More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

My blogging plans for today involved another heroic swing at the slowly developing final chapter of my book manuscript. It has already developed to a series of nips and tucks and hardly anything worth blogging about. Maybe next Monday. Maybe.

Fortunately, I’ve also been working on a little essay about Christopher Witmore’s very recent book Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) for a forum type review in an archaeology journal. I posted about it a six months ago in a pair of blog posts here and here. Since then, I’ve re-read the book, thought a good bit more about it over the course of some long walks, and started to put together a rather flailing essay.

Here’s the first part of it (warts and all). I’ll post the second part tomorrow:

Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) is rather difficult book to review. It a personal journey through the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus, and, as such, it is sui generis, at least in the field of contemporary Greek archaeology. Witmore’s periegesis through the Corinthia and the Argolid, which he calls a chorography, follows the well-trod routes established by Pausanias, early travelers, and 20th century excavators and survey archaeologist. He treats these landscapes, however, with a distinctive eye that follows the ancient and modern things that he encounters into tangles of conversations, secondary literature, archaeological reports, and ancient sources. In this regard, his book inverts the conventional narrative technique in archaeology that so often starts with the ancient testimonia, early travelers, and modern scholarship and presents these works as context necessary for things to have meaning. Witmore’s approach, in contrast, locates the authors within in the landscape, rather than behind dusty tomes of past scholars and returns objects to their place within our lived experiences. Needless to say, Old Lands is particularly welcome at a time when many of us have been unable to travel to the Mediterranean because of the ongoing pandemic.

Witmore’s narratives are earnest and devoid of irony. In fact, its earnestness evokes the image of the “heroic archaeologist” who reassembles the past from their personal encounters with sites, objects, and contexts. To be clear, this is not meant to imply that Witmore seeks to play the role as a savior of a particularly worthy past, the discipline, or the contemporary communities which described (e.g. Cleland 2001, 2; González-Ruibal 2009, xx). Instead, Witmore looks back to traditions in archaeology that started with the learned traveler and continued with the the individual archaeologist as the revealer of the past and the producer of knowledge. The epithets associated with an excavator’s notebook — Blegen’s notebook, for example — center the individual agent in knowledge making, often at the expense of workers and colleagues. Witmore puckishly recognizes as much by noting the “here unmentioned” retinue of Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (##). This is not to suggest that Witmore’s colleagues go unmentioned. Indeed, he is dutiful in naming his companions, but these individuals always play bit roles to Witmore’s enthusiastic inquisitiveness. They are nearly as marginal as his footnotes which nevertheless demonstrate a nearly encyclopedic understanding of the vast scholarship on the northeast Peloponnesus. They function to advance the story, and their presence never lingers or distracts.

Witmore’s presence in the landscape also shapes his encounter with the diverse chronology of the northeastern Peloponnesus. This approach to the landscape locates the past not as hidden, buried, or requiring extraction and but as contemporary with the archaeologist. The past is superficial and requires selection, assembling, and sampling rather than discovery. In this regard, he parallels Rodney Harrison’s proposed “archaeology-as-surface-survey” (Harrison 2011) and draws inspiration from Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time (2011). As with intensive survey practices, it is impossible for the archaeologist to identify every object, artifact, sherd, or plant. Instead, the survey archaeologist stresses the relationships between the objects to create a surface that produces archaeological knowledge “in and of the present.” Witmore and most survey archaeologists are familiar with the abrupt disjunctions that occur when we document a sherd of Final Neolithic pottery next to a Late Roman amphora fragment amid fragments of modern plastic. The ghostly figures that appear alongside the survey team in the first page of Given and Knapp’s volume on the Sydney Cyprus Survey (2003) and the brief first person digressions that situate the modern reader in the landscapes produced in Pettegrew’s The Isthmus of Corinth (2018, ##-##) anticipate the diachronic, contemporary landscapes of Witmore’s book, albeit in less developed ways. Like the surface assemblages studied by Given, Knapp, and Pettegrew, Witmore’s book does more to reveal what we could know about the landscape than what we do know. As such, it presents a future archaeology rather than one anchored in a recovered past.

It is, of course, easy enough to critique survey archaeology and books like this for what it has left out or remains hidden. There is a certain glee with which scholars discuss the excavations at Pyrgouthi tower in the Berbati Valley, for example, because standing Classical remains and Classical and Hellenistic sherds obscured a later, Late Roman phase that only became visible with excavation (Hjohlman et al. 2005; Sanders 2004, 165-166; Pettegrew 2010, 221-224). Similarly, it would be easy enough (and even vaguely gratifying) to critique Witmore for overlooking the Byzantine and Frankish periods in his perambulations. The twin poles of antiquity and the modern (and contemporary) create a landscape of light and shadow that makes the temporal discontinuities more abrupt and the ambiguities all the more salient. Witmore used this to good effect in his description of the First National Assembly of Greece which met in Hellenistic theater of Argos. This setting reinforced the view of the northern European Philhellenes that “the lot of contemporary Greeks was rarely illuminated outside the long shadows of Classical antiquity.” (##). A different narrative was possible. Prior to this meeting, the assembly had met in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin which stands a half a kilometer south of the theater. There they received a blessing from Orthodox clergy (Witmore, Rt 13). The walls of church which appears to date to the Middle Byzantine period contain numerous ancient blocks (Hadji-Minaglou 1980). Like the nearby church at Merbaka, the spolia grounded the church in antiquity (cf. Sanders 2015; Palalexandrou 2003) just as the church and the Hellenistic theater grounded the assembly in the Byzantine tradition of the Orthodox faith and the modern, archaeological Neohellenism. At the church of the Dormition, the ancient blocks themselves carry the weight of not only vaults from which the central doom springs, but also the connection to antiquity. In the place of the disjunctive friction between the ancient and modern worlds, this Byzantine monument offered a narrative where the Philhellenic shadows turn to grey.

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