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Invisible Trades: Apprenticeship and Systems of Knowledge in Poorly Attested Industries

Jared Benton

Old Dominion University

We know that apprenticeship existed in the ancient world, but our window into its scope and nature is limited largely to contracts discovered in Egypt. Moreover, the majority of those contracts concern the textile industry and come from the private library of a single family. But for most industries, we only infer their existence from the products they made or the material consequences of the services they offered, such as lead menders on dolia or homogeneity in the construction of masonry ovens. For such invisible trades, no name survives from antiquity let alone evidence of how one generation of craftspeople trained the next. In this paper, we attempt to create a general model of apprenticeship in the ancient world, grounded in the existing evidence and aided by comparanda from Medieval and early-modern apprenticeship. From this model, we infer systems of knowledge transmission for poorly attested or completely invisible industries.

    At least for the Medieval guild and journeyman system, the nature and length of the apprenticeship period differed from one trade to the next. Some trades, particularly those requiring high skill such as precious metal working, required long apprenticeships; other, lower-skill trades prescribed less time for their apprentices. We first establish that similar variation in apprenticeship existed among Roman crafts and we identify different sorts of apprenticeship systems, or lack of such systems. We then explore the typology as a possible way to hypothesize the possible system of education in place for the invisible trades, about which we know so little.

    Augmenting our ability to explore the socio-economic aspects of apprenticeship can, in turn, improve our understanding of the social strategies of different crafts or trades. In the case of the freeborn apprentices, the social benefits of apprenticing outside the family conveyed benefits beyond education in a craft (Freu 2016). Given recent interest in much recent interest in workshops as institutions that extend beyond production or non-elite ideologies (Tran 2016), how craftspeople navigated the complex relationships with peers, within their crafts and in wider society, and with those of higher social status reveals a great deal about how such people fit into Roman society.

Session/Panel Title

Systems of Knowledge and Strategic Planning in Ancient Industries

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