Friday Quick Hits and Varia

With the autumn in full swing here in North Dakotaland, it seems like time to dust off the olde quick hits and varia feature here at the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. The air is crisp and the trees are just beginning to turn announcing that the school year is almost upon us and that I need to wrap up lingering loose ends from the summer. The third test in the Ashes are in full tilt (and as I write this England is 34/4 45/5 45/6 and not looking solid) offering a pleasant segue between the end of the baseball season (for a Phillies fan) and the start of the NFL season, the return of F1 and the final push in the NASCAR season. 

If you’re in the neighborhood, do join us in Bismarck tomorrow night on the Lewis and Clark Riverboat on the Big Muddy at 8 pm to celebrate the launch of Dakota Datebook: North Dakota Stories from Prairie Public, edited by David Haeselin, and published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. For more information on the launch party and to pre-order the book go here.

 

If you’re not from around these here parts (and even if you are), do enjoy this little swarm of quick hits and varia:

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Archaeology of Archaeology

I’m slowly working through my pile of articles that I need to read, and yesterday read William Carruthers’ “Credibility, civility, and the archaeological dig house in mid-1950’s Egypt” in the Journal of Social Archaeology 19(2) 255–276. The article is really great. 

Carruthers studied the social and political context for the the construction and outfitting of the dig house built by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania at the site of Mit Rahina in Egypt. The initial efforts to arrange for the dig house were led by John Dimick, a businessman whose wife’s donations led him to become nominal director of the project. Dimick’s impolitic, impolite, and explicitly colonialist attitude toward the project’s Egyptian collaborators jeopardized the construction of the house. Carruthers unpacks the backdrop of 1950s Egypt, the rise of Nasser and a growing sense of political and cultural confidence that defined elite Egyptian society and the newly autonomous Department of Antiquities. The project was only salvaged when the more experienced archaeologist, Rudolf Anthes, who was the research lead on the project, interceded and managed to smooth over hurt feelings and coordinate the construction of the dig house for the Penn team. The intention of the Mit Rahina team to train the Egyptian archaeologists in scientific practices only added to the complex backdrop of the dig house’s construction. 

Carruthers recognized that the dig house was a liminal space between the authority of the host country and the values and practical needs of foreign project. As someone who has worked at a number of project with their own dig house, this space is a familiar one. In fact, this summer, there was a good bit of talk about upgrading the simple dig house of the Princeton Cyprus Expedition in Polis with new mattresses, screens, and maybe even wifi. In Corinth, the iconic Hill House of the American School of Classical Studies, secure behind its imposing stone wall, has long embodied and belied certain aspects of the relationship between Corinth Excavations and the village. The dig house of the Ohio State Excavations at Isthmia is a model of functionality with storage and work spaces. My formative years as an archaeologist occurred against a backdrop of constant maintenance to the buildings overseen by the late, memorable, and endlessly creative “Yannis the Workman” (and son). In all these cases, dig houses reflected spaces of negotiated expectations, expertise, and culture. Carruthers’ article offers a more historically sophisticated and refined take on the space of the dig house as one of the key spaces of negotiation for archaeology especially in a post-colonial context.

(As a curious and historical aside, the story of the “first dig house” in Polis on Cyprus is quite sordid. From J.A. R. Munro and H. A. Tubbs. “Excavations in Cyprus, 1889. Second Season’s Work. Polis tes Chrysochou-Limniti.JHS 11 (1890): 1–99: “A half-empty house in the village of Poli, into which we effected a forcible entry in the owner’s absence, inducing the inhabitants of the courtyard sheds by bribery or eviction to seek quarters elsewhere, furnished lodging and storage room; and within two days we were settled there with all our belongings.”

One thing that piqued my interest in particular was the material culture of dig houses. While Carruthers’ article does not delve into the material culture of the Mit Rahina except in the broadest possible way. I’d be interested in understanding how dig houses changed over time from both a historical and archaeological perspective. Morgan and Eddisford offer an opening into this kind of research in their 2015 article in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology: “Dig Houses, Dwelling, and Knowledge Production in Archaeology.” 

Over the past few years, I’ve thought about the various buildings around the site and village at Polis that have formed part of Princeton’s archaeological infrastructure. One particularly ramshackle building, called the “Sheep Shed,” stands atop part of an Early Christian basilica and was used in various capacities from storage and work rooms to make-shift bunks for volunteers. The building has been stripped of its doors and windows and is in pretty poor condition, but I suspect that it preserves enough of its past lives to tell some of the story of the excavations at Polis. Whether this story would be different from the established narratives about Polis is hard to know, but the opportunity to document this building and trace signs of its various uses is tempting. The work of Carruthers and Morgan and Eddisford gives me a context for just this kind of research. 

Dakota Datebook Launch Party!

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce the launch of Dakota Datebook: North Dakota Stories from Prairie Public edited by David Haeselin. Developed in collaboration with the University of North Dakota’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing program and in cooperation with Prairie Public Broadcasting, Dakota Datebook brings to the printed page some of the most memorably, inspiring, and humorous stories from Prairie Public’s iconic Dakota Datebook radio program. Download a digital copy for free from the Digital Press webpage or pre-order your copy from Prairie Public today!

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On Saturday at 8 pm, The Digital Press and Prairie Public are hosting a launch part on board the Lewis and Clark Riverboat on the Missouri River in Bismarck. Various media personalities will be there, as will David Haeselin and some Dakota Datebook contributors. It should be a great time. To get tickets for the boat ride and to come and hang out with us go here.

For more on the boat, the book, and the party, check out Aaron Barth’s interview on Prairie Public’s Main Street on Monday.

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A few more things from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

1. Busy Year! This will be one of the busiest years yet for The Digital Press with as many as five titles queued up to hit the website over the next 8 to 12 months. Late this fall, we’ll see the arrival of Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays. Stay tuned for a sneak preview of this. A book of essays from last fall’s Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU and edited by Sebastian Heath should appear by year’s end as well.

In the spring, we’re looking forward to publishing Kyle Conway’s innovative edited volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust which juxtaposes the 1958 Williston Report with perspectives on the 21st century boom penned some 60 years later. It’s a fascinating read. There should also be volume 3 of our collaboration with the journal Epoiesen and maybe some previews from our 2020-2021 season.

2. Subscriptions? So far, The Digital Press hasn’t done much to connect personally with our readers. We’d like to change that some. I’ve been tempted to offer a subscription service of sorts through an email list that will distribute our newest publications and occasional news direct to your inbox (as the kids say). I’d run it through MailChimp or some other service that would make it easy enough to unsubscribe or to opt out. I wouldn’t share your emails with anyone (although I might be tempted to use it to plug for my other little publishing venture, North Dakota Quarterly).

3. Promoting Open Access. I’ve been thinking a good bit about the larger mission to promote open access publishing in academia. One thing that I would love to do this year is to pay more attention to open access publishing in general (whether from mainstream academic presses or from more specialized open access publishing houses). I’d love to do an “Open Access Book of the Week” that highlights some of the high quality open access work appearing these days.

I’d also like to start to build another project. It’s called Cite Open Access. It would promote citing open access scholarship across all forms of scholarly publishing. My fantasy idea involves getting various artists to design simply, legible posters that say Cite Open Access on them (and I’d urge folks to use open access fonts and it would go without saying that the posters would be free downloads). Ideally, I could get libraries, open access publishers, “fellow travelers,” and other supporters of open access scholarly work to co-sponsor various posters. I’d then distribute digital copies of these posters and encourage folks to display them prominently on their campuses. Who’s in?

4. Internet Archive. Finally, I’ve uploaded almost all the content from The Digital Press to the Internet Archive this weekend. One of the many great things about the Internet Archive is that it automatically converts our PDFs into multiple formats. The automated system isn’t perfect, but it works well enough to make our content available for text mining or ebook readers!

Taco Terpstra’s Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean: Finished Review

In my effort to clear my plate before the semester gets under way next week, I finished my short review of Terpstra’s Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean for the Ancient History Bulletin. The book was pretty good and engaged ancient trade in a thoughtful and sophisticated way. 

Terpstra argued, in a nutshell, that the parallel rise of ancient states and ancient trade represents the complex interplay between trade and community in the ancient world. States do not so much protect the property rights of merchants and property owners, but create social and political conditions where groups and individuals could create ways to protect their economic interests. He looks at diaspora communities in the Classical Greek world, the messy overlap between political and economic interests among royal administrators in the Hellenistic Egypt, and witness lists on private contracts in the Roman Empire. As I note in my review, Terpstra’s argument gets a bit shaky when he attempts to extend it to the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th to 7th centuries AD. The transformation of the Ancient Mediterranean creates new forms of social and political relationships that both adapt and disrupt long-standing economic relationships. For many parts of the Mediterranean, the emergence of new social and religious groups as well as new states changed the context for economic relationships, but as archaeological evidence from the Eastern Mediterranean increasingly shows, many economic ties between communities persisted even after their political ties dissolved. 

If you’d like to read my entire review, go here.   

Despite these quibbles, this book represented another really impressive volume from Princeton University Press. Last week, I read Kyle Harper’s 2017 book The Fate of Rome (more on that here) which is another well-produced book from Princeton. When you add to their catalogue, Josh Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (2015) and Eric Cline’s 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2015) Princeton has set the standard for well-produced, broadly accessible, and affordable books on the ancient world. The publisher in me admires their catalogue and the scholar in me wishes he had more time to read. 

Dissecting Digital Divides: Mostly Final Draft

There’s one more week before the start of classes, and I’m trying to wrap up some small projects that have been lingering around all summer.

The first one on the list is putting together the “almost final version” of my paper for last fall’s DATAM: Digital Approaches for Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at NYU’s ISAW (I wrote a little review of that conference here). The Digital Press is going to publish a small, but intriguing collection of papers from that conference with a short introduction and conclusion. 

My paper considered the various digital divides in my classrooms at the University of North Dakota. The first divide is the conventional difference between students who have access to technology and those who do not. This shapes how they engage and use technology in their everyday lives. The second-level divide involves the willingness of individuals to produce as well as consume digital media. Finally, because I really can’t help myself, I offered a critique of how prosumer culture has shaped the way that I taught in a Scale-Up style classroom. Some of this critique came from an unpublished paper that I wrote with a graduate student many years ago (you can read that unpublished paper here).  

If you’re interested in my paper, “Dissecting Digital Divides,” you can check it out here and stay tuned for the volume later this fall!! 

Revising my Graduate Methods Course

This fall, I’m teaching a small graduate methods class. We originally designed the class as the first class an incoming MA student would take from our department. The first half of the class was a discussion of historical practices and the second half consisted of two-week, mini-courses offered by various members of the faculty on their specialization (oral history, archival research, ethnohistory, material culture, et c.). Next semester, I’m offering the class to two prodigal graduate students who are returning to our program after a few years away. They don’t really need to meet the department as much as get a tune up on what’s going on in the discipline and get back into thinking, reading, and writing at a graduate level.

Since I’ve been pretty out of the loop in terms of the academic study of the past, I partly crowd sourced my syllabus and got some great advice. You’ll obviously be able to see the books that make clear my rather olde skool background (and those that have been recommended to me from “the crowd”) and I recognize that it is a bit dated in places. I’m still fishing for something that does a nice job of considering digital practices for historians.

Here’s the syllabus so far:

Week 1: Introduction to Graduate Research

Umberto Eco, How to Write a Thesis. Translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. MIT Press 2015.

Week 2: Introduction to Historical Thinking

Sarah Maza, Thinking about History. University of Chicago Press 2017.

Week 3: Introduction to Critical Theory

Elizabeth Clarke, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Harvard University Press 2004.

Week 4: History and Globalization

Lynne Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era. Norton 2014.

Week 5: History and Identity

Kwame Appiah, Lies that Bind Us: Rethinking Identity. Profile Books 2018.

Week 6: History and the Environment

John Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 7: Activist History

David Armitage and Jo Guldi, The History Manifesto. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 8: Materiality, Heritage and Decay

Caitlin DeSilvey, Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. University of Minnesota Press 2017.

Being Digitally Humane

Last week, I wrote a little piece drawing attention to Jeremy Huggett’s recent article in Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology titled “Resilient Scholarship in the Digital Age.” You can read it here. A few colleagues on the NDQ editorial board suggested that I tweak it a bit and post it to the NDQ blog partly because it evokes ideas that I originally started to play with in an essay that I published a few years ago in NDQ. Since I’m a slave to flattery, I worked on it a bit over the last day or so. Here’s a draft. I’ll tidy it up and run it for real at NDQ tomorrow.

In the latest issue of Ploughshares, Viet Thanh Nguyen states “literary change at the structural level will not happen without quantification. We will not be able to see how prejudiced our tastes are if we do not track who we are publishing and who we are hiring.” He recognizes, of course, that qualitative considerations have long held the center of literature and the humanities, but quantitative work allows us to recognize patterns of practice at scale.

Nguyen’s sensibilities feel jarring today (even to me as a scholar who move between qualitative and quantitive work in my own research) because the humanities so often find themselves between the twin pinchers of funding models that privilege STEM programs and the growing reach of the modern assessocracy who seeks to reduce all aspects of campus life to numbers (and then, at the end of the day, dollars). I have heard the subtle grumbles from my own editorial board when it comes to reducing the submissions and contributions to NDQ to numbers. I remain committed to tracking gender and genre across our submissions (race is harder, but national origin is relatively easy). I also recognize that a journal like NDQ needs to have a certain number of subscribers to survive, that the length of the journal is reckoned in the number of characters, and our webpage statistics is important to understand our reach, submission patterns, and popularity. (Facebook and Twitter drive most of the traffic to our site, so you should follow us there!) In most cases, my editors just ignore my quantitative ramblings, but some send snarky little emails. It’s fine. I get it.

Earlier this month one of may favorite scholars, Jeremy Huggett at Glasgow, published a piece in the Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology titled “Resilient Scholarship in the Digital Age.”  In it, he faces head on the tensions between the digital practices that bravely lately come to dominate the quantitative culture of our neoliberal universities and digital practices that we embrace in our academic work (and, in Huggett’s case, digital archaeology, but the broader digital humanities and social science apply here). The same digital tools that I employ to monitor the performance of the NDQ website and the diversity of our authors are used to assess the popularity of majors, rank the performance of faculty research and teaching, and distribute funds to programs. More than that, the blog on which your reading this piece, our digital archive, and even the digital version of NDQ that critiqued the university in this age of austerity, all offer a compromised experience compared to the paper copy of the Quarterly that is set to arrive in your mailbox later this fall. Even as I write this, I’ve been interrupted by emails, tracked down a wayward citation, and checked the time of the Phillies game tonight. My attention is regularly so divided through my digitally mediated work that while many things happen, fewer things get done, despite the ease with which I can communicate with publishing partners, co-authors, and my growing body of “born digital” data. As Huggett notes, the same tools that allow us to connect with our professional lives more easily also contribute to the “always on” culture and professional burn out.

Huggett’s paper doesn’t stop at critique, however. He concludes his article by asking is whether we can use the same tools and practices to build more resilient academic and professional communities. A similar question has haunted us as we have persisted with NDQ even after it seemingly terminal budget cuts. By leaning more heavily on digital tools and their relationship with quantification and, ultimately, the market, we have tried to create space for the journal to continue. In fact, we’ve argued that the persistence of NDQ serves as a kind of statement of resistance to the practices of the 21st century university and contemporary ways of measuring social and cultural value (see my essay in NDQ 85).  The humanities can not only play the commercial, digital, and market-driven game, but we can subvert it even as university administrators and public officials attempt to pull the rug out from under us.

There are risks to this approach, however. As we increasingly use bits, bytes, and digits to mediate our world, I feel increasingly concerned that we not confuse these things with the experiences, people, places, and relationships that the are supposed to represent.   

The Cost of Peer Review (and notes on open access publishing)

This past week there were some excited and interesting buzz about Sarah Bond’s post on open access resources for teaching on her blog. It’s a nice post and makes the point that open access scholarship isn’t just “a movement, but also an ideology.” That’s a great sentiment.

As with all ideologies (and movements), their value is not just in what they represent or the ideas behind them, but in their execution. Open access publishing faces significant economic and structural challenges that will shape the nature of scholarly publishing (open and otherwise) in the future. I’ve proposed that one way to make open access publishing more viable is to recognize the basic economies of small-scale, distributed, scholar-led open publishing are not the same as a commercial (even a non-profit) press. In other words, certain elements of publishing do not scale in a consistent economic way and this provides an opportunity for small presses with limited resources and the focused publishing goals of most scholar-led publishing. The costs of marketing, archival infrastructure, distribution, and production remain, but the growing ecosystem of print-on-demand technology, institutional and collective repositories, targeted social media marketing, and low cost production workflows makes it possible for a micro-press to survive and even thrive without a big budget or sustaining funds. One can even imagine a future where small or mid-sized academic publishing outfits collaborate to promote their collective work. 

The model for small-scale, distributed, scholar-led academic publishing involves rethinking a good bit of what it means to publish in an academic setting. Scholar-led publishing might productively complicate the already blurry lines between research, writing, and publishing. Scholars (and academic departments) used to recognizing high-quality scholarship by the mark of a traditional, high-prestige publisher may have to expand their perspectives to include a wider range of more diverse outlets. We might even have to consider the relative value of certain publishing standards whether it our preference for paper (and its corresponding prestige), the form of the monograph, or the standards of citation, copy editing, and production. In short, the decentralization of publishing that may accompany the rise of open access academic presses will require us to change how we understand both the production and consumption of new knowledge    

This broader conversation almost always turns in some way toward peer review. As publishing has changed, scholars have clung increasingly to peer review as fundamental to the project of academic knowledge making. Historically, this is, of course, true. At the same time, peer review has endured any number of recent critiques, and some valuable efforts to create new standards of transparency. It remains unclear, however, how peer review will work with new publishing models that emphasize collaboration throughout the publishing process or represent visible, iterative approaches to writing and research. Certain approaches to collective and collaborative knowledge making will undoubtedly complicate when and where peer review should or could occur in the process.  

One assumption that has come to the fore recently is that peer review is free at least from the perspective of the reviewing scholar (who are rarely compensated or compensated at a very low rate) and the scholar under review. In fact, some scholars have refused to review for journals published by larger, for-profit, publishing companies (Elsevier or Springer, for example), and, I understand that. Reviewing an article for publication and then realizing that your library doesn’t subscribe to that journal and that you’d have to purchase the article fo $45 feels like a violation of some kind of academic reciprocity. Reviewing a manuscript is a ton of work and it’s hard to perform this kind of academic service while knowing that someone somewhere sees our willingness to do this kind of work for free as part of “shareholder value.” (I review too much and recently I’ve followed the lead of some of my colleagues and decided to review no more than a dozen manuscripts or grant proposals a year. I always ask for a copy of the article or book when it appears and rarely receive one.) 

As a small publisher, however, I’ve started to see peer review a bit differently. It’s not actually free for the press and part of the reciprocal relationship between the reviewer and the publisher  is manifest in the process (rather than simply the outcome). This year my small press has had four manuscripts and two proposals out for review. I’m very fortunate to have generous, thoughtful, and collegial reviewers for all these works despite having very little to offer the reviewer, up front, in exchange for their work.

At the same time, it is naive to think that the peer review process does not have a cost. Since my press deals largely with book length manuscripts and we attempt to limit our publication schedule to four books per year, we do not have the scale to leverage submission management software to streamline our reviews. As a result, the press corresponds with each reviewer individually. We also seek to work with a diverse range of reviewers in terms of academic rank, gender, experience, expertise, and perspective. This means recognizing and understanding the competing obligations that reviewers have in their professional lives, being patient with deadlines, structuring the reviews to prevent the reviewers from doing unnecessary or duplicated work, and keeping tabs on often over-extended reviewers for whom a review can all too easily slip through the cracks of their busy lives. Once we receive the reviews, we also read them carefully for clarity and negotiate different reviewing preferences which range from long-form essays in a single document, to notes in an email, line-by-line commentaries, and comments inserted into the manuscript itself. Because reviewers have distinctive workflows and pressures on their time, we do all we can to respect their style of review. We then compile the reviews into a single document to both ensure that the reviewers remain anonymous and also to smooth redundancy. We also prepare for the authors a summery of the reviewers’ statements in an effort to communicate the press’s perspective on the most significant critiques. Most of our books circulate to three or more reviewers. 

All told, the review process alone accounts for close to 25% of the energy and time that the press puts into a manuscript. Circulating manuscripts for review have other costs to the press as well. First, there’s always a chance that a manuscript is rejected entirely. Since the press works closely with many authors from well before a manuscript goes for review, this entails risk and a commitment of resources that may or may not result in a publication. Secondly, peer review itself is a process that can be very irregular. Peer reviewers have complicated careers and lives and reviews often cannot be completed on a fixed schedule. (It’s interesting that some larger open access now are asking the peer reviews be returned in 7 days in an effort to streamline workflow). Once reviews go to the authors, the revision process will also vary depending upon the reviews and the schedules of the author. All this variability means that things like copy editing, production, and marketing for a new title must remain flexible, but this flexibility entails costs. High quality, reasonably priced copy editors often have tight schedules and getting a manuscript in a queue can be difficult. Marketing, particular at the annual meetings of professional organization, is often arranged months and months in advance so a missed deadline means marketing dollars that don’t align with the appearance of a publication.

None of these challenges diminish the academic or intellectual value of peer review, but I wonder if it changes the equation a bit when thinking about peer review as reciprocal practice. From the perspective of a small press, peer review is not something that we take for granted from our reviewers because it’s not free for us. The book, on the other hand, will be free. This expanded view of reciprocity reflects the kind of change in thinking that new publishing models will require. It is unlikely to make everyone happy —as the kidz say, “reciprocity doesn’t pay the rent” — but some shifts in both expectation and the structural understanding of the publication process seems necessary to produce a successful and sustainable open access model.

Plague and the End of Antiquity

This weekend, I read Kyle Harper’s new-ish book on plague, climate change, and the end of the Roman Empire: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017). I have to admit that I was skeptical before I read the book. The idea that plague contributed to the end of the Roman Empire isn’t particularly novel and the plagues of the 2nd and 3rd century have sometimes been clumsily associated with the rise of Christianity. Our growing understanding of ancient diseases and the physical condition of individuals and communities in Late Antiquity clearly has something to offer the historian, but linking the patchy evidence to Mediterranean wide geopolitics always seemed like a stretch. Finally, as readers of this blog probably discern, I’m intrigued by the recent “environmental turn” in Mediterranean archaeology, but also have lingering concerns that our interest in the ancient and modern climate has pushed us toward a new kind of environmental determinism

Despite this skepticism, Harper’s book was really good and compelling. First, this book is far from a single cause argument (as one might expect it would be considering Harper’s other work and reputation). The plague is set against a careful reading of climate change over the course of the first millennium and the political, economic, and demographic developments of the Roman world. Second, the plagues unleashed in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries were not simply more virulent versions of illnesses that had long existed in the human population, but new diseases – small pox and bubonic plague – whose impact on the Roman world depended upon both the political organization of the connected Mediterranean and the emergence of a more variable and challenging late Holocene climate regime. Finally, the book is really well written and, in turn, evocative and clearly argued, descriptive and analytical, illuminated by literary sources and grounded in archaeological evidence. 

I do wonder, though, whether framing the book as a conflict between humans and nature creates a view of the world that seems to challenge the books basic argument that the rise of the Roman mega-state was partly the result of the auspicious middle Holocene climate. It seems to me a more compelling way to discuss humans, climate, their environment, and the microbial world of bacteria and viruses that shaped the human experience in the ancient Mediterranean would be as deeply enmeshed and entangled. In fact, the helplessness articulated by so many ancient authors when faced with draught, plague, floods, and cold, speaks less to a view of existence as a battle with the forces of nature and more to an understanding of humans and nature as parallel manifestations the same cosmic and divine forces. The changes to the environment, the appearance of plagues, and unpredictable and unexpected weather formed part of the same universe that preserved the Roman Empire, the structured religion and belief, and that defined the physical health of individual bodies. For example, the end of the world was seen as the world growing old and drying out – quite literally with the arrival of droughts in some places – and it had a clear parallel in the view of old age that saw it as the drying out of the body.

That being said, the view of the human world as separate and in conflict with nature gave the book its tragic arc. Harper makes no attempt to hide his view that the Roman Empire was more than simply an administrative unit, but the fundamental framework for life in the first century Mediterranean. As a result, the collapse of the Roman state – particularly in the western Mediterranean, but ultimately in the east as well – marked more than just a political disruption, but a fundamental social and cultural one as well. The experience of individuals, then, paralleled the larger political narrative. This is compelling when the book documents the personal and community trauma associated with the plague.

It’s less compelling, though, in dealing with ragged edges of how communities experienced the Roman Mediterranean. For example, it’s become increasingly apparent that in the Eastern Mediterranean communities continued to enjoy connections that defied changing political boundaries. In other words, social and economic bonds persisted for centuries in some cases after the political life of the Roman Empire collapsed. It would appear, in these cases, that the Roman state – with its political, military, and economic challenges brought on by changes in the climate and plague – was more fragile than the centuries old social, religious, and cultural bonds between communities around the Mediterranean littoral. The persistence of these bonds played a key role in understanding the end of antiquity as a transformation rather than a decline or fall. 

This critique is, in the end, fairly minor and probably can be categorized as “I’d write a different book,” and shouldn’t detract from the larger value of this book. Works like this demonstrate the incredible potential of the environmental turn for revising even the most traditional narratives in our field. 

More Late Antiquity (or at least a start)

For the last week or so, I’ve been trying to get back into the academic groove and thinking about Late Antiquity. I have done some reading and, more importantly, some writing about the 7th century both in Greece and on Cyprus. Mostly, I’m working to get a first draft of a paper documenting and analyzing a 7th century site in the Western Argolid.

Here is the first draft of the first couple paragraphs. It’s rough, lacks citations, and I’m sure it’ll change, but at least it’s going somewhere.

The past two decades have witnessed a major change in how archaeologists understand the Late Roman and Early Medieval landscape of Greece. The rise of survey archaeology in the late-20th century fueled the growing awareness of the “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity. This complemented work in urban areas across Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly demonstrating that Late Roman cities and their countrysides experienced continued prosperity, social vitality, and political and economic significance into the 5th and 6th centuries. For Greece, scholars argued that the Slavic invasions of the late-6th century brought an end to this Late Antique prosperity and initiated a period of economic, political, and social dislocation often called the “Dark Ages.” Over the last 20 years, work at urban and rural sites has started to question this narrative. Work at the site of Corinth, in particular, has shown that the city continued to prosper into the 7th century. Moreover, imported ceramics and storage vessels indicate that Corinth enjoyed persistent connections across the Mediterranean even if these connections appear to be less dynamic and consistent then earlier centuries. At the same time, regional networks in the northeastern Peloponnesus emerged that supplied cooking and utility wares to communities well into the final third of the 7th century. The results from Corinth suggest that the city experienced economic change in the 7th century with fewer imports and a rise in regionally produced vessels, but this change was not the same as decline and indicated continuity with earlier centuries as much as new patters of economic and social relations.

Stratigraphic excavations formed the basis for this revised assessment of the 7th century in Greece. The assemblages produced through excavations at Corinth and at the Pyrgouthi Tower near Berbati in the Argolid, in particular, have helped to revise the dates of earlier excavation across Greece and challenged the assumption that destruction deposits associated with the Slavic invasions should have 6th century dates. Deposits from the Baths at Argos and the Stadium at Nemea, for example, now are better dated to the 7th century than to the later 6th century as their original excavators suggested. This revised chronology has also extended to our analysis of intensive survey assemblages. For example, pushing the date of certain well-know finewares into the late-6th and early-7th century Phocaean Ware 10C and the later forms of African Red Slip (105 and 106) illuminates areas of possible 7th century activity in the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey area (Pettegrew 2007, 777; Caraher 2014, 157-158). In other contexts, Chris Cloke’s study of the off-site material from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project has revealed a 7th century landscape with remarkable continuity with material from the 5th and 6th centuries. This article takes Cloke’s assessment of 7th-century landscape of the Nemea Valley and work at Corinth and considers it in the context of recent work in the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).