Microscopic Records. The New Interdisciplinarity of Early Modern Studies, c. 1400 - 1800 (29th September to 1st October 2020)

By Umberto Veronesi, University College London

Dr. Stefan Hanß is a lecturer in early modern history at the University of Manchester. I first met Stefan during my first year of PhD, at a conference in Cambridge where he presented his research on early modern indigenous feather work using. Interestingly, he based most of his argument on the investigation of feather artefacts using a digital microscope. I had been feeling the odd one out, an archaeologist (scientist even!) among historians of early modern Europe, and Stefan’s talk struck me as a powerful call for the great potential of inter-disciplinary dialogue.

A few years down the line, and as part of his British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award, Stefan has organised the Microscopic Records event, a three-day conference originally planned to take place in Manchester, but of course gone virtual under the current circumstances. It gathered some 25 scholars covering time zones that ranged from Montana to Sydney, but most importantly whose expertise varied widely across disciplines. What we all had in common was a shared interest towards a material-based history of the past, and one which paid attention to scale as well, to the minute, the microscopic.

The topics we heard from during the three days were rich even from an archaeological science perspective. Talks and masterclasses included archaeobotany, proteomics and the analysis of textiles, metals, glass and of pigments from illuminated manuscripts, and a plethora of analytical techniques. The necessity to engaged with a mixed audience meant less technicalities and more unexpected questions that forced speakers (myself included) to look at what we do from a different perspective. As stale as this may sound, it ended up being extremely refreshing. There was a lot of theoretical debate, on how materials are embedded into the very fabric of the human experience, a theme that historians are now exploring more and more. In the first keynote, professor Timothy J. LeCain used the microscopic category in its strictest (and most current) sense, arguing how the new COVID-19 virus exposed such embeddedness. Indeed, one thing that emerged time and again during the conference is that, as archaeologists and archaeological scientists with a long history of engaging with the material world, we can bring our own contribution to Microscopic Records as a theoretical perspective.

A lot of debate revolved around how to define the term “microscopic”, where to draw lines, and the need for giving this novel approach a defined shape. But I very much enjoyed the still somewhat shapeless nature of Microscopic Records because it was precisely the lack of boundaries that allowed the very happy mixture of specialisms that we had. So, what to expect from the future? Ultimately, this conference was an arena to exercise some genuine inter-disciplinarity, a term so often abused of in grants and project proposals. And as such, I believe that more initiatives like this, more places of encounter for different types of expertise can lead to collaborative projects. 

As we moved towards the end of the last day, the fellow participants from the US having their mid-morning tea while those from Australia long asleep by now, I realised that for the first time since my engaging with historians, I did not feel I had crashed someone else’s party. And among the many definitions for inter-disciplinarity, this is the one I will stick to.