The Prison Project
Materiality of Incarceration in Mediterranean Antiquity
The Prison Project studies the materiality and archaeology of incarceration in Mediterranean antiquity. It brings together a research team of historians, archaeologists, and digital humanities experts at the University of Copenhagen to answer the questions: what did prisons look like and what it was like to experience incarceration in the ancient Mediterranean world.
While often though to be a globally urgent and uniquely modern problem, prisons and incarceration must have been a ubiquitous part of everyday life in the ancient Mediterranean world. The problem is that the materiality and archaeology of incarceration has almost entirely escaped the grasps of modern researchers. Scholars lament that ancient prisons are now gone and wrongly assert that we have no secure architectural evidence.
Our research team has demonstrated in recent publications that it is possible to securely identify prisons in the archaeological record (e.g. through the presence of prisoner graffiti inside rooms in secure buildings, through stocks attached to wall and chains with human remains still within them) as well as catalogued a significant amount of other material culture related to incarceration (e.g. several paintings of prison scenes from Pompeii). The project's hypothesis, then, is that incarceration remains hidden in the archaeological record, waiting to be exposed to scrutiny and integrated into our sense of the human past. The project's impact will be to disrupt a broad and century-old scholarly consensus about the prison relatively absent from the ancient world (Durkheim, Mommsen) and as born in early modern Europe and the US (Foucault), with the potential to shift central assumptions in the ancient Mediterranean world, not only opening up new lines of inquiry in the fields of early Christianity and New Testament studies — so full of sources on incarceration — as well as ancient Judaism, classics, early Islam, and medieval Europe.
Our project will first survey ca. 30 ancient prisons and sites of incarceration, producing high-resolution 3D models of each site through use of drones, ground and aerial imagery, laser scanning, and photogrammetry. With such survey and 3D models, team members will then study the different types and patterns of public prisons and other sites of incarceration. With a careful study of the archaeological remains of prison in place, the project will then synthesize the results with a catalogue of several hundred other material objects related to incarceration (paintings, statues, inscriptions, graffiti, etc.). The project's final phase will apply the material history of incarceration to our broader understanding of the the human past. The project will share its results not only through an international, interdisciplinary conference and scholarly publications, but also through a public website showcasing interactive 3D models of dozens of ancient prisons.
Matthew Larsen is an expert in the history and archaeology and of the ancient Mediterranean basin. Currently, he is an Associate Professor (in Promotion Program) at the University of Copenhagen, and he works on the cultural and material histories of ancient Christian communities from the first to fifth centuries. He is on the UCPH School of Archaeology steering committee and is a guest lecturer in KU’s Institut for Kunst- og Kulturvidenskab.
His current research focuses on the global history of incarceration, and he is currently completing two book manuscripts: a monograph on early Christians and incarceration and an interdisciplinary book overviewing the institution of incarceration in Mediterranean antiquity (co-authored with Mark Letteney). In Sept 2023, he began a three-year research project funded by the Carlsberg Foundation (Semper Ardens: Accelerate) on the topic of materiality of incarceration in Mediterranean antiquity.
Prior to Copenhagen, Matthew served as a faculty member at Yale University and Princeton University, where he was in the Princeton Society of Fellows. He is the author of Gospels before the Book (Oxford University Press, 2018), which won a Manfred Lautenschlaeger award, and an Italian translation of which is available through Editrice Queriniana (2022). His research is published in Hesperia, the Journal for the Study of Judaism, the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, the Journal of Early Christian Studies, Studies in Late Antiquity, and his scholarship has been featured in The Daily Beast, CHOICE, and Christian Century.
Niels Bargfeldt has a PhD in Classical Archaeology from Aarhus University. His research focuses on the constraints and the possibilities that society in the Roman world imposed on the individual. Formerly he has worked extensively on the Roman provinces and harbor cities. One part of his work for the MIMA project will be to examine the indications for prison personnel.
Niels has taken part in several excavations primarily in Italy, Greece, and Turkey where he has been responsible for 3D data-acquisition. From field data and archival records, he has worked on recreating aspects of the ancient world for research endeavors and for public dissemination. On MIMA he will play a part in reassessing the archaeological evidence for prisons and reconstructing the experience of incarceration.
Evan Levine is a Mediterranean archaeologist, studying the diachronic occupation and economies of marginal landscapes. He has organized and participated on archaeological surveys and excavations throughout Mediterranean Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, and is currently a senior staff member on the Small Cycladic Islands Project – a regional survey of small, uninhabited islands throughout the Cyclades – and a survey of the Archaic marble quarries of Naxos. At Copenhagen, he is writing a thesis on the archaeology of exile and imprisonment on Cycladic islands.
Mark Letteney is an ancient historian and archaeologist working in the history of incarceration, book history, and the archaeology of military occupation. He is an assistant professor of history at the University of Washington, and in fall 2023 he is a visiting professor on the MIMA project.
Mark serves as assistant director on the excavation of the Roman 6th Legion at Legio, Israel, where he directs excavations in the legionary amphitheater, and co-director of the Solomon's Pools Archaeological Project. His monograph, The Christianization of Knowledge in Late Antiquity: Intellectual and Material Transformations, explores how imperial Christianity changed the way that scholars across disciplines made arguments in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, and the reflection of new scholastic practices in manuscripts from the Theodosian Age. Cambridge University Press will publish the book Open Access in October 2023.
His second book, Ancient Mediterranean Incarceration (co-authored with project PI Matthew David Larsen) brings together documentary, archaeological, literary, and visual evidence to present a synthetic account of the ideology and experience of incarceration in the ancient Mediterranean basin, from 300 BCE–600 CE. University of California Press will publish the book Open Access in 2024.
Rebecca Levitan is a Lecturer in Greek Art at King’s College London. Before arriving at King’s, she received her PhD in Ancient Mediterranean Art from the History of Art Department at University of California, Berkeley and held fellowships at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the American Academy in Rome, and the British School at Rome. These opportunities also supported archaeological fieldwork in Greece and Italy and further research in Turkey and Jordan.
As a member of the MIMA team, Levitan focuses on the interpretation of spaces, material culture, and art objects that relate to the practice and representation of incarceration, offering insight into both the experience of powerful stakeholders and the people that they imprisoned and sought to control. This study addresses both material created by incarcerated individuals (graffiti, deposited objects) and artworks that indirectly allude to the ancient practice of incarceration (wall painting, sculpture, mosaics).
Naomi Reiss is based in Edinburgh, UK, where she is studying for a PhD in New Testament and Christian Origins, supervised by Prof Matthew Novenson. Her PhD research focuses on Christian prison literature from the first three centuries AD. She also enjoys swimming in the North Sea and watching the Great British Bake Off.
Matthew David Larsen
University of Copenhagen
Faculty of Theology