Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s a lovely Fall Friday here in the Northern Plains with temperatures in the mid-70s and recent rains providing some late summer greening. It’ll be a nice backdrop to the long weekend and the mild temperatures will ease the transition to winter.

In fact, it feels like college football season! And while I’ve already seen the start of the Buckeyes’ 2021 campaign, I’m looking forward to keeping at least one eye on Penn State, Richmond, and UND who all kick off their seasons this weekend. The boys of summer are still playing and we’ll probably pay a bit of attention to the Phightin’ Phils as they try to make a late season run against the Braves. The England-India test match is getting more and more interesting each over after a first day that saw 13 wickets! The Cup guys start their playoffs at Darlington on Sunday night (although this race has all the feeling of a “long rain delay), and the F1 circus descends on Zandvoort in the Netherlands for the first time in 36 years. Finally, Josh Warrington runs it back against Mauricio Lara on Saturday for the first boxing weekend of a packed fall schedule.

Of course, none of this may be your cup of tea, but perhaps something in these varia and quick hits will make your holiday weekend a bit more fun:

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Romanland, Ethnicity, and Science Fiction

I’m running a little mini-seminar (not even a normal-sized mini-seminar!) on Late Antique and Byzantine history and hagiography this fall for a single student in the English department (“o tempora! o mores!” as the kids say). As I fumble around trying to get up to speed with my own reading in this area, I figured Anthony Kaldellis’s recent book Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium (Harvard 2019) was as good as place as any to start in no small part because he had only recently prepared translations of a group of 9th and 10th Byzantine saints from Greece.

Kaldellis’s book has been out for long enough now that it’s seen any number of incisive and thoughtful reviews. So, I won’t bore you with another by someone who has been at the margins of the field for over a decade. Instead, I’ll offer a few observations on points that spoke to me.

1. Ethnicity, Armenians, and a Postscript. One of the most intriguing things about the book is the personal postscript appended to the end of chapter 5. Chapter 5 was a systematic critique of the what Kaldellis has called the “Armenian Fallacy,” which he defined as the tendency to search for and ultimately find Armenians throughout Byzantine history. Kaldellis argues that many of the individuals identified as Armenians or individuals of Armenian descent had assimilated into the Roman Empire to such a degree that they no longer possessed any meaningful Armenian identity. In other instances, he argued that in the discipline’s zeal to find Armenians in the highest ranks of the Byzantine state we’ve simply misidentified individuals as being of Armenian descent who were not. 

Kaldellis makes clear in his postscript that this chapter was not meant as a specific critique of Armenian scholars, who have historically led the charge to identify ethnic Armenians in Byzantine texts, but as a broader critique of the discipline’s overzealous efforts to identify particular ethnicities without the Byzantine state while overlooking the overwhelming evidence for individuals asserting their Roman identity and ethnicity. The personal postscript is a good indication of how high the stakes are in this work. As Kaldellis argues throughout the discourse surrounding ethnicity in the Byzantine world is not at all separate from efforts of 19th and 20th century nationalists to use their ties to Byzantine history to justify their cultural and political autonomy. In other words, Kaldellis, a Greek scholar who is very aware of the ties between Byzantine history and Greek irredentist movements in the 19th and early 20th century (and their tragic outcomes), anticipated that Armenian scholars and nationalists might see his critique of the “Armenian Fallacy” as an attack on their ethnic and national identities. This seems like a justifiable anxiety on Kaldellis’s part as not a week goes by without some article appearing on the status of Armenian churches within the territories contested between Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan.

For Byzantinists, efforts to excavate national histories from the long-lived Roman Empire are not just pious mythologies with a certain outdated charm, but ongoing concerns that echo in contemporary geopolitics. 

2. Texts, Archaeology, and Material Culture. It would be unfair to say that Kaldellis has never been a particularly interested in or engaged with archaeology. After all, he has a book on the history of the Parthenon in the Medieval period and an early work that considers both the history and material culture of Byzantine Lesvos. That all said, he knows the limits of his expertise and doesn’t dive into the archaeology of ethnicity in this book. This is probably not a bad decision, but, if he did engage more fully with this discourse, I think there would be meaningful overlap with his work (and I suspect strongly that he knows that!). 

For example, the effort to find Slavs in the Peloponnesus on the basis of their ceramics, grave goods, and architecture has proven to be complicated. This is not because no Slavs existed in Greece, but because the Slavic “invasion” or migration was most likely gradual or episodic and involved considerable intermixing with the Roman population who had long lived in Central and Southern Greece. The presence of “Slavic” objects – whether hand-made pots or the infamous belt buckles – may well represent groups who had certain artistic and craft traditions, but  linking this neatly with ethnicity has proven pretty challenging especially as “Slavic” material often appears alongside material typically associated with long-standing Roman traditions. Whether this suggests the emergence of hybrid identities that shift constantly to leverage advantages associated with one or another group or the assimilation of the ethnically Slavic with their Roman neighbors remains a challenging question to explore and would, I suspect, complicate some of Kaldellis arguments. At the same time, he is right in observing that integration ultimately does produce a population that represents itself consistently as Roman well into the post-Byzantine period. How this transformation occurs, on the ground, is probably something best studied at the ground (or even subsurface) level!

3. Ethnicity in Science Fiction. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first two books of Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series. The books is set against the backdrop of the massively powerful Teixcalaanli empire which rules thousands of planets linked by jump gates. One of the main characters is Mahit Dzmare an ambassador from the tiny, but independent Lsel Station which drifts along just outside the borders of Teixcalaani space. Large parts of the narrative involve the negotiations of ethnic differences between Dzmare and her Teixcalaani liaison Three Seagrass.

What makes this relevant for Kaldellis’s book is that Martine was trained as a Byzantinist and studied, in particular, diplomatic and cultural relations between Byzantium and the Armenian Kingdom of Ani (Bagratid Armenia). This got me wondering whether her novels could function as an intriguing fictional cypher for understanding cultural relation during the Byzantine period. Her books are certainly more engaging reads than the average monograph on Byzantine studies and allow for Martine to explore in the ways in which groups defined themselves in relation to one another in both more overt and more subtle ways. The ability to explore the inner life of her characters, for example, allows her to consider the way in which individuals can to realize and negotiate personal identities in relation to “the other.” Martine does a really great job demonstrating how individuals felt ethnic differences and reading this against Kaldellis’s book which is naturally more interested in groups and texts than individuals.

In any event, Kaldellis’s book is worth reading (as is Martine’s Teixcalaan series). Both make compelling arguments for how societies and individuals constructed their identity in relation to “the other” (variously defined).  

In Defense of Posthumanism (but really Archaeological Theory)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying some of the recent articles on posthumanism in archaeology (and I’m looking forward to reading some of the recent edited volumes that take on similar issues in the areas of archaeology and heritage). To summarize (poorly) a broad and contentious range of approaches, posthumanist takes on archaeology emphasize the role that the materiality of objects and objects themselves play in the production of the archaeological record and past and present social relationships. 

To be honest, my single sentence definition isn’t very good. If you want a more sophisticated understanding of posthumanism in archaeology, go and read the recent forum in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. This forum is a pretty exciting (and in places amusing) debate between various advocates and critics of various (broadly construed) posthumanist approaches (including those that might be described as symmetrical archaeology, new materialism, the material turn, object-oriented (and flat) ontologies, and the like).

As I enjoyed this forum, I invariably received a few snide remarks from friends and colleagues about the recent material (or is it posthuman?) turn in our field. Many of my colleagues’ critiques of both posthumanism and the wider state of theory, are not only fair, but also well known. In fact, many of the critical contributors to the CAJ forum develop these objections substantively. Scholars working across various posthumanist traditions likewise found fault with both the conceptual framework offered by their critics and fellow travelers alike. It would appear that even among individuals invested in the debate, key terms and concepts remain disputed. Whatever one thinks of the potential merits of posthumanist approaches, recent conversations suggest that the state of the recent debate is unsettled, at best, and, to paraphrase a colleague, unhealthy at worst. 

To be clear, I’m sympathetic to archaeological theory in general and certain posthumanist approaches more specifically. The often uneven character of the debate doesn’t bother me much. In fact, I want to argue that the recent proliferation of work on posthumanism, new materialism, and archaeological theory more broadly is a good thing for our field even if it turns out to be an intellectual dead end. This doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticizing it, but that it perhaps deserves a more magnanimous reading even if we think this kind of theory work is bad.

First, I’d argue that writing on archaeological theory has the potential to be more inclusive than archaeological thinking anchored in field work. Any number of recent studies have demonstrated that field work even at a small scale involves access to a significant amount of practical and social resources. Someone has to have the money to run a field project (even if your project relies significantly on volunteers). More than that, however, someone has to have the social resources to bring together the specialists necessary to conduct most field work and the various specialists have to have the social resources necessary to receive invitations to do field work. These social resources in our field are often harder to come by than the practical resources, and despite recent efforts to make our field more inclusive, the costs of having access to fieldwork opportunities, archaeological “data,” and the experiences to analyze and interpret information from the field in a compelling way remain high.

In contrast, archaeological theorizing – especially of the type that the current posthumanism debate supports – is comparatively less expensive socially and practically. The material turn as characterized by many posthumanist archaeologists tends to rely less heavily on substantial bodies of empirical data. It’s casual alliance with archaeology of the contemporary world, for example, ensures that datasets are available virtually anywhere, from the beaches of Scandinavia to buildings on campus, discarded computer equipment, and the local park.

Moreover, theorizing doesn’t require the storage of finds, their ongoing curation and protection, and the social capital to negotiate often complex relationships with host communities and states. While navigating these challenges is part of doing ethically responsible archaeological work and often as fulfilling as excavation or intensive survey, they all have a cost and the resources to do this kind of ethical work are not evenly distributed in our field (especially as it continues to contract).

To write seriously about archaeological theory, you need do time, access to a decent library, and a certain critical facility in understanding sometimes abstract works, but this is true of most engaged academic archaeologists. It certainly doesn’t hurt to know key players in the debate and to receive invitations to contribute to various edited volumes and journal issues. But, again, this is true of most archaeology. What is not required to write about posthumanism and archaeological theory more broadly is systematic fieldwork at any scale. Considering the financial and social costs of field work, especially as we continue to endure the complexities of the COVID pandemic, there is real reason to support enthusiastically the ongoing resurgence of the theoretical-turn in archaeology.

Second, bad archaeological theory does comparatively little harm. In contrast bad field work is deeply problematic and to my mind, one of the worst things an archaeologist can do. First, bad field work often involves destroying archaeological knowledge or rendering information on contexts, relationships, sites, and objects irrecoverable. Bad field work also can involve driving people out of the discipline. Harassment, ponderous hierarchies, “performative informality,” colonialism, and many other practices common to our disciplinary past demonstrate that idea of bad field work extends well beyond the realm of poorly executed methods, sloppy record keeping, or careless procedures. Bad field work does damage both to sites and to the discipline.

[I suppose I should make clear that bad theory is not theory writing that fails to entertain or intrigue, but theory that doesn’t hold together for whatever reason. I can read an outdated, poorly argued, or careless article and enjoy it good a bit, but also not think that it’s good.]

Bad theory can do that too, of course, but since archaeological theory mostly takes place under the glaring light of formal publication (and the worst forms of bad field work are often known only through personal experiences, whispered critiques, and unpublished results), there are numerous opportunities – as the CAJ forum shows – to challenge, reject, revise, and resist the influence of bad theory. In fact, the ethical critiques leveled at posthumanist approaches demonstrate just one example of how published debates in our field can serve as a corrective and to blunt the impact of a poorly articulated concept, an impractical approach, or a problematic ontology or epistemology.

This isn’t to say that some bad theory hasn’t done great damage. If once considers “scientific racism” a bad theory in the same way that, say, posthumanism or the new materialism is a theory, one could argue that bad theory is every bit as destructive as bad field work. One might even go so far to argue that scientific racism contributed to the loss of irrecoverable knowledge from indigenous, Black, and other individuals considered a priori to be inferior. 

That said, most bad theory is bad because it isn’t compelling or influential and most good theory isn’t good because it’s ethically good, but because it is more or less consistent with larger trends in how we understand the world. Unlike with money, then, bad theory tends not to drive out good theory.

Finally, there is a professional economy that supports this kind of theoretical work. A perusal of recent work on posthumanist theory in archaeology soon reveals that writing on these ideas offers significant and consistent opportunities for publication. Among most academic archaeologists, publication is a key element in promotion and professional (and financial) advancement. Like moths to a flame, contentious and active debates draw contributors who in turn benefit from their participation. To my mind, participating in these conversations, whatever their intellectual merit, serves to support the career of scholars who contribute to the vitality of the field in ways far beyond their published research. These publications support the professional life of gifted teachers, powerful public advocates, sincere advisors, and dutiful administrators that make archaeology far more than the sum of its intellectual contributions.

I know this is a bit of a weak argument to end this blog post, but I’m coming to appreciate more and more the role of mediocre or even bad scholarship in my field. There was a time when I considered it an offense to our higher purpose, but I’m starting to understand it now as the byproduct of institutional systems that simultaneously undervalues much of the real work that scholars do to support our field and overvalues publications. This doesn’t mean that we have to always enjoy reading bad articles and books, but it does tend to make me more sympathetic to the sometimes uneven quality certain kinds of archaeological theory work.

To be clear, I am not implying that the articles in the CAJ are bad theory or uneven quality. What I’m trying to argue instead is that being bad or uneven doesn’t necessarily annoy me. In fact, continuing to support this kind of work, whatever the quality, seems to be one step toward building a more inclusive discipline with impacts far beyond the printed word.

Two For Tuesday: North Dakota Quarterly and The Digital Press

Some weeks are a bit more hectic than others. And this is one of those more hectic weeks. So, for today, there are just two little things: one from North Dakota Quarterly and one from The Digital Press.

Like many people, as the semester starts, I begin to flail about trying to wrap up odds and ends from the summer. Fortunately, many of these remaining projects are too large to even think about starting, but a few of the small projects are perfect for sliding into otherwise hectic days.

North Dakota Quarterly 

In 2023, NDQ will publish its 90th volume. This milestone is made all more significant to me personally because it’ll be my fifth volume as editor and a bit of a survival story for the journal which was near the brink around volume 84 and volume 85

It also gives us an excuse to look back at the long history of NDQ and its changes over time. As part of that opportunity for retrospection, I’ve added links to almost all the content from a North Dakota Quarterly Reader prepared by Elizabeth Hampsten and Stephen Dilks in the mid-1990s and circulated as a bound photocopy. It would be going too far to say that this is some kind of definitive anthology of NDQ content, but it does highlight some of the better pieces that have appeared in the Quarterly over its 100+ years of existence. You can check it out here.

As part of the festivities surrounding the 90th volume, I think it would be fun to prepare a new version of a NDQ reader that draws more expansively from our back catalogue of volumes. I’ve pitched the idea that each member of our editorial board take a block of ten volumes and nominates, say, five contributions for the new NDQ reader and writes a bit of an explanatory note. So far enthusiasm for this idea has been a bit muted, but it’s also the start of the semester and there is a lot going on in the world. I’ll keep poking the fire and see if this catches…

The Digital Press

I’m working with my crack marketing team to do some updates to The Digital Press webpage. This is both in anticipation of a busy late fall and spring and because The Digital Press continues to evolve in good and positive ways.

The most recent addition is that I’ve now added DOIs to the catalogue and the individual book’s landing pages. These DOIs resolve to UND’s digital archive which serves as a key backdrop for The Digital Press by providing an institutional repository to ensure that the digital versions of all our books remain accessible in the future. 

Stay tuned for some updates from The Digital Press in the coming months and ongoing work to update our website!

Music Monday: Bill Evans

I’ve been thinking about Bill Evans and his various trios a lot lately. In part, this is because a new live recording appeared this summer from Elemental Records called Behind the Dikes: The 1969 Netherlands Recordings, which as the title suggests documents shows played in Hilversum and Amsterdam in 1969. This album joins a quintet of recordings released by Resonance Records over the past few years (Live At Art D’Lugoff’s Top Of The Gate, Some Other Time (The Lost Sessions from the Black Forest)Another Time (Live At Hilversum 1968)Evans in England, and Live at Ronnie Scott’s). All these albums feature Eddie Gómez on bass and either Jack DeJohnette or, more frequently, Marty Morell on drums.

As someone relatively new to jazz and improvised music, Bill Evans’s career was largely overshadowed in my mind by this work with his classic trio of Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian in the early 1960s including his classic album Waltz for Debby (which derived from a series of sets recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 1961) or his work with Miles Davis (on Kind of Blue) or George Russell (especially on New York, N.Y. or Jazz in the Space Age). But as I explored his discography a bit more (and not at all systematically), I found myself drawn again and again to his recordings from the late 1960s. 

As I noted in my Music Monday post last week, I’m not very well-schooled in the theories behind jazz and improvised music and other than a brief time playing woodwinds in my teens and twenties, I don’t have no experience as a musician. For a long time, in fact, I had no idea what I was listening to when I listened to any music and I’m sure my more accomplished friends would say that this is still the case. That all said, one thing that listening to Evans’s late 1960s trio taught me was to appreciate the conversations between the musicians, particularly between Evans and Gómez’s “muscular” and (to my ears) confident bass. What makes this all the more clear is that the late 1960s recordings of the trio feature a fairly limited repertoire of both jazz standards and his own originals. As a result, it’s possible to hear the same songs played in different ways reflecting the their different contexts and the different moods of the trio on any given night. For example, I really appreciate the vigorous performances recorded in Evans in England which contrast with a more subdued and introspective (and even brooding?) set recorded in a studio in Villingen, Germany, Some Other Time. Maybe it’s the absence of an audience or the more subtle playing of a young Jack DeJohnette that gives this latter album its character, but despite having fairly substantial overlap with the setlist from Evans in England, it presents a significantly different vibe. Another enjoyable contrast is between the set recorded at Art D’Lugoff’s Top Of The Gate and those from Ronnie Scott’s that same year (and a year later on Evans in England!). It feels like his trio gains both confidence and, as a result, a willingness to explore more vigorously over the course of these two years. By listening to these albums together, even my relatively unschooled ear discovers a kind of intimacy and familiarity with the conversations taking place within the band.


Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s finally Friday! For some reason the first week of the semester feels a bit longer and more tiring than most other weeks of the academic year. I think it’s mostly because there’s so much excitement and anticipation that I burn a bit too brightly making it hard to sustain my energy. Whatever the reason, I’m looking forward to having a few days to recharge.

Fortunately, this is a good weekend to recharge. The weather will be cool and fall-like, but the days are still long enough that you don’t feel like you’re living in darkness. Since the baseball season is coming to the end (at least if you’re a Philly fan) and the third test in the England-India series had a disappointing start, I can watch a good weekend of motor racing without worrying about what’s going on elsewhere. That means qualifying and racing at Spa on Saturday and Sunday morning and racing in Daytona on Friday and Saturday night. 

In between, I’ll be working my way through a bit of a backlog of articles and other reading as I start to plan out my fall reading and writing work.

In the meantime, here are some quick hits and varia:

Happy Doggo Day (a day late, but not, as the saying goes, a doggo short)

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Teaching Thursday: 10,000 Years

To be honest, I spend some time over the last two days thinking about writing something on an amazing dissertation that I just finished reading and a interesting forum on posthumanism in the CAJ and maybe some half-baked musings on the character and agency of archaeological publishing. I’ll probably still write about that, but not today.

Instead, I think I’ll share a little assignment that I used in my History 105: World Civilizations I class last night. It was inspired by my reading of Rosemary Joyce’s latest book, The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us about Securing the World’s Most Hazardous Material (2020). As I’ve blogged about, she looks at the efforts of two expert committees to create markers designed to prevent intrusions into nuclear waste storage facilities. The federal government tasked these committees with creating markers that would last 10,000 years. This stimulated these committees to consider various ancient monuments and objects that have lasted for thousands of years and considered their materiality, how they communicated, and how their age created value and significance to the contemporary world.

Here’s the prompt for the first day assignment. The students considered these questions as groups and wrote their responses as groups:

One of the challenges facing historians is that how people understood themselves in the past is very different from how people understand themselves in the present. Our concepts of time, space, and causality, for example, have changed as the rate of technological change has accelerated, our world has globalized, and the complexities of climate change, pandemics, and politics has made it difficult to understand why things happened and who or what is responsible.

We then introduced a little exercise to think about different time scales and change, let’s compose a series of 50-word descriptions that inform future generations of what we are doing here in this time and place.

Compose four messages for the future that describes what was happening in this room. Message one is to a group 10 years in the future. Message two is to a group 100 years in the future. Message three is a group 1000 years in the future. Message four is to a group 10,000 years in the future.

Think about how you locate what you’re doing in a way that will be understood in the future. What kind of context do you need to include? How will you locate this place geographically, chronologically, and functionally?

In a brief essay (<300 words) describe the challenges that your group faced when composing these messages and explain the decisions that you made about how to communicate over time.


Without sounding too self-congratulatory (I mean, it is my blog after all), the results of this exercise far exceeded my expectations. In fact, my expectations were that the various groups would mostly get acquainted with one another and brainstorm.

Instead, the groups really thought about this project in ways remarkably close to how Joyce’s explored the work of these committees in her book. For example, one group grappled with what material could last 10,000 years? Another group discussed intensely what languages any monument or marker should use that would be understood 1000 or 10,000 years in the future. Other groups explored the limits of human memory and commemorative practices at 10 and at 100 years. 

Perhaps the most innovative approach the problem came from a group that imagined the development of a religious cult around the site of our classroom and this cult and relics from the building persisted even after life on earth ended 10,000 years in the future.

A List: The 15 Best Early Christian Baptisteries in Greece

The other day, mostly on a lark, I posted to Twitter a list of the top 15 baptisteries in Greece. It was 60% done as a kind of silly joke designed to spoof the ubiquitous “listicles” that fill our social media feeds and 40% done because David Pettegrew and I needed to cull our list of around 65 baptisteries to 15-20 for a publication. In any event, the list proved more popular than I imagined which has prompted me to post it here to the ole blog. 

It also got me thinking about maybe doing a little weekly list of things which I post to Twitter and then, perhaps, share them on my blog. One of the major trends of the last five years or so is that blogs like mine have declined in regular readership. Some have argued that Twitter threads and other forms of “long form” social media engagement have created new reading habits. The rise of newsletters has also drawn readers away from stand along blogs. Finally, the blogging landscape itself has changed. The slow and steady grind of research blogs stand out less visibly against blogs engaging more fully with debates that have attracted considerable public attention. In other words, it’s no longer enough to just blog and hope for readers. Today, one has to understand the digital media landscape and have a sensitivity to wider concerns both within and outside of the academy.

My effort to produce a fun little listicle is probably not a useful step in any particular direction for this blog, but it was fun so I’ll share it here with my few remaining (but dedicated and committed) blog readers:  

15. Ay. Sophia at Panormos on Crete. It’s a bit weak, but it’s ranked 15 so there’s that. It also has some archaeology to it and some phasing (it seems to have been added in the 5th century). A little architectural adaptation goes a long way in this list.

14. Kenchreai Basilica (Corinthia). I mean the Pauline tie-in makes it a lock for the list (even though the church is much later. Plus, it’s mostly under water now which is cool. And the swimming there is nice. Otherwise, pretty garden variety.

13. Kos-Zepari Kapama. No list of baptisteries is complete without at least one from Kos or Rhodes. These islands consistently produce great content. In fact, the competition is so intense that these baptisteries are often overrated by fans and critics alike. This one has style.

12. Argos – Aspis Church. I have a soft spot for the Argolid and everyone knows that. This baptistery brings the ROUND and offers just a hint of synchronism for all you old school conversion fans out there. It won’t win a prize for style or design, but it’s there all day long.

11. Aigosthena-Attica. This church is just great and the site (ashlar walls, the sea, the mountains) is almost enough to move it into the top 10. For now, it’s the number 2 baptistery in Attica.

A solid building, good font, probably some arches, but it’s all about the setting.

10. Ialysos-Rhodes. You can’t talk baptisteries without Rhodes and Kos and this little gem is more than representative of the baptismal landscape there.

Apsidal room – check.
Cruciform font – check.
Parapet screen – check.
On an ancient acropolis – check.
Top 10 – check.

9. Brauron-Attica. This basilica is great, but the baptistery is show stopper. Curving walls, a circular baptismal chamber, some apses, and some changes in elevation. This place is special and almost anticipates a day when curves matter. It’s not Ronchamp, but it’s 6th c. Style.

8. Philippi-Octagon. Don’t let the church or the Pauline associations distract you! Here it’s all about the FONT. Square room, busy building, but then: BLAM: cross pattée. It is FLASH. Like someone wanted to show that EC architecture wasn’t all geometric forms and columns.

7. Nea Anchialos – Basilica C. This baptistery is a sleeper. Two phases. Subtle. Small, but complex. From a free standing building to an integrated one. It has a story to tell. Maybe from adult baptism to child baptism? Maybe changing styles and liturgy? There’s a lot going on.

6. Dion – Basilica B. Simple can be better. Octagonal font and three room baptistery:  Apodyterion-Font-Chrismarion. Textbook with just enough style to let people know that they planned this thing. Not quite top 5, but you can feel conversion here.

Oh, man. I’ve gotten so excited that I had forgotten to enjoy my pair of post-prandial Twizzlers!! This never happens except when I’m dropping some public science and doing my baptistery thing!!

Top 5. Here we go.

5. Paros Katapoliani Church. This church speaks for itself and the baptistery is part of that conversation. Apses and aisles and cruciform font. Maybe a dome. This is class in a church that makes me pun Theoktiste and want to escape from pirates to live there alone for 35 years.

4. Metropolitan Church at Gortyn on Crete. Is this controversial? Sure. Is it free standing. Without a doubt. There is a lot going on here: lobes, ambulatories, octagons, quatrefoil fonts. Maybe earlier doubters pushed this up the list a bit, but how could it not be top 5?

3. Kraneion-Corinthia. You’d have to be living in a jar not to it in the top 5. This church is all about SUBSTANCE. The baptistery is apsidal, the font is octagonal with steps, there is an ambulatory. Plus enough burials in the church and the area to remind you of life and death.

2. Damokratia Church – Demetrias. I know this will be controversial. It doesn’t bring the architectural bling of some, but the church is flashy and the baptistery is substantial. Damokratia did this church the right way and this baptistery deserves its spot in the list.

1. Lechaion. The Lechaion baptistery shines brighter than (and predates?) the church itself. Multiple geometric forms, visible adaptations, multiple fonts, apses, parapets, opus sectile, revetment. Plus possible martyrs who died by drowning?

There’s nothing more to say here.




Teaching Tuesday: Space and Place

Time seems the slow down in the week before classes start. It feels like the cooling, muggy air of late August effectively bogs down the steady clip of summertime making minutes feel like hours and hours feel like days. This slowing of time serves as a good reminder that our experience of time is indeed relative even if our increasingly precise time-keeping instruments continue to tick along at a steady pace.

The slowing down of time leading into the new school year complements a changing sense of space as we return to campus. This year, in particular, campus will feel different. Spatially the campus is largely the same as it was two years ago when it was filled with students and the pandemic was an odd news story from China. Now, there are a few new buildings crowding the historic quad, a few of the older buildings look a bit different, and the familiar campus quest for parking involves trawling through newly paved and configured lots. The changes in campus are not enough to confuse someone who has made their way onto campus for 10 or 20 years, but they do offer new vantage points for seeing the same familiar spaces and buildings. The remind me that space, like time, is also relative.

My class on Wednesday night is World Civilizations I which runs, depending on the instructor to 1500 or 1000. My class stresses the concepts of spatial and temporal scale and how it shapes the way in which we see the past on a global scale. For a first assignment, then, I ask my students to describe their situation – their location, their time, and their cultural, political, and historical contexts – to an audience 100, 1000, and 10,000 years in the future. The assignment was partly inspired by the project recently documented by Rosemary Joyce that sought to come up with ways to mark out nuclear waste disposal sites in Nevada and New Mexico. This exercise challenged engineers, anthropologists, linguists, and other specialists in the past and materiality to think about the limits of how our we represent ourselves will be understood by others. This imaginative act of radical “othering” forced these thinkers to consider critically not only how we communicate over time, but how time shapes what we say. This feels like a good way to start to get the class to start working together as groups while introducing a key theme that I return to throughout the class: scale matters.

The first time that I taught this class was pretty rough. It was a hybrid course in a room that was too small to accommodate the social distancing mandates put in place on campus. As a result, I had to break the class into six groups who met, two groups at a time, for 50 minute classes with the rest of the work and content being delivered online. This semester, the class will meet in our large scale-up classroom. This will allow me to maintain a certain amount of social distancing (albeit unofficially, since that mandate is no longer in place) and the classroom is better suited to group work than our standard active learning rooms. The large round tables support collaboration, each table has dedicated white boards, TV monitors, and laptops, and allows the class to spread out and create their own space to work. In my experiences teaching in this classroom, the organization of the space encourages engagement. In fact, I’ve written about it here and this article offers some interesting recent observations.  

At the same time that I’m excited to get back to teaching in a familiar collaborative learning space, I’m also worried that the COVID pandemic and ongoing construction work on campus will make it harder for my department to feel like a cohesive program. If I understand it correctly, this coming year our department will be spread over four buildings and only teach in one of those four buildings. This divorce of our teaching from our office spaces is, on the one hand, not a bad thing. It facilitates, for example, the maintaining of boundaries between our research, service, and teaching obligations. At the same time, it puts us out and about on campus rather than sneaking almost invisibly between our classrooms and our offices on a single floor of a single building. Finally, it gives us an opportunity to build casual relationships with colleagues in other programs and in other departments. Moving offices is a pain, but it also has its advantages.

On the other hand, I do worry that the boundaries reinforced by the separation of our offices from our classrooms can be barriers to students. Many of our students, for example, are first generation college students and find faculty distant and sometimes intimidating. By hiding our offices away from our classrooms it might contribute to the idea that offices are “off limits” to students or that faculty are too busy to care. At my institutions, I’ve found this to be nothing further from the truth. I also worry that it’ll cause a sense of isolation or even alienation among faculty in my department. We tend to be fairly collegial and even friendly, but not a particularly collaborative group. I suspect the change in our spaces will do little to encourage us to work more closely together.

That all said, the changes to campus, new classes in familiar spaces, and even thinking actively about how we place ourselves on campus, in the region, and in the world gives the start of the semester a sense of excitement and potential about it. After last years disruptions and this summer’s tentative steps toward establishing a new normal, going back into the classroom and being on campus will feel good, despite all the anxieties and challenges. 

Music Mondays: Seasonal Parker, Roy Campbell, and Yellow

It’s the calm before the storm. The semester starts tomorrow, our campus has a mask mandate, my syllabi are ready, and cool fall weather has settled in town as if on cue. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited. The long purgatory of summer is finally over and it’s time to get back at it.

I’m also excited because I have a little gaggle of good music to share. Some of this is really new and some of this is pretty old, but all of it inspired me over the last week as I prepared for the new semester.

First, I can’t recommend enough one of William Parker’s latest albums Painters Winter. It is evidently a complement to his 2001 album Painter’s Spring which likewise features drummer Hamid Drake and all arounder Daniel Carter. William Parker is a bassist and a distinctive one at that. So both albums are not only locked down in terms of bass lines, but also showcase Parker’s distinctive style of both plucked and bowed base as well as his ability to create tonal contrasts with by playing some kind of pocket trombone thing. Daniel Carter who is capable of flight of remarkable intensity as well as passages of tonal exploration which complement Parker’s bass, is a new voice to me. Both albums are typically classified as avant-garde or free jazz, but they’re not the often crass or impulsive displays of technical bravado that folks often associate with this genre. Instead, the offer thoughtful and at times quiet music that draws the listener into the interplay between musicians. What these albums do (at least for me) is force me to think about relationships between the musicians, between the sounds, and between the instruments. Maybe it’s the recent vogue for so-called “relational ontologies” and the like that has me thinking more and more about how relationships create meaning and looking deeper into the relationships between events, individuals, objects, and sound. Maybe it’s that Parker creates a sufficiently solid foundation that almost all his albums have the kind of groove that I need to motivate and inspire me (check out “Happiness” on Painters Winter and if it doesn’t generate feeling in you, I’m not sure what will). Maybe it’s Drake and Carter can follow and play around and with Parker in a conversational way. 

Parker and Carter’s rapport got me exploring Carter’s discography a bit more fully and this led to me Other Dimensions in Music where Parker and Carter collaborate with trumpet player Roy Campbell, drummer Rashid Bakr. This album is four tracks of remarkable grooves and inspired music. If the trio format of the pair of Painters albums could sound a bit spare where space is as much part of the conversation as the notes being played, the addition of a trumpet in Other Dimensions in Music offers the potential for a denser soundscape which the musicians build slowly and deliberately. Roy Campbell’s trumpet may well be the star of this album. He coaxes a range of tones, textures, and melodic lines from it and it dances along with Carter’s reeds in a personable conversation. Parker’s wisdom punctuated by Rashid Bakr’s restrained but never hidden drum work anchors the sets. The opening track “Tradition’s Traditional Omissions Suite/Sailing Toward the Dark Happy Voice” is among the best things that I’ve listened to lately (apparently, there are those who think this group’s next album Now! is even better. I haven’t heard it yet).

Enjoying Campbell on this album drew me to some of this other work. I found what some regard as his best album It’s krunch Time to be a revelation. It features Khan Jamal on vibes (Wilber Morris on bass and Guillermo E. Brown on drums). Unlike the long, simmering grooves and soundscapes that constitute Other Dimensions in Music, It’s krunch Time plays like a pop album with songs rarely extending beyond 6 minutes. The result is a less organic feeling. In some ways, it feels like conversations begin, but then get cut off before they begin to wander and explore. There is, however, something to be said for its diversity of sonic textures. I like vibes and Khan Jamal and his ability to move between laid back etherial tonality and punctuated intensity makes him a natural complement to Campbell’s trumpet. Morris who I don’t know alternates between bowed and plucked bass and Brown tries to keep things moving along without stepping on anyone’s toes. Check out the cover of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and the “The Star Spangl’ed Banner” for two of the more accessible tracks. This album is a great afternoon listen and evokes a semester’s worth of classroom conversations in its 40 odd minute run time.

Finally, as readers of this blog know, I was drawn to William Parker through his association with Sun Ra. Of course, Sun Ra’s legacy goes beyond those who played with him and is particularly visible in certain branches of the jazz scene in the UK. Last week I started Emma-Jean Thackray’s Yellow. Synths, groovy electric bass, voices, horns, reeds, free experimentation alternate with tight scores. If the Shabaka Hutchings’ project, The Comet is Coming is about the days before the end, Thackray’s Yellow prepares the way. It feels like the continuation of Sun Ra’s late-1970s explorations (especially Lanquidity and On Jupiter) for the 21st century. It’s not only listenable, but also complex enough to reward repeated visits. Less of a conversation that the works I’ve discussed in already in this blog and more of a proper concert. Let the music wash over you and challenge you to get out of your comfy chair and experience the world differently.