Friday Varia and Quick Hits

October 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

The lovely fall weather seems to be inclined to linger here in North Dakotaland, and we’ll take every day more that we can get. Right now, however, the weather doesn’t matter because my eyes are glued to our so-called “internet television” watching Australia’s first test match of summer: Australia v. Pakistan in Dubai. At the time of this writing, Pakistan seems to have Australia on the ropes. 

I think I’ll watch the extra length second session (extended because of time off for Friday prayers), and contemplate my quick hits and varia. Don’t worry, though, they’ll be ready for your weekend reading.

IMG 2178Watching the Cup Race. 

Connectivity in Cyprus and Corinth

October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Over the last few weeks, David Pettegrew and I have been working on an article that compares finds data from the Corinthia and from our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus. We were particularly interested in understanding how the types of ceramics that we can identify in survey assemblages shapes the types of economic relationships we can recognize in the Eastern Mediterranean. As one might expect, our focus has been on the Late Roman world, and we have been particularly interested in the difference between the kind of economic relationships manifest in assemblages comprised of highly visible amphoras and those manifest in highly diagnostic Late Roman red slip wares. The entire project is framed by Horden and Purcell’s notion of connectivity and that’s the unifying theme of the volume to which this paper will contribute.

The paper is exciting because it represents a step beyond the work that David has been doing on his book on the Isthmus of Corinth. I’ve read a draft of the book and it’ll be exciting. It also represents the next step for our work with the Pyla-Koutsopetria data. It is significant that all of our survey data upon which this paper is based, is available on Open Context. Our book should be available in time for the holidays. 

The draft below is 95% of the way there with only a few niggling citations to clean up. Enjoy and, as always, any comments or critiques would be much appreciated!

Ethnicity and Archaeology in Modern Methana

October 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hamish Forbes has had a productive retirement. It seems like hardly a month goes by without some significant article from the tip of his pen. I finally got around to reading his article, “Archaeology and the Making of Improper Citizens in Modern Greece,” in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 27.1 (2014).

Forbes argues that many Methanites, who are Arvanitika speakers, do not relate to the national archaeological narrative constructed by the Greek state which have tended to celebrate the ties between modern Greece and Classical Antiquity and the monuments of Athens. Arvanitika speakers who settled in Greece at some point between the late Medieval period (say 13th century?) and the Ottoman period have stood outside of the national narrative in Greece that has been slow to recognize the existence of “ethnic minorities” typically defined by language. In fact, Forbes makes the point that there is no official capacity to recognize ethnic minorities in Greece, and this might be partially the result of conflating issues of ethnicity with desires for alternate national identities (ethnoi), partially the result of periods of hyper-nationalist political rhetoric, and partially the desire of the Greek state to distinguish itself in the European Union.

Forbes notes that Arvanitika speaking communities are common in Boeotia, Attica, and across the Northeastern Peloponnesus, but have generally found ways to hide their identities from outsiders and the unsympathetic gaze of the state. On the Methana peninsula, this has manifest itself in the community’s lack of interest in the ancient ruins on the peninsula, and attention to a fort dated to the Greek War of Independence. The fort was apparently constructed by the French philhellene Charles Fabvier to train Greek troops. Today, the fortification, visible on the narrow isthmus that separates Methana from the northern coast of Troezene, bears a large Greek flag painted on its flanks and this explicitly connects the site to a national identity. At the same time, the national identity manifest in this 19th century ruin, however, is nevertheless outside the main archaeological narrative promoted by the Greek state. In other words, the 19th century ruin provides an opportunity to locate the Arvanitika-speaking community within a positive narrative of the Greek state.

Forbes discusses the way in which local communities articulate their archaeological landscape and how it often differs from the interest of national or foreign archaeologists. He cites Susan Sutton’s description of the communities around the archaeological site of Nemea who associated more closely with a cave in a nearby hill that they relate to the den of the Nemean lion. Methanites likewise recognize the antiquity of a cave set high on the slopes of the volcanic peninsula, and Forbes notes that these natural features often provide points of reference in the landscape that allow local communities to establish regionally meaningful archaeological identities.

This article caught my attention for two reasons. First, on the Western Argolid Regional Project this summer we documented a fortification associated with the Greek War of Independence. Without getting into too much detail, graffiti festooned a number of parts of this rather visible fortification allowing individuals to locate their names within the archaeological landscape. This linked the nearby community of Lyrkeia very closely to a historical place. It is interesting to note that the nearby ancient ruins did not attract similar attention. The fort on Methana will also be a useful point of architectural comparison for our fortification in the Argolid although our fortress has far less august a historical pedigree. 

I was also interested in reading that Forbes did not mention the inventio story associated with the church of St. Barbara. According to Forbes’ monograph on Methana, a local resident had a dream which led the villagers to excavate and discover the bones of St. Barbara and St. Juliana who helped protect the island from the influenza epidemic in the early 20th century. I’ve blogged about it here. What’s interesting about this story is that it presents indigenous archaeology as more than simply the recognition of ruins or sites by a community, but the actual excavation of sites of particular significance. As Arvanitika speakers and Greek speakers in Greece share the Orthodox faith, it is significant that both communities have used these same methods to create locally meaningful archaeological landscapes (if not in the strictly scientific sense) that resonate with national narratives emphasizing the Orthodox (and Byzantine) roots of the Greek nation. This narrative is distinct from the national narrative that privileges Classical antiquity, and perhaps provides another alternate space for the forging of historically significant national identities.   

Method, the Discipline, and The History Manifesto

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Like many in my field, I read with interest Jo Guldi’s and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto over the weekend. Guldi and Armitage argue that historians should embrace the recent return to interest in long-term, large-scale historical inquiry which holds forth the potential to shed meaningful light on the most pressing issues of our day. Issues like global warming, growing economic inequality, technological change, and the pervasive spirit of crisis in higher education, all depend upon critical engagement with data from the past. At present, economists, environmentalists, scientists, and journalists all have exerted a substantial influence in how we understand the roots of global problems today, but none of these disciplines have the tradition of critical scrutiny at the core of historical analysis. 

Guldi and Armitage argue that over the last 40 or 50 years, historians has gradually backed away from considering questions of the longue durée in the interest of increasingly focused and small-scale studies sometimes associated with micro-history. The reasons for this are bound up in changes in the profession over this stretch of time. The pressure to focus on smaller periods of time and more focused problems appears to stem from the growing influence of “short-termism” which emphasizes the action of individual human agents, the impact of specific events, and absolute command over a small body of historical documents. Professionally, they hint, this short-termism reflects the pressures to publish efficiently to get a job, earn tenure, get grants, and establish a position within the discipline. The influence of these short-term goals and short-term approaches has saturated how we teach historical methods to undergraduates, who we are constantly urging to narrow their topics, to graduate student research seminars with too little time to go beyond a single body of sources or text subjected to close reading.

Google Ngram Viewer

Anyone who took one to Tim Gregory’s seminars in the 1990s or reads even superficially in the discipline of Mediterranean history knows that interest in the longue durée has only gained strength over the last three decades. From article length studies on containerization to massive monographs on historical connectivity and the protohistoric Mediterranean, scholars have continued to explore longterm trends in the history of the Mediterranean. In fact, regional studies of Mediterranean landscape, whether focusing on a single island or a particular valley, tend to engage in diachronic approaches drawing on archaeological and textual evidence in equal measure. It is genuinely heartening to read a work like the History Manifesto that pushed the discipline to absorb more lessons from the study of the premodern Mediterranean world.

At the same time, I left this book with a nagging feeling that the authors dodged a key issue driving historical work toward more focused studies. For the last century, historians have looked toward their methods to define their discipline. Our tendency to encourage students to focus on small bodies of material and limited questions has not been exclusively the product of short-termism or foreshortened professional horizons, but the need to pass on the basic skills of historical work. Critical reading of a text, for example, requires us to focus on single text, if only for the duration of a class or an assignment. Writing a thesis and making arguments grounded in critically engaged evidence remains the hallmark of historical work and practicing these methods requires attention to detail whether at the scope of a region, an epoch, or a single battle. If historical work depends on a particular set of methods which give historians a command of detail, nuance, and causality central to presenting a compelling argument about the past, telling the discipline to shift their focus toward understanding long-term trends in a critical, historical, way is not enough.

Google Ngram Viewer

Of course, Guldi and Armitage recognized this and argued that digital tools from the simple effectiveness of Google Ngrams to more complex designs that allow historians to perform “distant readings” from a well-defined and substantial bodies of evidence will accelerate historian’s ability to understand longer spans of time and more complex issues. At the same time, these forms of “distant reading” ask historians to suspend a certain amount of critical attention to individual texts and push historians to developed greater expertise in computer algorithms, quantitative methods, and arguments made from large datasets. While these things are possible, I can’t help but thinking that they represent substantial changes to the discipline and its methods. More importantly, these changes suggest that Guldi and Armitage see the strength of the discipline less in its current methodological tool kit (with its strengths, weaknesses, and discursive character) and more in the discipline’s authority in speaking about the past. In other words, they are asking historians to shift their disciplinary authority away from a body of methods, techniques, and skills refined over centuries, to new approaches under the same disciplinary and professional banner. While they couch this shift as a return to perspectives more common before the middle of the 20th century or still thriving in odd corners of the discipline like Mediterranean studies, they are asking historians to step into a very different river with fundamentally different disciplinary and critical character.

The interest in microhistory, agency, and close reading of texts arose, in part, to address the weaknesses of big picture thinking and to maintain a view of the humanities that is conscious of the individual. These practices coincided with the core qualities of the historical method: its philological roots, the character of history as craft, and the passionate faith in our working within a human-centered discipline (e.g. Collingwood’s rethinking historical thoughts). As someone how has spent a good bit of his professional career working with diachronic historical datasets, I continue to be skeptical about their ability to unlock something fundamental human condition, and I share Collingwood’s view that this is the discipline’s highest calling. After reading The History Manifesto, I’m wonder how much of our authority as a discipline is grounded in the humanistic and humane methods at the core of our practice and how much we’d lose when we step back from the individual to understand the past. 

Google Ngram Viewer

Check out the book, it’s free!

Fractured Land Author to Speak at the University of North Dakota

October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

On Thursday, October 30th, Lisa Peters the author of Fractured Lands will speak in the East Asia Room of the Mighty Chester Fritz Library.  The book has received a positive review from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and I’ve offered my thoughts on it here.


While making a poster for the book, I took a few minutes to think about the font used on the cover. I think it’s a version of Cochin, but it’s clearly a transitional serif font. I suspect the use of this font for book covers is designed to evoke the cover of Larry Potter books which used a version of Cochin to evoke the fantastic and anachronistic world of the young wizard (or whatever he is). As someone who wrote a fairly long dissertation and endless articles under the oppressive gaze of Times New Roman, I’m sort of over transitional serif fonts. I can vaguely grasp the point of it on the cover. I suppose it is designed to evoke tensions between her father’s fascination with North Dakota oil and her own desire to move forward into a greener, more environmentally friendly world.  

Ironically, the book is set in a modern serif font, Escrow, made famous by the Wall Street Journal. I thought that was a nice touch, considering the topic of the book! I might have dumped the Larry Potteresque title and run an old style serif font like Garamond throughout. I like the intimacy of the Classical/Old Style fonts and I think they’d be fitting for a memoire. 

Font situation aside, her talk should be good fun. I’m donating some of my time from North Dakota Humanities Council affairs to organizing this talk, so it’s sponsored by the NDHC.

Here’s the link to the live stream on the day of the talk.


Friday Varia and Quick Hits

October 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week really felt like fall. Not the typical North Dakota fall, where its in the 60s for three days, the 50s for 3 days, and then is just plain cold, but the kind of fall where making piles of leaves is fun and you can talk for hours whether to put in the storm windows. This had to be one of the nicest weeks since I’ve moved to North Dakotaland.

I wish it inspired a more productive week, but I was at least able to bring together a little list of quick hits are varia.

IMG 2165It’s a dog’s life.

Memory and Place in Grand Forks

October 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

I was out for my evening “run” last night (which is actually more of a trot or a shuffle) and I had a remarkable experience.

As I was heading out Belmont Road in Grand Forks and complaining to myself about the persistent headwind, I passed an old man and said “Hi” as I usually do. He was walking with a cane, and presumably out enjoying the same lovely fall day that I was ruining for myself by running.

He said, as I ran past, “It’s been a long time since I could do that.”

I responded, “I’m just trying to hang on for as long as I can,” thinking about the fall weather.

He didn’t hear me so I doubled back to tell him what I said. When I got back to him he told me a story completely unprompted. 

He said that when he was in about second or third grade, the concrete sidewalk where we were standing had buckled a bit and had fallen apart. He and his two friends where riding their bikes down this little hill and Johnny Erikson’s front wheel grabbed on the crumbling concrete sending him over the handlebars and skinning his knees badly. He then told me that they sat there a while while he bawled because they weren’t doctors and didn’t really know what to do. When Johnny stopped crying they went on their way.

He then pointed to the massive elm tree by the side of the road and said, “This tree was there then and it was large, just as it is now…. and that must have been, well, at least 50 years ago.” 



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