Staff profiles

Photo of Professor Elena Isayev

Professor Elena Isayev

Professor of Ancient History and Place


01392 724200

A historian who uses the ancient Mediterranean to explore migration, belonging, displacement and spatial perception, my research ranges from  histories of pre-Roman Italy through material remains (Lucania 2007), to deconstructing theories of generation conflict and youth (in Historia 2007), addressing conceptual issues of mobility (Migration Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy, Cambridge, 2017), and leading archaeological excavations in Italy and Kazakhstan.

My current research is based on 3 intersecting strands:

1) Hospitality and Asylum: asks what compels people to provide support & how hospitality is a measure of society

2) Potency of Displaced Agency: exposes contexts of power & agency – action – of refugees & asylum seekers.

3) Common and Public Space: questions the publicness of public space & highlights alternative common spaces.

I find inspiring and essential interdisciplinary and inter-practice approaches, that lead to collective learning and research beyond the academy, e.g. Routes - Migration Hub, at Exeter, and the pilot: My teaching reflects these interests, integrating diverse sources, models and incorporating practitioners in creating an image of the past (and present): e.g. the course Ancient Journeys and MigrantsI cherish and welcome supervising students whose work incorporates these diverse fields.

Addressing preconceived ideas about ancient society that also affect understandings of today's world, are explorations under the umbrella term Future Memory (funded by AHRC Beyond Text et al., click here). These have led to co-creation with artists, musicians, and communities in Exeter, Swansea, and Glasgow (see Public Engagement section). Initiatives with Campus in Camps have allowed for continuing investigations in contexts beyond the Nation State ( and led to co-publication with practitioners and students: XENIA (



Research interests

Migration, Mobility and Belonging

Challenging prevailing conceptions of a natural tie to the land and a demographically settled world Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy (Cambridge 2017), argues that much human mobility in the last millennium BC was ongoing and cyclical. In particular, outside the military context ‘the foreigner in our midst’ was not regarded as a problem. Boundaries of status rather than of geopolitics were difficult to cross. The book discusses the stories of individuals and migrant groups, traders, refugees, expulsions, the founding and demolition of sites, and the political processes that could both encourage and discourage the transfer of people from one place to another. In so doing it highlights moments of change in the concepts of mobility and the definitions of those on the move. By providing the long view from history, it exposes how fleeting are the conventions that take shape here and now. Issues addressed here have been developed in further publications and the new research strands below, which have emerged from my research into the history and material culture of ancient Italy: Inside Ancient Lucania: Dialogues in History and Archaeology (London 2007); with Bradley and Riva in Ancient Italy: Regions Without Boundaries (Exeter 2007).  

*  Research on mobility and belonging has been supported by Fellowships from the Davis Centre for Historical Studies, Princeton Unversity, and the AHRC. 

My current research is based on 3 intersecting strands:

1) Hospitality and Asylum: asks what compels people to provide support & how hospitality is a measure of society

2) Potency of Displaced Agency: exposes contexts of power & agency – action – of refugees & asylum seekers.

3) Common and Public Space: questions the publicness of public space & highlights alternative common spaces.

* This research has been supported by Fellowships from: the Humanities Research Centre, Australia National University; the Center for Advanced Studies – Migration and Mobility, University of Tübingen; and a UFMG/FAFICH, Guest Lectureship at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.


Interdisciplinarity, Interpractice and Co-Creation (Links at end)

Fundamental to these investigations are the collaborations with researchers from multiple disciplines and practices, in and beyond the academy. These have involved co-creating with Campus in Campus in Palestine, and links with the Dandara Community in Brazil, resulting in collective processes, including: the publication with students of XENIA - Hospitality; and contributions to the volume, co-edited with Evan Jewell: Displacement and the Humanities. A nascent experimental process is underway: These partnerships stemmed from the initiative Future Memory, that brought together artists, muscians and wider community members (see Public Engagement section). Such enterprises and collaborative research will be at the core of the propositional initiative, Beyond Resilience, described below.

* This research has been supported by grants from: the AHRC, Beyond Text Scheme; the Arts Council of Wales; Arts for All, Scotland; the University of Exeter, and others. See Public Engagement section.

Beyond-Resilience: rights, exceptional politics & innovation out of displacement (proposal in preparation)

The aim is to bring together researchers and practitioners engaged with or in contexts of displacement who are invested in understanding, charting and enhancing the rights, agency and the potential of politics, beyond that enacted through nation states and territorial membership. There has been increasing awareness of the consequences resulting from the challenges of human rights, which, while promising equality irrespective of citizenship status, are still articulated within the framework of the Nation State. Nationality remains the basis of entitlement to rights, despite the guarantees offered for legal personhood to those deemed stateless by international human rights law. The situation has become critical, as the perceived state of exception of persons who are undocumented, who exist in refugee camps or detention centres, has not only engulfed whole life times, but become inter-generational. What will it take to shift the perception of displaced people from that of victims, threats, problems or emblematic figures, to that of potent agents (without denying their victimisation), who are equally invested in addressing shared global challenges? How can an opening be created for modes of engagement with the innovative, socio-political models that arise from conditions of displacement, without romanticising, in a way that is neither idealized or reactionary? It is the intention of this initiative to deliver tangible proposals to address these questions and the seemingly intransient, state-based understanding of rights and power, by conducting research through: history, practice, institutional frameworks, and theory.



Displacement and the Humanities: Maifestos from the Ancient to the Present:

XENIA – Hospitality

Campus in Camps: Place, Heritage and Belonging – Livy and Cicero:

Future Memory:




Research students

• Claude Kananack (USA)        

            Cataline’s Co-Conspirators

• Antonio Leonardis (Canada)        

            Uncovering Messapian Identities in Pre-Roman Italy: A Case Study in the Salento region of Puglia, South East

• Antonio Montesanti (Italy)                 

            Borders, limits, thresholds, frontiers: an assessment of the concept of boundary in the Classical World

• Rafael Scopacasa (Brazil)        

            Mortuary practice and socio-cultural identity in the ancient central Apennines 

• Chris Siwicki (UK)                 

            Architectural Restoration and the Concept of Built Heritage in Imperial Rome

• Chiara Strazzulla (Italy)                         

            Etruscan ethnicity and self-representation in the Middle and Late Republic

• Charlotte Young (UK)                     

            Snapshots of Ruins: the use of photoarchaeology as a scientific tool

External impact and engagement

Summary of Key Projects

(See below for overview from  Impact Case Study submitted for 2013 REF)

Interdisciplinary Projects, Ancient History, Art, Music, Community

2011 - ongoing            Future Memory in Place

                        In Collaboration with artist Catrin Webster

                        Funded by AHRC Beyond Text FoF Scheme (2011-12)              

Based on my research into ancient mobility and the construction of place, the project investigates migration and the bond between memory and place. It engaged some 3000 participants in Swansea, including pupils from 9 schools, primary and secondary, through a series of workshops, exhibition and public events that resulted in art works and performances: Tessera Hospitalis Sculpture – permanently at the National Waterfront Museum Swansea; Art piece – 1000 Colours Blue; and a film of the same name with music direction by Marion Wood and Michael Ormiston. It also produced education packs and internships in the Museum that created visitor activities in relation to the sculpture and main project themes.


2012 – ongoing           Future Memory in Red Road

                        In collaboration with artists, Iseult Timmermans and Catrin Webster,  and

                        Prof. Rebecca Kay, Prof. Alison Phipps University of Glasgow, and

                        GRAMNet (Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network)

                        Funded by AHRC Translating Cultures Scheme, CEES, (Glasgow)

                        University of Exeter, University of Glasgow, and Creative Scotland

Focusing on the Red Road Flats in Glasgow, this project draws on the themes and methods of Future Memory in Place. At its base are the peoples’ lives who lived in the flats across the four decades of their history; translating some of the hopes, aspirations and struggles of the changing population. It consists of workshops and a final performance which will literally echo a tribute and farewell through the skeletal framework of the flats prior to final blow down, and look towards the future. It is founded on research on emotional and physical attachments to and understandings of home through processes of place making and remembrance.


Impact Case Study Overview - Submitted for the 2013 REF

Title of case study: Memory, Mobility and Place

1. Summary of the impact

Isayev has led three projects, drawing on the implications of historical research, in collaboration with art practitioners, to engage young people, minority and disaffected groups in shared reflection and creative activity. These projects, centred on the paradoxical idea of Future Memory, have been used to create alternative spaces in which to re-think attitudes to human mobility, otherness and identity. These projects, while promoting new forms of cultural and artistic activity, have produced social benefit, in enabling large numbers of people, especially young people in deprived communities, to think constructively about their own identity, memories and sense of belonging.

2. Underpinning research

There is a widespread misconception that high mobility is a relatively recent phenomenon and that ancient society was largely sedentary, though in fact it too involved extensive movements of people. If we recognise this fact we can draw powerful analogies with the ancient world and use these to question current notions of belonging, ‘the migrant’ and the significance of place.

Isayev’s research, focusing on ancient Italy, challenges the prevailing view that in the ancient world there was a natural tie to a specific homeland and a demographically settled world. She argues that the combined evidence of archaeology and literature suggests that much human mobility in the last millennium BC was ongoing and cyclical. As a result, xenophobia is difficult to identify, and outside the military context ‘the foreigner in our midst’ was not seen as a problem. Boundaries of status rather than geopolitics were the ones that were difficult to cross. In view of the high level of population movement in pre-Imperial Italy, Isayev disputes the general assumption that ties to physical territorial sites were essential component of individual and collective identities. She also stresses the absence from ancient culture of many features, such as a rigidly bounded territorial citizenship, that are typical of the nation state. These observations allow us to raise broader questions about the nature of community membership and ‘belonging’, and to explore the implications for contemporary culture and practice. Isayev’s recent studies [3, 4 and 5] and monograph [6] examine diverse ancient patterns of mobility, and chart ancient attitudes towards migrant groups and individuals.

In 2008 and 2011, Isayev was awarded AHRC funding under the Beyond Text scheme for two projects, ‘De-placing Future Memory’ [a] and ‘Future Memory in Place’ [d], followed by a 3rd project ‘Future Memory in Red Road’ in 2012-13, for which funding was raised collaboratively [f]. In these projects, Isayev draws out the implications of her work on ancient Italy [1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6] for contemporary thinking about communal identity, place and memory. In particular, De-placing Future Memory looked at the transmission of memory across time and space and the way that material objects and artistic practice can help us to understand how future memory is embodied in places and objects and how this in turn affects one’s sense of belonging. In particular, her projects showed how migrant and displaced people create meaningful memory monuments that express their stories and identity. The projects are not explicitly about lessons drawn from the past. Rather, the ancient context, by providing alternative social and cultural models, has been used as a catalyst in collaboration with art and performance practice to stimulate a rethinking of fundamental categories such as place, mobility and memory, in a way that has led to a new understanding of what it means to belong to a community and place.

4. Details of the impact

Three projects produced substantial social benefit by enabling an expanding network of key participants, organisations and artists to promote shared reflection on identity and place among increasingly large numbers of members of the public. Two projects were based in Swansea and Glasgow, in areas that were among the most deprived in the UK.

 De-Placing Future Memory (2009) [a], brought together an interdisciplinary group of academics, along with international artists, musicians and curators, some from conflict areas (Palestine and Iraq). It engaged over 600 participants, including a workshop with 200 school children, and combined artworks, a month-long exhibition, and public presentations at the Exeter Café Scientifique and Phoenix Arts Centre.

   The methods explored in this first project were taken forward by Isayev with artist Webster and musician Wood in Future Memory in Place (2011) [d]. This involved thousands of people in Swansea, including 2700 pupils from 9 schools (with week-long workshops at each), members of the Brunswick Refugee and Asylum ‘drop-in’ centre, Gower College (ESL), and the over-55 Art Group at the Glynn Vivian Gallery. It included the creation of three public art-works in Swansea: (i) a sculpture relating to tesserae hospitales, distant friendship tokens, housed at the National Waterfront Museum ( (; (ii) a multi-media event, combining a visual installation, new choral composition and film, 1000 Colours Blue, performed live with a choir in Swansea City Centre, (;  (iii) an exhibition of 800 sent postcards painted by school-children; the postcards, and the 1000 Colours Blue have been on exhibition in Swansea galleries and in Glasgow Centre of Contemporary Art.

   The third project stemmed from a presentation in Glasgow of the Swansea project. This created an opportunity to explore ideas of memory and place in conjunction with the Red Road Flats community and Glasgow-based artists and academics (Kay, Phipps, Given and Timmermans) [f]. It engaged about 1000 participants in spring 2013. It included: (i) archaeological and sound workshops at St. Martha’s Primary School; (ii) story, photographic and music workshops with local community groups; (iii) a final event including a live choral performance and a soundscape created through a 25 storey building; (iv) a documentary film by Khan, still in the production phase; (v) a forthcoming exhibition at the People’s Palace, Glasgow of objects and stories created about them by school pupils.

These projects have strengthened links between artists, community groups and organisations, with significant impact going beyond the public events and workshops just described. For example, University of Glasgow archaeologists (e.g. Given) are designing an ongoing programme of outreach events, modelled on our workshops. Art students from Swansea Metropolitan who volunteered on our project have set up a community studio and art space, and are continuing to work with schools we engaged with (e.g. St. Helen’s Primary School). We did not aim to explicitly convey existing knowledge to a broader public but to enable the many participants to use verbal and artistic means to rethink their ideas about space, memory and belonging. In particular, we used distance and abstraction to promote reflection on highly contested notions in a way that is not exclusionary, and avoided conflict about ownership of locations and memories.

    Distance from contemporary problems was achieved by highlighting analogous ancient themes concerning foreignness, mobility and memory. Archaeological objects such as identity markers (used to create the tesserae hospitales sculpture), ancient mapping practices based on journeys rather than territory, and ancient comedies with numerous characters on the move, served as catalysts for wider discussion and activity. E.g. after creating a map based on journey stories rather than territory, which took up the whole playground, pupils were keen to know, or be associated with, people coming from somewhere else. They learnt to accept that migration is the norm through history and in our own time and that borders are fluid and constructed.

Regarding abstraction, we developed artistic ways of focusing on abstract entities that everyone shares such as the colour blue, while also highlighting the multiplicity of what blue is (this became the 1000 Colours Blue). The combination of the use of archaeological objects with creative artistic activity was taken further in Glasgow during the archaeological site survey at Red Road Flats. Pupils collected objects dispersed when the high-rise flats were recently blown down, and, having worked before with ancient archaeological objects, acted like archaeologists themselves by creating histories with objects. These histories were then translated into colour, by associating specific colours with specific emotions. Finally these colours were sung by a choir, leading to a public performance that projected these voices and sounds, along with stories by ex-residents of all ages and backgrounds, from one of the remaining towers. The 25-storey tower, already stripped for demolition, was equipped with 10 massive speakers on multiple floors, creating one of the largest musical instruments ever played, to a community gathering of 500 people on a very rainy day. Seeing and hearing the multiplicity of stories that made Red Road Flats the place that it was allowed the exposition of multiple narratives and the questioning and replacement of the dominantly negative and bleak narrative that had entered public consciousness regarding Red Road (as recently as this year, the blow down of these ‘dysfunctional’ buildings was widely publicised and depicted in the leading media networks).  This constituted a unique and remarkable cultural event with profound social significance for those involved. The documentary film of these events by Khan will take this to a wider audience and further an alternative multiple narrative.


3. References to the research

Publications all Peer Reviewed.

  1. Isayev, E. Inside Ancient Lucania: Dialogues in History and Archaeology, London University: Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 90, 2007. ISBN: 9781905670031 [Substantial research-based monograph published in respected Classics and Ancient History series.]
  2. Isayev, E. Unintentionally being Lucanian; Dynamics beyond Hybridity. In S. Hales, T, Hodos (eds) Material Culture and Social Identities in the Ancient World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 201-26. ISBN 9780521767743.
  3. Isayev, E. Corfinium and Rome: Changing Place in the Social War. In M. Gleba & H.W. Horsnaes (eds), Communicating Identity in Italic Iron Age Communities (2011).  Oxford: Oxbow, 210-22. ISBN 9781842179918
  4. Isayev, E.  Migration in the Ancient Mediterranean the last two millennia BC. In I. Ness (ed.) Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration. Wiley-Blackwell (2013), 1-5.            ISBN 9781444334890: DOI: 10.1002/9781444351071.wbeghm357
  5. Isayev, E.  Human Mobility in Ancient Italy and aspects of globalisation before Empire. In M. Pitts & M.J. Versluys (eds), Globalisation & the Roman world. CUP: Cambridge (in Press 2014).
  6. Isayev, E.  Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy (forthcoming CUP in 2016/17).


Research Grants and Project Websites

  1. Isayev, I., Principal-Investigator for AHRC (2008) for: De-placing Future Memory.  £16,661.;
  1. Isayev, I, Davis Fellowship, Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University (2010), for: project (related to monograph above [6]): Paradoxes of Place: pausing motion in ancient Italy & now: £28,000.
  2. Isayev, I. AHRC Fellowship (Jan-Sept 2011) for: Paradoxes of Place: pausing motion in Ancient Italy. £60.699.
  3. Isayev, I., Principal Investigator for AHRC (2011) for: Future Memory in Place. £24,426.
  1. Isayev, I., Co-Investigator for AHRC, Research Networking Grant (2011) with Guido Bonsaver (PI), University of Oxford and Guido Tintori, Key Partner, University of Leiden, for: Italy as a Crossroad. The transformative nature of Human Mobility: The Italian/Mediterranean case as an explanatory model. £28,324.
  2. Collaborative Grant Funding (2012-13) raised for Future Memory in Red Road, by: E. Isayev (U of Exeter), C. Webster (Swansea Metropolitan U), R. Kay, A. Phipps (U of Glasgow), Iseult Timmermans (Street Level Photoworks Gallery), from the following sources: Awards for All Scotland, Glasgow City Council North East Area Committee, University of Exeter, University of Glasgow (incl. portion of AHRC grant from CRSEES) and Swansea Metropolitan University. Cumulative TOTAL: £ 20 550.    



Ph.D. History: University College London, University of London (July 2000)              

            Dissertation: Indigenous communities in Lucania: social organization & political forms, 4t-1st c. BC

M.A. Classical Archaeology (Distinction): University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada (1995) 

B.A. Hon. History/Classical Studies, (First Class, magna cum laude): York University, Toronto (1993)