Excavating Rhetoric's Place in Petra: Cultivating Public Memory Through Material Culture

Erin Cromer Twal, Purdue University


This dissertation responds to calls by comparative rhetoricians to develop new research methods to historicize rhetoric’s global past. Though many of our disciplinary histories of rhetoric acknowledge Greek and Roman contributions, my historical project seeks to understand rhetorical activities in the ancient Near East. My project focuses on rhetoric’s social and material instantiations in the ancient Petra metropolis during the first and second centuries C.E., a historical moment often affiliated with the Second Sophistic Movement. Since the methods used to document and preserve everyday lived experiences vary across cultures, the evidence excavated in Petra reveals the Nabataeans left behind very few forms of traditional discursive or literary evidence. Instead, the Nabataeans preserved their past in the material formation of stone monuments, buildings, vernacular artifacts, ceramics, statues, sculptures, and other forms of material culture. But studying material archaeological evidence requires new methods for those in Rhetorical Studies who aim to do this work. Our historical methods in Rhetorical Studies simply were not designed to investigate material culture and environments. However, I suggest inventing new methods to study archaeological rhetoric can compliment the ambitions of comparative rhetoric by providing new tools to study the global material traces of places and cultures that remain on the margins of our disciplinary histories. To study how rhetoric materialized across Petra’s social-material taskscape, to borrow a term from Tim Ingold, I propose new comparative methods of historiography in Rhetorical Studies to study rhetorics in situ. While recent scholarship examining rhetorics in situ has made significant contributions to our understandings of rhetoric, very few scholars have engaged New Materialism to theorize the rhetorical potency of material places and environments. As such, material places and environments have often been regarded as mere backdrops to the human activities that contributed to rhetoric’s emergence and transformation in antiquity. Such orientations to material places and environments are tied to traditional orientations to rhetoric that are limited to persuasive, symbolic expression. Expanding our theories of rhetoric to include material instantiations can allow historians of rhetoric to understand what else rhetoric has been in other geographic locations. For this reason, I aim to make material places and environments central or our historiographical work in Rhetorical Studies. My historical project implements archaeological practices of fieldwork to study rhetorics in situ in the legendary city of stone. My analysis of material culture and places in Petra is informed by my international fieldwork in Jordan in May 2017. By bringing together insights, practices, and frameworks from both Archaeology and Anthropology, my ethnoarchaeological method examines Petra tombs, betyls, and public buildings to understand how public memory is constituted and reinvented through material culture. Finally, the project concludes by reflecting on the ethical implications of writing material histories to document the emergence and transformation of rhetoric in places that remain rarely understood among historians of rhetoric.




Rickert, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Rhetoric|Cultural anthropology

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