, especially sound, offer a theoretical tool by which to analyse the daily rhythms of the city.[2] While the production of space has come to the forefront of Roman urban studies, especially in Pompeian studies, the role of sensory activities remains minimally explored.[3] In this paper, the perception of sound serves to elucidate the urban space of Ostia Antica. Drawing on the theoretical work of urban geography, introduced by Pompeian scholars, this paper will argue that production of space in Roman cities was fostered by the acoustic inclinations of Romans. In this way, the paper takes ‘after Pompeii’ in two simultaneous directions. On the one hand, it seeks to build on the approaches tested in Pompeii; on the other hand, it applies a case study from a city that displays the architectural developments that immediately preceded Pompeii, namely the second century CE. Sound provides a critical tool to analyse the experience and interaction within urban space, as well as being an object of study within literary sources on Roman urbanism. The result is a better understanding of the changing perceptions and conceptions of urban space, beyond simply reconfigured urban space, either through construction or deconstruction.

[Sound & sources graph] The literary sources display a particular anxiety towards noise, especially the sounds of movement or the movement of sound. It is worth defining sound and noise, as these terms reflect a perceptual difference that is socially and culturally specific. Sound is any auditory stimulus that is interpreted by the human auditory system (ears, body, brain, etc.), while noise is unwanted sound, being an auditory judgement. In short, one person’s sound is another’s noise. The distinction is therefore a judgement, drawing on status, gender, age distinctions in relation to things experienced outside the perceiver.

[Juv. Quote] The social anxiety towards noise is manifest in two forms. First, noise complaints about the sounds of the city, in this case Rome specifically. Juvenal offers a pertinent example in Satire 3, were Umbricius complains that the sick die from lack of sleep due to the noise. The caput mundi, Rome, is filled with noise, making it the caput morbi, ‘head of the disease’.[4] For Juvenal, as well as Martial and Seneca, satire served as a social critique of the architectural changes to the experience of streets following the fire in Rome of 64 CE. [Street terms & sound refs] This is an important point in terms of ‘after Pompeii’. The building regulations (street widening, porticos and height restrictions) are evident throughout Ostia, but only minimally present in Pompeii.[5] The brief period between the destruction of Pompeii and the rebuilding and extension of Ostia was a period of intense construction, which also changed the perception of the urban space.

Noise complaints are connected to certain spaces, as well as certain times. The forum, via and vicus are most referenced pubic space in terms of sound, with semita and clivus all being over 10%. Most sound roots are connected with movement, which is the base of auditory anxieties. For example, strepitus carries the connotation of busy or stressful activity, while fremitus has connotations of animals buzzing or humming, such as bees.[6] In contrast, silence, sileo, is connected with non-movement, or stillness, which emphasises the combination of sound and movement. Through both etymology and associations, sound roots are connected with movement; to move is to make sound. The fluidity of spatial practices underlines the role of sound in defining space.

[Rumour terms] Sound anxiety also appear as anxiety over the movement of sound, in this case rumours, gossip and the like. Fama, either rumour or fame, is constantly on the move, restless and unstable.[7] The spatial boundaries of fama, therefore, constantly shift, or more precisely never stop long enough to be spatially fixed.[8] Speed is part of the moral topography of movement, as O’Sullivan has shown.[9] Running is characteristic of slaves and effeminate action, an association also connected to movement of fama.[10] In this case, rumours are the target of social control due to association with non-elite forms of urbanism, specifically neighbourhood groups, vici, and small gatherings in the forum, circuli.[11] [Augustus] These informal groupings were the sites of popular resistance in the late Republic, which were later incorporated into the imperial state; through the reorganisation of the vici and the control of movement in the Forum Romanum both in the Augustan period.[12]

[1] H. Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Verso, 2014, p. 484.

[2] H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Balckwell, 1991, p. 405; cf. Lefebvre, Rythmanalysis: Space, Society and the Everyday, Bloomsburry, 2013.

[3] E. Betts, ‘Towards a Multisensory Experience of Movement in the City of Rome’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.), Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Society, OUP, 2011, pp. 118-32; A. Haug and P. Kruez (eds.), Stadterfahrung als Sinneserfahrung in der römischen Kaiserzeit, Brepolis, 2016.

[4] Juv. Sat. 3.234-6; J. Hartnett, ‘Sound as a Roman Urban Social Phenomenon’, in Haug and Kruez, n. 3, p. 166.

[5] See S. Ellis, ‘Pes Dexter: Superstition and the State in the Shaping of Shopfronts and Street Activity in the Roman World’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.), n. 3, p. 173.

[6] Strepitus, Hor. Carm. 3.29.12; Epist. 2.2.79-80; fremitus, Sen. Ep. 94.72; Vir. Geo. 4.216.

[7] P. Hardie, Rumour and Renown: Representations of fama in western literature, CUP, 2012, pp. 3-11; 248.

[8] R. Laurence, ‘Towards a History of Mobility in Ancient Rome (300 BCE to 100 CE)’, in I. Östenberg, S. Malmberg, J. Bjørnebye (eds.), The Moving City: Processions, passages and promenades in ancient Rome, Bloomsbury, 2015, p. 181.

[9] T. O’Sullivan, Walking in Roman Culture, OUP, 2011.

[10] Corbel 2004, pp. 107-139; O’Sullivan, n. 8, pp. 11-33; Hardie, n. 6, pp. 357-360; 387-391.

[11] Vici, R. Laurence, ‘Rumour and Communication in Roman Politics’, Greece and Rome 41 (1994), pp. 62-74; circuli, P. O’Neill, ‘Going Round in Circles: Popular Speech in Ancient Rome’, Classical Antiquity 22 (2003), pp. 135-76.

[12] Reorganisation of vici, A. Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution, CUP, pp. 276-90; Forum Romanum, D. Newsome, ‘Movement and For a in Rome (the late Republic to first century CE)’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.), n. 3, pp. 304-5.

Back to Ostia… and Rome!

I fly out today for two weeks in Rome. I will be doing some field work for the first half and then presenting at the Roman Archaeology Conference in Rome the second week.

Recently, I have been working on the acoustics of street spaces. I have concentrated on the north cardo maximus, which is a single large scale development of the area north of the forum. The street is lined with porticos on each side and is uniform in its construction. The cardo maximus is the second widest street in Ostia, only the decumanus is wider. In many ways, the cardo maximus is the main street one would enter coming from the Tiber (unlike today, where we enter from land). In contrast, I have been analysing a side street, which was not uniformily constructed and lacks porticos or other monumental features. The Via degli Augustale is the opposite to the north cardo maximus. My field work will focus on the development of the street and the way individual owners shaped the streetscape.

In terms of acoustics, as well as sounds, the complex construction, reconstruction, and continuous work along the Via degli Augustale all shaped the way the streets sound field. A temple along the decumanus was dedicated in the 190s CE, which reduced an open street area along the street. The noise of the temple (sacrifices, processions, etc.) would now dominate the north end of the street, while at the south end was one of the largest fulleries. It is the interactions between these various activities in the street space that produces a different experience, than that of the cardo maximus.

Some of this work will, hopefully, make it into my presentation at RAC. I am in a session discussing sensory approaches to movement in the Roman period. Much of the presentation will be an introduction to my basic approach, but I will use my north cardo work as a case study. If things go as planned, I should be able to share a bit about the comparison with other streets, like the Via degli Augustale. Fingers crossed.

Finally, an update on the blog: I have started to pull together some resources on acoustics, under the ‘Acoustic Resources’ tab at the top. I have linked to Electric Archaeology’s github on sonification, which involves turning a data set into a song. It’s a great way to present data in a different format, requiring people to engage with data through listening. I also posted some work that I will be presenting in April. There are a couple of network graphs of sound roots, street terms and Latin authors I created pulling references from the Packard Humanities Institute database. They show the terms prefered by authors, as well as the connections between places (street terms) and sounds (Latin root words for sounds/noise). The graphs are interactive so, you can scroll over a term/author/word and it will highlight the network associated with the selection.



Johnny Cash in the Baths of Neptune

This last weekend I tried a new form of presentation for my acoustic analysis. It was a short 10 minute presentation at Multitudo: a multisensory, multilayered and multidirectional approach to classical studies. I was part of the organising committee for the workshop and we were drawn to non-academic ways of presenting our research. I decided to test out a ‘reverse’ of my usual presentation style.

My usual: intro acoustics, physics of sound, maths, sums…; followed by discussion of spaces with plans, graphs and tables; finish with social-spatial implications.


This time I started with a sound sample. I played a 20 second clip of Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down. The clip was EQ’d flat, with no reverb. I then played 3 more versions of the clip, each set to the reverberation time and EQ of a room from the Baths of Neptune. I then showed one of my standard plans of the Baths with the reverberation times for each room colour coded. I asked the audience to try and figure out the relationship of the sound sample with the rooms on the plan.

It was a challenging exercise. Most people haven’t spent hours listening to tracks, adjusting the EQ or reverb. Most of us don’t connect what we hear with the space we hear those sounds in. And most of us don’t think about the space that is created in the post-production of making a record. At the same time, it’s a great exercise in relating acoustic discussions to different spaces.

I was asked in the question time why I picked Johnny Cash and not some choral, symphonic or even ‘ancient’ style music. I thought I would layout my response here, as it gets at some of my driving questions behind my project.

  1. I picked the Johnny Cash song because it is a simple track with almost no reverb or processing to start with. I used the first 20 seconds of the track, which is just foot stomps, claps, guitar and Johnny’s voice. The flat response of the song means that when I altered it to each room it would be noticeable and wouldn’t get lost in an abundance of different sounds.
  2. I needed a clip with some low end frequencies, which I could draw out for one of the samples. Johnny’s voice has a deep resonance, which showed off the long reverb and muddy character of the low frequency noise.
  3. I used a contemporary song, one I expected a majority of people to know, because I wanted to make a connection with the audience. In my answer, I said, “Playing a foreign sound, in a foreign space and asking foreign questions, is too much for an audience.” I am not interested in simply recreating ‘ancient’ sounds. By using a contemporary song, the focus shifts to the changes created by the space, not the authenticity of the sound. This is probably the main theoretical reason for the choice. My project uses acoustics to better understand the architecture and architectural history of Rome.
  4. Finally, it is way more fun to put Johnny Cash in the Baths of Neptune, than it would be to play white noise or a frequency tone. The music is only a tool, which conveys architectural information. While I could use any sound, I used something that entertained me, as well. It takes time, and a lot of repeating, to get the clips right. I picked a song that I could repeat without going to crazy…

I was impressed with the response and have been thinking about adding sound samples to more of my presentations. It was far more engaging, and we all need to be able to laugh at our presentations, thinking about Johnny Cash playing in a Roman bath complex, as a way to share what I’m researching.

Panel Acceptance and Abstract Submission

I found out yesterday that a panel I was on was accepted for The Roman Archaeological Conference 2016 in Rome (16-19 March 2016). The panel is on Sensing Rome: Sensory Approaches to Movement and Space, which is right up my alley. I still need to sit down and write an abstract for my paper but it is provisionally titled ‘Structure of Noise: Aural Architecture and Movement in Ostian Streets’. It will draw together some of the upcoming work for my next chapter on the topics of movement, sounds and urban space.

I also submitted an abstract for Sound and Auditory Culture in Greco-Roman Antiquity, which will be 1-2 April 2016 in Columbia, MO. The abstract I submitted dealt with the interaction between architectural and archaeological reconstruction of acoustics and literary descriptions. This was a more theoretical and methodological paper than RAC, although it will still have plenty of plans, maps, pretty pictures and possibly sounds. I have been thinking about ways to present the architectural acoustic measures in audible form. I’m not quite sure how it will work but I have some fun ideas to related the maps and plans to audible sounds.