Old and New Perspectives on Church Building in Cyprus

I was pretty excited to read  Marietta Horster, Doria Nicolaou, Sabine Rogge’s edited volume, Church Building in Cyprus (4th – 7th century): A Mirror of Intercultural Contacts in the Eastern Mediterranean (Waxmann 2018). I’ve been working on Early Christian Cyprus for about 10 years now and have been struck by the lack of book-length “standard work” on the topic despite the massive number of Early Christian monuments on the island. This book does not really fill that gap entirely — it is an edited volume rather than a monograph or survey — but it goes a long way to present the dynamic range of recent research on churches and church building on Cyprus.

I won’t go into a detailed review, in part because I’m still digesting the book, and in part because it’s hard enough to review a monograph much less a series of articles, but the book deserves a spot on the bookshelf of any serious scholar of Cyprus or Eastern Mediterranean. 

Here are my observations:

1. Remember Liturgy! Years ago, when I was toiling away on my dissertation, I became fascinated by the complex interplay of architecture and liturgy in Greece. It was never easy or tidy to map liturgy onto architecture owing as much to the vagaries of regional liturgical practice over time as the persistence of certain architectural forms outside of the context of ritual. In other words, architecture and liturgy were deeply intertwined, but it was always very messy, as a result, there has been a bit of ambivalence toward the place of liturgy in understanding Early Christian architecture. Several of the articles in this book return to those problems which are made all the more complicated by the place of Cyprus between major liturgical traditions in Cilicia, Syria, and the Aegean basin and makes an effort to wring meaning from how traditions of architecture and liturgy intersect.

2. Churches, Saints, and Contexts. One of the biggest disappointments in my own work over the last 20 years is that I’ve never managed to do a very good job locating churches in their landscapes. In other words, my churches – whether in the Corinthia or on Cyprus – tend to float a bit in their urban or rural landscapes. As someone who has spent most of his career wandering around the countryside and thinking about how the wider geographical context works, this is hardly excusable.

Several articles in this book locate churches within the sacred and secular landscapes of Cyprus. They reflect on change in the Cypriot countryside, church politics, the role of saints in the religious life of the island, and the location of churches to create a richer ecclesiastical and social landscape. This is challenging, fraught, and important work. The last three decades of archaeological work on Cyprus has illuminated the Late Roman, Early Byzantine, and Early Christian period in significant ways. We know more about village life, the countryside, and the transformations of Late Roman urbanism at the end of antiquity than ever before. Mapping churches onto this dynamic landscape makes how we understand architecture and the Late Antiquity richer.

The folding in of landscapes shaped by saints lives and other texts goes even further in presenting Cyprus as a relatively distinct Christian landscape in the 4th to 7th centuries in which ecclesiastical authorities (through their surrogates the Bishop Saint) south to project a particular kind of power over the island. 

4. Arches, Vaults, and Domes. One of the most interesting aspects of Cypriot churches in the range of masses, forms, and techniques used to create the spaces of within and around churches. At the south basilica, our building both used a series of arches running along the south and west side of the building that parallels a courtyard to the south and a road to the west. These arches were built at the same time as the transformation of the church from being wood roofed to vaulted and practically announce the newly vaulted interior.

The evidence for such interior vaults, domes, half-domes, wooden roofs, and various arches are difficult to discern especially for buildings that preserve so little of their walls and roofs and that underwent so many transformations. The contributors generally assessed these architectural developments in a technical way or in the context of Cypriot architecture rather than as evidence for the influence of one or another neighboring region or imperial center. It was refreshing to see the traditional preoccupation with a linear progression of Early Christian architecture give way. The myriad of influences and styles present on Cyprus makes the island an ideal place for this kind of critique. 

5. Stratigraphy and Dates. If there was an area that I’d love to understand better, it is how changes in ceramic chronologies, the introduction of more rigorous stratigraphic practices, and the architecture is slowly transforming how we understand the history of Early Christian building on the island. This book is long on architectural detail, which is welcome, but at times a bit short on the nitty-gritty of how archaeologists establish the dates for buildings, how they work out architectural sequences, and how the buildings relate architecturally to their built environments.

If you’re into the archaeology of churches in the Eastern Mediterranean, this book is definitely worth a read. The contributors mark a pretty clear trajectory for the field which embraces both the traditions of Early Christian architectural history and moves tentatively forward toward incorporating new perspectives while discarded more tired and unproductive approaches. 

Letter to the Editor: Wesley College Buildings at UND

I don’t usually write letters to the editor, but I do appreciate the venerable format, and often find myself reading through the letters in my hometown broadsheet, the Grand Forks Herald.

This past week the Herald has produced two pieces on the destruction of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus. One was a news article by Andrew Hafner and the other an op-ed by Mike Jacobs. Just to add to the din, I penned a quick letter to the editor this morning. I’m never convinced that my letters will appear (my letter demanding that North Dakotan be made the official language of the state was never run), so I’ll post it here too:

Dear Editors,

I appreciate the recent coverage of the demolition of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s Campus.

University campuses are strange and often magical places. On the one hand, their traditions and monumentality represent a sense of place, scale, and history. On the other hand, the modern university is a progressive, forward-looking institution that look to the future of their students, communities, and society. At its best, the experience of a university campus embodies the former, and the research and teaching missions of the university embodies the latter.

This past spring ten students and friends helped me start to document the four buildings on UND’s campus associated with Wesley College. We learned about folks like Harold Holden Sayre, Frank Lynch, John Milton Hancock, and Edward Robertson who sought to create a transformative college in Grand Forks that partnered with UND to offer instruction in religion, music, and expression. In their day, the Wesley College buildings were eminently modern, using the novel Beaux Arts style with its modular dimensions and sophisticated material. They also drew upon Classical influences with their Greek key strong courses and striking Mediterranean rooflines rendered in red ceramic roof tile.

Today the manifest a failed dream. After the war, Wesley College faltered and UND, the College’s longtime partner and neighbor purchased the campus and eclipsed the College’s mission. This month UND will raze the last physical reminders of this experiment. Without a doubt, this is a sad thing, but like every college campus, UND’s campus is always undergoing renewal and transformation. The tension between the pull of tradition and the push of progress is what gives each campus their unique feeling and character.

In some ways, President Mark Kennedy’s vision for UND is no different that Edward Robertson’s vision for Wesley College over 100 years ago. Both looked to create a modern campus that embodies certain values, priorities, and a sense of place. For Robertson, the demolition of the buildings that bear his name and marks the end of his vision and dream. For Kennedy, this is just the beginning of his efforts to transform the campus. It will be left to future generations to judge whether Kennedy’s efforts will contribute to UND tradition or represent another failed vision for the North Dakota prairie. Either way, it’s unnerving and exciting to watch it play out. After all, we can always reclaim traditions, but the future will be forever beyond our grasp.

Walls and Sherds from EF1

Over the past week, Scott Moore and I have tried to organize what we know about the area of EF1 at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus. The area was excavated by the Princeton Cyprus Expedition during two seasons, 1988 and 1989, and with three trenches. The area is to the northeast of South Basilica and its neighborhood and to the west of the area EG0. It stands on the “neck” of a narrow, north sloping ridge that extends toward the coast. While I’m not entirely sure where the Late Roman city center is at Polis, I’m assuming that it is under the modern village which stands largely to the south of the South Basilica with its cemetery and its partner in the area of EG0 which is also surrounded by burials. 

Excavations at EF1 produced a group of walls that shared a similar orientation as well as a significant body of pottery and other small finds. In 2016, we read most of the pottery from secure deposits and later this week, we’ll document the various small inventoried finds. The area appears to be some kind of industrial area with significant quantities of slag, some wasters, and (maybe) some other indicators of industrial use. The entire area of EF1 has signs of significant hydraulic engineering with at least two drains running through the buildings. I suspect its position on the north slope of a hill along the top of a relatively narrow ridge gave the area and its buildings certain advantages.


Like so much of Polis, the number of secure deposits was relatively small. Part of this is the consequence the constant reconstruction and modification of the buildings at the site over the course of Late Antiquity. The earliest secure deposit is the floor packing of a lime floor associated with the earliest major wall in the area. In a clearly defined second phase, a new series of walls were built over and around the first series of wall with a new series of fills. The material in these two phases is barely distinguishable for one another chronologically or typologically so it’s pretty challenging to date either phase securely.

We do have one secure date for the area. A burial in the area likely after a period of abandonment seems to represent the last significant activity at the site. The burial  included a lead seal that was published a couple of years ago and dated to the second half of the 7th century. In other words, it seems likely that this area was abandoned by the end of the 7th century. 

What is intriguing is that by comparing the assemblage produced at EF1 with the assemblage from the South Basilica and there are some obvious differences. For example – and this is all very tentative – the EF1 assemblage appears to lack Dhiorios cooking pots, LR13 amphoras, and the latest forms of CRS, like the so-called CRS well form. Moreover, the only evidence for a few forms of Cypriot Red Slip comes from post-abandonment levels. CRS form 8, for example, appears exclusively in post-abandonment levels. That most of the material from EF1 and the South Basilica appears in secondary contexts as the church and the 

The opportunity to compare substantial assemblages from two areas of the same site offers us 

Classics as the Canary for the End of the Humanities

There’s been a ton of buzz lately about the role of Classics in the larger curriculum of the humanities and in higher education (or any education really) today. Most of the debate has been ongoing for decades and emphasizes the problematic history of Classics and its close association with the “Western Tradition.”

Many of the recent posts on Classics have a certain degree of urgency owing, perhaps, to a renewed sense of crisis in the field, some recent curricular decisions in higher education, and some flashpoint discussions involving Classics and gender, race, and class. Popular web publications like SCS blog, Eidolon, and well-regarded bloggers have framed these conversations in subtle and intriguing ways. Most would agree that Classics has a role in the modern university and in our cultural world, but most would also agree that the discipline requires ongoing critique to continue to contribute in a positive and productive way to our society.

Go read this stuff here, here, and here.

It’s hard to disagree with any of the recent critiques of the discipline which address the discipline’s tradition of exclusivity and elitism, ongoing disciplinary and professional concerns, and are appropriately tinged with a kind of anxiety about the future of Classics as a project. As I’ve read these critiques, I’ve become more and more interested in their limits. In particular, I’m trying to figure out how far Classics can be separated in formulating our “classical” definition of the “Western tradition,” and whether this entire conversation is essentially re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

In other words, it’s easy enough to understand the problems with “Western” thinking – from colonialism to capitalism – and to recognize the role that certain readings of the Classical Canon and Classics as a discipline (in the 19th and 20th centuries) played in this past. What seems to me to be more challenging (and maybe more significant in the 21st century) is the role of Classics within the larger critique of humanism which, at its worst is the “Western Tradition” by another name, and at its best, the essential organizing concept in, say, the Liberal Arts tradition. This isn’t to say that humanism and the liberal arts don’t have a potentially productive role in any useful understanding of the world, but the line between a kind celebratory (or anxious) appreciation of humanism (and the weekly article reminding us all in various insipid ways that we really need the humanities!), and some of the more brutal and crass defenses of Classics is not a difficult one. We can, perhaps, extend Arum Park’s note that white supremacy and Classics (as traditionally construed) exist on the same spectrum: it is probably worth recognizing in these discussions that this spectrum also involves so many of our basic epistemological practices and assumptions which draw from the same “Western Tradition.”

It’s interesting to wonder whether (and would love to see more about) how this crisis in Classics is really the canary in the coal mine for the growing recognition that a simplistic view of Western Civilization (or the Classical canon) isn’t the issue. The real challenge is deeply nested within the fundamental organization of higher education, the liberal arts, and the humanities.

In particular, the question that I’ve been turning over and over in my head is whether the humanities and liberal arts can cope with the most pressing global problems. From global warming to the relentless advance of capital, the destruction of indigenous societies, and the celebration of “development” (however construed), the long reach of Western thought at the core of the modern academy, the humanities, and, Classics requires critical engagement that seems almost in a different universe from adding a “module” on “Mexico City” and “Harlem” to a humanities course at a liberal arts college.

When I step back and think of how I view the world, how I was trained, and what I value, I can’t help feel like the problems facing the world today remain particularly resistant to my intellectual tool kit. While I’m sure that some of this reflects the limits to my own abilities and background, I also suspect that it reflects (as many scholars have pointed out) the limits of the intellectual traditions in which I work.

I’ve started to even play with an old idea that Richard Rothaus and I become fascinated by, the suicide gene. The concept is that certain genetic experiments would have some kind of genetic modification that would make the organism die before it could promulgate out of control or cause harm. I started to wonder whether Classics could be the suicide gene not just for an outmoded and stodgy view of the Western Tradition, but for the entire tradition of the humanities in the West. For the longest time, Classics imagined itself as fundamental to understanding the West. We can roll our eyes at such an assertion, of course, but there is no doubt in my mind that it had some currency throughout the modern era. One the most simple level, we can displace Classics and dislocate the idea that certain concepts, ways of thinking, and ideas developed in a linear or even historical way, as a way to introduce ways of thinking about time, causality, and progress that stand outside of Western traditions. 

As Classics looks to complicate its place in how we think about the West – in good and positive ways – maybe the result of this isn’t a renegotiated Western tradition constructed around new assumptions and expectations, but the complete unraveling of the Western tradition entirely. (Perhaps we are witnessing an important step in the provincializing of Western thinking.)  Maybe Classics needs to assume its old place at the foundation of the West to undermine once-and-for-all the long shadow of the Western traditions in the most profound way. This might mean the end of the humanities, of the liberal arts, of “higher education,” and even such sacred concepts as “rationalism,” “critical thinking,” and historicism. By stepping away from our expectations of what the West is and means and does and did, we’re not going to save Classics or higher education or literature or whatever, but we might actually save the world.

Summer Work: Polis 2018

I’m settling into the wonderful village of Polis-tis-Chrysochous in northwest Cyprus today after a long day of travel and a hectic end of the semester. As I recover from jet lag, I’ve found it convenient to sit awake a 2 am thinking through our priorities for this 2+ week study season.

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There are three things that I want to accomplish this summer.

1. EF1. Over the past two summers, we moved through the ceramics and stratigraphy excavated from the area a Polis designated (evocatively) as EF1. This area is – superficially – uncomplicated comprising two rooms, part of a passageway, and the remains of some kind of industrial feature. The vast majority of material from this area is Late Roman in date, and will likely reward a bit more rigorous study as we’ve become more adept at pulling apart the ceramic evidence from the 5th-late-7th century on the island.

Before we can even do that, however, we have to unpack a pretty dense (and closely superimposed) set of stratigraphic and architectural relationships. The area clearly consists of a series of walls constructed over 100 to 200 years following a similar orientation and perhaps supporting similar functions. Like in so many places at Polis, the control over water to manage drainage and to harness its energy in productive ways is important.

2. After Late Antiquity. The next thing that we’re working on is preparing material for our Medieval (and later) ceramicist to analyze. Over the last 10 years we’ve been filtering our research to avoid – except when absolutely necessary – the post-Late-Roman material from Polis. Fortunately, this has been pretty easy to do owing to the abundance of Late Roman questions (and material) available at the site. 

Nevertheless, we’ve felt like we can only see part of the picture and it is clear that many of our buildings and areas under study continued to function into the Medieval period with significant post-Ancient phases and transformations. This follows recent trends that have extended the reach of the long-late-antiquity well into the 7th, 8th, and even 9th centuries. On Cyprus, a growing interest in this continuity complements a critique of the “condominium” centuries, the impact of the Arab raids, and new assessment of interaction between Cyprus and the Near East in the Early Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. 

3. Other projects. The great and somewhat depressing thing about our work at Polis is that it has an almost unlimited number of research projects just waiting for someone willing to give them time and energy. For example, we have an assemblage of Roman lamps that need to be published, we have a seemingly infinite assemblage of Roman and Late Roman pottery that could be documented, quantified, and analyzed to shed light on the connections between the Cyprus and the wider Roman world, and we have (of course) another Early Christian basilica that is begging for study.

While we probably won’t be able to complete or even really get started on these other projects, there’s nothing more motivating than being around the sites and the material. Already, an hour standing around looking closely at EF1 produced certain insights that looking at a plan would not. Stay tuned for updates over the next couple of weeks!

Surfaces in the Bakken

This week, I’ve been sneaking in some time to finish Maya Rao’s Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier (2018). It is a familiar book and echos many of the themes and characters present in Blaire Briody’s The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (2017). They’re both good reads.

But both books also bother me. Some of my complaints are the standard kind. Briody and Rao tend to focus on a particular cross section of the Bakken: people with troubled pasts who came to North Dakota during the boom either to strike it rich or, at least, to escape from their previous lives. Many deal with issues of addiction, violence, poverty, or other social ills, but their willingness to come to the Bakken offers a glimmer of redemption for these characters. Whatever difficulties that they have faced in life, Briody and Rao emphasize that individuals who trekked to the Bakken made their own decisions and retained their own agency. This agency, however, is a bit toxic in that it only establishes these figures as tragic heroes who cannot escape their own past despite their efforts. 

The tragic figures who populate these two books create a kind of tension. On the one hand, reading about the lives of these individuals is sufficiently removed from a kind of imagined suburban norm to represent some kind of economically, socially, or morally compromised “other.” On the other hand, their inability to escape their past remains us of destruction wrought by the Bakken boom on communities and the landscape. In other words, both authors push us to consider whether we can dismiss these individuals as damaged dreamers who came to the Bakken in an effort to redeem compromised lives or whether we are fundamentally similar to these individuals. Perhaps our thirst for fossil fuels, material things, and wealth has made us complicit in the both the social and environmental ruin that the Bakken seems to promise. 

If this argument runs through each of these book, it’s implicit. (Especially in comparison to Matt Hern, Am Johal, and Joe Sacco’s remarkable Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017)).

There is a superficiality to Briody’s and Rao’s books. That is not to say that they are not well-researched, well-written, or carefully arranged, but that their main interest is the surface. The descriptions Rao’s book are particularly intriguing. They trace the contours of the Bakken in great detail from the rugged badlands of McKenzie County to the featureless prairies of the US-Canadian border. The characters are likewise drawn in careful detail with drug dealing ex-strippers, struggling fathers, wealthy tricksters, and wary locals rubbing shoulders and weaving tales. The work of the oil fields also received sustained attention with drilling, fracking, wastewater disposal, driving trucks, and even “stacking” drill rigs described in detail. Truck stops, watering holes, restaurants, and RVs served as interview rooms and background for much of the book.  

The fascinating thing about Rao’s richly drawn landscapes and figures is that they were so gently superimposed on one another. They spaces and people produce exotic places that are as ephemeral as the boom itself. The surfaces glided seamlessly beneath each other without the creation of depth or substance like diaphanous drapery that only hints at its existence while leaving what it covers exposed. 

The expansiveness of these transparent – or at least translucent – surfaces eliminates any space for the kind of ironic revelations that are so familiar in academic writing. What you see is literally what you see. It does not stand in for something else. It does not craftily allude to its opposite. It barely trades in implicitness beyond the simple notion that in the 21st century we’re all tragic characters in the fight against environmental degradation, precarity, and exploitative practices inherent to capitalism and extractive industries.

I tend to think that the daily confrontation with the seemingly intractable challenges of capital, precarity, and climate change has revealed the variegated surfaces that these phenomena have produced. There is no larger lesson, there is not reality that lurks beneath these “structures,” and there is little to brook any deeper interpretation that goes beyond nuanced description. Even history itself succumbs to the expansiveness of this surface. The California Gold Rush, the Alaska pipeline rush, and the first boom are simply variations on the theme of booms, busts, and opportunism. For Rao, dreams and dreamers are just that. They don’t reveal some long suppressed wish, injury, or hope. Rao’s Bakken dreamers ARE these hopes, wishes, and scars. Interpretation is unnecessary and probably futile.  

In this way, Rao’s and Briody’s books stand as an explicit and familiar monuments that tells a well-known tale. The surfaces prepared by these authors offers the kind of complicated reflection that makes the possibility of othering the denizens of the Bakken impossible. We are what we see in the Borgesian surface that extends in all directions. There’s no need to dig any deeper because it’s just surface, all the way down. 

Summer Reading List

It’s almost summer here in North Dakotaland and while I continue to dream about wrapping up my various projects from the spring (and the winter and the fall and last summer). 

You can check out my past reading lists here: 20172016201520142013, and 2011. A quick read of these lists presents a litany of failed ambition rather than the story of my intellectual growth. Nevertheless, because I have to take most of my reading with me to Greece and Cyprus, there is a selection process that is less than simply random. In other words, once I have to plan, I might as well make a list.

First, there are two new books in my field that I need to read. In Cyprus, I plan to read Marietta Horster, Doria Nicolaou, and Sabine Rogge eds., Church Building in Cyprus (Fourth to Seventh Centuries): A Mirror of Intercultural Contacts in the Eastern Mediterranean. (2018). In Greece, I’ll like turn my attention to Amelia Brown’s new book Corinth in Late Antiquity: A Greek, Roman, and Christian City. (2018). The latest issue of Advances in Archaeological Practice is dedicated to digital data reuse in archaeology and that seems relevant as my various projects look ahead to investing some significant time into preparing our data for publication.

My reading in the historical archaeology of the American West and the archaeology of the contemporary world will take a bit of a pause this summer, although I’m keen to spend more time with Mark S Warner and Margaret Sermons Purser’s Historical Archaeology through a Western Lens (2018) and to revisit some classics of the field including Richard Gould and Michael Schiffer’s Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us (1981), Cornelius Holtorf and Angela Piccini’s Contemporary Archaeology: Excavating Now (2006), Paul Graves-Brown’s Matter, Materiality, and Modern Culture (2012) and Sefryn Penrose’s (et al.) Images of Change: An Archaeology of England’s Contemporary Landscape (2010). In this same context, I’ll probably have to re-read David Beer’s Punk Sociology (2014) as I put together a draft of my paper for this fall’s European Archaeological Association annual meeting.

I’m going to putt off surfing the Edinburgh History of the Greeks until a bit later in the summer as I prepare my Greek history class for the fall. 

I also want to read some fiction. I was taken by a recent review of the republication of Joy Williams’ The Changeling (1978), in part because reviewers gave it a bit of Under the Vulcano (1968) vibe. I’ve also Kindled up Andrew Sean Greer’s Less: A Novel (2017).

I’ve also queued up four of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel’s A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, and The Lathe of Heaven. And on various recommendations from social media colleagues, I’ve added the first two novels of Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle

Finally, I read a little interview with the Peter Ginna in the Chronicle of Higher Education and picked up his new book on editing.

This reading will be in addition to a few other projects that continue to simmer away and require a certain amount of maintenance reading over the summer. For example, North Dakota Quarterly has reopened submissions and The Digital Press has an important work pretty far into the pipeline and literally begging for a first read!

Finally, I’ve been threatening my fellow editors at NDQ to start reading some poetry. The advantages of poetry books is that they’re small and while they might be heavy in content, they tend to be light in form. I’ll likely drop a couple in my bag for the odd evening read.

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s finally spring here in North Dakotaland and the semester is wrapping up, spring projects are wrapping up, and I’m starting to look forward to summer work in Greece and Cyprus, summer reading lists, (overly) ambitious goals of wrapping up loose ends from this past academic year, and plans for 2018.

The spring is always so exciting with potential!

In the meantime, here is a little list of some quick hits and varia:

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Remembering Harold Sayre

Today at 11 am we’re doing a little ceremony in memory of Harold Holden Sayre. For those of you who know your World War One history, the 11 am time has a certain significance. For those of you who read this blog, you know that our ceremony for Harold Sayre is part of the larger Wesley College Documentation Project

We’re live streaming the event on the Facebook Event Page here. You can download the program for the event here.

One of the great things about doing an event like this is the opportunity to thank everyone who made the Wesley College Documentation Project possible and especially my students in the WCDP Class.

Brian Larson and Michael Pieper at UND Facilities gave us remarkable access to these buildings and Brian served as a valued interpreter of the structures. Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, Joe Vacek, and Gordon Iseminger, walked through the buildings with us and helped us see things we’d have otherwise missed (literally and virtually). The UND Archives at the Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collections patiently allowed us to move through their collection. Dana Sande and Bret Weber of the Grand Forks City Council, Anna Rand the UND student intern at the City of Grand Forks, and Jeff Wencl of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission connected us to the community and the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Sheila Liming provided us with music today and Michael Wittgraf graciously recorded and performed at the final concert in Corwin Hall earlier this spring. 

Susan Caraher coordinated the moving parts of the today’e event, worked tirelessly to document the buildings with photographs and video, and served as the registrar for the data that the Wesley College Documentation Project collected.  


Excerpt from Poem from his Pilot at the Front,
Lt. Horace Shidler, U.S. Air Service, Returned Prisoner of War

And here the sadness of it begins,
As I tell this story to you;
And the sadness felt by me,
Is seldom felt by few.

Harold Sayre was a man of men,
Proud was I that he should be;
The man that handled the guns,
The protected the aft of we.

He was shot and fell against the tarrell,
And held by the belt around him;
For aft protection I knew I had none,
And I felt so helpless without him.

How my own flesh wounds are almost well,
And soon will be no more;
But the wound in my hear will never heal
For it reaches to the very core.

As I sit here now, alone in my cell
My eyes dim till it is hard to see;
Remembering the look on his pitiful face,
When he looked up at me.

Strange things happen in peace or war,
To this we’ll all agree;
Oh God! If one of us had to go,
The Lord why wasn’t it me!

But now you have chosen me to stay
In this land of joy and trouble;
Let me live and raise a boy to be,
A “Harold Sayre’s” double.

Wesley College Wednesday: What Next for Wesley College

It’s the time of year where I’m desperately trying to wrap up writing projects, grade papers, and get ready to decamp to Cyprus and Greece for the summer. It also tends to be the most social time of the academic year with friends and colleagues getting together in the milder weather excited about the our long emergence from the harsh winter. (And it’s time to spread mulch.)

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As part of this wrap up, I’ve started to think about what’s next for the Wesley College Documentation Project. On a practical level, I know that I have some more “data collecting” to do in the form of oral histories with folks who worked and lived in these buildings. I also look forward to the official HABS Level II report on the buildings as well as the results of drone photographs and laser scans of the buildings’ exteriors. On an intellectual level, however, I’m worried that as my attention shifts to other projects, the ideas that I’ve developed while hanging around these buildings regularly will wane. So my goal to day is to provide a quick sketch of a book that could come from the Wesley College Documentation Project. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to write the book, but these are what I’d write about if I decided to do that. This post is largely a more organized expansion of my “Five Fragments” post from a few weeks ago.

Chapter 1: The History of Wesley College

This chapter would outline the basic history of the college and its innovative approach to higher education. The main characters in this chapter would be Edward Robertson, Frank Lynch, A.J. Sayre, and John Hancock, whose support, funds, and vision built and sustained the college.

In many ways, these men embodied the national reach of Wesley College which drew on resources from the plains of Alberta to the lumber yards of California, the brokerages of Wall Street, and the farms of the North Dakota prairie. In many ways, the funding sources and personal relationships at the core of Wesley College’s growth and success tells the story of the development of institutions in the American west and how, despite the peripheral status of North Dakota, it was able to consume a range of resources in the first decades of the 20th century that demonstrated deeply reciprocal ties between members of the North Dakota diaspora and their former home. 

The chapter would also document the decline of the Wesley College experiment over the middle years of the 20th century as the Great Depression, World War Two, and the changing landscape of higher education in the post-war period marginalized Wesley College and ultimately led to its complete absorption by its next door neighbor the University of North Dakota. 

Chapter 2: The Fabric of Wesley College: Sayre, Larimore, Corwin, and Robertson Halls

This would be the most empirical part of the project which would include publishing our granular documentation of all four Wesley College buildings and demonstrating how that the far-ranging ties between Wesley College, its donors, and its visionary leader, Edward Robertson, produced remarkably cosmopolitan buildings. The Beaux Art style provided a modern, modular, and sophisticated architectural form for the early 20th-century college campus. The master plans for Wesley College embodied the ambitions of Robertson and his donors and, while this ambition was unrealized, in the end, the buildings stood for over 100 years as reminders of his vision. 

The second part of this chapter would involve publishing the room-by-room documentation of the architecture of the Wesley College buildings that considered each room as a archaeological and architectural story. The sequences of walls, doors, remodeling, and renovation demonstrates both the powerful persistence of the original plan as well as the changing function and needs of these buildings as they become part of the UND campus. Of particular interest will be how the modularity and regularity of the Beaux Arts design facilitated the later trajectory of these spaces from functionally distinctive and even prestigious rooms on campus to spaces that could serve multiple, changing purposes. As the rooms became more anonymous, they became more easy to exchange for other rooms across campus and the buildings, for all their sophisticated modern form, became obsolete.      

Chapter 3: Assemblages of Abandonment

In Chapter 3, the book would transition from historical narrative and architectural description to more complex analysis. The main part of this considers the assemblages associated with the abandonment of these buildings in the months prior to their demolition. The Wesley College Documentation Project considers the assemblages present in three spaces: a group of faculty offices, faculty research spaces, and the teaching space of a university honors program. Each of these spaces reveals different attitudes toward discard and curation and speaks to the uneven but clearly quickening pace of change during the late-20th and early 21st century. 

In particular, the assemblages present in these rooms reveal what some archaeologists of the American West have called “boomsurfing,” which are the irregular patterns of curation, recycling, and discard that characterize the irregular pattern of booms and busts present both in higher education and, more specifically, in the economy of North Dakota and the Northern Plains. The will be a section on our inventory of desks from Larimore Hall and a catalogue of objects from the building as well.   

Chapter 4: Mediating Memory

The final chapter will reflect on the strategies that we’ve used to mediate the memory of the these buildings, their occupants, their history, and our archaeological work. It will consider three examples of memories inscribed in the fabric of the buildings themselves: the changing of the name of Sayre Hall from commemorating its donor to commemorating the donor’s late son, Harold Sayre in 1918, a series of inscription on a glass window in Sayre Hall which names three residents in the early 20th century, and the inscriptions on a series of bricks at the southeast corner of Sayre Hall. These inscriptions reflect formal and informal traditions of memory and movement in the building and across the landscape.

Second, this chapter will describe two rituals organized by the Wesley College Documentation Project to commemorate these buildings. The first was a concert of funeral hymns by Mike Wittgraf of the UND Department of Music. He performed the hymns in the Corwin Hall recital room and we recorded them on a series of microphones throughout Corwin-Larimore Hall. The music itself and the use of the Corwin Hall recital room evoked the memory of the pipe organ installed in that space and the acoustics of that room. The arrangement of the microphones both in the recital hall and in Larimore, however, brought the commemorative concert to the last phase of the building by recording the music as it flowed between spaces that would have been quite separate in the building’s original plan. This diachronic concern sought to embrace the performance of change through time by both recognizing the past and mediating it in the present (and has obvious parallels with, for example, the performance of Mozart’s piano sonatas on modern pianos in ways that acknowledge the sound and limits of their earlier instruments). This section will also describe the memorial service for Harold Sayre which we will hold tomorrow outside Robertson Hall to recognize that Sayre Hall was a memorial and that while the building will disappear, its memory should not. There is a natural parallel between this event and the dedication of Robertson Hall that took place in 1930 in a similar location.

Finally, we will discuss how our own work in and around the buildings and the Wesley College archives served to create, cultivate, and preserve the memory of these buildings and their institutions. Archaeology can bridge the gap between informal commemorative practices and formal rituals, and the work of the Wesley College Documentation Project (and indeed any publications from this project) serves this purpose.

5. Modernity and Memory on a College Campus. The conclusion to the book would return to the history of Wesley College, the various campus plans, and the construction of memory at UND (and on college campuses in general). It would emphasize how college campuses – like certain cities – construct their identity at the intersection of their historical architecture and rituals and progressive reputation. Universities have always served to move society forward through reflection on the past and cutting-edge technology. Campus have served as laboratories where faculty and students take risks in the name of significant rewards, but also liminal places where students experience formative rites of passage as they transition into adulthood. The maintenance of college campuses as mnemonic landscapes ensures that universities can continue to attract donors, celebrate past accomplishments, and position their missions as outside of the pressures of the contemporary world. At the same time, campus are dynamic and vibrant places in a constant state of renewal. The balance between these two trends frequently parallels the tensions between faculty and administrators, faculty and students, and alumni and the university community.

By recognizing this, we can locate our own efforts to create formal memories through rituals and archaeological practices as both an efforts to inscribe campus with our own view of its past as well as to frame the future of university. 

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