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Storage and Empire

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Humanities Center fellow Astrid Van Oyen is a Roman archaeologist and assistant professor at Cornell University with a special interest in material culture.

For archeologist and Humanities Center fellow Astrid Van Oyen, objects have a story to tell.


Astrid Van Oyen is assistant professor in classical archaeology at Cornell University. Her focus has been on storage in the Roman Empire, as a point of redefinition of objects and their social relations. She is the author of How Things Make History (2016).


Storage and “stuff” is certainly something we can all relate to. Why are you interested in how it shaped ancient Rome?

It’s something we rarely think about and then suddenly when you start thinking about it, you realize there’s a lot of deep historical truths it hides. When I first saw a self-storage facility, it stood out to me because I had never seen one in Europe. What on earth is this, right? They look garage-like and they’re very intriguing, but they’re also very shielded. I really had to wrap my head around what is this thing and what do people store there.


I was very cynical about it until we moved here and now all of our stuff is in a self-storage facility. So it’s quite liberating if you can put it away behind closed doors. Also, I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to do without it now that we’ve had one. It just seems so convenient to have a storage space where you can declutter the stuff that is working, I guess, on a different rhythm than the rhythm of your life. 

Stuff asks things of us. It makes demands on your time, on your energy, on your attention. And how people chose to negotiate that and use storage is productive as a way of thinking about it. 
 

What is the central question you’re trying to answer?

The Roman Empire is a super interesting case study because it’s essentially a world of farmers turned world empire. So storage is a point of view that allows us to trace this historical process but also anchor it to social and economic dynamics.

You know, if you think about the economy it’s trading, transacting, producing, consuming stuff. And yet, very few economic historians think seriously about stuff. It becomes an abstraction or a dot on a distribution map, a data point on a chart. So how can this be written into some of the central questions we ask about ancient Rome?
 

How are you focusing your research?

I’m looking at case studies that are rich enough to make this a textured account. I have a few big ones and the main point there is to cut across the scales between farmer and state. 

One is in first-century BC central Italy. Big agricultural estates suddenly get very big store rooms. And so there’s an economic side to that in that they’re starting to export a lot of products, wine and so on. But there’s also a social status representational side in that they become increasingly involved in a sort of showing off. And having a big store room is also a social message. 


The entrance to an Ancient Roman warehouse at Ostia. (Image credit: Astrid Van Oyen)


What happens when you actually look at the products being stored? When you think about what happens with wine being stored, or what happens with grain being stored, or water being stored, these products have very different physical properties. Wine can get better in storage. Grain is like a hot potato. You want to get rid of it as soon as possible. It can only ever get worse. 

It turns out that these properties are really important, and they influence what you can do with this stored stuff and how quickly you can turn it around. And also, what kind of economic decisions you can make. You can ask, what are the prices like? Are they any good? No? Well, I’ll keep my wine in storage a little longer. 

 

What was the Roman philosophy of storage? Were there ancient hoarders, for example?

There were. The little we know about them is some text talking about how there were famines in some areas and then the rich land owners of the area didn’t want to sell their grain for rock-bottom prices. They wanted to keep it rather than put it on the market, but then they had to be somehow forced to sell it. So there is a lot of critique of this hoarding. Something as banal as storage turns out to be a structural mechanism in how people negotiated power and dominion. 

And another case study looks, at a smaller scale, at what people kept in their houses at Pompeii and Herculaneum. There’s evidence of things like cupboards and chests, and so on. So I’m interested in thinking about how things cycle through. Who knew what was stored where? 


Dolium sealed with lid container for wine storage and fermentation (Campania), Villa Regina. (Image credit: Astrid Van Oyen)


I think in today’s houses—or in the idealized imagination of what people today do in their houses, as you see in doll houses or architects’ plans—spaces have a defined function. And I think that, in general, what is stored in a space will sort of go hand in hand with that. So you keep kitchen stuff in the kitchen. You keep clothes in the bedroom and a toothbrush in the bathroom.

But in the Roman houses there was no such thing, so spaces usually didn’t have one specific function. Their function would change according to the time of day, according to season, according to the people involved, and so on. And it turns out that putting objects in storage was really key to allowing that to happen, this multifunctionality. 

Objects give us clues about what to do in a space. They tell you what is going on or what’s supposed to be going on. So if you want to free up action space from the objects’ demand, you have to put them away. 

 

What lessons can be learned? For example, was storage and food supply management for such a vast empire a significant factor in its downfall? 

Focusing on the city of Rome, it was massive. It had about a million inhabitants, a scale not repeated until early modern Europe and its cities came along. I mean, we’re so used to population density and to the systems for maintaining that. But in pre-industrial terms, first-century AD, this is mind-boggling. How do you sustain so many people in one place?

It couldn’t sustain itself from its own territory, so it relied on these links in order to get grain, for instance, from Egypt to feed its population. Which is crazy when you think about it. I wouldn’t dare say that it had anything to do with the downfall of the Roman Empire. But it was definitely a crucial factor for the city of Rome.
 

What was the most surprising discovery? 

One of the triggers I like to use, as a starting point for how deep storage can go, is thinking about my grandparents who lived through the Second World War as teenagers in Belgium. 

They had, to my child’s eye, this massive pantry bang in the middle of their house. And they had so much food in there it was like this Valhalla going in. All this food and all these cookies. And so my mom—and this was a recurring thing—always said, “Check the use-by date.” Because by the time the stuff was channeled from their pantry to their fridge, it could be a month out of date. 

I do think that there’s the sense that they came from the generation where scarcity was still imprinted on their memory and so it was really important to have this stock. That mattered more than the quality of what you eat. Whereas today we’re so obsessed with fresh and organic. I think in large part that’s made possible because in today’s world, where we’re not farmers, it is so dependent on immediate access. So it’s a different valuation of this food chain. 


Storage is a very sensitive identifier of historical mentalities that often escape analysis because they’re not clearly either social, economic, or moral. They’re hard to categorize and they’re so deep-rooted that they’re unarticulated. Today nobody thinks about storage. Nobody worries about storage. It’s just there and I think it tells us so much.