Does a University Need a Library?

September 24, 2013 § 5 Comments

Times are tough in North Dakota and the University of North Dakota is feeling the pinch. Among the many institutions seeing major cutbacks this year is the library. We have no designated book budget for this year and we are cutting back on both online and print journal subscriptions. There is no doubt that most divisions on campus, faculty, and students will feel the pinch.

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At first, I was mortified that we would be deprived of such a basic resource, but to be frank the collection in my area is weak anyway. I rely on the good will of friends, interlibrary loan, and some of the typical academic trickery in getting ahold of the books and articles that I need. It is not an optimal arrangement, but it is also not something likely to change with a bit more funding this year or next. After all, robust,traditional library collections are built over decades and a year of strong or weak funding will not substantially change my scholarly work flow.

Libraries on university campuses have already undergone significant transformations in the last two decades. Coffee shops, cafes, computer labs, and meeting spaces have transformed the libraries from bastions of solitary work to the new social hubs on campus. The new library is rapid coming to replace the venerable student union as the center of student life. To achieve this, libraries have begun to marginalize their traditional function as a repository of books. Libraries have come to move more and more of their stacks off-campus to free up space and to leverage digital access as a way to give access to resources that would take decades to develop in a non-digital world.

Digital resources have come to dominate the traditional function of libraries and a larger and larger part of their budget. Librarians, scholars, and students alike have decried the growing expenses of digital (and paper!) journal subscriptions. These costs have strained the budgets of libraries, and they have had to make tough decisions and curtail access to certain databases and digital collections or eliminate them entirely. Moreover, the move toward digital resources has taxed the libraries’ traditional role of as a repository and archive. Digital documents have their own technical and legal challenges, and the shrinking budgets of many libraries make it difficult to address these new arrangement while managing the venerable function of “book house”. Finally, from the fringe of the digital publishing world come a growing flock of scholars who are intent on challenging the static notion of scholarly resources and imagine the texts of the future to be dynamic, interactive, and remotely hosted documents that are as much a service as a resources. Wikipedia is only the best-known of these dynamic documents. Even more scholars have come to recognize that some form of open access marks the future of academic knowledge communication.

If I am honest, I suspect that only a handful of academic libraries will be able to satisfactory navigate the challenges of legacy collections of physical books and journals, provide access to high-cost digital resources, and cultivate an increasingly dynamic notion of text. As a small case study, I rely on the library primarily for access to resources and less and less for curation. I rarely venture into the stacks (other than the resources housed in our small, but efficient department of special collections) and even more rarely ask for the guidance of a librarian. The library of the future might look more like our current IT department than a brick-and-mortar collection of objects.

To return, then, to the issue of cuts to library funding. Like most scholars, I am officially and publicly appalled. The university powers-that-be have underfunded the Mighty Chester Fritz Library for years allowing the once proud “largest library between Minneapolis and Seattle (on the High Line)” languish. On the other hand, extortionate policies of digital publishers, changes in how students and researchers access material, and changes in campus social patterns, have made me willing to admit privately that the library is less vital for our scholarly lives. I’m particular annoyed with the current prices for online subscriptions and recognize that these reflect the willingness of libraries to pay as well as publishers to charge. If libraries stop buying these resources, the economies will have to change.

In some ways, libraries are like fossil fuels. There is no doubt that the rumble of the internal combustion engine is a satisfying thing. (I am almost at the end of my patience for people who insist on celebrating the smell and feel of books as an excuse for keeping them around!). Fossil fuels have transformed our world in good and bad ways. They have lifted millions of people from poverty, but also destroyed our environment. The only way to reduce our dependence fossil fuels is to stop using fossil fuels. It’ll be a painful process and even the most hardened greeny will catch themselves feeling nostalgic (even if its just for the putter of a Vespa rather than the roar of the muscle car!), but we can all see the change on the horizon. 

The current economics of libraries is not sustainable and supports a part of the academic publishing industry that is rapacious and, to my mind, unethical. More importantly, perhaps, is that our traditional view of the library has changed with changes to way we access information and curate knowledge and the way in which the university campus works as a space for learning. Change is painful, especially in these difficult economic times, but we might be able to see this as an opportunity to transform the basic structure of the knowledge economy.

Re-Presenting the Past

September 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

One of the coolest thing about the series of 3D archaeology posts that are going appear each Thursday over the next few months is that they have pushed me to think more about how we translate (or re-present) archaeological information gathered in the field to different media. I’ve had the good fortune of working with photographers, videographers, gifted map makers and architects, notebookers and form recorders, as well as interpreters and dreamers. All of these folks have engaged the translation of archaeological information (broadly concerned) from one medium to the next. The recently published volume edited by S. Bonde and S. Houston called Re-Presenting the Past: Archaeology through Text and Image (2013) contains a series of contributions focusing how we communicate the experience of archaeology.

It’s a short book, so there’s no need for a thorough review. You can just read it. It did give me a few thoughts that intersect with the work we’re doing in the Bakken, the little essays

1. Photography and the Archaeology of the Contemporary Past. Several of the articles made clear that media themselves were not accurate or inaccurate alone, but accurate and inaccurate according to a particular purpose. Photography, which was to save archaeology from the drudgery of trench side illustration, developed in practice as a complementary technology capable of communicating different kinds of information from hand-drawn plans. Our recent work studying contemporary workforce housing in the Bakken has relied more heavily on photography than any of my other projects. To this end, we have even worked with professional photographers which has helped to make more explicit some of our own assumptions about the media. Our use of photography, for example, has largely remained focused on the exterior space of units respecting the privacy of home, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, privileging a view of the individual units that locates it in a very immediate environment. This reflects the limits of the tools at hand which can preserve suitable detail of both the unit and objects associated with it at 3-5 m distance and the realities of the environment where cramped conditions and flat topography can often make views that document the larger context of the man camp difficult. It also succeeds in reproducing the focus of activity of the residents of these units which tends to focus in the narrow space between the unit and the boundaries of its designated lot. In effect, the limits of photographs that we take reflect the limits of the space that we’re documenting.

2. Texts, Maps, and Landscapes. A few of the contributions explored the way in which we re-present entire landscapes either verbally, in immersive 3D environments, or through more traditional maps. As many of these scholars have noted the medium, no matter how high tech, caries with it important contextualizing cues (which followers of Michael Shanks have termed metamedia). Accuracy becomes a function of the maps context. The textual description of a Medieval ritual route functioned in a different way from an 17th century map of Athens or a modern effort to document the varied communities and topologies surrounding the San Andreas fault. 

This got me to thinking about my own primitive efforts at map making. I’ve become more sensitive to the requirements of legibility over the pressures for precision. That so many archaeologists must now be amateur cartographers, drafts(people?), and graphic designers, the widespread use of GIS has exposed more and more archaeologists to the complex negotiations that go into producing legible maps and plans. As a result, the foibles of previous generations of archaeologists, geographers, and cartographers suddenly seem understandable and our own obsession with precision requires a more critical gaze. A survey of mapping since the wide-spread circulation of GIS applications would certainly be revealing.

3. Three Dimensions and Practice. No collection of articles on re-presenting the past is complete without at least some treatment of both 3D data collecting and 3D rendering of archaeological sites. The contributions ranged from the 3D scanning of Mayan epigraphy to the rendering of archaeological sites in both Second Life and (Autodesk’s) Maya software. Very little time, however, was spent considering any aspects of 3D modeling and practice. This was pretty surprising to me because so much of the archaeological discussion has revolved around archaeological methods and practices. I don’t mean to suggest that this volume should have been an instruction manual for digitizing a site or producing a 3D environment online, but that the processes of digitizing or creation involves not only positioning oneself in a clear relation to the site or object and moving in a controlled, deliberate way, but also considering issues of corporality and audience in the re-presentation of 3D spaces.  

Just as I found myself constrained by the limits of propriety and the space in using photographs to document workforce housing in the Bakken Oil Patch, the archaeologist as viewer and creator encounters the site in a different way in the process of 3D production. As another example, my colleague Dimitri Nakassis remarked how preparing RTI (reflectance transformation imagining) images of Linear B tablets from Pylos led him to look at these texts differently. I’ve been struck by the mechanical precision that Brandon Olson effects while taking photographs of a site to produce an Agisoft modeling

4. Dating this Volume. One of the fun little challenges set up by the editors is for the reader to guess when the symposium that spawned this volume occurred. The volume references the use of ArcGIS 9.1 and Maya 7.0. ArcGIS 9.1 came out in 2005 and Maya 7.0 around the same time. Few entries in the bibliography date to after 2008. Finally (and the clincher) is the reference to a “epic ice storm” in mid-March. Looking back at historical weather trends for Providence, RI, the best candidate for a storm described as “epic” is the snow and ice event on March 17, 2007. 

This volume has gestated for close to 5 years which is quite a long time in the fast moving world of digital archaeology. Hopefully our more conversational contribution to this field will appear more quickly!

Fragile Landscapes and Persistent Communities on Antikythera

July 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

It was pretty exciting to get my hands of Andrew Bevan and James Connolly’s publication of their work on the small island of Antikythera. In many ways, this book and the soon-to-be-published Michael Given et al. volume on their work in the Troodos mountains of Cyprus represent the state of the art in intensive pedestrian survey in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is important to me, of course, because David Pettegrew and I are doing final edits on the publication of the final results from our work on Pyla-Koutsopetria.

The island of Antikythera is located off the southeast coast of the island of Kythera and northwest of the island of Crete. It is small, has a tiny full-time population, and has played only a marginal role in the “great events” documented by ancient and later texts. In fact, it seems likely that the island was periodically abandoned and visited only intermittently by herds, hunters, and shipwreck victims. The famous Antikythera shipwreck demonstrates that the island sits astride major east-west travel routes linking the eastern basins of the Mediterranean sea with those to the west. (It is worth noting that the Google Streetview car has never been to Antikythera! UPDATE: This is because the Streetview car is banned in Greece…)

Rather than write a comprehensive review, which I know my more qualified colleagues will produce in good time, I’ll highlight a few things that I thought remarkable about this relatively short volume (by archaeological standards).

1. Total Coverage without Counting.

When Elizabeth Fentress asked the question “What are we counting for?” over a decade ago in fifth volume of the POPULUS project, Extracting meaning from ploughsoil assemblages, many survey archaeologists struggled to find an adequate response. Bevan and Connoly’s work is the first to almost entirely do away an approach that privileged areas with significant aggregate artifact densities. Instead, almost all pertinent analysis came from the distribution of diagnostic artifacts from specific periods with no real attention to overall patterning of artifacts. This felt like a major break though in how we think about survey.

More remarkably, of course, the Antikythera survey documented surface assemblages at close to a 10 m resolution. The field walkers are spaced at 15 m intervals and documented artifacts on the surface every 10 m. This sets a new standard for resolution in regional level survey and reflects the growing interest in intensification in field collection. As survey areas have decreased – for permit reasons as well as methodological concerns – the intensity of data collection has increased allowing archaeologists to say more using more robust assemblages over smaller areas.

2. Variable Diagnosticity

As assemblages have become more robust and survey resolution has increased, archaeologists have become better able to understand how particular periods appear in the landscape. While Bintliff’s “hidden landscapes” still persist, we can not articulate more clearly why certain landscapes are hidden. Bevan and Connolly deal with what is being called variable diagnosticity in as thorough a way as anyone this side of David Pettegrew (.pdf). This basically means that some artifacts from some periods are more visible than others. The result of this variation is that some periods are more visible than others and we have to compensate for this variation through time. The folks on the Antikythera survey do this by both allowing for ambiguity in reading of pottery by identifying some artifacts as possibly dating to a range of periods. They are also particular attentive to classes of artifacts present and absent in surface assemblages allowing them to understand which periods are more or less.

I note this aspect of the book, in particular, because much of the analysis of our survey assemblage at Pyla-Koutsopetria focuses on a similar issues and demonstrates – we hope! – that as survey assemblages become more robust, we have to be just as critical about the gaps in these assemblages.

3. Numbers and Maps.

The Antikythera project surveyed the entire island. The entire island!

And this produced, as one might expect from Andrew Bevan, absolutely stunning maps and figures. Not only did they make the relatively low density distribution of pottery clear, but he also complemented them with some well-executed charts that demonstrated how the various period assemblages coincided with certain environment conditions ranging from distance to water, to slope, soil quality, and proximity to the coast. The authors managed to keep their impressive statistical analysis transparent, but not overwhelming. In other words, I understood arguments based on statistics that I am sure I entirely grasp.

There are some other remarkable things about this survey volume. Some perhaps show the way for future intensive survey publications, whereas others are products of particular disciplinary predilections.

1. No Catalogue.

The volume included no formal artifact catalogue. To be fair, some of the finer discussions of artifacts appeared in separate publications, but it is still remarkable that there is no formal catalogue of finds to support the author’s argument.

On the other hand, as we torturously edit the catalogue in the survey volume from Pyla-Koutsopetria, we can appreciate the limited utility of a survey catalogue. Even with increasing openness toward coherent surface assemblages and horizontal stratigraphy, survey catalogues are fairly strange beasts. They contribute little to re-examining chronology or typology. Catalogues do, however, provide evidence for arguments made in the text and while the color pictures and plate are not quite sufficient to evaluate the type-fossil artifacts upon which their arguments rest.

2. Little comparison

I was also a bit bothered that there wasn’t a greater effort to compare the assemblage on Antikythera with the work done elsewhere in southern Greece, Crete, and the islands. I understand that Antikythera is a small island and, in many ways, it represented a unique case. On the other hand, it would have been revealing to understand how similar the assemblages on Antikythera were to those on Kythera itself or the Peloponnesus. This might shed some light on the how connected these communities were culturally as well as economically to the flow of objects across the Mediterranean. As survey projects become more intensive and assemblages approached more critically, it opens opportunities to compare between projects.

3. No Experiences and No Methods

Finally, this publication is – in some ways – pleasantly old-school. There is no excessive dalliance on methods or even much discussion of methodology. In fact, I’m rather curious how they collected ceramics data and counts every 10 meters without slowing the progress of their survey to a crawl! There are few arguments justify the efficacy of their approach to the landscape and, aside for the occasional remarks, very little apologia for the use of survey data to produce arguments. This is not to say that methodology or critical approaches to data are not important (see my discussion of variable diagnosticity above), but to suggest that this is a tremendously confident volume.

More disappointing, however, is the almost complete absence of any discussion of the experience of being on Antikythera. The only place where the experience of being on an small, windswept island comes clear is in the 19th century and earlier accounts documented in chapter 8. No where is the archaeologists’ experience clearly documented. I have no real idea how long it would take to walk from one part of the island to the next or how modern communication technologies enhanced or emphasized earlier senses of isolation. I recognize that not all archaeologists are comfortable with (or accept) the value of phenomenological approaches to the landscape, but since the idea of a persistent landscape was sufficiently important to appear in the book’s title, it would have been nice to get a better sense for how the persistent landscape shaped archaeological work. More importantly, with the exception of the most fleeting appearances, there is little discussion of the fragile and short term community of archaeologists working on the island.

The brutal transects that the modern archaeologist marched across the island seem to contrast with the less regular arrangement of settlements and activity areas. In other words, the archaeologists seemed to exist in a different landscape from earlier settlement. Unfortunately, I am not clear exactly his this landscape appeared.

These quibbles aside, this book is an important contribution to how we go about analyzing survey data and should fit right along side the classics in the field. It will be particularly exciting to read this volume alongside the long-awaited final publication of the Kythera Island Project.

The Persistent Memory of a Soviet Mining Town

July 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

I was pretty excited to finally get my hands on E. Andreassen, H.B. Bjerck, and B. Olson’s Persistent Memories: Pyramiden, a Soviet Mining Town in the High Arctic (Trondheim 2010). This book is an archaeological essay that combines haunting photography with reflective text to provide the reader with an intimate portrait of the Soviet mining town of Pyramiden. The town was abandoned for close to a decade after the Russian company that established the settlement after World War II closed the mine in the late 1990s. The team of Norwegian archaeologists and a photographer arrived in 2006 nearly a decade after the last permanent resident had departed.

Despite the town’s completely modern history, the archaeologists understood that there were very few traditional documentary records of life in the town and arrived to document its state. In a relatively short essay, the authors bring the town back to life through careful attention to the remains. 

There are a few ways in which the author’s research intersects with our work in the man camps of Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota.

1. Non-Places. The authors consider the status of Pyramiden as a non-place. The formal plan, the cookie cutter residences, and the position of the town as a heterotopia (a realized utopian space), created a settlement that has few distinct features outside of the global standard of a hypermodern “Sovietness”. Moreover, the provisional and short term character of any community created by the inhabitants created few opportunities for the inhabitants to fuse their identity to the character of the location. It maybe that the radical isolation of the site and the absence of longterm human settlement in the area necessitated the status of the Pyramiden as a non-place. It may have also been both formal and informal policies designed to enforce uniformity among the workers and managers at the site that robbed the place of the distinct character associated with “place-ness”. 

2. Housing and Homes (and Class). While the authors suggest that Pyramiden was a non-place, they nevertheless recognized efforts workers in the mine to personalize their spaces. In fact, there seems to have been greater signs of individualization among workers than those of the mangers and elites. Not only did workers decorate their apartments with symbols of global consumer culture, but they also customized their spaces with improvised shelves, art, and furnishings. In contrast, the larger and more comfortable apartments of the management classes showed less signs of customization and efforts to establish individual identities. Perhaps managers stayed less time at Pyramiden or had greater pressure to conform to a homogenized standards or corporate expectations, as the authors suggest.

In the North Dakota man camps, we noticed a similar characteristic between workers who lived in RV parks and those who lived in the standardized man-camps provided by the larger corporations. The former group tends to work in industries peripheral, but vital to the main work in the oil patch (truck repair, truck driving, equipment cleaning, and various contract services). The latter work in the core industries associated with jobs on drilling or fracking rigs or with large contractors that provide large scale services to the companies in the patch. The former tend to be independent or quasi-independent contractors, whereas the latter are company men. A similar division in how various groups individualized their living space occurred in the early days of the Texas boom.

3. Margins. One thing about Pyramiden is clear: it is situated in an intensely marginal environment. Perched at the foot of the Arctic Mt. Pyramiden and surrounded by glaciers and the sea, the town was visited only once a year by a supply ship. A helipad provided the only other physical link to the outside work. The need for an entirely self-sufficient community and the remains left behind demonstrate the close link between the expense of bringing material to the Arctic and the value of removing the remains.

In short, the persistence of Pyramiden and its arrangement as a “non-place” is at least partially a product of its marginal location and the expense of transporting the aspects of consumer culture that we deploy in a range of distinct ways to mark our modern identities. There are general parallels between the location of Pyraminden and the marginal position of the man camps in western North Dakota. The creation of a new society ex nihilo and the tenuous physical connections with the core demands a particular kind of engagement with the environment.

4. Provisional Discard. Distinct discard practices often characterize communities in marginal environment or situated at the periphery. One of the most significant features of the community at Pyramiden is the absence of substantial dump. As the Russian managers of the community explained, the inhabitants reused and repurposed as much of the material as possible and material that could not be repurposed or consumed completely rarely came to the site. Food scraps were fed to pigs, left over paint or solvents needed for one project were used in others, and workshops and apartments were filled with recycled and repurposed tools and equipment.

 The man camps of North Dakota show a similar assemblage of recycled and repurposed material – from the ubiquitous shipping pallet to piles of pvc pipe left behind by departing RVs for the next residents of a camp. Like the residents of Pyramiden, the inhabitants of short-term settlements in the Bakken oil patch tend to travel light and find new uses for objects that might be cast aside closer to the core. 

5. Formation Processes. The greatest disappointment in reading this book was its relative lack of attention to formation processes. The site as a ruin or as a haunting reminder of the earlier activities and lives takes center stage whereas the post abandonment processes that created the site for archaeologists and photographer become interference or, at worst, the romantic residue of a life in ruins.

This is a missed opportunity, to my mind, as our modern world (filled with non-places) so rarely decays slowly in the face of nature without massive human intervention. Pyramiden is a place where its abrupt abandonment has left it exposed to nature in a way so rare in our modern world. More could be made of the processes that transformed the settlement since its abandonment and how man-made materials situate themselves in their environment.

You can check out some of the book on Google Books or – even cooler in some ways – on Google Maps!  

Summer Reading List

May 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

By the end of today, I’ll be winging my way to Cyprus for my summer field season. Unlike almost every year since 2004, I won’t do any new fieldwork this summer and, instead, spend my time preparing material for study, studying past seasons, and scouting for new adventures. As I have posted already, I have a busy summer with a number of projects requiring attention. At the same time, the summer gives me a bit more time to spend reading books both for pleasure and for professional development. I usually prepare an ambitious reading list and only scratch the surface, but part of the fun is preparing this list, right?

I am going to keep working my way through the classics of “cyberpunk” fiction. As I have noted before, cyberpunk should be the preferred genre among punk archaeologists. Not only did the major contributors of the genre influence punk rock – think here about Gibson’s sprawl or John Shirley writing songs for the Blue Öyster Cult, but the cyberpunk genre is explicitly materialist. The experiences of technology and landscapes frame most of the plots for these works. In 2011, I was enamored with George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen trilogy (When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, The Exile Kiss). These books capture both the gritty materialism of most cyberpunk works and locate it in a exotic Orientalizing setting. Byzantium is never far in these works. My plan is to read A Fire in the Sun and The Exile Kiss this summer. (As an aside, if you have a long flight or plan to retire for a time to an exotic resort, take John Shirley’s A Song Called Youth Trilogy with you. It’s dark, punked out, and bizarrely prescient.)

I will also try some Gary Ballard, particularly his Bridge Chronicles Trilogy, in part because he self published his works, and they have garnered some acclaim. (Also Ballard does not have a Wikipedia page. How bizarre is that?). If Ballard is the most recent contributor to the genre, Alfred Bester is perhaps its founder. So plan to give him another chance and try to read his The Stars My Destination (1956) because I need to give one of the great fathers of the genre another chance. I tried to read The Demolished Man (1953) a few years back and – like many readers – I became completely lost in it (not in a good immersive way). To wrap up my cyberpunk reading, I’m going to revisit William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I have recommended it a good bit over the past couple years, but I have no read it since the mid-1990s. It’s not that long. So I’ll re-read it.

Lest my less frivolous colleagues begin to worry, I am going to read some academic works as well. I’ve started G. Lucas’s Understanding the Archaeological Record (2012) three times but have not had the space to finish it. So that’s on the docket. The same goes for Tim Ingold’s Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description (2011). I know I should also read Drew Wilbourne’s Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain (2013), but I don’t have a copy yet. 

Finally, I am teaching Byzantine History this fall fro the first time since…. 2008?… and I need to surf through some of the more important survey’s of Byzantine history produced since then. My first stop will be Haldon, Jeffreys and Cormack’s (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies (2008) and then onto J. Shepherd’s Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (2008) and Haldon’s A Social History of Byzantium (2009) as well as Av. Cameron’s slim volume, The Byzantines (2006). Filial loyalty will require me to assign Timothy Gregory’s A History of Byzantium (2005) for the class.

I want to read Richard Hell’s autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (2013), but musicians autobiographies so often leave me cold. My wife bought me a copy of David Katz’s excellent Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, but I’m going to save that for July when I can sit in my most comfortable chair. Finally, if any editor is reading this post, I do know that I should be reading for a review Butrint 4: The Archaeology and Histories of an Ionian Town (2013). I’m on that. Really.

A Review of Metaponto 4

April 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

This past month, I spent some time reading and reviewing Eremina Lapadula’s The Chora of Metaponto 4: The Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio. I’ve blogged about it already, but now I have a rough draft of the review ready for your consideration.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about how I write book reviews lately. I tell my students that there are three kinds of reviews with three kinds of theses, and the best reviews explain how a book works rather than what a book says.

1. This book is good because…
2. This is book is good, but…
3. This is not a good book because… 

In practice, however, I’ve found it more difficult to pull this off. The review below is probably my least successful effort. On the one hand, it’s reasonably thorough and critical. On the other hand, it is entirely unremarkable.

(On the third hand, it is also more or less done and off my plate before my summer work commences…)

Things Fall Apart

April 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

I know I’m a few weeks late on this, but I heard that Chinua Achebe died on March 21st. His greatest novel, Things Fall Apart, inspired my dissertation research. 

As most readers of this blog know, I wrote my dissertation (defended 10 years ago!) on Early Christian basilicas in Central and Southern Greece. In Achebe’s novel the building and development of the little church in the Evil Forest represented the intrusion of the colonial of the missionary. Achebe is explicit. With the church came government, the disruption of traditional life, and ultimately spiritual and physical violence.  

At the beginning of Chatper 16:

“When nearly two years later, Obierika paid another visit to his friend in exile the circumstances were less than happy. The missionaries had come to Umuofia. They had built their church there, won a handful of converts, and were already sending evangelists to the surrounding towns and villages.”

Chapter 17:

“We have now built a church,” said Mr. Kiaga, the interpreter, who was now in charge of the infant congregation. The white man had gone back to Umuofia, where he built his headquarters and from where he paid regular visits to Mr. Kiaga’s congregation at Mbanta.

“We have now built a church,” said Mr. Kiaga, “and we want you all to come in every seventh day to worship the true God.”

On the following Sunday, Nwoye passed and repassed the little red-earth and thatch building without summoning enough courage to enter. He heard the voice of singing and although it came from a handful of men it was loud and confident. Their church stood on a circular clearing that looked like the open mouth of the Evil Forest. Was it waiting to snap its teeth together? After passing and re-passing by the church, Nwoye returned home.”

And in Chapter 22, Achebe moves toward the climax of the novel with the church at the center:

“The band of egwugwu moved like a furious whirlwind to Enoch’s compound and with machete and fire reduced it to a desolate heap. And from there they made for the church, intoxicated with destruction.

Mr. Smith was in his church when he heard the masked spirits coming. He walked quietly to the door which commanded the approach to the church compound, and stood there. But when the first three or four egwugwu appeared on the church compound he nearly bolted. He overcame this impulse and instead of running away he went down the two steps that led up to the church and walked towards the approaching spirits.”

—-

I won’t try to intervene in Achebe’s carefully constructed allegory other than to make the rather facile observation that the church building was power for the missionaries and the destruction of the church was colonial resistance. The architecture itself created conversion and colonial change.

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