Simon James
Research & publications


Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra, Syria © S. James 2000




Identities & boundaries

Violence & warfare
in Antiquity

Presenting & representing
the past

Material culture






Simon James
Research & publications

My 1999 book, Atlantic Celts

My research spans aspects of both later prehistory (the European Iron Age and the ‘Celts’) and historical archaeology (the Roman world and its neighbours, in northern Europe and the Middle East).

It focuses on cultural identities, interactions, conflict and change in Old World societies between c. 300 BC and c. AD 300. In studying these, I have found myself inevitably drawn into examining how we now conceptualize these aspects, and categorize past social groups; this constitutes part of a strand which has always run through my work, i.e. examining how conceptions of the past impinge on the present, and how the present constrains views of the past.

I am interested in how and why academics and public groups envisage and represent past societies as they do, through verbal and visual discourses, including ethnic stereotypes and visual clichés; in the impact of the wider cultural context on the development of archaeology; and in the public role and relevance of the discipline. I have sought to practise what I preach in my writing and media work.


Simon James
Research & publications
Identities and boundaries

Wealthy British 'Celts'
of c.200 BC

Much of my work is linked by the common themes of human group identities and the boundaries between them. I have focused on‘ethnicities’ and their relation to rank/status identities, their origins, how they are manifested and represented, and how their boundaries are maintained and policed, contested and bridged. The latter also relates closely to my interest in social conflict, particularly structures and processes relating to martial violence, within as well as between polities. I have focused on:

The Ancient 'Celtic' peoples of Europe and the isles

Roman soldierly identity

Study in these areas has extended to work on how and why such aspects of human society are represented as they are today. Here contemporary groupings and boundaries play a key role, including those within the academic world–e.g. between disciplines, theoretical groupings, period interests, and age sets–and those between academia and the rest of society.


Simon James
Research & publications
The Ancient Celts

Reconstruction of an Iron
Age sword from Kirkburn,
E Yorks. © S. James 2000

In recent works I investigated the reasons for the establishment of the notion of the ‘Celticness’ of the European Iron Age, and explored the ramifications of its general rejection as a useful interpretative framework by British (and, increasingly, Irish) prehistorians. This is a matter of importance, given the continued use of the Celtic paradigm elsewhere in the historical sciences (e.g. in continental Iron Age archaeology, and in early medieval studies), in other academic disciplines (from philology to population genetics), and not least in popular cultural, historical and political discourses. I have published a number of books and articles on these subjects (SJ 1993a, 1998a, 1999a; SJ & Rigby 1998), and maintain a personal webpage aimed at the general public, which generates much interesting dialogue.

The intensity of current public debate on the nature and historical roots of insular identities makes this a highly topical case-study in relations between archaeology and its wider sociocultural context, both as a subject for historiography and for current direct participation.

Simon James' Ancient Celts page


Simon James
Research & publications
Soldierly identity: the milites of Rome

miles of c. AD230, based
on evidence from Dura-
Europos. © S. James 2000

My research on Dura-Europos, on north-western Europe, the Roman military and my wider interest in identities have combined in a case-study of the creation, nature and development of Roman soldierly identity. The especially rich archaeological, representational and documentary data-set makes this an optimal case for investigating questions of identity in historical antiquity, including ideology, ethnicity, gender (masculinity), status, and not least embodiment and material-cultural dimensions.

The soldiers of the Roman empire formed a distinctive, self-aware identity group, the milites, which I have argued was partly autonomous from the institutions of the state, wielding significant, if constrained, power in its own right (SJ 1999b). Soldierly identity was constructed and manifested, perhaps above all, through the body of the miles, via a visual language of artefacts (clothing and personal equipment), grooming, movement and behaviour (especially in groups). In frontier areas, the milites formed the basis for military-centred processes of 'Romanization', parallel to, and arguably as important as, the civilian elite-centred processes of 'becoming Roman' seen in the interior of the empire, which form the usual focus of attention (SJ 2001a, 2001b).


Simon James
Research & publications
Violence & warfare in Antiquity

Statue of Salluvian warrior
with severed heads,
Entremont, France,
2nd cent. BC. © S. J. 2000

I have a long-standing general interest in the role of soldiering and martial violence in society, manifested in my research on the Roman armies, and particularly the military antiquities from Dura-Europos.

The role of conflict and violence in history has been played down or ignored in both prehistory and classical archaeology in recent decades (a process referred to as 'the pacification of the past', e.g. SJ 2001a). The serious neglect of such aspects in most contemporary archaeological discourse shows that we still lack proper theorization of the archaeology of ancient warfare and other forms of violence.

My own work in this area looks at the nature and role of armed violence among societies constituting the immediate forerunners, neighbours, and provinces of the Roman world (especially ‘northern barbarians’ and Syro-Mesopotamian polities), thus contextualising the subject of my main long-term interest, the Roman military.



Simon James
Research & publications
The Roman military

L. Septimius Valerinus,
a Praetorian Guardsman
of the early 3rd cent. AD,
Rome. © S. James 2000

After long study of aspects of the Roman military (e.g. SJ 1984, 1988, and papers on Dura), I have recently been arguing that we need to radically rethink our entire approach to the subject, challenging the established over-concentration on the Roman side of warfare in later Classical times, on what was supposedly special about the Roman military. We must break out of the traditional narrow confines of Roman military studies, which looks at frontier systems (Limesforschung), army organisation, soldier's careers (military prosopography) and too little else. There has long been a tendency to study ‘the Roman Army’ in isolation and to conceptualise it anachronistically as a ‘war machine’.

I advocate reconceptualising the Roman military in terms much closer to the way Romans themselves understood it; as something made up of a distinctive class of men, the milites, organised into regiments and multiple armies (they had no term equivalent to our 'The Roman Army'). The military was a complex social organization, composed of distinct interest-groups bounded, but not entirely constrained, by state institutions (provincial commands and regiments); it certainly was not a monolithic 'machine' (SJ 2002).


Simon James
Research & publications
Dura-Europos, Syria

Much of my work has been on the spectacular finds of Roman and Sasanian Persian arms, armour and other military artefacts from the ancient city of Dura-Europos, Syria (see my separate resource page on Dura). Mostly deposited during the destruction of the city by siege in the 250s AD, this material provides a uniquely rich resource for studying soldiers and warfare in the Roman world.

In addition to providing invaluable information about weaponry, tactics, and the nature of combat (SJ 1983, 1986a, 1987, 1997, 2004, 2005), the Dura finds have generated insights into the wider material culture of Roman soldiers and the creation of their identity.


damage cause by siege-mine, Dura-Europos

Above, the undermined defences at Tower 19, where many of the finest military artefacts were preserved.
© S. James 2000

Right, a remarkable Sasanian Persian iron helmet from Dura.


Simon James
Research & publications
Presenting & representing the past

Legionaries of the 1st cent.
AD as portrayed by the
Ermine Street Guard and
colleagues. © S. J. 2000

Having worked as an archaeologist and illustrator specialising in reconstructing aspects of the past through drawings (Millett with SJ 1983; SJ et al 1984; SJ 1986d), I have written on the theory and method of such illustrations (SJ 1996), and on the use of reconstructions in museum contexts (SJ 1999c). This experience, and my work in museum education, has led me to study what motivates archaeologists to see the past world as they do (SJ 1993b), and how they present it (SJ 1992).

I also greatly enjoy working with re-enactment groups, the best of whom (e.g. the Roman soldiers of the Ermine Street Guard) conduct practical experimentation in simulating ancient artefacts and processes which can be highly instructive to archaeologists. They also, of course, have an enormously powerful impact on public conceptions of the past, giving it a kind of visual and material reality through their public displays.

It is an index of the divergence between academic and popular conceptions of the past that, while scholars have recently tended to play down its military and violent aspect, others have continued to foreground both, in books and other media, and not least in re-enactment events: most re-enactment groups portray warriors. Does either give a fully rounded representation of the past?


Simon James
Research & publications
Material culture

wine flagon
5th C. BC.



Within a spectrum of archaeological evidence running from pollen grains to entire landscapes, my interest is in material culture, including buildings, and especially portable artefacts (SJ 1980, 1983, 1986a, 1986b, 1987, 1997, 2004 , SJ & Taylor 1994).

We are so accustomed to being immersed in a sea of artefacts that we are not generally aware of their crucial roles, not just in enabling us to conduct our lives, but in constructing our world and in creating and expressing our many identities, from gender age, rank or religion, to profession and ethnicity. This can be illustrated in detail in the case of Roman soldiers. Iron Age Europe is also widely associated with particular types of artefact and styles of artistic decoration. Often labelled as 'Celtic' and treated as ethnic markers today, it is far from clear that these artefacts possessed such a meaning in antiquity. More likely, they usually symbolised the shared values of aristocratic or religious elites across many ethnic groups. That such artistic styles and artefacts do not have fixed meanings is expressed by the example of an object which so neatly brings together many of my interests, that I have adopted is as a kind of badge: the 'Celtic whirligig' from Dura-Europos.

Left, identities created through artefacts in context; uniforms at the British Museum


Simon James
Research & publications
Artefacts and meanings

Drawing of a
baldric mount from
Syria. Diameter
53mm.Published in James 2004 No. 24
© S. James 2005

The object depicted on the left is usually described as a triskele, or 'whirligig'. The original artefact on which my coloured drawing is based is cast from copper alloy, and is a flattish pierced plate with a perpendicular fixing-loop on the back.

Its curving, plastic 'trumpet' ornament makes it an example of La Tène or 'Celtic' art. However, this object comes from Dura-Europos on the banks of the Euphrates, and dates to the third century AD, long after the Roman obliteration of 'free' Celtic societies in continental Europe. And functionally, it is unrelated to Iron Age 'Celtic' artefacts. Despite its decoration, in form it is a sword-belt mounting of a Roman type of Asiatic origin, and once belonged to a Roman auxiliary, himself probably of Syrian birth, stationed at Dura. By AD 250, La Tène ornament had become part of the eclectic, cosmopolitan repertoire of metalsmiths serving the soldiery across the empire. If they then conveyed any particular meaning, such motifs probably connoted 'warrior'; they certainly did not mean 'Celt', and probably never had.

For me, this illustration (in both senses, of representation, and example), neatly encapsulates my interests in archaeology. It is a representation of a piece of material culture, the meanings of which we debate: they are bound up with issues of identity, in the past (Roman soldiers) and present (the Celts).



Simon James
Research & publications

The Forum Romanum, Rome © S. James 2000

SJ 2005 'The deposition of military equipment during the final siege at Dura-Europos, with particular reference to the Tower 19 countermine', Carnuntum Jahrbuch 2005, 189-206

SJ 2004 Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report VII, the Arms and Armour, and other Military Equipment, British Museum Press, London

SJ 2003 ‘Roman archaeology: crisis and revolution’, Antiquity, 77, 178-184.

SJ 2002 ‘Writing the legions; the past, present and future of Roman military studies in Britain’, Archaeological Journal 159 (2002), 1-58

SJ 2001a '"Romanization" and the peoples of Britain', in S. Keay and N. Terrenato (eds.), Italy and the West: Comparative Issues in Romanization.Oxbow, Oxford, 77-89

SJ 2001b 'Soldiers and civilians: identity and interaction in Roman Britain', in SJ & M. Millett 2001, 187-209

SJ 2001c ‘The Roman galley slave: Ben-Hur and the birth of a factoid’, Public Archaeology 2 35-49

SJ & M. Millett 2001 Britons and Romans: advancing an archaeological agenda, CBA Research Report 125, York.


SJ 1999a The Atlantic Celts: Ancient people or modern invention? British Museum Press, London, and Univ. of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

SJ 1999b 'The community of the soldiers: a major identity and centre of power in the Roman empire', in Baker, P., Jundi, S., and Witcher, R. (eds), TRAC 98: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Leicester 1998,Oxbow, Oxf. 14-25

SJ 1999c 'Imag(in)ing the past; the politics and practicalities of reconstructions in the museum gallery', in N. Merriman (ed.), Making Early Histories in Museums, Leicester University Press, 117-135 SJ 1998a 'Celts, politics and motivation in archaeology', Antiquity, 72, no. 275, 200-209.

SJ 1998a ‘Celts, politics and motivation in archaeology’, Antiquity, 72, no. 275, 200-209.

SJ 1998b 'Rome, education and the British Museum', in Németh, M., (ed.), The Roman Town in a Modern City: Proceedings of the Centenary Colloquium held on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Aquincum Museum 1994, Pro Aquinco Foundation, Budapest, 173-9.

SJ & V. Rigby, 1997 Britain and the Celtic Iron Age, British Museum Press, London.

SJ 1997 'Military equipment from the Yale/French Academy excavations at Dura-Europos, 1928-36', Doura Études IV, 1991-3, IFAPO, Beirut, 223-228.

SJ 1996 'Drawing inferences; visual reconstructions in theory and practice', in ed. B. Molyneaux, The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology, Routledge, 1996, 22-48.

SJ & T.W. Potter, 1996 'Excavations at Estover, March, 1985', in R.P.J. Jackson and T.W. Potter, Excavations at Stonea, Cambridgeshire 1980-85, British Museum Press, London, 49-60.

SJ & J. H. Taylor, 1994 'Parts of Roman artillery projectiles from Qasr Ibrim, Egypt', Saalburg Jahrbuch 47, 93-98.

SJ 1993a Exploring the World of the Celts, Thames & Hudson, London (The World of the Celts, Thames & Hudson, New York)

SJ 1993b 'How was it for you? Personal psychology and the perception of the past', Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 12,2, 87-100.

SJ 1992 ''But seriously though, folks!' Humour, archaeology and communication: the view from the trenches', Archaeological Review from Cambridge 11:2, 299-309.

SJ 1988 'The Fabricae; State arms factories of the Later Roman Empire', ed. J. Coulston, Proceedings of the Fourth Roman Military Equipment Conference, British Archaeological Reports, International Series 394, 1988, 257-331.

SJ 1987 'Dura-Europos and the introduction of the "Mongolian release"', in ed. M. Dawson, Roman Military Equipment; the accoutrements of war BAR International Series 336, 77-83.

SJ 1986a 'Evidence from Dura-Europos for the Origins of Late Roman Helmets', Syria LXIII, 1986, 111-34.

SJ 1986b 'Part of a Roman helmet from Jerusalem', Palestine Exploration Quarterly Jul-Dec 1986, 109-112.

SJ 1986c Archaeology in Britain: New Views of the Past, British Museum Publciations

SJ 1986d (as illustrator) in, ed. Longworth and Cherry, Archaeology in Britain since 1945, British Museum Publications, London.

SJ 1985 'Dura-Europos and the Chronology of Syria in the 250s AD', Chiron 15, 1985, 111-24.

SJ 1984 'Britain and the Late Roman Army', in ed. T. Blagg and A. King, Military and Civilian in Roman Britain, British Archaeological Reports 136, 1984, 161-186.

SJ, A. Marshall & M. Millett, 1984 'An Early Medieval Building Tradition', Archaeological Journal 141, 1984, 182-215.

Martin Millett with SJ, 1983 'Excavations at Cowdery's Down, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1978-81', Archaeological Journal 140, 1983, 151-279.

SJ 1983 'Archaeological evidence for Roman incendiary projectiles', Saalburg Jahrbuch 39, 1983, 142-3.

SJ 1980 'Two Shield-bosses from Roman London', Britannia XI, 1980, 320-3.


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Last updated: 2 September 2005
Simon James
The views expressed in this document are those of the document owner.