The Archaeology of Surveillance

Sue Alcock opened the third and final lecture in her series “Some Archaeologies of Surveillance” with the energy of a comedic talk show host. For the final part of the series, she proposed to conduct a “chat” centered on the outline of her book in progress. “I am going to put you guys to work,” she said, “walking and talking through the book.” Her interest in the history of surveillance follows from her previous work in the archaeology of empires in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly Roman Greece. Her research on imperial structures and landscapes led her to wonder about the forms of discipline that governed people of ancient times. The modern concept of surveillance provides her with a new lens through which she examines her archaeological subject matter. Her book “will argue that more than casual attention should be paid, and more than limited value assigned, to the phenomenon of surveillance in the past.”

Alcock was open to exploring the ways in which this frame of analysis might offer other types of knowledge. Though there are risks in treating ancient cultures too much like modern ones, applying modern concepts like surveillance to historical societies brings a new perspective to the way we look at history. The audience, a serious group of confident intellectuals, raised a number of issues with Alcock’s project. They posed questions on topics like the transformation of the surveyed subjects, the subjects’ paranoia, the positive aspects of surveillance, and modes of information flow. Most crucially, they asked about the definition of surveillance if removed from the modern context in which its connotations are most explicit. Alcock, whose work on the topic is still in an early stage, was unable to address many of the issues discussed, but promises to take them into consideration when developing her ideas for her book.