Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s feels like winter may be almost over here in North Dakotaland (but everyone know that this is not the case) and the temperatures are set to soar into the mid-40s today! If it wasn’t for puddles the size of small lakes and ice that lingered in the shade, I would even consider running outside. 

The weekend will likely feel more seasonally appropriate which will be conducive to wrapping up any number of projects due at the end of this month. I hope to also catch my Mighty Spiders play the Bilikens of St. Louis this evening on ESPN2 as we work to get ourselves off the bubble (and feel lucky to be spared having to watch the T20 match between Australia and New Zealand, which has been disappointing, but not in the way that this Test result between India and England was disappointing). 

I hope your weekend is restorative, productive, and fun, and maybe these quick hits and varia can play a role:

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Three Things Thursday: Black History Month, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a New Book

I’m almost making a habit of these Three Things Thursdays! This week, I’m mostly sharing things that happening at my other two projects: The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota Quarterly.

Thing the First

Please go and check out this long interview with David Pettegrew on the making of the book One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920 that he co-edited with Calobe Jackson, Jr. and Katie Wingert McArdle.

It’s a brilliant example of public, digital archaeology that involved a diverse group of individuals and produce a wide range of products, experiences, and community.

Thing the Second

I brought together some stuff about the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the NDQ blog including a couple amusing stories about Ferlinghetti’s visit to the UND Writers Conference in 1974 which of course involved the cops and Tom McGrath because North Dakota. 

Thing the Third

This one is a bit top secret, but I want to share it with loyal readers to this blog.

On Monday, The Digital Press will release Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Stewart Brown’s Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean. This book is brilliant and brings together nine substantial papers on deserted and abandoned villages in a wide range of contexts (including North Dakota). 

If you want to download a copy for free, in advance of the official publication date, go here or you can be the first to receive your very own paper copy here.

1 Deserted Villages book cover

More Afterword: The Archaeology of the Capitol Insurrection

Yesterday, I wrote a bit more of the afterword of my book and described how the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests shaped certain aspects of my book on the archaeology of contemporary American culture. Of course, the events of the summer of 2020 also put into relief areas of my book where I would have invested more critical attention were it written a year or two later. The following paragraphs are a bit on the raw side and reflect my efforts to articulate in a formal way my ideas. I obviously need to contextualize the events at the Capitol more clearly than I have done here, but this feels pretty easy to do. What I was hoping to present here is evidence for a core of a decent idea that will serve as fitting reflection on the chaotic and distressing time in which I wrote this book.

The final part of my afterword will reflect on the events of January 6, 2021 and how my immersion in the book writing and revision process drew my attention to the materiality of the insurrection and investment of the Capitol building. Just as the protestors in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death sought to transform and recode urban public spaces, the rioters who stormed the Capitol likewise attempted to manipulate objects in an effort to stake claim to public space and affairs. To be clear, this is not to suggest that protestors of the summer of 2020 and the insurgents who sought to seize the Capitol in January 2021 are morally equivalent. Nor do their tactics or the context of their protests represent similar attitudes toward public space. Instead, an archaeological reading of Capitol insurrection suggests that the aggrieved supporters of President Trump and various conspiracy theories created situations where objects out of place communicated their desire to disrupt the conduct of public affairs. In contrast, the protestors who worked to remove or recoded monuments in urban areas did so in an effort to create new public spaces that reflected the social and racial character of their community. The rioters who invested the Capitol appeared in most cases to have no systematic aims in their use of objects during the event other than to disrupt public order through creating objects out of place. 

The most iconic image associated with the Capitol riot involved Adam Johnson walking through the Capitol carrying Speaker of the House of Representative’s lectern. He wears a hat emblazoned with the President Trump’s name and faces the camera and waves. His destination with the lectern remains unclear from the photograph, and it appears that his removal of the lectern is primarily a symbolic gesture that parallels the protestors’ claims to take the country back from what they viewed as illegitimate forces. Johnson is literally taking a symbol of the country with him in an effort to take back the country. His destination, ultimately, remains unclear. 

A similarly disturbing photograph that saw wide circulation showed three secret service agents with their guns drawn in the House of Representatives chamber. They braced their guns on a large piece of furniture which they had moved to barricade the door. Like the photo of Johnson carrying the lectern, this photo represents the disruption of public affairs through the displacement of an object. The bench becomes a barrier against violence and a visible threat of force in the civic space of the House chamber whose very function is to negotiate differences in a peaceful way. The horrifying stories of the use of a fire extinguisher to kill Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick similarly represent the radical displacement of an object designed to provide security in a time of crisis. Thus symbols and spaces of peaceful public and civic activities become reappropriated for violent ends.  

The rioter’s desire to “take back their country” likewise contextualizes their decision to displace the American flag with campaign banners emblazoned with President Trump’s name or battle flags of the Confederacy. By their own logic, these displacements did not represent an effort to permanently transform public space by replacing the flag of the United States with that of the president or a defeated Confederate army, but an effort to disrupt public affairs by removing the symbols of political sovereignty. Their claims to represent American political ideals and the deliberate admixture of traditional national symbols, however, made clear that these displacements, just as the secret service’s movement of the bench to block the door of the House chamber, were temporary measures designed to suspend what they saw was compromised public conduct.

The trauma of the COVID pandemic, the protests in the summer of 2020, and the Capitol insurrection of 2021 pushed me continuously to reflect on the roles that archaeology and objects play in articulating the diverse realities of a contemporary American experience. The ability of objects to disrupt, transform, and protect our sense of community served as a constant reminder that archaeological perspectives on the contemporary world provides a way to tease out more complex and sympathetic understandings experiences. While this book has likely fallen short of providing a context to come to terms with diverse and unprecedented events of the “long 2020,” my hope is that some of the objects, issues, and situations presented here offer a way forward to producing a more inclusive world.  

More Afterword: An Archaeology of the 2020 Protests

This week, I’ve returned to mulling over how to write a meaningful afterword to my short book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a short section about writing a book with the COVID as a backdrop. Today, I want to try to draft a few words on writing during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 and the riot-cum-insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Both of these events had significant material aspects that help us understand their impact and their significance in our contemporary world.

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I was writing Chapter 7: Industrial Ruins and the City when the police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020. I revised it against the backdrop of the protests that this senseless killing prompted. Like many white archaeologists, I listened intensely to the conversations that Floyd’s killing pushed to the fore, read with fresh eyes books such as Whitney Battle-Batiste’s Black Feminist Archaeology (2010) and the urgent work of Maria Franklin and her colleagues (Franklin et al.2020) as well as works by activist-writers and scholars such as Ibram X. Kendi (2016, 2019), Robin J. DiAngelo (2018), Keise Laymon (2018) and others. To my embarrassment, much of my reading took place too late to shape the contents of this book, but Floyd’s death and the wave of protests that it triggers has indelibly impacted how I think about racism and anti-racism in the United States and the archaeology of contemporary American society.

I was especially drawn to the moving images associated with the removal of racist monuments across the US. My father grew up in Richmond, Virginia and my parents were married at a church of Stuart Circle, named after a monument to the Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, on Monument Avenue in Richmond. I went to college in Richmond and during that time Monument Avenue, its stately homes, and its procession of Confederate leaders fascinated me. It was not a surprise that the these monuments became targets for protestors during the summer of 2020. The majority of people living in the City of Richmond, like many cities in the US, were African-American, the city was home to two major, historic HBCUs, Virginia Union and Virginia State University, and had a history of African-American political leadership dating to the 1970s. At the same time, the city had struggled with poverty, violent crime, and its tragic and complicated legacy as capital of the Confederacy, capital of the state of Virginia, and a symbol of a more racially, socially, and economically diverse New South. 

As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, another city with a complex and tragic history of racism, Monument Avenue attracted my attention, in part, because it stood in such contrast to the landscape of my childhood. Like many suburbs in the US, the post-war suburbs of Wilmington lacked monuments which made explicit reference to the area’s history. In fact, the most prominent structures in the landscape tended to be commercial and corporate buildings and schools characterized by the austere, functionalist style of mid-century modernism. Public spaces, such as parks, stood as open spaces devoid of historical associations or statues, but filled with playing fields, basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds, and other practical paraphernalia that marked their function as public space. Having grown up in this typical mid-century suburban environment, the presence of figural monuments to white men in spaces such as Monument Avenue in Richmond (or Rodney Square in Wilmington) defined the historical character of the traditional urban core. Figural monuments marked urban space as both distinct from my contemporary suburban landscape, but also legible and familiar as part of my historic identity as white, male American. 

The effort to recode public space amid the protests associated with the murder of George Floyd depended in some ways on understanding the history and material manifestation of post-war settlement change in the US. The construction of middle-class suburbs around the functional, if iconographically impoverished architecture of the single-family home, the shopping center, the school, and the park, left the predominantly white residents of these subdivision to project to re-imagine and appropriate urban landscapes as historical spaces rather than lived spaces. 

In this context, the demands for the removal of statues celebrating the achievements of racist white people by the predominantly non-White residents of US cities that monuments represented an effort to claim urban areas as their own. The covering of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond with colorful graffiti demanding racial equality transformed the monument from a lingering reminder of the painful legacy of an American anti-hero to a visually dynamic call for social change. Push back from predominantly white and, I’d suggest, predominantly suburban residents against the visual impact of these recoded monuments reflects a generation-long expectation not only that urban areas exist as public mausolea to their own imagined past, but also that contemporary urban residents do not have the right to appropriate their lived environment for their own community. In this way, the re-coding of the Robert E. Lee monument and the removal of statues from urban areas elsewhere in the US represents in material terms the demand for the end of the police violence against Blacks and other people of color. By claiming the right to transform or remove public monuments, Blacks and people of color visibly claim their right to control public space and publics affairs, especially policing, but also education, social services, and other vital functions that shape their lives and wellbeing, in their own community. 

Recent work by Christopher Matthews in East Orange, New Jersey and Krysta Ryzewski in Detroit highlight how the archaeology of the contemporary American experience supports racially diverse communities as they work to assert their control over urban public spaces not just by re-claiming their historical presence in the urban landscape — as projects like the well-known African Burial Ground excavations in New York City establish — but also their claim over the contemporary city, its monuments, its streetscapes, and its social functions. The backdrop of the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder roused me from my white suburban complacency by making clear that the re-coding of monuments in American cities was not simply an effort to erase the memory of a racist past, but to establish their right for anti-racist future. That my book does not understand the significance of this movement and these action speaks loudly to my own upbringing and white privilege which suffuse my perspectives on the contemporary world. 

Narrating History

This weekend I spent some time exploring the city-state of Ravicka, which is the center-piece and setting for Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series of books. These books are really remarkable and as close to reading a dream as anything that I’ve ever read. The settings and characters shimmer in the yellow light of the city-state and flicker in and out of focus, situations are ill-defined, but luxuriously detailed, and the plot is often unresolved and indistinct. In fact, Gladman remarks in the afterword to Houses of Ravicka, that readers tend to assume that the author knows how the plot of a book will resolve. This shapes how we read a book, understand its structure and organization, and anticipate its resolution.

The stories that Gladman tell do not resolve themselves easily. Often the plots are almost impossible to trace amid the dream like oscillations, temporal  and spatial leaps, and lapses and gaps. This does not make these books frustrating, but is part of their allure. In fact, the imaginary city-state of Ravicka with its unusual customs, strange language, and shifting topography offers a remarkably realistic encounter with the past. The places and events of Ravicka fail to resolve in either detail or plot. Archaeologists, at least honest ones, know this situation well.

These books remind me of some recent conversations with my fiction editor at North Dakota Quarterly, Gilad Elbom. He bemoans the current state of fiction that all too often models itself – consciously or not – on popular media particularly televisions and films. Attentiveness to detail and setting, consistency of characters, and a resolving plot characterize so much contemporary fiction which seeks to tie together  the strands of the story into a tidy package (perfectly appropriate for contemporary attention spans, formats, and media diets). In many ways, the kind of fiction that Gilad decries is the opposite of what Gladman writes. 

The significance of Gladman’s work and Gilad’s critique for historians and archaeologists is that it reminds us that there are alternatives to the prevailing forms of narration and emplotment. I have begun to think that these alternatives are particularly important for our 21st century world.

Recently, conversation on social media about conspiracies theories has fascinated me. There seems to be a prevailing, but largely misguided view that a more rigorous presentation of facts will somehow subvert the power of conspiracies. I suspect the problem, however, is not with facts, but with our predilection for certain kinds of narrative. Conspiracy theorists see their world as one where disparate plot points resolve themselves into a narrative arc that is not only consistent, but also predictable and understandable. This consistency, despite the often unrealistic premises upon which it is based, lends a kind of veracity to the conspiracy theory. This veracity does not come from its similarity to our lived experiences (which rarely resolve themselves at all and often elude our ability to discern detail and recognize consistency, but rather from its similarity to forms of emplotment found in the media and, more importantly, in how we present history.

I’m not the first to observe efforts to emplot conspiracy theories and history according to popular modes of narrative. In fact, Hayden White wrote a massive book that essentially argued the same thing. More than that Kim Bowes, in her recent article on the Roman economy, noted that the recent vogue for big books often sought to explain long term historical trends — the rise of the state, the dominance of capitalism, the emergence of “the West,” the fall of the Roman Empire — as the products of single causes which range from climate change to disease, political instability, or technological innovation. Even the most casual observer of history recognizes these kinds of big books, typically written by men and offering big explanations for emergence, rise, decline, and collapse. These books, as Bowes notes, often massage data to fit their models and often rely on circular reasoning to advance their grand claims that nevertheless appear compelling to many readers.

When these grand models refuse to coincide neatly with the specific situation at one site or another, we often casually recognize this as the kind of variation that might be expected from any grand model (or, paradoxically as an exception that proves the rule). Thus the details that often refuse to cooperate with any kind of plot simply drift to the side as problematic and irreconcilable with the existing narrative. Gladman’s Ravicka series, particular the first novel, Event Factory, is suffused with this kind of detail. In fact, the entire book consists of details that are in some ways irreconcilable.  

Our tendency to explain away details that we can’t reconcile to our grand narratives is not simply a characteristic of big history and archaeology, but also, unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories. When an abundance of irreconcilable details appear, we sometime find ourselves needing to revise the narrative to accommodate them. That said, we rarely question the need for these kinds of narratives in our scholarship or in our media. 

In fact, we still crave these narratives in our popular media. We want the grand stories characteristic of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Lord of Rings, and Larry Potter. We want them so much that we overlook the inconsistencies and fixate and develop details that the authors are constantly resolving into their grand narratives as if to convince us that their worlds are real.

Of course, we do this as historians and archaeologists as well. I keep thinking of my efforts to understand the archaeology of Polis on Cyprus, for example, and the desire to align it with the narrative of Late Roman decline on the island (or, as often, demonstrate that it somehow subverts that narrative). The challenge that I can’t help thinking about now is that my dependence on this narrative (and the assumption that it’s authors know how the story ends) contributes to a view of the world that resolves as conspiracies and popular media does rather than what reflects our lived experiences. 

Maybe archaeologists and historians would be well served to read more works like Renee Gladman’s and think about not only the media that we produce but what we consume as well.  

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s finally Friday in what felt like a long week despite being a short one. I have a few little projects that I need to finish today which will lift a bit of weight from my shoulders. I also have a few larger projects that will reward some attention this weekend, including putting North Dakota Quarterly 88.1/2 in order. 

That said, I’m also pretty intrigued to watch the NASCAR guys on the Daytona road course on Sunday (it’s as close as we get to V8-Supercar racing in the US). I’m excited to watch the Sixers play tonight on national television. But most, I’m counting down the hours to the Miguel Berchelt – Oscar Valdez fight on Saturday night. It’s obvious premature and inappropriate to make such comparisons, but it’s also hard to avoid seeing the similarities to the great Morales-Barrera fights of the early-2000s. If Berchelt-Valdez is half as good as any one of those fights, it’ll be worth staying up to watch it.

My list of quick hits and varia is a bit thin this week, but I like to think that its filled with things worth reading!

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Narrative, and Classics (again)

As another hectic week staggers toward its inevitable close, I’m lucky enough to have so much on my plate that I can’t decide where to start. As a result, we’re going to once again take the buffet approach and offer a little three things Thursday sampler. As always, I hope to turn one of these into a full and proper blog post in the future, but it’s a bit hard to see when that might occur!

Thing the First 

I know it’s cliche these days to talk about Zoom fatigue and my disappointment with our hybrid, hy-flex, teaching model. The way it works at my institution (and I expect many places) is that I have a small group of students in class and a gaggle of students on Zoom. I then try to juggle my attention between the students in the physical classroom and those attending via Zoom. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. The students in the classroom are attentive and engaged (or at least making a sincere effort to be). The students in Zoom might be engaged and attentive and I have some evidence that at least some are, but many are just black boxes with names who appear at the start of class, remain politely muted for the duration, and then vanish once class is over. I hope that this is what they wanted from their educational experience, but I really can’t tell.

One of the ironies is that in a number of committees on campus, I’m hearing about the importance of retention to the financial and academic health of my university. Some of the funds that we are receiving from the CARES program, for example, are being used to support students in the battle for retention. One thing that is particularly difficult, however, is the lack direct contact with students. Our Zoom mediated interaction eliminates many of the simple ways that faculty connect with students. From chatting with students before and after class to reading the room and paying attention to the comportment and level of engagement from a struggling student. Whether we like it or not, face-to-face classes represent an opportunity to claim the majority of a student’s attention and to make the kind of connection that help a struggling student succeed.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint about students who are using Zoom or some kind of old-man rant about kids and their technology. I obviously understand that many students and faculty are using Zoom out of necessity in our COVID era. Instead, I’m interested in how limited our technologically mediated methods are for engaging students and making them feel welcome, supported, and encouraged in our community. We can also add to this list any number of the various digital methods designed to track student progress and  target students who are struggling. 

I’m not a Luddite, but our embrace of Zoom this semester has made me more confident than ever that current technologically mediated approaches to retention are unlikely to be successful. Human contact is key.

Thing the Second  

Earlier in the week, I posted on Kim Bowes’s remarkable new article on the Roman economy. One of the points that she makes is that the recent (re)turn to cliometrics has accompanied a turn to big books, filled with big arguments and offering big conclusions. In many cases, the narratives found in these big books retrace well-trod paths of rise and fall and seek monocausal explanations to understand political, military, economic, social, and cultural change. 

I wanted to suggest that the attraction of these big books and their big ideas might well reflect our recent interest in big stories. From the resurgence of Star Wars, to Larry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the various epic Marvel films, and Game of Thrones, there is a recent fascination with stories set in brilliantly constructed immersive environments. Not only do these big stories share the kinds of narrative arcs present in big books—with rise and fall being only the most obvious—these narratives also support and almost infinite number of interlocking (and usually monetized) story lines which follow similar narrative profiles. Even as Star Wars, for example, has sought to “think smaller” with stories like the Mandalorian, the writers cannot resist entangling their story with both major narrative arcs (the rise and decline of the Empire) and also tracing similar narrative trajectories in their own smaller stories. These kinds of stories reduce even complex imagined worlds to plodding, monocausal narratives that serve to entertain, but rarely enlighten.

It goes without saying that this same kind of thinking is characteristic of the rise of conspiracy theories that often rely on darkly cinematic narratives that revolve around contests between good and evil that determine the rise or fall of this or that political entity. Moreover, these conspiracy theories, however misguided, appear to rely on the same kind of massive aggregation of related data points that the most expansive historical and archaeological seek to trace and reveal. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, considering the nature of our media consumption that our historical arguments and conspiracy theories share many of the same elements. It does make me wonder whether diversifying our media diet and reading more small stories filled with greater ambiguity, that avoid easy resolutions, and that cannot be reconciled as part of a recognizable whole. These kinds of small stories are often more challenging, they’re rarely commercial, and they often encourage us to view our world as a place filled with difficult contradictions, uneasy juxtapositions, and overwhelming and irreducible complexity.

Thing the Third

I want to draw some attention to an intriguing blog post over at Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections blog. She and her partner outline the situation at their small Classics department at a small liberal arts college. The post is interesting mostly because it offers a perspective on the “Crisis of Classics” that isn’t situated at the level of PhD granting institutions invested in both reproducing the discipline and preserving or growing their departments, but rather at a place committed to preserving a version of Classics that is relevant to students who will likely major in something else.

This got me thinking (once again) what a similar essay would read like that focused on institutions like my own where Classics isn’t a department but a program in languages that is supported by a loose cluster of related classes across history, English, religion, languages, and art. As I’ve noted before, I suspect that the future of Classics will look a lot more like with RFK described on her blog or what I experienced at UND than how the discipline is currently structured in elite departments.   

Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece

Over the next five weeks or so I have to go back to some research that I was doing in around 2008 to write a short piece and catalogue of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. (For some reason this makes me use my Allen Iverson voice: We’re talking about Baptisteries. Not a basilica. Baptisteries). 

Anyway, the start of Lent feels like the right time for me to put some words down on paper that get the ball rolling. My little essay will contribute to a larger project spearheaded by Robin Jensen to bring together descriptions and interpretations of baptisteries from around the ancient world. I’m writing this with David Pettegrew who is writing a short survey of Early Christian archaeology that will complement our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology

Here goes a very rough first swing:

The study of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece has developed relatively little since I. Volanakes’s 1976 book, The Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece (in Greek). The book offers a systematic survey of known baptisteries and remarks on their form and chronology. The vast majority of 68 structures catalogued by Sebastian Ristow in 1998 also appear in Volanakes and the exceptions, such as the baptisteries associated with J.-P. Sodini’s basilicas at Aliki on Thasos and the German excavations at Demetrias are fairly well known. There are undoubtedly a handful of unpublished or only superficially documented new discoveries over the past 25 years, but these seem unlikely to upset in a significant way how we understand the Early Christian landscape of Greece.

There are four significant challenges facing any study of the Early Christian baptisteries of Greece. The first, and most significant challenge, is that there are very few stratigraphically excavated Early Christian buildings in the region. In fact, most of the churches and baptisteries known from Greece were excavated before the middle of the 20th century through methods designed with a greater interest in exposing the horizontal architecture of the buildings than revealing the vertical stratigraphy associated with their construction. As a result, archaeologists have dated most churches and baptisteries in Greece on the basis of architectural style or mosaic decoration. This tends to provide only the most general chronology for these buildings and rarely allows us to reconstruct or date the changes that took place at these buildings over time. For example, it is clear that the impressive baptistery associated with the Lechaion basilica in Corinth is earlier than the enormous church which stands to its south, but it is unclear how much earlier and impossible to associate it with earlier structures at the site. The two baptisteries associated with Basilica C at Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes) are only circumstantially associated related phases of the basilica. The excavator supposes that the smaller second baptistery is later and reflects a shift from adult to infant baptism in the 6th century AD. 

One consequence of the less than ideal excavation conditions associated with the both churches and baptisteries in Greece is that it remains very difficult to detect development over time. It is clear, for example, that the Lechaion baptistery underwent modification at some point with a smaller font suitable only for affusion installed in the southeastern conch of the octagonal baptistery. It is unclear however whether this font supplemented or replaced the central font in this room and reflected a wholesale change in baptismal ritual or the convenient addition of an alternative to ongoing practice of the earlier rite. It is likewise difficult to understand the chronological relationship between multiple baptisteries in any single community and whether the construction of some of these baptisteries marked earlier structures becoming obsolete or going out of use or changes in baptismal liturgy or the status of various churches.   In effect, archaeologists and architectural historians should treat the existing corpus of baptisteries for Greece, much like the corpus of Early Christian basilicas, provides a chronologically undifferentiated body of evidence which almost certainly combines regional, liturgical, and likely doctrinal variations present in Late Antique Christian communities in the region.  

Among the more interesting features of the Early Christian architectural landscape of Greece is the number of baptisteries associated with major urban centers. Nikopolis, Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes), Argos, Corinth, and Athens all have multiple churches with baptisteries. Conventionally, the bishop was responsible for baptism and the rites occurred once per year as part of the Easter Vigil. Thus multiple baptisteries, assuming that they contemporary, requires some explanation. Of course, it is possible that the annual baptismal rites occurred on a kind of rotation between churches or even that the bishop performed the rites at multiple sites on the same day. Another explanation is that various congregations following various doctrines each had their own baptisteries in Greek cities attended by their own bishop. We have relatively little understanding of doctrinal diversity in Greece during Late Antiquity, but the evidence that we do have suggests that divisive church politics did not spare Greek see any more than any other part of the empire. Finally, it is tempting to imagine that the presence of baptisteries at some sites maybe have had a connection to pilgrimage and so-called “ad sanctos” baptismal practice in which pilgrims traveled to particular sites to receive baptism. The connection between the basilica at Lechaion, for example, and the martyrdom of Leonidas and his seven companions may provide an explanation for the elaborate character of the baptistery at that site. St. Leonidas and seven women were drowned off the coast of Corinth and, according to a 13th century martyrology, while being drowned celebrated his imminent martyrdom by comparing it to a second baptism. While it seems unlikely that the Lechaion baptistery performed second baptisms, which would be a distinctly heterodox practice at a site likely associated with an effort to promote imperial orthodoxy in a see situated at the eastern edge of western ecclesiastical control, it may suggest that the site was a popular destination for “ad sanctos” rites.

The large number of baptisteries in Greece especially in urban areas have also taken on particularly significant for scholars who seek to use baptisteries as a way to asses the nature or rate of conversion in Greece. Recent scholarship has suggested that large-scale Christianization in Greece occurred rather late and the proliferation of baptisteries in urban areas was a response to the need for mass baptisms during the Easter vigil. Putting aside the role of the bishop in baptism, this is not necessarily an implausible scenario, but the lack of chronological control over the dates of the baptisteries (and their destruction) in Greece makes it hard to align with existing evidence.

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This is a start. I promised myself to spend time today on my book project and this is all the time that I can allot for this today, but stay 

Metahistories, Decline, and the Roman Economy

Yesterday, prompted by some well meaning colleagues and social media, I read Kim Bowes’s very recent article “When Kuznets Went to Rome: Roman Economic Well-Being and the Reframing of Roman History” in Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics 2.1 (2021): 7-40. It’s good, thought provoking, and, while it might appear to deal narrowly with the Roman economy has significance for many areas in the study of the ancient world.

In a nutshell (and grossly simplified) Bowes argues that the current trend to calculating ancient GDPs relies on deeply flawed ancient (and later) which is then decontextualized in various ways (sucked and smeared) to fill the myriad gaps that constitute our understanding of the Roman economy. Moreover, many of the arguments that rely on this kind of decontextualized data often involves circular reasoning: the assumption is that the Roman world was like most other preindustrial societies where growth rates were low and inequality high. Thus, many other preindustrial economic indicators can help fill gaps in the Roman economy and prove that the Roman world was as stagnant as other preindustrial economies.

These arguments are often made in big books, festooned with complicated and impressive graphs and charts, and offering sweeping arguments for the economic trajectory of human history. These mighty books, almost entirely written by men, make impressive claims on the back of less than optimal datasets. These claims often emphasize narratives of decline and fall (typically associated with ancient economic systems shackled by key limitations) or triumphalist narratives that celebrate the rise of the modern economy, greater equality, and more inclusive political regimes. 

These sweeping narratives often seek the triggers such as climate change or pandemic-scale disease or political and military instability that destabilized the stagnant balance achieved in the Roman world and brought the state and society crashing to its knees. The tendency to attempt to identify single catastrophic causes amid the sea of complex data reflects long-standing approaches to the ancient world predetermined by narratives of decline (and typically embracing tragic forms of employment with their reductionist mode of explanation (which Hayden White famously associated with Marx and Tocqueville).

[I’ve been thinking a bit about this very issue in a paper that on “the long late Antiquity” on Cyprus. While I’m not especially interested in the economic arguments that Bowes’s is focusing on here, I do argue that traditional big narratives of decline tend to fall apart in the face of more careful and detailed reading of site specific archaeological evidence. Attention to site formation, the complexities of abandonment and post-abandonment processes, and the limits of the stratigraphic and material record often make it far more difficult to identify clear signs of catastrophic or abrupt change at sites.]       

The final pages of Bowes’s article remind me a bit of an article by Christina Sessa a couple of years ago in the Journal of Late Antiquity. Sessa argued that many of the arguments for the impact of climate change in Late Antiquity are unconvincing because by drawing together vast bodies of evidence, they end up decontextualizing the particularities of textual, archaeological, and other documentary sources. Bowes makes similar arguments for archaeological and textual evidence for the Roman economy. She stresses that most of the sources for the ancient economy are incomplete, vague, frustratingly imprecise, and dispersed. At the same time, they offer nuance, especially at the level of the household, where real measures of quality of life, economic vitality, and human suffering and prosperity are manifest. 

Of course, this kind of attention to the small(er) world of households means a step back from some of the big questions their attendant metahistories that have come to be a staple of “big book” histories. This also  involves a step away from the lure of social and economic theories that tend to undergird these big books.  In their place, it would seem, come a kind of history that is more attentive to the details of particular situations, a greater emphasis on empirical description, and a return to low range theory (as opposed to low end theory) and mid-range theory.

This kind of work, of course, is unlikely to attract the accolades that big books offering big solutions to big problems garner. At the same time, attention to small problems in finely defined contexts returns archaeology’s attention to the forms of nuanced evidential reasoning where the discipline has tended to thrive. It also so happens that this is a practically realistic move for the field. Most big books come from a handful of elite, male scholars at a handful of elite institutions (Stanford seems to be particularly fertile ground for them). Bowes’s call for more particular work is democratizing as more highly specialized, empirical, and descriptive scholarship lends itself to the chaotic lives of most scholars who have to balance heavier teaching loads, more onerous professional service obligations, and often more demanding roles in home life. In other words, the small, but far more real worlds that fine grain archaeological work reveal reflect the real world responsibilities of more and more practitioners in the discipline who do not have the privileges afforded scholars at elite institutions.

It may also have the benefit of producing more focused studies that are easier for their fellow scholars to consume and analyze. Small books that address small problems create an environment conducive to greater interpretative, methodological, and theoretical diversity than the ponderous demands made by big books addressing big problems.

At this point, I’m pretty far from Bowes’s fine article, so I’ll conclude by encourage folks to give it a read. 

The Late Antique Countryside

I’ve been pretty intrigued by the two new-ish journals for the study of Late Antiquity: John Hopkins Press’s Journal of Late Antiquity and the University of California’s Studies in Late Antiquity.  Both have published some interesting articles over the last few years and both have made some of their content available for free (JLA here and SLA here). It feels like the former is a bit more literary in focus (which befits its editor Andrew Cain) and the latter is a bit more historical. 

Last year, SLA published a pair of intriguing articles on the Late Roman countryside and if I were ever going to offer a seminar on the topic: Tamara Lewit’s “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity: Applying the Lens of Community Resilience Theory” Studies in Late Antiquity 4.1 (2020): 44-75; and Sabine R. Huebner’s “Climate Change in the Breadbasket of the Roman Empire—Explaining the Decline of the Fayum Villages in the Third Century CE” in SLA 4.4 (2020): 486–518 (which is available, for now at least, for free!).

The two articles offer different perspectives on the fate of rural communities in Late Antiquity even though one considers the 3rd century and the other the 4th-6th. Lewit applies “Community Resilience Theory” to the apparent resilience of rural communities in the Eastern Mediterranean during the period often associated with a general contraction of settlement or, at very least, a political, military, and religious turmoil. She argues that many communities remained viable and in some cases prospered owing to a four-part, reciprocating capacities for (1) economic development, (2) information and communication, (3) social capital, and (4) community competence (Lewit 54). She argues that attention to these capacities has the potential to restore human actors to the Late Roman landscape and nudges back against arguments that tend to see humans as subject to the vagaries of disease, the environment, and economic forces that are beyond their control. In Lewit’s model communities find ways to work together to neutralize threats, take advantage of opportunities, and develop new strategies even amid particular volatile conditions (such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the Boxing Day Tsunami). She considers the role of long-standing extra-regional political, military, economic, and religious connections, the social capital provided by the church, and technological innovations in oil and olive presses at the community level and argues that these both reflect and contributed to a capacity sufficient to overcome systemic disruptions. Lewit considers these capacities to reflect the resilience backed into the social fabric local communities which allowed the to survive even as the state failed. (The contemporary political message here is not explicit, but hardly unclear. Her arguments seem to dwell in the grey area between anarchy and idealized notions of neoliberal self-reliance. Don’t worry; we got this.)

Huebner’s article draws upon the growing body of climatological and environmental data from the Eastern Mediterranean to argue that the decline in the Fayum Villages in the 3rd century may related to the failures of the Nile floods. Using papyrological and historical evidence, she shows that communities at the “end” of various irrigation systems suffered particularly grievously in the 3rd century. Many of the villages experienced depopulation and shifted from cultivating to at least partially pastoral livelihoods. Some of the larger estates appear to have fallen into arrears or been seized. Pleas to improve existing irrigation channels and complaints that upstream villages were using too much water demonstrated the interdependence of social and environmental relations at times of particular duress.

It is worth noting, however, that Huebner’s denizens of the Fayum villages were not the helpless subjects of environmental forces that Lewit props up a straw-people in her introduction. Even if their appeals for aid or intervention were not enough to reverse the course of the 3rd century decline in the region, the willingness of the population to leave the villages suggests a kind of social resilience that is not tied necessarily to places in the landscape. It’s difficult for archaeology (or even social history) to trace the movement of populations in antiquity and to understand how relatively short-term (i.e. less than a century) and relatively regional migrations represented viable strategies to adapt to changing conditions. 

Huebner’s analysis of Fayum villages, then, did not understand them as helpless subjects, but in some cases, communities less committed to an archaeologically discernible sense of place than those investing in the monumental houses that stand on Syria’s limestone massif. In effect, the architectural remains of these villages make the resilience of those communities visible (although to be fair to Lewit, they were not the only case-studies in her argument, but just among the best known). In contrast, communities who decided to move from their homes in the Fayum may not have dissipated, but like contemporary immigrants, leverage regional networks to preserve social ties while adapting to regional challenges.

In short, these two articles offer an interesting view of how archaeological and documentary evidence allow us to speak in different ways about community resilience and how these views of the past are invariably shaped by (or at very least suggest) particular ideological positions that are relevant in contemporary society. These two articles, wherever one comes down on them, are perfect seminar fodder (for an imagined seminar).