Comparing Assemblages

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working with the data collected from the Western Argolid Research Project. Mostly this has involved going through the survey unit data that we collected as a way to determine general patterns of artifact recovery rates from across the survey area. This is important work, but largely unrewarding. I had run many of the queries on the fly while survey teams were still working in the field and had started to recognize the general patterns as they were emerging in the data. That said, it was still necessary to check things with the complete data set and I’ll post some more on this next week.

For today, I want to post on another aspect of my work with the WARP data. Over the three main field seasons, we conducted a series of revisits to our survey units to collect additional samples of material from the surface. Teams did this by collecting all artifacts in a circle with a 2 m radius from the survey units. We selected units for resurvey on the basis of location within the survey area, surface visibility, and artifact densities. 

These revisits had two main goals. First and foremost, we sought to use them to calibrate the assemblages produced through our standard survey methods where we collected density data and artifacts from a 20% sample of the surface through traditional field walking techniques. Secondly, we hoped that these total collection circles would also provide us with more robust samples from units where visibility, for example, compromised artifact collection.

I had started messing with this data in 2018 and made only a tiny bit of impressionistic progress. The biggest challenge for me was figuring out how to compare the three assemblages in a useful way. I discuss some of my difficulties here.

The biggest challenge was dealing with various chronologies that we assigned to our ceramics. The chronotype system allowed our ceramicists to assign a range of chronologies (and dates) to artifacts recovered in the survey. In some cases, these were immensely broad (e.g. “Ancient Historic” which has dates from 1050 BC to AD 700) and in some cases they were particularly narrow (e.g. Roman, Early which dates from 50 BC to 150 AD) and, in many cases, they were of more middling resolution (e.g. Roman which dates from 50 BC to AD 700). The different assemblages produced artifacts not only from different periods, but also from periods with different chronological resolutions. So answering the question whether more intensive collection strategies, such as total collection circles, produced different or just more material had to take into account the different resolutions at which we identified artifacts. In other words, we had to figure out whether recovering material dated to the “Early Roman” period in a resurvey circle mattered if we collected material datable to the broader, but inclusive “Roman” period in standard survey.

The solution to this problem was doing a little Aoristic analysis as a standardized way to represent the chronological profile of different assemblages. Aoristic analysis assumes that all artifacts have an equal chance of appearing in any year of a given chronological range. In other words, an artifact dated to the Roman period has an equal chance of appearing in any year between 50 BC and AD 700. Artifacts from more narrow period have greater values per year reflecting the increased likelihood that they would appear in any given year in the span. To complicate matters a bit, I also factored in the number of artifacts from any particular period. As a result, the charts that follow reflect not only the likelihood that an artifact dates to a particular year, but so the quantity of artifacts present in the assemblage with any probability of appearing in any particular year. I recognize that this is combining apples (that is probability of any artifact appearing in a year) and oranges (the quantity of artifacts present with various probabilities), but if we are using Aoristic analysis and its corresponding visualizations as a heuristic, then this kind of conflation is maybe a reasonable way to combine various kinds of data into one chart.  

Let’s look at some data. For the unit 2517, which is near the acropolis of Orneai and had 30% visibility, we did standard survey and two total collection circles. The standard survey produced 89 artifacts and the resurvey units produced 77 and 146 respectively. Despite the differences in quantity, the assemblages had rather similar profiles with the only exceptions being a bump in the Early Bronze Age generated by a small number of rather diagnostic EHI-II and EHI sherds. Resurvey 1 produced a Late Roman and an Early Medieval sherd which created the slight bump in the orange line. The presence of artifacts dated to the Archaic-Hellenistic period in Resurvey 2 created a more nuance profile in the centuries prior to the notable Classical-Hellenistic spike. The general similarities of the two profiles reflects the basic similarity between the three assemblages, but it is clear the material from resurvey did provide chronological nuance to the 


Another unit from the same area, 4345, had three resurvey circles. Unlike unit 2517, it had higher visibility and a correspondingly more robust assemblage with 434 artifacts recovered during standard survey and 45, 173, and 68 recovered from three resurvey circles.

Similar to unit 2517, the basic profile of the assemblages appear the same, but the resurvey units do produce some notable spikes. Resurvey 2, for example, produced a single Late Helladic IIIA sherd. Resurvey 3, recovered 6 artifacts dating to the Archaic-Classical period and one Archaic sherd producing a narrower spike than the material dating to the Archaic-Hellenistic period recovered in the standard survey and in Resurvey 2. Resurvey 1 produce a single piece of Ottoman semi-fine ware which has a narrow 120 year date range and produced a late spike in the chart.   


I have more case studies withs smaller assemblages that I’ll share later this week, but for now, this kind of visualization seems to be a useful way to compare groups of artifacts produced by different methods from the same units. What this will reveal about survey methods, both in general and in different circumstances, remains the question that more analysis will hopefully answer!

Music Monday: Ben Webster and Jack Brandfield.

Just a short post this morning! I stumbled upon this wonderful new album by a young tenor saxophonist named Jack Brandfield last week. It’s called I’ll Never Be the Same, and it’s been in heavy rotation in the Caraher house for the last few days.

The album is an unapologetic throw back to the days when jazz was popular music. Brandfield plays with easy pop sensibilities without encroaching on “smooth jazz” or “adult contemporary” categories. His breathy and slurred tone is gorgeous and appropriate for such Jerome Kern classics as “Nobody Else But Me” and the perennial favorite (and likely the strongest track on the album) “Over the Rainbow.” When he does play some of his own compositions they share the same style and approach. 

Not a few commentators have been wowed by this album and noted Brandfield’s similarities in tone and approach to the great Ben Webster. I haven’t listen so much to Webster lately and probably prefer his younger contemporaries who embraced bebop with greater enthusiasm and fluency (especially Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, and Dexter Gordon). But after listening to a few albums worth of Ben Webster’s classic late-1950s ensembles (usually anchored by Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown: Soulville and Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson), I was completely enchanted by his tone and style.

It also got me thinking about how a guy like Brandfield can use a style of playing can evoke a different time with different attitudes, spaces, and rhythms. I recognize, of course, that the ubiquitous Marsalis brothers have been working to make “traditional jazz” popular for the last 20+ years, to the periodic consternation of fans who want to see jazz and improvisational music as capable of contemporary statements and ongoing innovation. Perhaps Brandfield is working in a similar way, but the intimacy of his playing (and the subtlety of gestures toward post-Coltrane style) seemed to bridge the gap between past and present in way that parallels the best work of historical fiction or even sophisticated historians. The best of this genre does more than narrate a good story or leverage nostalgia, but works to conjure the empathy at the core of our shared humanity.

Maybe claiming that Brandfield stimulates an awareness of our shared humanity is a bit too far for the inaugural record of a 20something tenor sax player, but it does make me think a bit about how music can work in transhistorical modes especially in the deliberate hands of a skilled artists.    


Friday Varia and Quick Hits

I’m watching a massive band of thunder storms track across the state and wondering whether we’ll lose power (or in classic North Dakota fashion even experience the storm! ND is one of these strange states where you can look at radar and see you’re in the middle of storm or a blizzard and look out the window and see blue skies!). In any event, it feels like summertime on the Northern Plains.

The weekend should be a nice with temperatures in the low 80s and plenty of sun. I’m hoping this nice weather brings luck to my Sixers tonight as they take on the Atlanta Hawks in game three of the Eastern Conference semifinals and my Phillies as they prepare for a West Coast trip with a two game series against the Yankees juggernaut. Saturday night is a packed card featuring Shakur Stevenson’s title defense at 130, which should be just a step below “must see” for boxing fans. The NASCAR guys are doing their annual All Star snooze fest in Texas.

With such an uneven calendar of weekend sporting events, I hope to get out for a vigorous bike ride and maybe a less vigorous jog as well as continuing to spend some quality time with a couple books. 

For your weekend reading pleasure, here are some quick hits and varia:

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Summer Reading (and Publishing) Thursday

I’ve been trying to make more time for reading this summer (and not entirely failing, but perhaps not succeeding as brilliantly as I imagine that I will). I have a stack of literary magazines that I really want to get though. I have at least three novels on my “to read” pile, and I want to keep reading in my various fields, keep up with my readings for my classes, and expand my perspectives. Finally, I also want to keep reading manuscripts for my press and for North Dakota Quarterly

Needless to say, this is too much for any summer to accommodate, but the challenge is exciting.

So, for today, I’m going to offer three things that have made me particularly happy this summer.

Thing the First

I know I’ve pitched Cindy Prescott and Maureen Thompson’s Backstories: A Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook, more than a few times on this blog. I do this not only because I’m the publisher and it’s my job, but also because I find the book a brilliant example of public history. It’s also well-suited for summertime consumption with short chapter, stories, recipes, and experiences. You can download or buy the book here.

You can hear Cindy Prescott talk about the book here.

I also want to give a bit of attention to Calobe Jackson, Jr., Katie Wingert McArdle, David Pettegrew’s, One Hundred Voices, Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920. It is the perfect book to enjoy on Juneteenth and you can download it for free or buy a copy here.

The editors of this volume discuss it with folks from the State Library of Pennsylvania here

Thing the Second

One of my great joys in my academic life is editing North Dakota Quarterly. It gives me change— actually a responsibility — to read essays, fiction, and poetry consistently every year and for a few weeks each year, it becomes my main responsibility.

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been sharing some of the work in the most recent issue over at the NDQ blog. Go and check it out here.

Since this post is about summertime reading, I would encourage you to read, in particular, Sanjeev Sethi’s poem “Chronicle,” Katrin Arefy’s essay: “The Day the Sun Didn’t Rise,” and Katie Edkins Milligan’s story “Witness” (which I just posted today!). These are the kind of meaty contributions that invade my walks, runs, and bike rides and push me to think about the world and my experiences in different ways.

(Katie Edkins Milligan’s story is a great example. The story focuses on a woman who witnesses a car accident and her subsequent efforts to understand and deal with the experience. The story contrast the time of the accident in its brutal immediacy, and the way in which the accident informed the rest of her day-to-day life. There’s something very compelling about this contrast between the moment and the response that feels, albeit in indistinct ways, useful for our COVID inflected world.)

Thing the Third

My little press has TWO books currently in copy editing. This means that I’ll have TWO manuscripts that will shortly arrive on my desk. The first one is a book on the titled The Archaeological Culture of the Sheyenne Bend by Michael G. Michlovic and George R. Holley. The book provides an introduction and survey of the archaeology of the Sheyenne bend in southeastern North Dakota. I should stand as a fundamental work for understanding the archaeology of some of the earliest settlers residents of Southeastern North Dakota and appeal to specialists (for their rather comprehensive bibliography) and non-specialists alike.

The other book is by a long-time friend and colleague Rebecca Romsdahl, and it’s titled Mindful Wanderings: Nature and Global Travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist. It’s a fantastic book that blends Romsdahl’s deep, professional understanding of environmental science and policy with her global travels which have taken her to the UK, Egypt, Asia, the Galapagos, and back to the Northern Plains. The book is candid and earnest without giving up its learned underpinnings. Like The Archaeological Culture of the Sheyenne Bend, this book should appeal to a wide audience, and I feel confident that it will find a particular happy home among the cosmopolitan residents of Northern Plains and I would love for it sit along side books like Tom Isern’s Pacing Dakota

Stay tuned for these books this fall.

Informal Urbanism in the Post-COVID World

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve thought a bit here and there about urbanism. Some of this was motivated by my time thinking about and working in the boom towns of Western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. More recently, however, doing some research on the mid-century development of Grand Forks has likewise stimulated my interest in contemporary urbanism.

These interests prompted me to submit an application to serve on our town planning and zoning committee. We’ll see if my application is accepted.

It also got me thinking a bi about how the post-COVID world will shape urbanism. It seems to me that most of mid-century (and even earlier) urbanism sought to encourage clear delineations between spaces of work and domestic space with the post-war suburb representing a set of values that equated middle class lives with clear division between family life and work life. This distinguished the post-war company man from the kind of labor regimes defined by the company town, the farm, or the apartment above the shop.

The middle class suburban fantasy, of course, has broken down in multiple ways. In some cases, the dream of owning a home in a leafy suburbs is simply not economically possible for middle class Americans who have found themselves priced out of major housing markets. 

At the same time, the notion of discrete places for work and domestic life has become complicated by the rise of the gig economy. The workers we met and talked to in the Bakken, for example, often earned middle class incomes for their work, but their need to work long shifts, often on or near the work site, broke down the tidy divisions between domestic and work spaces. Moreover, their participation in an increasing national or even global version of the gig economy required a mobile life style that disrupted the notion of the fixed suburban abode.

The gig economy also blurs the work home divide even for individuals who live in conventional suburbs. The home office is now a standard feature in the suburban home and it often represents a good bit more than the “den” where household finances, for example, were managed or the occasional work project completed away from the office. The COVID pandemic will likely accelerate the trend toward working at home and make the home office all the more important part of domestic architecture. 

Of course, working at home especially in the gig economy has parallels with long standing practices associated with informal urbanism. In our town, there are a couple perpetual yard sales and I suspect, if one knew where to look, more than a few businesses run out of homes. Food trucks offer another example of informal urban practices that create more fluid urban environments. Parking lots at rapidly declining shopping centers have become spaces for occasional festivals and seasonal sales of produce and Christmas trees, and manifestations of latent potential for parking, but also for forms of reuse.   

If the future of work dissolves some of the fundamental expectations that created the post-war suburb, it is interesting to think about what forms of urbanism will replace it. To my mind, informal urbanism opens a grey area between the well-ordered expectation of the post-war years and the future urban forms that embrace changing economic and social realities of 21st labor. I can’t help imagine the leafy suburb developing into a more dynamic patchwork of business, home offices, housing, and gathering places that defy post-war standards. The question is how do we support these changes in a way that encourage more dynamic spaces throughout our communities while at the same time recognizing that these are not viable solutions to systemic problems in our economy that render more and more people reliant on ad hoc approaches to maintain a vestige of post-war middle class life.

Preliminary Thoughts on Artifact Recovery Rates from the Western Argolid Regional Project

This past week, I’ve started the intimidating task of crunching the data produced over three field seasons with the Western Argolid Regional Project. While we’ve made a few efforts to make sense of the data over the past five years, our dataset has been varying degrees of provisional and more pressing matters in the field and in the storerooms often attracted our attention. With the field and storeroom over five thousand mile away and our data as clean as any project can reasonably expect, now is the time for number crunching! 

In the past, we have tried to focus on a number of rather well defined publication projects: a preliminary report and various side projects that required some attention. This year, we wanted to shift our attention back to analysis and instead of producing fully formed publishable quality manuscripts, we wanted to produce some reports and moved the project forward without the pressure of polished final publications.

This summer, I elected to look at the variables that shaped artifact recovery in the field with the hope that this might inform how we analyze artifact patterns in the landscape. So far, I’ve just started but I can make a few observations (and these, if I recall correctly, largely follow observations that I made several years ago when analyzing a rougher version of the same data).

First, the most significant variable in artifact recover is surface visibility. Survey archaeologists have know this for years so it comes as no surprise. It appears that sherd density tracks pretty closely with density up to the highest visibility units (100%) where densities drop rather steeply (as does sample size!).

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WARP Charts  Google Docs 2021 06 08 09 44 16



Tile densities track visibility a bit less regularly and follow a kind dromedary curve with a hump at 40% visibility and another peak at 90%. The reason for this is a bit unclear. It may be that tiles are generally a bit more visible in the plow zone so surface visibility doesn’t impact their recovery quite as dramatically. A good example of this is that many of the highest density units with tile are from the immediate vicinity of collapsing houses at Chelmis and Iliopouleika (6 of the top 10 and 13 of the top 20), and these units tend to have visibility below 50%. In these units, tiles are abundant and often fairly well preserved and this likely contributed to their relatively high recovery rates even from units with lower visibility.

Second, my old buddy David Pettegrew has been running similar analyses on the EKAS data (which is rapidly becoming available at Open Context). Of particular interest to him (and to us!) is the impact of background disturbance on artifact recovery rates. As we say in the WARP field manual: this category represents the degree to which a field walker’s ability to see artifacts on the ground is hindered or obscured. This is a distinct category from visibility since even a field with 100% visibility could still have heavy background disturbance. A useful rule of thumb is that when walkers are spending much of their time picking up rocks they think are pieces of pottery, the background disturbance is heavy.

There are any number of ways to measure background disturbance. For example, units with high background disturbance took about 2 minutes longer to walk than units with moderate or light background disturbance despite having an average visibility of 68.5% as compared to 47.3% and 57.0% for light and moderate background disturbance respectively. Units with high or moderate background disturbance had a tendency to produce more “Stone, Unworked” (which are really just rocks) than those with light or none (2.8 and 2.3 rocks from units with high and moderate background disturbance and 1.9 rocks from those with light and none). 

On EKAS, there was a relationship between background disturbance and artifact recovery rates. In fact, David has proposed a metric that takes into account background disturbance and visibility to understand recovery rates in those units (and he has plans to unpack some of this in a future publication). That said, when we analyze the background disturbance from the Western Argolid, it doesn’t seem to have a particularly strong relationship with recovery rates at least as manifest in artifact densities. 

For units with the heaviest background disturbance (n=672), in fact, artifact densities tracked more or less along with those from similar visibility units with the exception of two spikes at 40% (n=33) and 90% visibility (n=88) where units with heavy background disturbance produced higher densities than might be expected from visibility alone. In contrast, units with moderate and light background disturbances more or less followed the expected trajectory based on visibility alone. This suggests that background disturbance did not exert a predictable influence over artifact recovery.

WARP Charts  Google Docs 2021 06 08 09 45 08

WARP Charts  Google Docs 2021 06 08 09 45 59

WARP Charts  Google Docs 2021 06 08 09 46 42

We obviously recorded more variable than background disturbance and I have began to run quarries on our data that looks at these variable as well. So, if you’re a survey archaeology “method-head” you might want to stay tuned for more “exciting” methodological reflections in the coming week.

In the meantime, I also ran some queries based on artifact recovery and vegetation in our units. We had standardized recording terms for vegetation in each unit which ranged from “weeds,” “maquis,” and “phrygana,” to “citrus,” “olives,” “grain,” and “grain stubble.” It was possible to select multiple vegetation types for each field resulting in 27 combinations which appeared in at least 50 units. Various combinations produce artifact densities that under performed what one might expect from visibility alone.

The lowest visibility were typically flat units lower elevations (< 200 masl) with citrus or stone fruits (and not infrequently weeds). My guess is that these units were as likely to be shaped by their proximity to the Inachos River and its wandering course that deposit sediments carried toward the Argolidic Gulf. In contrast, units with higher slopes and elevations, often populated with olives, weeds, and (mostly volunteer) grains produced artifact densities that exceeded those predicted by visibility alone. This is as likely the result of historical phenomena as artifact recovery variables and shaped by the dense scatters associated with the fields around the acropolis of Orneai.

As you might guess, such hypotheses will have to be tested using our GIS data, but for now, I’m mostly just crunching numbers without too much attention to spatial concerns. Once again, this means more “method-head” goodness is likely to appear in these pages in the near future!   

Music Monday: Alice Coltrane

For a long time, I was vaguely skeptical of Alice Coltrane. It had nothing to do with her famous husband or her famous last name (and son) or even the concept of being a jazz harpist.

It had more to do with a certain amount of ambivalence or even confusion about her engagement with overt spirituality and its central role in much of her recordings. With John Coltrane’s work (and the comparison is unavoidable), there appears to be a certain amount of continuity between his earlier recordings, which he developed from the traditions of bebop (and hard bop) into the realm of modal jazz, and his later work that takes on a freer form. His late work—especially albums like Ascension and Meditations — (which are two of my personal favorites) demonstrate how transcendent spirituality could emerge from popular music (especially in the relationship between melodic concepts and texture in Ascension). 

With Alice Coltrane, I had this concern that she anchored her work in traditions that were unfamiliar. This, of course, was partly true. Her work is clearly jazz despite albums with titles such as Journey in Satchidananda that evoke Indian spirituality and musical traditions (the first minute of the album gives me chills; it’s so deep and heavy). The blues are still there especially in her piano and some of the territory that her late husband explore continues to inspire her early 1970s albums from Impulse!  

As if this wasn’t temptation enough to explore her 1970s albums more carefully, she titled her 1970 recording with Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Ben Riley, Ptah, the El Daoud. The album, then, is named after the Egyptian god Ptah “the blessed” and despite the Egyptianizing title, the music owes more to Indian influences than anything distinctly Middle Eastern.

The album cover, however, designed by Jim Evans, reinforces the album’s title:

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Combining the scarab with sphinxes, cobras, and a sarcophagus (with whiskers no less!), Evans makes the Egyptian title of the album even more visible in the cover art. 

In her following albums the Egyptianizing themes diminish although Journey in Satchidananda has a track titled “Isis and Osiris.” Indian mysticism become more dominant and marks a path that eventually leads Coltrane to an ashram where she received spiritual guidance and healing from a number of prominent Vedic gurus.

The conflation of Egyptian and Indian themes in her early 1970s albums reflects the merging of Afrocentric associations with Egypt and a longer tradition of esotericism that understood Near Eastern and South Asian religious practices as part of a wider mystical tradition. The work of Madame Blavatsky whose theosophic writings led her from Egypt (manifest in her monumental Isis Unveiled (1877) to India and various strains of the Hindu Reform Movement. 

A similar kind of universal spiritualism appear in a similar form in the music and poetry of Sun Ra and the presence of it in the work of Alice Coltrane is neither particularly surprising or unexpected. What is telling is that both of these artists (and many others of course) brought together popular traditions of music with broader spiritual themes both anchoring their spiritual visions within Black music practice, Afrocentric identity, and this broader tradition of esotericism.

I hope to get back to some more sustained readings on Afrocentrism, particularly Stephen Howe’s work, Afrocentrism, in the next few weeks.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Yesterday was the first day of the year that I actually felt HOT here in North Dakotaland and I suppose that means summer is upon us. Today, there’s a chance we’ll see triple digits and I’ve lugged the window-unit air conditioner (or, as we call them, egg-nishnah) to the second floor window.

Fortunately, there will be plenty of opportunities to keep cool this weekend as the NBA playoff roll on (apparently without Joel Embiid), the Phils face the Nationals, the F1 guys head to Baku, and the NASCARlers go to wine country. Plus, my summer research and writing schedule is coming into focus; so, there’ll be plenty of reasons for me to stay inside and chill out.

I hope your summertime is likewise rounding into shape and that you enjoy this modest gaggle of quick hits and varia:

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WARP 2021 Study Season

The 2021 WARP study season starts tomorrow. This means three things.

First, it means DATA. Like many contemporary archaeological projects and certainly most contemporary surveys, WARP produced a ton of data from its four seasons in the field and three study seasons. Despite spending some quality time with this data each year, it remained a bit provisional as our finds data was refined and updated and our survey unit data was polished. Moreover, as we digitize and analyze maps, we continue to produce more data that can inform our larger analysis. In short, this means a season of sitting in front of my laptop and crunching numbers.

Our biggest goals this season is to determine the main factors that impact artifact recovery rates from our survey area and then attempt to determine whether the variables impact recovery rates in the same way for artifacts from every period. 

Second, it means DISPLACEMENT. Some of my fondest memories of archaeological work do not involve toiling in a trench or slogging through another field looking for sherds. They don’t even involving hiking up a mountain and the rush at “discovering” an undocumented or unpublished fortification. Some of my favorite memories of doing archaeological work involve sitting at my laptop in the tiny room underneath the Marinos house in Ancient Corinth, crunching EKAS data with David Pettegrew. I also have fond memories of working on Polis data on Cyprus while sitting in the Polis storerooms or in the main room of our little apartment in the village.

In both of these cases, we had the ability to go out the door and wander around the excavation area or go and check out a particular unit, situation, or view. I’ve never been one for aimless driving around or hiking or other random outdoorsy activity that I don’t perceive as having a clear goal in mind. I do enjoy, however, checking things out and revisiting sites or scrutinizing problems at a site or in the landscape. The dialogue between the data and sites and landscapes ensures that the data remain tied to experience. In fact, I often think of data that we take with us into the field (either in our minds or quite literally when we check a measurement or test a hypothesis) as embodied data. These data are data that blend seamlessly with the sites themselves.

Of course, this year, like last, we can’t do that. I’m feeling a distinct sense of displacement from the field and it reinforces my idea that data as data, set adrift from a sense of place, loses something significant. 

Finally, no study season can happen without DONUTS. Tomorrow is National Donut Day. My plan is to make a donut pilgrimage to Sandy’s Donuts in Fargo to mark the official start of the WARP study season. 

Ed Watts’s Mortal Empire

This weekend, I read and enjoyed Ed Watts’s Mortal Empire: How Rome Fell into Tyranny (2018). As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I retain a soft spot for Roman History as it was my first love in graduate school long before my more serious commitment to archaeology and Late Antiquity. More than that, I’ve maintained a mildly antiquated belief that the Late Roman Republic has something to teach us about our contemporary political situation (even if this isn’t a simple proposition and comparing contemporary politics to those in antiquity is always fraught).

More than that, I am an admirer of Ed Watts work in Late Antiquity and deeply impressed by anyone who makes a serious effort to write for a broad non-professional audience. Above everything else, this book is a good story, well told (as the kids say) and has the potential to introduce gripping and important story about the end of the Roman Republic to a new audiences (and to re-introduce to a prodigal scholar like myself). In fact, I assigned this book to a small undergraduate Roman History readings class that I am running this summer. I’m eager to hear what my students thought of the book! 

I say all this because I want to be clear that any and all critiques that I offer below are not so much critiques of this specific book, but musings on writing for a general audience and using the Roman Republic to think about our present situation.

So, before I go further, if you have time this summer, do go and read this book!

And, here are some thoughts:

1. Writing Roman Republic. One of the great challenges facing anyone writing about the end of the Roman Republic is the work of Ronald Syme. His The Roman Revolution is not only a minor masterpiece of historical prose writing, but it also connected the rise of Augustus to the political situation in Europe in the 1930s and made a profound statement on how reading the Roman Republic could speak to contemporary events (for my failed effort to re-read The Roman Revolution last year, see here). It is no overstatement, then, that Mortal Republic is a kind of prequel to Syme’s Roman Revolution and a reader could do much worse than reading these two books for insights into both Ancient Rome and the political culture of the long 20th century.

It is worth noting that Syme’s early-20th century imitation of Tacitus remains far more stylish that Watts’s early 21st century prose. This isn’t necessary a criticism of Watts, but rather an observation that contemporary writing draws more heavily from the plain-spoken diction of journalism than “public school” class(ic)ism. One side effect of Watts’s matter-of-fact writing is that his prose struggles to carry the pace of events and to communicate tension and characters as vividly as Syme. It is more descriptive than immersive and maybe this is for the best.

2. Narrating a Republic. Both Syme and Watts understand the Roman Republic as a cabal of aristocrats operating within a system designed to keep in balance the acquisition of personal prestige, wealth, and status. Unlike, say, contemporary republics which seek (broadly) to represent the will of the governed, the Roman Republic served at least partly to preserve the public good (shared security, collective prosperity, et c.) by maintaining an equilibrium among powerful aristocratic interests who if left unchecked might jeopardize the stability of the state. 

This view of the Roman Republic, which is almost certainly an accurate one, means that most narratives of its fall emphasize the political movements of a tiny aristocratic elite set against a backdrop of roiling, but largely undifferentiated, urban and rural unrest in both Roman and Italy. The unrest only comes into focus at moments when one or another opportunistic politicians seeks to marshal the “power of the mob” to advance his political career, the risk of restive population at Rome during times of famine or danger, and the vaguely defined threats by soldiers whose interest in fighting is never articulated in ideological or political terms, but directly tied to the ability of the commander to pay them and provide them with land at the time of their discharge. 

In other words, narrating the Roman Republic and thinking about it in terms of contemporary political life, forces us to ponder the ability of ordinary people to change our situation. In this context, the result of the two decades of almost continuous civil war was not the loss of liberty for most Romans who had precious little freedom (by contemporary standards) in the Roman state prior to the rise of Augustus. Instead, it was the loss of liberty for the Roman ruling class. 

In light of this, works like Watts suggests that many of the problems in our Republic are not problems with the citizens who generally just want peace and stability (which are as good as freedom in many cases), but in the political culture of the elite whose wrangling for power rely periodically (at elections, during protests, and during ham-fisted coup attempts) on the opportunistic politicizing of ordinary citizens. This might be a rather uncharitable reading of contemporary political life in our own republic (and I might not necessarily agree with it), but, to my mind, this perspective appears to be one way of recognizing how the Roman world speaks to our own. As someone who lives in what pundits often describe as a deep red state, I often feel like the fractures between the right and left in our community are far less severe than between our political leaders.  

3. Making Ancient Rome. Watts’s book draws upon a good bit of recent scholarship (although even my outdated familiarity with trends in Roman history did not notice many fresh observations). The notes, nestled out of sight in the back of the book, offer a curious reader a nice introduction to the massive and contentious world of scholarship on the Middle and Late Roman Republic.  

I do sometimes wonder whether our desire to make the past relevant to the present obscures the way that scholars working in the present shape how we understand our past. This is particularly significant to me because some of Watts’s chapter on the Second Punic War relies heavily on the work by my old graduate school buddy Mike Fronda. This is not a criticism. Watts cites Fronda appreciatively in the notes. 

At the same time, it struck me that as much as view of the Second Punic War came from the sources, it also emerged from lengthy debates and discussions in Nate Rosenstein’s Roman History seminars at Ohio State. Fronda’s argument that Italian cities support of Hannibal against the Romans often mapped onto long-standing pre-Roman rivalries sought to expand the view of the Roman Republic from the narrow confines of aristocratic competition and locate it in a wider and more dynamic ancient world. 

In this regard, Fronda was not revolutionary, but followed a larger trends in the discipline of history toward decentering our narratives and demonstrating that affairs in Rome, the Roman-Italian dipole, and even the outcome and consequences of the Punic War only reveal part of the story of Rome’s emergence as a Mediterranean-wide power.  

When writing for a general audience, I sometimes wonder whether relegating these debates to the endnotes does our discipline a disservice because it obscures the hard work and shifting conversations that shape how we understand antiquity. In its place, we have a good story, well told, that seems to emerge from the mists of eternity full formed to speak to our contemporary situation. A more overt engagement with the contemporary conversations about the end of the Roman Republic might have gone even further to anchor the significance of fall of the Roman Republic for our contemporary world.

As I said, Watts’s book is well worth reading, but I can’t help but thinking about how the story he tells helps us understand our own world and its changing view of the past.