Old Lands: Nostalgia, Archaeology, and a Summer without Fieldwork

This weekend, I started to read Chris Witmore’s Old Lands: a chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020). Witmore is perhaps best known among archaeologists as a theory guy whose work on thingness, symmetrical archaeology, and agency has contributed to the larger “thing turn” or “material turn” in the field. 

This book certainly draws upon his formidably grasp of archaeological theory, but much of it is not explicitly theoretical. Instead, it offers a series of “segments” between points win the northeastern Peloponnesus that provide an opportunity for Witmore to dilate on various topics ranging from fish farming to tourism, antiquity, archaeology, history and agriculture. The thread connecting these largely self-contained segments, each of which gets its own bibliography is the heterogeneity of space and place. By following the things “on the ground” rather than the discursive pathways established by our disciplinary training and knowledge, Witmore offers a literary simulation of the typical archaeological encounter. This encounter, at least in my experience, almost always begins with the question: “what the hell is that?” And proceeds from there.

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t offer more than a superficial reaction, and I’ll probably write a more formal review sometime next week when I’ve had more of a chance to digest it. I will offer three observations now, though:

First, this book couldn’t appear at a better time. Like many academic archaeologists, I’m still coming to grips with the idea that there will be no fieldwork or study this summer. While I have plenty of writing and reading to do and have no projects that required fieldwork this summer, it’ll still be strange to be at home rather than living out of a suitcase in Cyprus and Greece and attending to the needs of objects, landscapes, buildings, and places (as well as maps and databases). I do have some fieldwork in town here and a plan for some work in August in Idaho that might still happen, but even that seems unlikely right now.

More than that, I’m worried that without being in Greece and Cyprus and without spending time in the landscape, village, storerooms, and survey area, my reservoir of encounters will diminish. It’ll be harder for me to ask “what the hell is that?” and to follow these encounters in new directions and toward new hypotheses. 

As an aside, I had long wondered what this odd building was south of Kiveri near where the Western Argolid Regional Project was based in Myloi. Apparently it was a pumping station designed to tap a fresh water spring beneath the saltwater Argolidic Gulf. So there you go.

Second, I’ve been thinking a good bit about nostalgia lately. I’m partly blaming this on Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), and partly on a new, small-scale research project into the history of the suburbs, and partly on being an old white male. When I was younger, I spent a good bit of each summer hiking around the landscape of the Eastern Corinthia, looking for and at sites, wondering about things, and talking with guys like Tim Gregory, David Pettegrew, and Dimitri Nakassis. More recently, I spent time walking the Western Argolid with Dimitri, Grace Erny, Machal Gardoz, Joey Frankel, Melanie Gadsey, and Alyssa Friedman. While in most cases, we were mapping survey units, it also afforded me the opportunity to become more familiar with the Inachos valley and surrounding landscape.   

Old Lands is set in the olive grooves, orange orchards, dirt roads, “not paths, but routes” hills, valleys, ravines, seaside towns, inland villages, and cities of the northeast Peloponnesus. This is where I’ve learned to be an archaeologist (and continue to learn from both my colleagues and the landscape). Feeling nostalgic for the long days in the field may be no more than just the idylls of a privileged white male, but thinking about those days and weeks walking in the countryside push me to recognize this privileged perspective and reflect on the tension between my own encounters, my memories, and these rugged and difficult landscapes.

Finally, so far, Witmore’s book has reminded me how much my understanding of the Greek countryside is anchored in place. In other words, so much of what I know about Greece is based on my encounters with buildings, landscapes, and relationships rather than predefined academic problems. Whatever one thinks of the theoretical perspectives offered through symmetrical archaeology (e.g. here), Witmore’s book does a good job (again, so far) connecting how archaeologists make knowledge to the landscape itself and then introducing the secondary literature. Witmore’s process of describing the situation with detail and nuance, however literary it is in presentation here, mimics the process of engaging the landscape and starting with the question “what the hell is that?”

As I said, this is my impression based on the first 350 or so pages. I’ll prepare a more careful review sometime in the next week or so.

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