Corinth Excavations, Preliminary Reports, and Time

This week, I read the recently published report on the 2019 excavations at Corinth in Greece by Christopher Pfaff. The report is the second in his tenure as director of Corinth excavations and while this report is less amazing than the report on work at the site in 2018, the 2019 article is thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking. I would contend that if the report on work in 2018 is an intensive meditation on things in excavation, the report on work in 2019 begins a subtle exploration of the nature of archaeological time.

It’s worth noting that Corinth is a bit of an odd excavation. Started over a century age, it is now the major training excavation for American archaeologists in Greece. It operates as an extension of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and general excavates every year as much to address long term research questions relating, primarily, to the work of past excavators as to provide opportunities for graduate students in Classics, Ancient History, Art History, and archaeology an chance to dig at a site using stratigraphic, open area excavation practices. Five years ago, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published a version of The Corinth Excavations Archaeological Manual, that provides a good survey of the methods and techniques used at the site. You can download that for free here.    

From the start, this report defies categorization. As with the report on the 2018 season, it is nowhere clear whether this is a preliminary report although the article hints occasionally throughout that further work and future excavations will clarify issues. I also have to assume that the rather fragmentary reports of archaeological contexts and assemblages will be expanded in the future. That said, Corinth publications tend to proceed at a rather deliberate pace with sites, classes of material, and contexts often taking decades to appear. The rapid publication of these annual reports, then, creates a kind of syncopation with their less complete analyses appearing regularly and larger, more comprehensive publications appearing at less frequent intervals. (Someone should sonify the Corinth publication history  with larger works being longer and deeper notes and shorter works being shorter and higher notes!)

The preliminary report is a strange beast in archaeology. I suppose they started as an effort to create a buzz about work and to keep a (general? Or academic?) public informed about progress at a site. Today, they tend to be more methodological papers or used to highlight especially significant finds that can stand on their own. Less frequently, preliminary reports offered broad overviews of the work that address a project’s major research questions albeit in a provisional way. The Corinth report represents the earliest tradition of preliminary reports which served primarily to keep stakeholders informed of the ongoing progress of work. In other words, the report lacks any attention to methodology or to a larger research question with significance beyond the site itself.

That does not mean, however, that the report should be relegated to the “news and notes” folder and read only as a friendly update from an interesting project. The publication of an inscribed magic ring, for example, apparently recovered in a Late Roman context is notable in its own right and offers yet another insight into the complexities of syncretic Corinthian religious practice in the Roman and Late Roman period. 

There are other intellectual opportunities that emerge from this report that are almost certain to engage the imagination of the reader. I love the element of ambiguity in some of the descriptions. For example, Pfaff suggests – almost with a shrug – that the status of a concreted pile of rubble as a wall is doubtful. Elsewhere depositional processes are proposed as possible. In some cases, there are likely contaminants. With these words, a reader can see the process of archaeological interpretation playing out as hypotheses emerge and resist resolution constantly blurring what qualifies as knowledge.

I think the nuanced language here offers an intriguing foil to the current efforts surrounding our knowledge of the COVID virus, vaccinations, and the social impacts of the pandemic. In this context, the provisional character of knowledge pops off the page and situates this publication in a continuum that spans for pure ignorance to absolute certainty. The role of narrative practices in constructing the temporal axis of this continuum supports assumptions that the future will resolve doubt, likelihoods, and possibilities. It marks out the present as a time of uncertainty that the future will resolve. It is hard to imagine that Pfaff wrote this article without the COVID pandemic in mind. His work resonates so strongly with how we are experiencing science at present this simply could not be unintentional.

More practically and materially, the work in the area northeast of the theater sets the stage for any number of interesting arguments regarding the interplay between various pasts and various presents in this area. The publication of part of a 19th century house is really intriguing because the house appears to sit atop a road with both Ottoman and earlier Byzantine phases. This suggests that the road network in the area was changing by the the 19th century, but also that the road itself continued to function as a surface within the house. Elsewhere wells cut the trenches left by robbed out walls and walls stand as assemblages of earlier material redeployed for new tasks. Scholarship in the late-20th century was particularly preoccupied with spolia and spoliation and the aesthetics and intentionality of reuse. It feels like scholarship in the third decade of the 21st century is interested in time and the relentless materiality of things, objects, and features. Pfaff’s article dispenses with our formalized fascination with spoliated material and returns us to the more gritty and basic material of the past. The archaeology of the area northeast of the theater is unlikely to tell us anything that we don’t already know about the city of Corinth, but what it does offer is detailed case study of how the past remains visible, active, and material.  

Perhaps it’s best to leave this mini-review with the observation that Pfaff is very deliberate with the interplay between the concept of “remains” and the use of the verb “to remain.” This reveals in vivid style the interplay between the provisional character of the present and the fragmentary nature of the past. Remains remain resolute.

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