Excavations at Corinth in Hesperia

I really like Hesperia. It’s the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The quality of production and editing is outstanding and I can find something interesting in almost every issue that appears. I’ve submitted a few articles to Hesperia over my career, in part, because my work fits their remit, but also because the results are such fine quality. I know that they treat even the most modest contribution to the journal with the same care and attention that they lavish on the most dynamic, important, or sophisticated article.

This past issue had a long article on recent excavations at Corinth, “Corinth, 2018: Northeast of the Theater” by the project’s new director Chris Pfaff. The article is over 65 pages and I’d guess about 20,000 words of text plus another 10,000 of notes and bibliography; by my count, the article clocked in at just under 35,000 words. It was pretty amazing, and I keep going back to it. Unlike many Hesperia articles, Pfaff’s article lacks a clear thesis. It’s not an argument. And what makes it most wonderful to me is that it doesn’t even have a conclusion. In fact, it just ends after the description of some kind of early modern or medieval ditch that cut across part of the site. That’s it. A “Diagonal Ditch.”

Here’s the final paragraph:

The purpose of the diagonal ditch remains unknown. No masonry of any kind was found within it to support the idea that it served as a founda­tion trench for a built structure. Its great length would be consistent with a ditch to accommodate a drain or pipeline, but no drain tiles or pipes came to light in the fill. In general, the finds from the fill, including an equine cranium, can be characterized as refuse that has no association with the original function of the ditch.

This isn’t the say that the article was pointless, of course. Part of me suspects that this article represents a throwback to a tradition of reporting on the annual work at a site. When we started our project on Cyprus, for example, we published short descriptive annual reports in the Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus that we hoped would let folks know that a particular site existed, give them a sense for what we found, and announce ourselves as serious archaeologists doing serious work. They were provisional and preliminary, and, to my mind, a fine thing for a junior scholar to write when starting work on their first project.

This logic, of course, does not apply to Corinth. Chris Pfaff is a senior scholar and nothing in the report would strike someone casually familiar with Corinth as surprising. Most of the material is Late Roman in date, most of it derives from secondary contexts as one would expect at a continuously occupied site, and none of the results would challenge long held views or announce some distinct, new aspect in the history of the city.

Instead, the article simply runs up the flag that work is ongoing. It appears, from what I can tell, to be continuing in the same vein as excavations over the last 20 years. The article lacks much in the way of a formal catalogue, assemblages are only presented in a summary way, the architecture and features consist primarily of walls, roads, and known buildings (like the Late Antique “Good Seasons” mosaic and the course of the Late Roman (perhaps 6th century?) fortification wall). None of these features is published in enough detail to be considered a final publication. It’s nice to know that they are still there though and to know someone cares.

What’s great about this article is its attention to description. Rather than present some sweeping conclusion, launch into some theoretically overwrought article, or attempt some kind of exhaustive review of past literature, this article simply describes things. In other words, in its unusual way, it takes things seriously, even when these things are a “diagonal ditch” with the skull of a horse and some early 20th century artifacts in it. By putting aside, at least explicitly, the need for a formal thesis, Pfaff’s article refuses to reduce the “things” of archaeology to the status of evidence in the service of an argument. Even the occasional objects in the article that received more careful description floated against an ambiguous background and often lacked fully developed archaeological context. At best they represent types of evidence as if to say that the excavators have this kind of thing and this kind of thing can speak to chronology, function, or context. But at no point do they unpack the entire context of a strata or an assemblage. They do, as one would expect, locate the objects within a context, but this remains hard to understand to a reader because most contexts are not fully described. Thus this treatment of things alludes to a context, but also avoids becoming unduly burdened by it. The photographs of the objects against a white background reinforce their independence and integrity.

Pfaff 2020 hesperia pdf  page 25 of 67 2020 02 26 07 32 44

This image of iron hobnails(?) could inspire a volume of essays.

Pfaff 2020 hesperia pdf  page 28 of 67 2020 02 26 07 38 34

It’s also worth noting that this article also lacks people. Some of the previous excavators are present: Henry Robinson and Charles Williams make cameos to personify their interpretations and work, but the 2018 excavations largely occurred without human intervention. There are no decisions presented and the descriptions of features and things stand on their own. This is both bracing and just a bit disconcerting. A generation of reflexive practices and methodological preoccupation which have so frequently sought to diminish the significance of things in the name of relationships with humans is refreshingly absent.

In the end, this article is provocative. I calls into question the goals of archaeological publication. Surely, it is not meant to be a definitive “final” publication. As I’ve said, it’s also not meant to be a preliminary report. No one needs to 30,000+ to know that Corinth has a prosperous and complex Roman and Late Roman phase. It doesn’t offer enough detail or context for regular citation. The objects represented throughout are generally of a type that is known both at Corinth and more broadly in Southern Greece and the Peloponnesus.

Instead, the purpose of this article appears to be simply to present these things, features, and lightly sketched contexts. Hesperia’s typically fine and careful style allows the things to stand on their own and largely to speak for themselves and, in some way, speak to themselves (rather to other things or to some kind of abstract notion of argument, assemblage, or context). As such the article is both a step backward in time to a day when such reports regularly appeared in scholarly journals to let far flung colleagues know about “the work of the School” as well as a step forward in a practice of presenting things in a disconcertingly discrete way.

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