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Roman Archaeology teaching for diversity and inclusion: or what a difference 10 weeks makes

Dr Zena Kamash FSA, Senior Lecturer in Roman Archaeology, Dept of Classics, Royal Holloway


In 2019 I was invited to give the keynote lecture at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference that would take place that year in Canterbury, Kent, UK. I immediately knew that I wanted to talk about diversity and inclusion in Roman Archaeology, so set about gathering some datasets to add numbers to my impressions of the field as a woman of colour. As well as gathering data relating to conference participation and conducting a survey into Roman archaeology teaching from lecturers around the world, I also wanted to understand how my own students viewed Roman archaeology and the ways in which we teach it (the other analyses from the keynote lecture will be published soon in the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal). In this, I was inspired by an experiment run by Dr Katherine Blouin in her course on the ancient Mediterranean where she surveyed her students at the beginning and end of the course to see how their understandings changed in response to her teaching (Blouin 2019). I decided to run a similar experiment with the first year students on our ‘Introduction to Roman Archaeology’ course. I sought ethical approval to undertake this study and all students who participated consented to do so; 39 out of 46 students in the class participated.

At the beginning of the course, I asked the students the following questions:

  1. What 5 words come to mind when you think about Roman Archaeology?
  2. Is this your first course in archaeology? Yes/No
    • If no, what other high school or university course(s) did you take?
  3. Do you speak any languages (ancient or modern) in addition to English? Yes/No
    • If yes, please list those languages.

In answer to question 1 (‘What 5 words come to mind when you think about Roman Archaeology?’) there were 156 entries (not all students gave five words) covering 76 individual terms (Figs 1-2).

Fig. 1: Survey 1 ‘five words’ (n=156).

There were some striking patterns, for example, there was not a single mention of any part of the Roman Empire, except Roman Italy and Roman Britain. Indeed, 14 out of 39 (36% of students) students made an immediate association with Pompeii, followed by Herculaneum from 8 students (22% of students). Mentions of Italy made up 26% of the 156 entries. There were also some highly specific answers, such as ‘western empire’ and ‘Europe’, which again suggest a very limited understanding of the geography of the Roman world. One response focused heavily on the militaristic aspects with the words ‘conquest’, ‘victory’ and ‘empire’. Terms like ‘multicultural’ did not feature at all.

Fig. 2: Survey 1 ‘five words’ by category of responses (%; n=156).

I am not in the slightest here saying that my students gave ‘incorrect’ answers. Indeed, one of the key aims of the survey was to find out what preconceptions the students were bringing with them into the classroom, so that these could be challenged and expanded. What is clear is that they were simply reflecting a bias towards a particular narrative and view of Roman archaeology to which they had been exposed before coming to university. This reflects their previous teaching in primary and secondary school, and the broader narrative that exists about Roman archaeology in the wider world in museums, on TV, in popular books and so on. What is worrying here is that this does not seem to have changed from 1995 when Simon James presented a paper at the Roman Archaeology Conference in which his abstract states: ‘To caricature a caricature: Roman civilisation, apart from Fishbourne and Hadrian’s Wall, was something that ‘happened’ in the city of Rome and at Pompeii between the time of Caesar and the eruption of Vesuvius. How has this arisen, and what can be done about it? The explanation, and the way to possible improvements, lie in scrutiny of how people find out about Rome, both at school and in adult life.’ We have clearly been aware of the problem since the 1990s, but have not yet been able, it would seem, to effect any clear change in that all-pervasive narrative. While I do not present any solutions to that particular thorny question, I do want to show here that at university level, at least, those preconceived ideas can be changed.

I will not dwell long on the other questions asked in the first survey, other than to point out that the answers let me know my students better. I found out, for example, that the students in the room spoke 12 different languages, not including English. These languages included Turi (a Ghanaian dialect), Hindi, Bengali and Vietnamese. I may not have known how multicultural this cohort was without asking this question, so it also gave me a valuable insight into their backgrounds and lives outside the classroom.

In the teaching that followed, my co-teachers – Erica Rowan and Dies van der Linde – made minimal changes to the topics that had been delivered in the course since 2015. What did change was the framing of those topics. In the first class, for example, I made it clear that the Roman world was multicultural and used the example of the Regina tombstone to show how people moved around the empire and that mixed race marriages occurred; the tombstone also opens up conversations about enslavement. You can see and read more about the Regina tombstone here and here. We also made sure that we used case studies and examples from the full geographical scope of the Roman world. Again, these examples were not necessarily different to ones used before, but we ensured that the students were aware when we were talking about, say, the Middle East, Asia Minor or North Africa. We did not cut out some of the more traditional or expected content – we still talked about Pompeii when it was relevant – but made every effort to find a balance between including those elements and introducing the students to the variety and complexity of the Roman world and our ways of understanding it.

At the end of the course, 10 weeks later, I asked the students to complete a follow-up survey with the following questions:

  1. What 5 words come to mind when you think about Roman Archaeology?
  2. This course has made me think differently about the Roman world.
    • Strongly agree/agree/disagree/strongly disagree.
    • Please give reasons for your answer.
  3. I liked learning about diversity and multiculturalism in the Roman world.
    • Strongly agree/agree/disagree/strongly disagree.
    • Please give reasons for your answer.

This time in answer to question 1, we received 178 ‘entries’ across 87 individual terms, so even at this broad level we can see that horizons had expanded from the first survey (Figs 3-4).

Fig. 3: Survey 2 ‘five words’ (n=178).

As well as an overall rise in technical vocabulary (a pleasing nod to the fact that our teaching works!) and the fact that temples were clearly on their minds as the session in which the second survey was circulated was on religion, there were also some other significant changes. In terms of places, Pompeii (5 responses) had been knocked off the top spot to be replaced by Palmyra (6 responses) and other places like Ephesos also featured (2 mentions). Italy’s dominance was not only diminished by an expanded understanding of the extent of the Roman world, including no more explicit references to western Europe, but also with a general focus that shifted from place to themes. Within those themes, there was a move away from a focus on ‘conquest’ towards more nuanced topics and issues like ‘Romanisation’ (5 responses), ‘multicultural’ (3 responses), ‘regional variation’ (1 response) and ‘diverse’ (1 response). There had been no hint of this kind of awareness in the first survey, demonstrating that a relatively small tweak in framing resulted in dislodging some of those entrenched views of the Roman world.

Fig. 4: Survey 2 ‘five words’ by category of responses (%; n=178).

In response to question 2, 34 of the 39 students agreed that the course had made them think differently about the Roman world, of whom 8 strongly agreed with that statement (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Responses to survey 2, question 2 (%; n=37).

Only three students said they disagreed and two did not answer the question. Some of the comments that accompanied these ‘strongly agree’ and ‘agree’ responses, included:

  • [it] made me realise that there is more to Roman history than just imperialism
  • [it] allowed me to see the variation of material culture across the empire
  • At first I thought that Roman Archaeology would purely focus on Rome + Pompeii, the course has made me realise the breadth of the Roman reach
  • I realised there’s more to the Roman Empire than just Rome: Palmyra, Petra etc
  • The idea of cities around the Empire being different because of local culture
  • It has made me think about the different kinds of culture in the Roman world
  • I have only learned about Roman politics and imperialism before
  • I have acquired a knowledge of the diversity of what was seen as Roman

As you can imagine, these comments were music to my ears and again demonstrated what impact some small adjustments to a course can make.

Of the 37 students who answered question 3, only 1 student disagreed that they liked learning about diversity and multiculturalism in the Roman world; they did not provide an explanatory comment (Fig. 6). The remaining 36 respondents all agreed, with 15 of these strongly agreeing that they enjoyed this element of their learning. If proof is needed that students respond well to this manner of teaching, it is provided here.

Fig. 6: Responses to survey 2, question 3 (%; n=37).

Again the comments shed further light on what the students found valuable about this learning experience with several drawing comparisons with the contemporary world:

  • I had assumed that there may not have been as much diversity as there was
  • Provided an opportunity to see a version of Roman world not always seen
  • Diversity is important in the modern age
  • I find it interesting how different cultures coexisted inside the empire
  • It’s important and interesting to know about diversity
  • It developed my understanding away from a stereotypical image of the Roman world
  • There were people with uniqueness and differences
  • Regina tombstone highlighted mixed relationships in the Roman world
  • It is interesting to see archaeology outside of Rome and how it differs due to cultural influences
  • It’s interesting to find out there were differences in Roman society just as there are today
  • It helped me understand the Roman world better
  • It is interesting to learn about the differing elements across the empire, instead of just thinking about it all as ‘Roman’
  • Allows the views of the empire being culturally ‘Roman’ to be challenged, opening the doors into the cultural and social diversity to be found.

This is a staggering set of responses demonstrating not only how much they valued the experience, but also a new found sophistication in their thinking; this made me more proud than any other set of student feedback. To hammer the point home again, it is clear that with some small and easy tweaks here and there, we really can make a difference with our teaching. And as testament to why we need to teach in ways that emphasise diversity and inclusivity, I would like the final words to be those of the student who made me do a happy dance in my office:

  • As a person from a BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] background diversity interests me and so to see it in the ancient world is welcoming.

[mic drop]


Blouin, Katherine 2019 The Ancient Mediterranean in 5 words or what difference does a course make? Everyday Orientalism. Available at

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