More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands (Part 2)

I’m tired these days. It’s the end of the semester. There’s a pandemic. And I feel vaguely overextended and haven’t been very good about keeping up with my ominous to do list. I’m not saying this to complain really. I know that a lot of people are feeling much worse than me these days. I’m just acknowledging it.

I’m slogging through finishing the last chapter of my slowly developing book. I’m looking at a stack of grading landing on my desk later this week and I’m fussing around with letters of recommendation, end of the semester service work, a stack of books and articles that I want to read and digest, and a couple of manuscripts that I’m editing, publishing, or reviewing that need attention.  

I’m also slogging through a review essay that I agreed to write on Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands. The book, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, is quite remarkable, and this alone has made it challenging to review. I posted the first part of my review essay yesterday. Here’s the second part: 

The dual emphasis on antiquity and the early modern and modern periods reinforces the link between chorography and 19th-century encounters with Classical Greece and the modern Greeks. While he distinguishes chorography from these older traditions, he acknowledges that the structure of the book cleaves closely to the routes of early travelers and nineteenth century archaeologists which the contemporary decedents continue to cite and mimic. The work of these scholars and their approaches clings to the objects that constitute Witmore’s chorography. Witmore’s efforts to construct a landscape that “adds nuance” to centuries-old practices of diachronic study of objects, strata, buildings, routes and regions, encounters significant resistance from the scholarly residues that cling things themselves. In many ways, Witmore’s book encounters the same problems as ”Carpenter’s Folly“ at Corinth. Standing perched above the Peirene Spring, Rhys Carpenter built a two-story structure on and around the remains of a 2-story house that dated to the 10th or 11th century. Carpenter’s building, which he meant to house Byzantine objects from the site, was a confused and ambiguous combination of modern, Byzantine, and ancient material some of which archaeologists brought to the site and immured in the building. It was never finished, partly dismantled during World War II and continued to house Byzantine sculpture into the 1950s. At this point, archaeologists at Corinth start to identify the building as a folly. As Kostis Kourelis observed in the most thorough published treatment of this building (Kourelis 2007), this term evoked both 18th century Romantic associations with aristocratic garden culture and the ultimate failure of the building to its intentions successful. Carpenter’s drew as heavily on an utterly foreign early-20th century fascination with Byzantium and resisted mid-century attitudes toward the reconstruction of historical buildings which framed the Stoa of Attalus in the Athenian Agora, the Cloisters in New York, and Colonial Williamburg. Witmore’s text, like this building, dislodged objects from their original context to create new relationships, while never quite severing them from their diachronic past. Like Carpenter’s folly, Witmore does not mean his folly to provide the only stories from the old lands, but to reflect the kinds of stories that things encourage us to tell.

Recent years have seen increasingly desperate calls to reimagine Classics and Classical (or Mediterranean) archaeology. Old Lands clearly hopes to contribute to this ongoing and crucial conversation. In particular, chorography challenges the growing pressure toward fragmentation and specialization that characterize contemporary archaeological (and, indeed, scholarly) practices (##). Increasing chronological and regional knowledge, expertise in ever narrower classes of objects, and competence in specialized tools, scientific methods and techniques, all frame a century long shift in our discipline toward professionalization. Following the logic of the assembly line, academics honed their expertise in the name of industrial knowledge making and eschewed the messy and inconsistent process of craft. Such an approach to scholarship also reinforced efforts to construe academia as a meritocracy where advancement came through demonstrations of professional competence better measured through the incremental advancement of specialized knowledge than in works aspiring to distinctive modes of engagement or broad synthesis. As Michael Given has recently noted, changes in the discipline of archaeology have called for a more convivial practice (2018). Evoking Ivan Illich’s anti-modern notion of conviviality, Given shares Witmore’s desire for an archaeology that engages with the material presence and resists the trap of ontological dead ends. It may be that conviviality offers a way forward that is more consistent with the character of contemporary academic knowledge.

This critique, however, speaks more to my theoretical predilections than the character of the book. There is no doubt that there will be sympathetic readers in archaeology, Classics, Ancient history, and anthropology. Many of them will find in Witmore’s work echoes of their time traveling with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, working on excavations and survey projects in the Corinthia and the Argolid, or visiting important sites with detours to the beach at Tolo, the gelaterias in Nafplio, and wineries around Nemea. For all that these readers might find familiar, they might think strange that his periegesis overlooks the politics of archaeology in the region. Long standing projects carved their own routes into the landscape with well-known walks from Ancient Corinth to Nemea or from Ay. Vasilios to Mycenae pass down from one generation to the next. Stories of a particular archaeologist’s pants abandoned on a rugged crag on Mt. Oneion ensured that any visits to this mountain included a question: “Did you find Richard’s pants?” A scatter of sherds, tiles, and revetment fragments became the “Villa of the Pig Dog” because archaeologists on the Eastern Korinthian Archaeological Survey encountered a dog that some thought resembled a pig. This has now entered academic literature (Pettegrew 2015, no. 38). Elsewhere, we can talk of a road that crosses a ravine in the Western Argolid because of its proximity to a flea infested mandra. Our interaction with these landscapes preserve their convivial origins in formal and informal archaeological practices.

The landscape of the northeast Peloponnesus also preserves the marks of intense and often bitter academic rivalries. For an outsider, these rivalries may only appear in negative and contested reviews in leading journals, pointed questions at academic panels, and palpable frostiness between significant contributors to the field. For someone who worked in the region for decades, however, these tensions are constituent of the landscape itself. As a graduate student working on the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, the forbidding walls of the American School’s Hill House in Ancient Corinth did more than suggest the institution’s colonial past but defined a project with different goals, practices, and academic attitudes. Sites such as Isthmia and Mycenae that have multiple ongoing projects often have competing agendas and interpretations that spill over into tense interpersonal and professional relations which the various foreign schools attempt to mediated awkwardly. Various Greek projects and the relationship between foreign excavators and the Greek archaeological authorities produce fault lines for relations and shape how archaeologists and visitors to the region view both objects and landscapes. The shear number of projects in the Northeastern Peloponnesus fosters competition for excavation and survey permits, specialized staff, and even accommodations. This, in turn, fortifies a vibrant rumor mill where whispered critique of competence in the field, professional comportment, personal relationships, wealth, and character continue to shape archaeological knowledge. It is not unreasonable that Witmore’s book avoids these kinds of messy political entanglements. Indeed, discussion of these matters remains as rare in archaeological literature as they are influential.

Old ways of thinking about the past cling to the old lands. It may be that the future of our field will emerge from the interplay of old and modern just as Witmore traces the old lands through his chorography and readers find echoes of their own experiences in the text. I suspect, though, that the burden of the old ways that weighs so heavily the old lands will continue to spur archaeologists to excavate alway those residues of the past than to embrace them for new ways forward.

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