Sabine Neumann, Assistant Professor of Archaeology

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background as a researcher?

Certainly. I’ve studied Classical Archaeology, Ancient History and Art History in Munich, Berlin and Athens and received my PhD in Classical Archaeology from the University of Munich with a monograph on Grottoes in Hellenistic domestic culture (published in 2016). In 2013 I spent a full year traveling in the Mediterranean and Middle East and was able to visit various wonderful places in eleven countries, from Portugal and Morocco, to Turkey and Jordan. 

In 2015 I was hired as an Assistant Professor at the Archaeological Seminar at the University of Marburg. I teach courses in Greek and Roman Archaeology, as well as Archaeological Theory. My main field of research is Greece, where I regularly spend shorter and longer research stays and for which I have published extensive results. 

Recently, I have been finishing up a new book on the Graeco-Egyptian deities in Athens where I apply the theory of social imaginary to describe how a new cult, a sanctuary or an iconography of a god, can be imagined and shaped by the agency of individuals and groups. As part of Migration and Membership Regimes, I focus on female agency in the introduction of new cults.

As an archaeologist, what are some of the challenges and opportunities to studying migration in antiquity?

Questions about migration in antiquity have long been a topic of archaeological research. However, the distribution of material objects has often been equated with the distribution of people. To give an example, when objects from another cultural context, say, from the Levant were found in a grave in Athens, they were conventionally interpreted as an indication that the buried person came from the Levant and migrated to Greece. However, recent theoretical studies complicate this picture. The big question is: How can we trace the people (the actual migrants) in the archaeological record? Even so, material objects can provide a tangible link to shared memories, emotions, and cultural practices. Together with new approaches on material culture studies, migration in antiquity has been rediscovered as an important field of study for archaeology. 

I think that studying the material culture can open up new perspectives on migration in Antiquity and can complement or challenge our knowledge from written sources. When people travel or migrate, they bring objects with them that can serve as memory objects and virtually connect them with their home places. Migrants often have or form social networks to import items or they produce objects to their new place of residence by absorbing new influences. When it comes to religion, ritual objects or domestic furnishings signal how religious groups encoded sacred and spiritual meaning into them. Much of what is reputedly ‘authentic’ for a culture turns out, at second glance, to be a so-called ‘import’.

Accordingly, I am interested to know how migrants, especially women, shaped their religious environment through material culture. One question I ask is to what extent migrants were able to use their knowledge of the production of objects, and of ritual skills as a form of ‘social capital’ or ‘currency’ in the membership regime. What role does material culture play in these new contexts? How did the meanings of objects change when religious objects were transplanted to new social and cultural contexts?

What are you most excited about being part of the project?

I am very much excited to work in a young and international team at the University of Copenhagen. Since we all come from different backgrounds, we have already had many fruitful conversations about how to approach the study of migration in the ancient world. I am also looking forward to studying in more detail the exciting topic of Mobility and Migration and how it shaped the ancient world. 

What impact or contribution do you hope that your findings will have for the current debates about migration?

I hope that my research will show that migration is not the exception but the rule in history. People have always been on the move all around the world; they have travelled and migrated. From a historical perspective people from different cultures have always been in a process of constant exchange. I think it is important to point out that this is, and always has been, the normal lived experience. 

Furthermore, we want to focus on the question of how migration – or more precisely, the migrants – shaped the places to which they migrated. This subject has been largely neglected in studies of the ancient world. In my research, I specifically focus on the agency of women, who are often overlooked, even today. Female agency is not immediately visible because it is often judged according to the same parameters used to describe male agency. The great role that women played, and still play, in migration is simply overlooked. But if one takes a closer look, one can see that women from all strata of society shaped their local environment. 

Particularly in the case of religion, we find them as performers and enablers of ritual actions, in the roles of priestesses and benefactresses, or, more indirectly, as protagonists within family networks. What’s important is that the agency of women must be studied in a multi-perspective approach, taking categories other than gender alone into consideration. I hope that my research on the religious agency of women in the ancient Mediterranean will also shed new light on the immense importance of migrant women today.

How do you feel about relocating to Copenhagen?

I’m really looking forward to move to Copenhagen and work with my colleagues on the project. Denmark is not so different compared to Germany, but I love Copenhagen and I’m excited about living there for a while. As a curious person, I enjoy being abroad  and have new experiences, meet new people, discover the city, observe  the little differences to my own country (or other countries I have  lived such as Greece). All in all, I can’t wait to come to Copenhagen!