Three Things Thursday: Medieval Pottery, Weird Reviews, and a New Book

It’s the last Thursday of the semester and I feel like I’m at the point where I’m almost done, but there’s also so much left to do! This is exhausting and exhilarating in turn and also vaguely distracting as I try to balance between starting something new and wrapping up the odds and ends from the semester. New things always sound more fun, but there’s nothing more satisfying than checking something off my to-do list.

All this is to say that today is a three things Thursday:

Thing the First

If you have time this weekend, do read “Thebes at the Time of the Catalans: A Deposit between the Ismenion Hill and the Elektra Gate” by Fotini Kondyli and colleagues in the latest issue of Hesperia (89.4 (2020) for those of you with a score card!). It’s a fantastic study of 13th and 14th century (AD!) pottery for Thebes. 

Thebes is one of those places that folks interested in Medieval Greece think about more than we know about. It was clearly a major center in the Middle Byzantine and Frankish period and we understand its place in the political and to the economic history of the region (via the earlier Cadaster of Thebes, various Medieval towers, as well as other sources). At the same time, it seems like we knew a good bit less about the everyday material culture of the city especially when compared to Corinth or Athens.

Kondyli’s article is a good step toward rectifying this. Her study (with her colleagues) focused on a stratified deposit of pottery from a bothros that appears to represent daily life in the city. As such, the published material featured more than just the usually “fancy wares” (i.e. glazed fine table wares) and included a substantial selection of cooking pots and other household coarse wares (jugs, table amphora et c.). 

The meticulous typological study of the ceramics complements a more preliminary study of their fabrics based on petrography. This allowed the authors to begin to sort local wares produced around Thebes from imports from outside the region. Among the more interesting revelations is that despite the political tensions between Catalan Thebes and its Venetian rival on Euboea (Negroponte), goods continued to move between those regions as well as between Thebes and Athens which were both under Catalan control for most of the 14th century.

Needless to say, this kind of detailed and careful work has significant implications for our understanding of the Medieval economy of Greece more broadly. It has particular significance for intensive pedestrian survey where Medieval coarse ware often goes unrecognized even by experienced ceramicists. Consequently, absence of carefully dated Medieval coarse ware typologies has led to the Medieval landscape of Greece being comparatively under represented in survey analysis, and this has tended to support a view that post-Classical Greece, particularly during the Frankish period, endured a period of economic, political, and cultural decline. Efforts to revise this perception begin, in some ways, with our ability to recognize the material culture of this period and to document its distribution more carefully. This article is a start.

Thing the Second

There’s been quite a kerfuffle over a review that was posted yesterday in the BMCR. The BMCR is free site for academic reviews of books related to Classics, ancient history, and Mediterranean archaeology. Typically the reviews, at best, useful and, at worst, boring (with the very worst being almost unreadably dull). Occasionally, they publish reviews that are exceedingly critical, misunderstands or misrepresents a book, or, like this week, are very weird. 

As someone who appreciates weirdness for weirdness sake, I mostly find opportunities for even inoffensive weirdness a welcome distraction from the incredibly banal character of academic life and provocative weirdness — even when it gets it wrong — usually makes me smile. 

At the same time, I do understand and appreciate that there is a time and place for weirdness. Judging by the outcry on the interwebs, this review was maybe out of place or at the wrong time. The issue then becomes, what should BMCR or the scholarly community do about it?

Some have suggested that BMCR apologize to the authors of the book (which by all accounts is a very fine book) for allowing this review to appear. This has the benefit, I suppose, of protecting the author of the review — who provided that they reviewed the book in good faith — prepared the review, had it accepted and published, while also taking the blame for allowing such a review to appear.

It’s interesting to think about the social contract between book authors, publishers, journal editors, reviewers, and readers. It seems to me that book authors and publishers hope that their work to be reviewed fairly, but once it is released to the public, they lose any right to expect that. Readers and journal editors, however, have the right to expect that reviews were done in good faith. It seems to me that an authors hope for a book and the editors and readers expectations for a review need not align perfectly. For example, an unfair review that comes about because of a misunderstanding of the book may well be done in good faith and lead to fruitful discussion of the book and its merits. 

What rights, then, do reviewers have? For most of us, writing a book review is a service to the discipline. It is uncompensated and only rarely counts for anything at our home institutions. We hope that our review encourages academic discussion of the book under review and adds value to the venue where it is published. It would be a difficult pill to swallow if a good faith review appropriately vetted by the editors of a journal led to an apology by the journal to the author of the book. 

Thing the Third   

With any luck, I’ll start on book production today (or maybe tomorrow, but certainly by the weekend) on the first book that the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish in 2021. It’s a volumed edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah Brown Stewart titled Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Stay tuned for more on this book over the next few weeks!!

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