Spanish museum recognizes historian's groundbreaking research

They say two heads are better than one. Jonathan Edmondson, chair of York's Department of History, now has an extra one – a Roman bust. He received it from the National Museum of Roman Art in Spain as the 18th winner of the international prize, Protective Spirit of the Colony of Augusta Emerita (Genio Protector de la Colonia Augusta Emerita).

The annual prize, inaugurated in 1994 by the Association of Friends of the National Museum of Roman Art (Museo Nacional de Arte Romano), recognizes the contributions of individuals, academics and researchers who have expanded the knowledge of the historical, cultural and archeological heritage of the Roman world, in particular of the city of Mérida in Spain. It was presented to Edmondson at the museum's 25th-anniversary celebrations in September.

Above: Holding the award – a copy of a Roman bust of the Genius (Protective Spirit) of Augusta Emerita – are, from left, winner Jonathan Edmondson; María Angeles Albert León, Spain's director general of fine arts and cultural property; Trinidad Nogales Basarrate,  education and culture minister for Extremadura region; and a representative for Extremadura president José Antonio Monago Terraza.



Edmondson received the award for his research on the colony of Augusta Emerita and Roman Spain over the years while at York University and for the fundamental contributions he made toward the study of Emeritan society and the structure of the former colony. He was also recognized for his “work in disseminating knowledge about the archeological heritage of Emerita across the world.”

Above: The awards ceremony inside the National Museum of Roman Art

“It’s really international recognition for my scholarship,” says Edmondson. “I’m the first English-speaking scholar who has won it.”

Through his research on Roman Spain, Edmondson has been instrumental in bringing the history, culture and archeology of the colony of Augusta Emerita in the region of Extremadura, one of 17 autonomous regions in Spain, to a world audience. When Edmondson first started studying Roman Spain, he was one of the few international scholars to do so. There had been much research on Roman Italy, France and Britain among others, but not Roman Spain, and not written in English.


Right: Jonathan Edmondson delivering his acceptance speech for the international prize, Protective Spirit of the Colony of Augusta Emerita, at the National Museum of Roman Art

It was the Roman province of Lusitania, overlapping both Portugal and Spain of which Augusta Emerita (modern Mérida) was the capital, that really piqued Edmondson’s attention as it had been mostly overlooked until then. He continues to be interested in the social, economic and cultural history of Mérida, from the military veterans who settled there and the city’s military importance to the study of family structures, marriage patterns, slavery and immigration.

“It’s a very rich city in terms of surviving evidence,” he says. "There are Roman houses, burial grounds, aqueducts and Roman roads – all of which were found while digging the foundations of the museum."

One of the things in his research that surprised him is that Mérida was a major centre for medical training. This Edmondson learned through a series of inscriptions about doctors, one of which told of a slave from another city (Olisipo, modern Lisbon) being sent to Mérida to be medically trained and another which detailed the slave’s journey back to Lisbon and his later importance there as a doctor.


Above: Rafael Mesa Hurtado, president of the Friends of the National Museum of Roman Art (and the first cousin of Toronto Raptor José Calderón) presents Jonathan Edmondson with a commemorative plaque

Edmondson has often been the first to publish Roman inscriptions from Mérida, of which there are more than 1,000 and still more being discovered. He began interpreting the inscriptions on tombstones and moved to study the style of funerary monuments and how they changed over time. He is now researching indigenous religion in Lusitania and the extent to which the Roman authorities allowed indigenous divinities to be worshipped.

Edmondson is the editor of Augustus (Edinburgh University Press, 2009), co-editor of Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2008) and Flavius Jospephus and Flavian Rome (Oxford University Press, 2005), among others. His monograph, Granite Funerary Stelae from Augusta Emerita, appeared in 2007. In 2002, he was elected a corresponding member of the Real Academia de la Historia of Spain and, in 2009, was made a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in London.

As winner of the Protective Spirit prize, Edmondson is in good company. Previous winners have included Walter Trillmich, former director of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin; José María Blázquez, former professor of Roman archaeology at the Complutense University of Madrid; Pierre Gros, former professor of Roman archaeology at the Université d'Aix-en-Provence; and Rafael Moneo Vallés, a world-renowned architect who designed the National Museum of Roman Art.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer