Space and Knowledge: From Topoi I to Topoi II

The Excellence Cluster Topoi was launched on 1 November 2007, thanks to a successful application made jointly by Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. The objective of Topoi is to explore the interdependency of space and knowledge in ancient civilizations.

The Exhaustively surveying of the two dimensions of space and knowledge in Topoi requires a continual oscillation between space-driven analyses of knowledge (particularly evident in the application of archaeological and geo-scientific techniques, e.g., to the construction of water manage­ment regimes) and knowledge-driven analyses of space (the philological, philosophical, and historical investigations of space as a heuristic category for the linguistic, textual, and iconogra­phic mediation of knowledge). In Topoi I, space represented the central category and thematic nexus in our considerations of knowledge. The topic was knowledge about space. In summarizing the protean topological form Topoi I offered five perspectives:

Ancient space in the making

Present-day approaches to the ancient world are often suffused with and occasionally even overwhelmed by medieval conceptions and modern categorizations masquerading as direct knowledge of the ancient societies themselves. These superimposed schemas are so smoothly laminated over the ancient surfaces that they often go entirely unnoticed. The disclosure and critical appraisal of these familiar conglomerates is of central importance for Topoi. The form in which ancient architectural space is presented in museums can be particularly revealing in this regard: ranging from table-top architectural models to 1:1 reconstructions of monumental sites such as the Pergamon Altar, these models make the cultural, socio-political, and even emotional dimensions of these ancient spaces spectacularly clear. The emblematic quality of museum ex­hibits in combination with the critical evaluation of past exhibitions was particularly well exemplified in an international colloquium, “Außenräume in Innenräumen: Die musealen Konzeptionen von Walter Andrae und Theodor Wiegand im Pergamonmuseum” (Extension and its intensions: The museological conceptions of Walter Andrae and Theodor Wiegand) held in 2009. This kind of critical analysis of the history of museum exhibitions also serves as a point of departure for the development of new visualization strategies such as the three-dimensional models that were implemented for the large Pergamon exhibit in 2012.

Reparsing the categories of knowledge

The analysis of ancient scientific texts and their post-classical transformation reveals a series of new analytical horizons in our categorizations of space, with the transmission of ancient forms of medical knowledge representing a particularly illustrative example of this process.The mapping of the soul into the body represented a central project of ancient scientific thought, as did its subsequent incarnations in medieval and early modern philosophy: this line of thought is exemplified by Aristotle’s On the Soul, its reception in the Imperial period (Alexander of Aphrodisias), the Middle Ages (Ockham), and the Renaissance (Pomponazzi, Zabarella), as well as early modern critical reactions against it (Hobbes, Leibniz, and Spinoza). It has become increasingly clear during Topoi I that problems of localization within the human body represent the defining leitmotif of both the medical and the philosophical branches of these densely entwined literatures. If we are willing to attribute to these authors a functionalist conception of the soul, in which the soul is not a material thing but rather a multitude of powers or faculties belonging to the organism as a whole, a host of theoretical questions dormant in these texts over the centuries gains a new-found relevance. These questions force us to return to the textual materials themselves (as in Florian Gärtner’s dissertation, “Galen, de locis affectis I-II: Kritische Ausgabe mit Übersetzung und Kommentar”). The contrast between functionalist and competing materialist evaluations of these authors, however, also inspired an international conference on “Partition of the Soul in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Philosophy.” The approach is of historical as well as theoretical interest: in the defense of functionalism, which in the mid-20th century has become an attractive philosophical position in opposition to increasingly influential materialistic theories of mind, questions regarding effective material realization in space are once again given increasing attention.

Divining the performative landscape

Space plays a decisive role not only in language, images, texts, and the man-made environment, but also in performative acts that call into being previously non-existent types of spatiality. Ritualized landscapes, in which creatively invoked categorizations of space are superimposed on the landscape, represent a particularly compelling case-study for the interpretation of non-material spaces.

The geo-referencing of prehistoric caches not only makes their specific topographical localization and disposition visible and amenable to reconstruction, but also clarifies notions of uniqueness, singularity, and even power as features of the human landscape. In light of the fact that actual sanctuaries are hardly ever identifiable in the central European Bronze Age, these hoards allow for the reconstruction of prehistoric sacral landscapes, a theme explored in two dissertation projects in the course of Topoi I, with the doctoral candidates also presenting their findings in a 2009 international meeting “Hort und Raum: Aktuelle Forschungen zu bronzezeitlichen Deponierungen in Mitteleuropa” (Hoards and Dispositions: Current Investigations of Caching in Central Europe). The gradual assemblage of geo-referenced models of these hoards in their depositional context led to the development of a typology of their topographic and other datasets that now provides a clear overview of the ritual permeated conceptions of space and landscape in Bronze Age societies.

Making political spaces real

The demarcation of political boundaries clearly represents an especially suggestive model for the delimitation of political spaces. As a perfect ideal-type for the materialization of political domains, we can turn to the glacises, moats, towers, and even the very walls of the Limes Germanicus.

That this way of defining borders came to be seen as an exemplary model for ancient delimitation of borders must be linked to the 19th century model of the nation-state, which was contemporaneous with the first large-scale research on the limes. It is no accident that political borders even today are represented with linear borders and distinctively color-coded geometrical forms, the same way that ancient political entities were represented. In a number of dissertation projects dealing with excavations at Alma Kermen in the Crimea as well as in a DFG-funded project “Fokus Fortifikation: Befestigungen im östlichen Mittelmeerraum” (Focus Fortification: Defensive Architecture in the East Mediterranean; Internet:, which is closely allied with Topoi, we identified a full paradigm of different ancient conceptualizations of borders and their demarcation. Clearly demarcated borders co-exist alongside fuzzy and shifting territorial concepts, as in the network of Roman military strongholds embedded within a relatively unregulated hinterland in the Crimea, a hinterland that was not deemed part of the provincial structure of the Roman Empire.

Palimpsest landscapes

Landscapes are constantly under review; new divisions and classifications are penciled in, while others are quickly erased and redrawn. Each change gives rise to new creative possibilities. The collaborative efforts of Topoi archaeologists and geo-scientists in the investigation of a given site plays a crucial role in relativizing widespread disciplinary models that emphasize purely environmental and econometric descriptions of human agency.This kind of interdisciplinary synergy and methodological critique has been elaborated in a wide array of tandem dissertation projects, in which the doctoral candidates have collaborated with both archaeologists and geo-scientists. This unique interdisciplinary structure has allowed us to investigate, for example, how a Sudanese holy site could be established outside of the system of Nile oases, a situation that required an extensive system of water management installations and procedures. At the same time, landscape analyses of the royal palace of Gamzigrad in Serbia indicate that the selection of an economically favorable locale was clearly the key factor in the site’s long-term success.


Research in Topoi II — Knowledge through Space

In Topoi II, building on fundamental lines of research in the context of standard disciplines, yet relying ultimately on intensive discussions within and between the different research groups, we have concentrated and extended the guiding theme. The research program now integrates the category of knowledge into the analysis of spatial phenomena. The topic is knowledge through space.The ongoing dynamics of the research process in Topoi stimulated a shift in emphasis from knowledge about space towards spatially-conditioned knowledge. The basis for this new model has evolved within the individual research groups, and we now seek to apply it systematically in Topoi II. This leads not only to the development of new thematic points of departure, but also to structural adjustments in research design as well as the initiation of new environments for research and mentoring, including, among other initiatives, the establishment of the Berlin Graduate School for Ancient Studies (BerGSAS).

In the interplay of space and knowledge, the role of knowledge as a factor in making sense of the formative and transformative processes of ancient societies and their social systems has become increasingly central in the work of the researchers. Knowledge bears on objects, events, and processes, as these exist in space, even as space itself is used to organize, regiment, and constrain the thematic and formal features of the knowledge in question. We now seek to crystallize this shift in emphasis, adopting a research agenda that is focused on the transformation and transmission of knowledge, while retaining questions of space. Beyond the ever-present variety of social structures and the huge geographical, chronological, and cultural breadth of the ancient world, Topoi II raises a host of challenging issues:

  1. How do scientific subcultures (in their regional and local “hotspots”) behave in the context of early states as well as in pre- or non-state societies?
  2. What role does relocation (of both objects of knowledge and experts in their use) actually play in the diffusion, transfer, and transformation of knowledge repositories and their innovation?
  3. In what kind of qualitative-structural and spatial ways is “knowledge” manifested or materialized in a society and in its variegated subcultures and social strata?
  4. How are the various dimensions of knowledge, viz. the arrays of categories according to which its forms, expressions, content and valuations are judged, effectively established in these early societies, and how do they shape the construction of space?
  5. What dynamics and transformative processes develop at the interface between different cultural traditions?
  6. Which ancient and modern repositories and models of knowledge shape our engagement with ancient economies and how are both environmental and social conditions as well as the performance of rituals effective in such a context?