What’s new in Ancient History

Coming up in the 2020s

To my mind, 2020 is the final year of this decade not the first year of a new decade, but I might as well jump on the bandwagon and give my predictions for the next ten years.  The 2010s saw key changes in the field of academia and museums, which mirrored society on a wider level. Overall the decade was positive in terms of the opening up of dialogues, although the emergence of far right ideologies into power in America and Britain are scary. Fake News has also led to a devaluation of expertise and research. These will be the biggest challenges facing the field, and society more widely.

The other major challenge this decade be around environmental concerns. This will lead to some soul searching in the field, as internationally facing institutions seek to minimise their environmental impact whilst maximising their international reach. This issue will be particularly pertinent in Britain.

1. Trends in academia

Areas of study will broadly represent wider concerns. There will be renewed focuses on Central, South and East Asia, and the study of “classical” states beyond their frontiers. The Sudan and Ethiopia will become places of special focus for researchers of Greco-Roman Egypt. Ancient Egypt will also become more central to reception studies with both the centenaries of the Discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the 1925 World’s Fair and the Egyptomania-revival (predicted below). The environment will also be a wide interest using scientific based research, combined with humanities. New focuses will be on specific phenomena such as animals, plants/gardens and geographic regions (e.g. tundra or mountains).

The most important development within academia will be the continuing opening up of scholarship through Public Engagement with Research and Open Science. Ancient History is still a relatively closed subject, in which some people act as gatekeepers keeping out unwanted elements. This has to change.

2. Repatriation, or not?

The big question of the 2020s will be whether museums will return contentious goods? My guess is no. The greater calls for repatriation will however, mean that museums in the West will need to be more open about the nature of curating and museums in general. They will also have to question every assumption.

In the late 2010s several exhibitions explored the themes of collections. A trend was the recreation of historical collections such as 2019’s Charles I: King and Collector and the Treasures of Strawberry Hill House. The 2020s will examine more critically the role of the collector and the agent, and explore how and why goods are sold and the impact of this on the societies which created or excavated items.

Another big theme will be around originals and copies. It’s a little known fact, beyond experts and connoisseurs, that the majority of “classical” art in museums are Roman copies of Greek originals. In some cases items are modern copies of Roman copies. The originals have often been restored in modern period and are left uncoloured. What is the original, what is a copy? This will be exacerbated by digital technology…


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Ludovisi Arès. Modern Plaster copy of Roman copy. #romanart #sculpture #classical #ancientart

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3. Digital technology in museums

The single biggest development in academia and museums will be a result of digital technology, especially Virtual Reality (VR). VR can be used to “recreate” ancient spaces or items, and to add contextual information to collections. The big trend to look out for in museums will be immersive experience. Companies like Punch Drunk and Dot Dot have used VR alongside immersive drama to create compelling and very profitable experiences. Given the fact that most museums are closed after 5 PM on most nights, they could be the perfect venues for a historically sensitive drama (rather than say a 20s/30s based murder mystery in the Enlightenment Rooms).

VR could also bring museum collections to the people. Hopefully Western Museums will not use digital technology to avoid the need to repatriate.

Within academia, the importance of digital technology for humanties based research will grow and become an important part of university courses by 2030. The rise of machine learning will have major ramifications for the nature of research. Humanities based researchers will need to understand scientific methodologies. Research into the nature of digital technology will be a key area of study in the field of ancient history and classical studies, not just part of digital studies.

4. Culture

What will the big trends be in culture? The rapid speed of digital technology has led to a plethora of styles akin only to the late Victorian “cult of styles”. This decade melange and dilettante will be the key words as styles rub up against each other. The “classic” will no longer be key, but a new style will be needed to bring it together. Egypt will be big in the visual arts.

Narrative will be out of the window as plots become circular, before narrative returns. This will impact some historical writing. Could the 2020s see the emergence of live wiki style texts created by teams of academic authors, writing, editing and peer reviewing the work? There will probably be experimentations, but monographs and articles will remain the main staple.

In 2023-24, there will be a short-lived Amazon Prime TV series on the Ptolemies which will have high hopes to fill the “Tits and Dragons” shaped hole left by Games of Thrones. It will be close after two series. Ilana Glazer’s performance as Zenobia will however resonate and she will win an Oscar in 2027.

5. Vibes in Fashion

The 2020s will not be about trends, but vibes. The look will be eclectic, intelligent and decadent. Gone are athwear, tiny bags and shoes without socks. Style is genderless. Think sports jackets and shirts undone to the third button and architectural and oversized shirts. Amulets will be big. Faience will be the material par excellence, but Carnelian and Onyx will also be popular in both figurative and abstract designs. Egypt (tinged with PoMo Art Deco) will be the style signifier here.

House coats and slippers will be popular again.


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Djed pillar, sign of Osiris. Original meaning unclear #AncientEgypt #osiris

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