September 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last week I blogged a bit about working my way through J. Bintliff’s new survey of the archaeology of Greece. This week, I reflected on the sections dedicated to the archaeology of Byzantine and Crusader Greece. These three chapters are strong enough to stand on their own as a short survey of Byzantine archaeology. They feature vivid case studies that introduce readers to some unfamiliar places while at the same time providing to the traditional monuments central to long-standing discussions of Byzantine archaeology and architecture.
There are a handful of things that really stood out in these chapters:
1. Domestic Spaces. Bintliff does a great job bringing in recent research on Byzantine and “Frankish period” housing (most notably the work of E. Sigalos). Attention to Byzantine housing, of course, is an important step to developing a more sophisticated understanding of the functional character of surface assemblages for this period. While Bintliff offers little that is new, he does provide a very accessible synthesis of recent work on Byzantine domestic space which a student could easily use as a jumping off point for more in-depth research. The only period for which Bintliff’s work seems a bit lacking is for the Early Byzantine period or the “Dark Ages” where recent work stands poised to make a serious contribution to habitation practices during this important transitional time.
2. Urban and Rural. A better understanding of both urban and rural housing allows us to begin to unravel the complexities associated with Byzantine settlement. At present, as Bintliff acknowledged, the lines between various types so Byzantine settlements are exceedingly blurry. While the ends of the continuum – say isolated farms and major urban areas – are clear, the differences between monasteries, hamlets, villages, town, and small cities remains difficult at best. Even if we concede that some of these terms may reflect contemporary definitions of settlement more than Byzantine, the organization of space outside of the most monumentalized centers (Mistras, Thessaloniki, Constantinople, et c.) continues to offer a serious challenge to scholars interested in Byzantine economy and society.
3. Texts. It was a bit striking that there was so little appeal to texts throughout these chapters. Byzantine archaeology has long been beholden to texts and the abundance of texts -from the most modest hagiography to various documentary sources like the typika edited and published by Dumbarton Oaks. These texts have long worked in conjunction with archaeological observation to offer a robust perspective on the Byzantine and Frankish material culture. Despite all the difficulties that texts from the Medieval period have created for archaeologists, their absence of this section reflects an obvious oversight to specialists in Byzantine archaeology.
4. No Longer Periphery. Most surveys of Byzantine archaeology – as much as such things exist – regard Greece as somehow peripheral to the Byzantine heartland and part of a larger discussion of “provincial” architecture, archaeology, and traditions. Bintliff’s book offers almost no hint of this provincializing discourse and locates southern and central Greece at the center of his discussion of archaeology. This makes some sense, of course, as his book focuses on the archaeology of a particular region defined by both the modern nationstate and earlier concentrations of distinct cultural practices. By focusing on regional practices in their own rights rather than as just pale imitations of the center, Bintliff locates the material culture of Byzantine and Frankish Greece within local traditions and evidence. As his entire book shows, the remains of Byzantine and Frankish Greece fit within a larger and independent narrative of Greek history and archaeology. (This is something that Greek archaeologists have largely recognized, but Bintliff avoids the potential for a nationalist archaeology by treading very critically and carefully the minefield of continuity.)
The most vexing thing about this otherwise commendable survey is that it’s attached to 300+ pages of careful scholarship on the archaeology of earlier periods. This makes this volume not particularly appealing for a course in Medieval or Byzantine history course where it would clearly fill a gap in current offerings. This left me wishing that this book (and others like it) come in a more modular form where an instructor could purchase only particular sections of a text (at I am sure a healthy mark up!).
September 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I have a hectic fall, but I could not keep myself from at least delving into John Bintliff’s new survey of Greek archaeology. Running close to 500 pages of text and modestly named The Complete Archaeology of Greece: From Hunter Gatherers to the 20th Century A.D., Bintliff’s newest contribution provides an ambitious panorama of Greek archaeology. Bintliff is one of only a small handful of scholars in the hyper-specialized world of Classical and Mediterranean Archaeology who could produce a book like this. While I have yet to read closely most of the book, the sections that deal with the periods I spend most time with – Late Antiquity and Byzantium – are significant.
So, in my tradition of lists, here are five observations about his approach to Late Antiquity:
1. Survey Archaeology. This is the first survey of Greek archaeology that moves intensive pedestrian survey practices to the fore of archaeological investigation. Bintliff draws heavily on his own work in Boeotia and other survey projects throughout Greece to construct arguments for settlement, urban change, and the Later Roman economy. It is impossible to exaggerate how significant this in the context of Greek archaeology where large, urban excavations have for so long framed most of the key conversations about archaeology in Greece even for the Late Roman world. Bintliff does not overlook the significance of urban excavations – for example he makes use of salvage excavations in Thessaloniki as well as excavations at the Athenian Agora, Sparta, and Corinth to make arguments for the form and prevalence of Late Roman villas, but he places these discussions alongside sites documented during both extensive and intensive survey. Bintliff’s willingness to emphasize the results produced by survey archaeology has had several significant knock-on consequences:
2. Methods. One of the most significant consequences in expanding our idea of Greek archaeology from its traditional emphasis on excavation to include survey archaeology is a renewed interest in connecting archaeological methods to the kinds of conclusions that one can draw from archaeological data. While excavation practices have increased in sophistication over the past 50 years, no where in Greek archaeology has the methodological discourse reached the level of intensity as in survey archaeology. Bintliff makes a particular point of considering David Pettegrew’s important 2007 article in Hesperia (76.4: pdf here) which noted the vast differences in artifact visibility between Early-Middle Roman coarse wares and Late Roman coarse wares. Late Roman amphora sherds with their distinctive surface treatments are simply far more visible in a survey context than amphora sherds from earlier periods. This has obvious consequences for how we understand the extent and nature of settlement and land use over the long Roman period in Greece. Bintliff’s willingness to address this fiddly methodological issue brings a level of sophistication to his work that might otherwise be absent in a book focused on the traditional topic of Greek archaeology in the later Roman period (churches, fortifications, urban change, villas, et c.).
3. Town and Country. Intensive pedestrian survey – whatever its current methodological limitations – has shed invaluable light on the Late Roman countryside and, by extension, the Late Roman economy. Bintliff’s book does more than any other major survey of Greek history or archaeology to bring the rural economy into the larger narrative of later Greek history. Survey archaeology has brought to light not only the presence of smaller site where saw re-occupation in Late Roman period, but also the appearance of numerous island and harbor sites which undoubtedly reflects vibrant commerce in agricultural goods on small-scale as well as the integration of small rural producers with an economy increasingly geared toward supplying Constantinople and the Danubian provinces.
4. Periodization. One of the few area where I am willing to question Bintliff’s approach to dealing with the Late Roman period is in his decisions to abide by longstanding practices of separating the Late Antique (300-650) from the Early Byzantine (650-850). To his credit, he makes explicit the difficulties associated with the tricky practice of periodizing and offers an argument based on demographic change, shifts in architectural practices, and larger geo-politics. On the other hand, archaeologists have increasingly come to see the chronological boundaries of Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium as far from clear. The study of Late Roman ceramics continues to show that various forms traditionally dated to Late Antiquity persist into the 8th centuries. The excavators of most monumental Late Antique buildings in Greece did not publish systematically their stratigraphy and ceramic data making it difficult to associate the dates of these buildings with actual archaeological material. Finally, larger patterns of life – including the well-worn trading paths that integrated Greece with the larger Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean world – may have persisted for much longer than earlier scholars have suspected. The continued vitality of urban areas like Corinth into the 8th centuries offers a significant challenge to traditional periodization schemes.
5. The Hexamilion. Finally, it was gratifying to see the Hexamilion wall and Isthmian fortress occupying a significant place in Bintliff’s treatment of the Late Roman countryside. This massive fortification extended across the entire Isthmus of Corinth and formed a formidable (if oddly ineffective) barrier against barbarian incursions from the north. Two fortresses anchored the Hexamilion wall at its eastern and western termini, and the eastern fortress has seen significant archaeological work mainly by teams associated with the Ohio State Excavations at Isthmia. The wall and fortress undoubtedly had a massive economic and visual impact on the Corinthian countryside drawing significant resources to the provisioning of the garrison there and the maintenance of the wall. The site of the Isthmian fortress served as the base of operations for the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey and was where I gained whatever modest knowledge I have about archaeology.
August 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was reviewing the second volume in the Oxford Studies in the Ancient Economy series edited by A. Bowman and A. Wilson. I discuss the first volume of the series here.
Well, here is the completed review for your enjoyment:
March 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been working on a review of Y. Lolos, Land of Sikyon. Hesperia Supplement 39 (2011). I’ve posted more specific discussions of the book’s various sections here and here.
Here is a working version of the final review:
Crossposted to Corinthian Matters.
October 31, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This weekend I began the almost overwhelming task of negotiating L. Brubaker and J. Haldon’s Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850: A History (Cambridge 2011). The runs to just shy of 800 pages of text and with an addition 100 pages of bibliography. It continues in the trend of Byzantinists writing big books; M. McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2002) and C. Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2005) come to mind as similar tomes.
Considering the massive size of Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, I could imagine no way of reviewing it or even reading it in over a coherent block of time. (It really deserve the kind of treatment typically reserved for books like James’ Ulysses or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, where readers read the book as an event.). So, I decided to dip into the book not exactly at random, but to fish out the topics of interest to me, and I’ll offer my thoughts here, from time to time as I work my way through the book hopefully before my interlibrary loan period runs out.
I’ve been thinking a bit about settlement in the Byzantine period, the relationship between Byzantine and earlier Late Roman urban space, and, to a lesser extent the Late Roman and Byzantine economy. So chapters 6 and 7 which focused on the economy and settlement attracted my attention immediately. As one would expect, these chapters laid out the basic issues facing the Byzantine economy in the 7th to 9th centuries, with a focus on the role of the state and the distribution of coins and ceramic material as evidence for economic activity. The first part of the chapter focused on coinage and, inevitably with this kind of evidence, the role of the state as the engine for economic activity both in the capital (and its immediate hinterland) and in the provinces. Coinage entered the market as pay for soldiers and returned to the state as taxes. The further a community was from areas of military activity, the fewer coins appeared.
For ceramics, the authors pulled together the diverse and fragmented body of evidence for ceramic production and distribution to argue that from the 7th to the 9th century, the distribution of ceramics became increasingly region in character and long distance trade declined. Even as the authors accept the gradual lengthening of Late Antique patterns of production and exchange into the 8th century, the evidence for the long-life of certain types of pottery, like Cypriot Red Slip, does little to challenge the overall impression that the transregional character of exchange in the Later Roman Empire was giving way to far more circumscribed economic zones largely dependent on local needs of the state, the military, or an local ecclesiastical or market center. Thus, both trade and the circulation of coinage took on a regional character during these centuries and contributed to the regional character of the Middle Byzantine provincial elite.
The authors treatment of settlement patterns followed from their understanding of the regionalized economy. As demographic decline, urban contraction, and the decline of interregional trade occurred over the course of the 7th and 8th centuries, settlement patterns within within the Byzantine world took on increasingly regional character. Asia Minor, for example, represented a different development trajectory than the Balkans owing to different levels of state activity, security, economic opportunities, natural resources, and demographic decline. So while general pattern, did emerge – particular for settlements like the fortified kastron that features so prominently in discussion of rural settlement – these were either motivated by state, provincial, or military elite, or certain ubiquitous economic opportunities – like harbors.
One heartening aspect of the chapter dedicated the patterns of settlement, is that the authors begin to take into the account the results of intensive pedestrian survey. The limited scope of projects employing this method made it difficult for the authors to apply its findings on a scale fitting their own sweeping survey, but they clearly recognized that it had to potential to expand how scholars understand the character of Byzantine settlement and the various influences that shaped it on the local level.
In general, these two chapters – read outside of the context of the book in general – provide a nice survey of the economy and settlement of the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Byzantine period. My main criticism of these chapters is the absence of any people in the text. The economy is a completely impersonal and state run affair devoid of individual laborers, their crafts, and the various persistent evidence to their work (other than pottery, of course). Fortifications, cities, monasteries, and port cities appear in these chapters without much discussion of the labor involved in constructing and maintaining them. Perhaps the sum total of this labor made just a minor dent in the Byzantine economy, or perhaps the evidence for building and the like cannot sustain the weight of sustained analysis. At the same time, the presence of individuals as participants in economic activity would ground the analysis of the economy and settlement in the bodies of actual Byzantine subjects. Trace evidence for practice could mediate between the systems proposed by the authors and the lived experiences of Byzantine individuals.
October 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
I’ve really enjoyed cruising through the Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki open peer-review volume called Writing History in the Digital Age which is slated to be published by University of Michigan Press’s new Digital Humanities Series in their digitalculturebooks imprint. I commented on many of the contributions and mined them all for references and ideas. I’d encourage anyone interested or invested in the future of history in the digital age to check out the volume and to contribute to its open peer review. Since I have read all the articles in the volume and have been thinking a bit about history in the digital era myself lately, I thought I might offer some overarching comments on the volume (as is my wont).
1. Coherence. One of the first things I noticed about the book is the wide range of contributions. These range from two recent Ph.D.s discussing how they used email to keep themselves motivated and sane while writing their dissertations to discussions on databases, GIS, visualization, and even non-linear digital editing. Articles on the use of Wikipedia and Social media in the classroom stand alongside more theoretical or research oriented papers. While such scope is commendable (and must reflect the “big tent” approach to digital humanities, in general), it caused me to wonder about the limits of a specific sub-field called “digital history” and how we plan to organize and reflect on the intersection of digital tools and history as the discipline becomes invested in digital technologies. For example, there were no articles celebrating the contribution of the so-called “personal computer” or “word processor” in the volume. These basic technologies clearly fell outside of what the authors and editors regarded as the discourse of digital history (although one can argue that these technologies had as big an impact on our field as Wikipedia or Facebook).
Edited volumes always have ragged edges where the definitions and ideas of the contributors fail to line up precisely across the entire book or clash with those of the editors. This is part of the charm of the edited volume; it captures a snapshot of a particular topic in the minds of a group of scholars (as opposed to the carefully composed portrait that is a monograph). At the same time, recent discussions on the definition of the digital humanities might feature more prominently in a volume like this. Is there really enough theoretical, methodological, and topical coherence between all the papers here to justify their appearance in the same book?
2. Institutions. One of the more interesting aspect of the volume was the subtle but (almost) ubiquitous mention of institutional support for the various initiative detailed. In some cases, the support came from powerful national organizations like National Endowment for the Humanities. In other cases, on campus labs or centers like Arts eResearch at the University of Sydney or MATRIX at Michigan State, provided the infrastructure necessary for a project’s development. Some initiatives were far more modest in scope and extended only slightly beyond the classroom’s walls or an immediate community. Few of the articles in this volume, however, problematized their work in terms of a formal research question framed in response to a pre-existing body of scholarship. (Few began with the ubiquitous phrases: “Scholars have argued…”)
It appears, then, that the impetus for working in digital history derives as much from institutional pressures (and opportunities) as traditional appeals to the scholarly conversation. While this is hardly surprising for a recent development in the discipline, it may foreshadow an interesting shift in the structure of humanities scholarship. The pressure to collaborate and innovate is pushing scholars in the humanities away from well-trod arguments and to the brink of a kind of rupture in the discourse (in a Foucauldian sense). The external pressure and resources deployed by on campus and national institutions have insisted that historians (and other scholars in the humanities) shift their arguments from the small-picture debates that have long shaped these disciplines, to big picture, transdisciplinary, collaborative thinking. This is manifest in (some, but not all of) the scholarship that these projects produced: Writing History in the Digital Age recognizes a different audience and a different set of discursive rules than writing traditional history.
3. Methods and Techniques. Traditional historical practice has been short on method. The so-called historical method is, in fact, a set of practices cobbled together from various other fields and epistemological systems. With the rise in digital history, however, a new interest in methods and practices has come to the fore and a number of the articles in Writing History in the Digital Age reflect this development. Digital historians are more willing to experiment with methods grounded in geography, the social sciences, media studies, and, even, computer programing and game studies.
At the same time, this methodological growth requires critical attention to new techniques. Archaeology for example, has developed a robust methodological discourse over the past 40 years as the disciple embraced a “methodological turn” that sought to critically examine the tools, practices, and assumptions that shaped archaeological knowledge. The essays in this volume, in contrast, showed very little in the way of genuine methodology. Of course, some of the essays with a pedagogical bent, showed an awareness of and willingness to contribute to recent pedagogical developments, but few of the more research oriented pieces considered explicitly and critically the methodological assumptions of their use of digital tools.
The absence of methodology extends to some extent to the techniques (for lack of a better word) used to generate the kind of digital analysis that their contributions celebrate. While software, programing and markup languages, and hardware appeared regularly in the pages, we were rarely invited to look behind the curtain to see how these aspects of digital history influenced the ways in which history could be written. (The notable exceptions to this were the several essays that discussed Wikipedia, but even these essays focused on the social, rather than technological aspects of this forum. For example, several of the essays mention the automated “bots” that crawl Wikipedia and can change entries systematically, but few essays explain how these bots work and why historian-trained bots couldn’t do the same things.) My feeling is that the next step in the study of digital history will involve a much more critical approach to the methods and tools used by digital historians to produce new knowledge.
4. The Future. One of the most significant gaps in this small book were essays with an eye toward the future. Writing the future is always a risky game, especially for historians who are so accustomed to “looking backward“. At the same time, part of the writing digital history game is positioning history in a place not only to take advantage of digital tools created by other people, but also to shape how new technologies develop. I would have loved to hear how folks invested in digital history, as the contributors to this book clearly are, see the future of technology impacting our work as historians.
Developments like the massive growth of computing power available to mobile devices, enhanced and augmented reality, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), an endless stream of cloud services, the chaining notion of curation and the personal web, and the rapid mutation of social media communities, all offer new venues for presenting history, but also new spaces and tools for the analysis and interpretation of past events.
Writing History in the Digital Age represents a moment in time in the discipline’s embrace of digital tools. At once it is possible to see ragged edge of the profession’s handling of digital media to communicate and interpret the past, as well as its growing confidence in embracing (if not fully engaging) new technologies.
September 12, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This past week University of Michigan’s Digital Culture Book imprint published the edited version of the Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt project Hacking the Academy. For anyone interested in the fertile intersection of digital culture and university life, the book is a must-read. Moreover, its unique format and production process represents one of the best examples of an emerging model of academic writing. The content for the book prepared from contributions via blogs, twitter, email and other digital media in a single week. (Longshot magazine has followed a similar model to produce a complete magazine in 48 hours.)
So as per my usual practice, I won’t indulge in a full review but offer three largely unrelated comments:
1. As cool as the concept of aggregating a book over one week is, I struggle in some ways to understand why it is important for academic publishing and writing to engage in such an experiment. Cohen and Scheinfeldt suggest that having a single week to compose on a particular topic served “to better focus [contributors] attention and energy.” I suppose this is a valid point. And I do know colleagues who continue to hold to undergraduate mantra of “working better under pressure”.
On the other hand, it seems like academia remains a bastion of the “slow food” type of writing. Unlike journalism or the even more rapid world of the blogosphere, the research, writing, and publication of academic writing tends to be a reflective and deliberate process. It’s not that I don’t think academia can benefit from the kind of instant gratification produced by such scholarly “fast food” (after all, I do blog!), but I do wonder whether this model of production should culminate in a print publication.
In fact, most of the posts in this short book are thought-provoking, but light on references, hard evidence, and “next level” thinking. In other words, the book captures the kind of early stage thinking found in the academic blogosphere. Making research projects visible at an early stage is useful for innumerable reasons (it brands an idea, it makes it possible to get critique early in a project’s life, the act of articulating an idea many times helps to refine it, et c.), but the difference between the initial articulation of ideas and the “final” product remains a distinct character of scholarly writing.
If I were envisioning a project like Hacking the Academy, I might have asked the authors whose contributions were accepted to envelope their initial contribution in a more formal reflective essay that both takes into account the original context of the contribution, and also places it in a more refined context.
2. The essays offer well-worn, but still exciting ideas about using technology to change the way that the academic culture does things. The contributors attacks on traditional forms of scholarly publication (particularly the profit driven practices associated with some academic journals) were effective and well-reasoned. As they expanded their critique to academic culture more broadly, however, a certain kind of naiveté seemed to creep into their writing.
The contributors seemed reluctant to engage the elephant on campus: TRUTH. Many of my colleagues are reluctant to engage with the process driven and transparent practices of digital scholarship because they see anything short of peer-reviewed, formal, academic publications as being short on access to TRUTH. The contributors to Hacking the Academy attempt to make clear that the origins of academic publication in a world where print was an expensive and exclusive commodity created certain procedures like peer review designed to ensure the quality of material committed to print. Today, however, the peer review process for many of my colleagues represents the line between the proliferation of half-baked, ill-informed, unTRUE ideas and the glistening utopia of TRUE knowledge. Despite the powerful influence of the postmodern critique, attitudes that see the traditional scholarly process as the imprimatur of true knowledge continue to carry sway in the academy. So attacks on traditional scholarly publishing as profit-driven, slow, exclusive, and bastions of secret agendas and vested interests, overlook the most common rhetorical position occupied by its supporters. The contributors to Hacking the Academy might not buy this argument, but they still need to find a response to it.
3. While I remain largely sympathetic to the contributors to this volume, I was also disappointed not to see more considerations of the limits of digital tools to reform the academy. After all, scholars who insisted on double-blind peer review and the stodgy ways associated with traditional academic publishing, did so as part of a democratizing process that was remarkably similar to that advocated by today’s digital scholars. There are, of course, issues confronting the “digital-turn”. Preservation, archiving, and curation of digital objects remains problematic. It remains unclear whether the coming digital information utopia will be fully realized on a global scale. The skills necessary to navigate the flood of data, applications, and tools remain daunting even to scholars who keep their fingers on the digital pulse. Finally, the tools necessary to generate and distribute digital collections remain exclusive and – as anyone who has taught a digital history course knows – expensive. While electrons are free, the tools needed to organize them into useful patterns remain dear.
These critiques, however, should not take away from the through-provoking character of this book. The contributions are short, pithy, and a fun to read. The contributors found interesting and effective ways to include comments generated via Twitter or email. And the book will likely stand as a testimony to a moment in time in the academy’s confrontation with our digital future.
September 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of Betsy Robinson’s new book Histories of Peirene: A Corinthian Fountain in Three Millennia. This was particularly exciting to me because I’ve been using Betsy’s 2001 University of Pennsylvania dissertation for years as a detailed guide of the culture of water in the city of Corinth. With the publication of this book, her dissertation has received a fantastic complement. The new book explores the history of the Peirene fountain and its excavations. On a personal note, it evoked fantastic memories of my first trips to Corinth (as a bleary-eyed M.A. student) when I reveled in the fountain on a hot summer day and, later, explored various other ancient water channels around the Corinthia.
Robinson’s work stands atop the detailed documentation of Peirene produced in the published and unpublished manuscripts of Burt Hodge Hill. In fact, the detailed documentation produced in Corinth I.6 by Hill absolved Robinson of some of the incredibly tedious (but valuable) descriptions so often associated with the careful discussion of an archaeological site. Freed from these responsibilities, Robinson was able to examine the place of this important fountain not only in Corinthian history, but in the history of Hellenistic and Roman architecture and in the history of the Corinth. After a brief description of the spring and its springhouse, she reviewed the ancient (and some Medieval) testimonia and made a persuasive case for the importance of Peirene to both local and Mediterranean-wide understandings of Corinthian identity. More than just a list, this chapter contextualized her book by making it clear that Peirene was not just another ancient spring, but an especially important in art and text alike. This chapter satisfies critics who might have questions the significance of the Peirene fountain outside the narrow realm of Corinthian scholarship.
The next two chapters, return Peirene to its Corinthian context by exploring the labors that contributed to the fountain’s excavation and maintenance. In many ways, these chapters form an interesting pendant to Robinson’s treatment of the testimonia. On the one hand, she is pains to argue that the fountain is significant because the ancient texts regard it as almost synonymous with the city of “well-watered Corinth”. On the other hand, she presents the early excavators of the fountain in a clearly heroic light. Bert Hodge Hill, in particular, receives equal parts apologia for his lack of publications and praise for his tireless efforts to document the fountain and protect the drinking water of the village of Corinth. A maze of channels and pipes emanating from Peirene continued to provide the water supply for the village in the first half of the 20th century and it was particularly critical that archaeological work on the fountain did nothing to disrupt the flow of water to fields, homes, and fountains in the area. In an era where archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware of the colonialists nature of their work, this chapter serves as an interesting case-study for the kinds of symbiotic relationship that developed between the archaeologists and the communities in which they worked during the early days of American archaeology in Greece.
The celebration of Hill’s achievements took on a distinctly “American School” like cast to me. While these chapters are well argued and lack any element of encomium, they nevertheless fuse the archaeologist – in this case Hill – to the archaeological undertaking. Methods, research questions, objects and discursive concerns fade into the background before the overwhelming force of individual personalities. Negotiating a terrain strewn with larger than life figures – Hill, Blegen, Broneer, Williams, Shear, Robinson, et al. – means contending with their personalities, legacies, and place in the intricate history of American School politics. (And it is difficult not to hear echoes of contemporary discussions in Robinson’s discussion of Hill.) While it may be similar in other parts of the world, the heroic stature of American excavators in Greece makes almost all work at long-established sites at least as much about the excavators as about the actual archaeological material itself.
The second half of the book summarizes, clarifies, and expands the history of the Peirene fountain. As someone primarily interested in the later history of the city of Corinth, I was particularly gratified to see the Triconch Court moved to the 4th-5th century adding to the impressive quantity of Late Antique urban works in the city. Robinson’s hint at parallels between the construction style of the Triconch court and the Hexamilion suggests a 5th century building boom that complemented the later 6th century renovation of the Corinthia’s built environment. I was also excited to imagine the “outlooker screen”, which Robinson dates to the later 5th or 6th century, as a component of the 6th century building boom in the city. One thing that I would have been interested in understanding is the relationship between the later modifications to Pierene and the work done at the “nymphaion” down on the Lechaion road near the great early Christian basilica. I wonder whether the outlooker screen which Robinson notes evoked the design of ionic impost capitals echoed the colonnaded aspect and ionic impost capitals used at the Lechaion nymphaion?
The only disappointment from this second half of the book comes from the difficulty in linking the work of the heroic Hill with the specific archaeological and chronological issues studied in the second half of the book. In a number of places, Hill stalls the submission of his final manuscript to resolve specific problems with his understanding of Peirene. While Robinson takes on a number of the pressing issues in the study of the fountain, she does not necessarily connect these issues with Hill’s labors. Perhaps the problems encountered by Hill were, indeed, unresolvable even after 80 additional years of thought or maybe Hill was simply stalling (as someone who struggles to complete long writing tasks, I can sympathize with Hill’s struggle to complete and submit his manuscript). On the other hand, separating the story of the fountain’s excavation from the story of the fountain as an archaeological artifact allows for the vague feeling that these two stories could somehow exist independently. Even at the very end of Robinson’s section two, when the fountains creeps its way into the modern era the waters of the fountains feeding Ottoman fountains remains apart from the first modern excavators. The end of the story of Peirene appears before the heroic Hill and company arrive on the scene to exhume her remains.
The book is the second in a new series, Ancient Art and Architecture in Context, published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Needless to say, it is lavishly produced with flawless editing. At the same time, it was interesting to reflect on the fate of Bert Hodge Hill’s Peirene manuscript against the backdrop of the American School’s publication process. Various directors of the American School pushed Hill relentlessly to release his manuscript for publication. In fact, the work stalled for over 20 years at the page proof stage. Today, the pressure almost certainly comes in the opposite direction with authors desperate to see their research come to light through the American School (and other presses as well). For many junior faculty the pressures to publish far outweigh the rewards of a well-produced and “scientifically accurate” text.
August 30, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Amidst the beginning of the semester din, I did capture enough time to settled in and read a new book: E. Kansa, S. Witcher Kansa, and Ethan Watrall eds., Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration. (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology (UCLA) 2011). The book is a product of a session at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in 2008 and is the first volume in the new Cotsen Digital Archaeology Series. It is published with a Creative Common BY-SA license (By Attribution, Share Alike). The volume is available for free here.
This book may well become a landmark volume in the history of archaeology and the bundle of technologies that we associated with Web 2.0. The volume spans a range of topics from core infrastructure, to technical and theoretical concerns, collaborative research environments, and realistic perspectives on sustainability. Each of the topics considers the significance of Web 2.0 technologies in advancing the way in which archaeologists organize, produce, and share data on the web. The credentials of the participants in this volume speak for themselves and their body of technical work is cutting edge. More than taking a leap into the future, the book captures a precise moment in the history of the discipline’s long-term engagement with technology.
The greatest strength of this book is that it is steeped in the practical realities of archaeological data sharing. For the contributors, data sharing is not merely the exchange of raw data (databases, spreadsheets, GIS and CAD arrays, or whatever), but the full range of conversations that Web 2.0 (variously defined) technologies has made possible. User-generated archaeological information has changed the way that archaeologists conduct research.
At the same time, the contributors to this volume remained profoundly realistic. No one imagined a situation where all data is stored in some great archive but rather in a distributed way across numerous different archives on the web. The different organization of data, the limited ability to centralize resources, and the institutional structure of the discipline present significant obstacles to any single method imagined to accommodate the mass of pre-existing and born-digital archaeological data. In the place of the fantasy of a single repository, comes more sophisticated ways to syndicate, integrate, and query (and search) for archaeological data across the web like those provided by the Alexandria Archive’s Open Context and Michigan State’s iAKS.
The web has radically changed concepts of visibility, collaboration, and scholarly performance so it is now possible to consider projects like the online UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology to be equal (if not superior) to traditional print publications. Blog, social media, and other collaborative spaces have become important avenues for certain types of archaeological conversations. (It was flattering to see my blog mentioned in Sarah Witcher Kansa’s and Francie Deblauwe’s article on middle space in scholarly communication in zooarchaeology (it would have been even cooler had they spelled my name right!)).
While much of the book went over well-trod ground among those who follow trends in the digital humanities, the scope, accessibility, and intensely reasonable perspectives offered by the authors made the book particularly compelling. There was little in the way of naive sensationalism or even the utopian tech-evangelism that is sometimes found in these kinds of volumes. The limits of funding, issues of sustainability, and the need to protect certain kinds of sensitive data appear as serious considerations without simple answers. While this is a reality among scholars discussing digital archaeology and history, it rarely seems to be so fully articulated and recognized in the texts that these scholars produce imagining the digital futures of our disciplines.
The greatest limitation of this text comes not from the technological side, but rather from the intellectual or academic side. An issue that I have raised on my blog before stems from reflecting on the interpretative agendas advanced by many Mediterranean archaeologists. While the idea exists that it could be possible to collect data from numerous projects, across a vast area, and crunch it into a broad reaching, novel synthetic perspective, I think that it remains an open question whether there is a substantial scholarly interest in this kind of research. Vast, quantitative studies of even single regions – from single data sets – remain relatively rare in our field. And, there are significant questions whether the quality of data produced even in the most carefully monitored projects reach a sufficient standard to allow for complex generalizations across regions.
Moreover, more qualitative analysis – which does not rely necessarily upon the raw data of excavation or survey, but on published objects – is becoming better served by the greater accessibility and visibility of standard print publications via various journal databases and projects like Google books. (And it is worth noting that standard issues like naming of various vessel types, places, or even contexts (across multiple languages) are not any more easily resolved in databases than in more traditional publications).
In my world, most academic archaeologists design their field research to collect data that answers a particular question. Their research question, then, absorbs their energy, structures their data, and shapes their interpretative and publication strategies. In fact, the absence of useful data is often the reality that prompts fieldwork. At the same time, the inadequacy of other projects’ data is the conceit that makes one’s own data stand apart. This is not to say that comparative analysis does not occur between projects or that we don’t search for comparative “type-fossils”, but rather that this work tends never to be a major research priority. In fact, in Mediterranean archaeology tends to approach comparative analysis from the attitude that “our data” is unique and meaningful in and of itself, and other data “merely” provides it with context. (I do understand that this is not the same process for professional archaeologists or CRM types. There is obvious and tremendous value to the various digital projects described in the volume that sought to open up the vast body of “grey literature” to a wider professional audience.)
The issues facing large scale data distribution schemes isn’t, then, a technological one, but rather a more profoundly methodological one. Archaeologists simply are not asking the kinds of questions (yet) that queries across vast swaths of intensively produced data would support. So, the lack of support for the massive data repositories, comes as much from the intellectual limitations of our discipline as from institutional, professional, or technological concerns.
This being said, I do recognize that changes in technology does shift the conceptual footing of the discipline, but the nature of archaeology as a craft (as opposed to a more rigorously standardized science or profession) remains a major limitation to how scholars think about data.
June 13, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Patrick Leigh Fermor died this weekend. I read Roumeli and Mani on my first trips to Greece, and he helped me appreciate that it was good thing to be tourist, to take in local culture, and the consider the confluence between Greece’s Modern, Ottoman, Byzantine, and Classical past.