Kephalari Blockhouse

I know that I’m not the first archaeologist to observe that without a field season this summer, we have theoretically more time to spend thinking carefully about our material and sites, tidying data, and preparing publications. This means, at least for me, trying to get some momentum on some lingering projects.

Two, in particular, are begging for attention. First, we have an almost complete draft of the publication of the area EF1 at Polis complete. In fact, I think we could have it ready for submission in two weeks.

More pressing at the moment, though, is a little article on the Late Roman finds from the Kephalari blockhouse in the Western Argolid. These finds were discovered in Corinth storerooms a few years ago and a group of us agreed to publish them. Of course, since that time lots of things have happened including WARP seasons, Polis stuff, a PKAP volume that’s not yet done, and The COVIDs. But this spring, the article received the ultimate motivating push: my colleague Scott Gallimore wrote up the catalogue and analysis of the finds.

So now it’s time that I do my part, which is writing up the “Discussion” section of the article. My goal is to offer a concise synthesis of 7th century settlement and rural insecurity in the northeastern Peloponnesus. It’s obviously a work in progress!

 

The assemblage from the Kephalari block house adds another small body of evidence to the increasingly complex mosaic of material from the later 6th, 7th, and early 8th century in the northeastern Peloponnesus. While the presence of material from the region’s significant urban centers, particularly Argos and Corinth, is well-known, archaeologists have only just begun to unpack and understand the situation in the countryside during these decades. The small number of excavated and well-published rural sites even in the well-studied northeastern Peloponnesus creates a particularly challenge for situating the reuse of the Kephalari blockhouse in its regional context. The growing number of stratified sequences, especially from Corinth, however, has made it increasingly possible to analyze the growing body of intensive survey data from this region from the end of antiquity. This, in turn, has offered new perspectives on a number of long-standing academic debates including changes in rural settlement patterns and urbanism, the character of the so-called “Slavic Invasions” of the late-6th century, and the presence of rural refuges such as the Andritsa cave.

Scholars have recognized that the reoccupation of rural sites, such as Pyrgouthi and the Kephalari block house appear to indicate significant investment in the adaptation of existing rural sites for reuse in the late 6th and 7th centuries. The appearance of window glass at Kephalari, for example, and the large-scale reconfiguration of the Pyrgouthi tower into a farmhouse with a courtyard suggests efforts to reoccupy these sites on a permanent basis. The evidence is less extensive from the other blockhouses and pyramids of the Argolid, but it appears that these sites were cleaned up with much of the material from earlier periods removed and the interior organization of the spaces modified with new walls and additions (Pettegrew 2006; Lord 1938; Scranton 1938).

Intensive survey has produced scatters of ceramics in the countryside that not only suggest that other Classical and Hellenistic sites experienced reoccupation in the Later Roman period, but that these sites were part of a larger reoccupation of the countryside. The site of Kastraki, for example, in the Inachos Valley, while unexcavated, may well be a similar site to Pyrgouthi or Kephalari in that it was a Classical or Hellenistic tower set atop a low rise in the valley bottom surrounded by a scatter of Late Roman material. The site of Any Vayia in the southeastern Corinthia likewise produced a low-density scatter suggesting a possible short-term reoccupation (Caraher et al. 2010) which found parallels elsewhere including on Euboea (Seifried and Parkinson 2014) and at the Vari House in Attica (Pettegrew 2006, p. 33).

Other smaller sites with material dating to the late-6th and 7th centuries exist throughout the Western Argolid survey area in the Inachos Valley and generally follow a pattern of settlement present in the 5th and 6th centuries. Athanasios Vionis and John Bintliff have argued for Late Antique Boeotia, urban and rural sites represent opposite sides of the same coin (Vionis 2017; Bintliff 2013). The persistence of sites in the countryside and even the expansion of activities into places like near coastal islands reflects the expansive use of diverse rural landscapes for agricultural purposes as well as nodes in regions and Mediterranean wide trade networks (Gregory 1984; 1995).

Urban sites continued to provide markets for rural agriculture, points of contact with larger imperial command economy, centers for manufacturing, and ecclesiastical and a certain amount of political authority. While the Finleyan concept of the “consumer city” should be laid to rest, work at Corinth (Sanders; Rothaus; Brown), Athens (Hayes), and Argos (Oikonomou-Laniado 2003) and in Boeotia (Bintliff, Vionis) have demonstrated that urban areas in Late Antiquity continued to serve as key places in Greece into the 7th century with continued investment in monumental architecture, urban amenities, and public spaces fortified in part by the growing spiritual, political, and economic role of urban bishops and the persistent reach of the imperial government.

This is not to suggest that the 7th century was not a period of significant disruption in southern Greece. Urban areas clearly experienced contraction and settlement in rural areas and this is visible in the larger WARP survey area as well as in urban surveys in Boeotia. The changes in rural settlement, including the emergence of fortified settlements in the countryside, seem to accompany continued economic activity in rural areas. While the evidence for such sites in the Argolid remains limited — the site of Kastro near the village of Tsiristra being a possible exception — the reoccupation of places like the Kephalari block house may well represent the need for both additional security and as well as continued economic viability in the countryside (Vionis 155-157). The reoccupation of fortifiable, if not necessarily fortified, sites in the Argolid may also shed light on the status of sites like the Andritsa Cave. If continued occupation of the countryside indicated the continued viability of markets and networks open to agricultural production and the fortified sites not only in Greece but across the wider Eastern Mediterranean reflects larger insecurity in the region, then places like the Andritsa Cave may well reflect the local realities of both rural wealth and instability. The so-called isles of refuge first recognized by Sinclair Hood and critiqued by Tim Gregory in the 1980s and 1990s, may also reflect the same effort to reconcile economic potential with the need for added security during unstable times.

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

I finished Christopher Witmore’s  Old Lands: a chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. As I said last week, it was a great way to kick off my summer reading and a useful tonic for a summer without fieldwork.

This is the kind of book that will likely resist any kind of useful, formal review. It’s easy enough to note places where Witmore overlooked scholarship relevant to his larger arguments (e.g. Kostis Kourelis’s important 2007 Hesperia article, “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde” would have fit nicely into Witmore’s treatment of Corinth, for example, or Evi Karouzou’s 2014 monograph,  Les jardins de la Méditerranée: agriculture et société dans la Grèce du sud, 1860-1910, would have complemented and expanded his considerations of the agricultural history of the Corinthia and Argolid, or, finally, David Pettegrew’s observations on Kromna on the Isthmus of Corinth would have complicated Witmore’s analysis of that site). Likewise, it will also be convenient for a reviewer to observe that the routes Witmore took through the Northeast Peloponnesus overlooked certain areas like the Southeastern Corinthia, the Western Argolid, or the Inachos Valley. As a result, he overlooked the delicious abundance of souvlaki stands at the intersection of the old national road and old Peloponnesian narrow-gauge railway in the village of Myloi. There are, of course, little factual slips from time to time: the Athos canning plant near Nauplio (referred to in Route 18) is probably the former Kyknos canning plant.

None of this really matters, however, because the book is not meant to be an exhaustive history of the landscape of the Argolid and Corinthia. Instead, the book represents an unapologetically personal look at the region. This approach reflects Witmore’s commitment to the tradition of chorography which he offers as both a kind of critical commentary on the ancient writings of Strabo and Pausanias, the Ottoman period in the writings of Evlyia Celebi, the early modern works of Jacob Spon and George Wheler and the Expédition scientifique de Morée, and the modern period with the travels of Martin Leake, Edward Dodwell, and Gertrude Bell. Contemporary scholars, John Cherry, Alex Knodell, join Witmore from time to time as do various other Greeks, American students, and family members. At the center of the book, however, is Witmore and his interests, relationships, and restless feet guide carry the reader through the Greek countryside.

Chorography, if I understand it, challenges views of the landscape dominated by cartography, geography, and modern landscape archaeology which serves to create the homogeneous spaces of the modern map. If the lines and points of the modern scholar serves to measure and rectify space into some form of universally recognized pattern, the routes of the chorographer are embedded in the landscape itself and follow the contours of the land, the rhythm of the fields, and the often abrupt discontinuities between the present and a visible past. While archaeologists have often seen Witmore’s work elsewhere as overly (and maybe even oppressively?) theoretical, Old Lands serves as a critical and important corrective. Witmore’s goals are not to use the eastern Peloponnesus as at the basis for some kind of theoretical exegesis, but to offer this landscape as a kind of anti-theory (echoing, in some ways, the work of Peter Sloterdijk who appears frequently in his footnotes). For example, the landscape is not a text to be decoded or deconstructed. It is not a place to be unpacked, analyzed, compared, or abstracted. Instead, it’s a space to be experienced and encountered.  

At times (and as an avowedly selfish reader), I wondered how Witmore’s chorography relates to our modern and perhaps contemporary experience of tourism. His effort to defamiliarize a landscape well-known to archaeologists and scholars evokes the modern promise of the tourists gaze which seeks to bridge the gap between the everyday and the exotic. Witmore makes romantic a walk through an olive grove which represents one of the most banal and unremarkable experiences of time in the northeast Peloponnesus. Fishfarms, irrigation systems, terrace walls, dirt and paved roads, goat tracks, maquis, and even the annoying hillsides of Jerusalem sage take on a wondrous quality in Witmore’s work. But is this because these experiences are wondrous or because, in Witmore’s able hands, he is creating a wondrous experience for the reader in much the same way an able tour guide brings a landscape or encounter alive and something as banal as “Mexican Coke” becomes an invitation to an unfamiliar world. (This relates, of course, to my own work along similar lines here.)

Witmore’s work also nudged me to think a bit more about my idea of a “slow archaeology.” While most of my work has focused on “slow” as a challenge to our technologically mediated encounters with archaeological work, Witmore’s chorography with its attention to the details of experience and encounter feels like it occupies a similar space. The absence of any technology in Witmore’s work (other than the maps which he includes at the end) and the emphasis on the individual rather than the team of archaeologists, the procedures of data collection, and the methods of analysis, creates a view of archaeological practice that differs from the almost-automated routines of the intensive pedestrian surveys or of systematic excavation that so defined the archaeological landscapes of the northeastern Peloponnesus.

In this way, Old Lands offers a critique of contemporary archaeological practices, but doesn’t reject them. It also offers a new way to think about the field of Mediterranean archaeology. In recent years, Mediterranean archaeologists have pushed more archaeological practices that align more closely with our peers in “world archaeology.” This frequently involves more specialized training in scientific methods, the use of digital tools, and systematic approaches grounded in the literature of anthropological archaeology. Witmore doesn’t contest this, but by grounding his approach in chorography, he proposes an alternative that is no less grounded in the latest technologically mediated approach to the past, but is also explicitly aware of the experience of being in the landscape. 

Resilience in Antiquity

There have been a few articles recently on resilience in the ancient world (e.g. here, herehere, et c.) and considering the looming social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus, this work feels particularly timely.

Last week, the new volume of Studies in Late Antiquity appeared and it included an article by Tamara Lewitt titled “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity: Applying the Lens of Community Resilience Theory.” It offered a particularly clear application of community resilience theory to the Late Roman world as a way to understand why some areas rebounded from the disruptions of the 6th centuries. Historically, historians and archaeologists have argued that the plagues, earthquakes, military activities, political and theological instability during the 6th century had a lasting social and economic on Eastern Mediterranean communities. More recently, however, archaeologists, in particular, have shown how communities not only survived these difficult times, but prospered. 

In some ways, an emphasis on community resilience is a useful response to scholars who have increasingly sought to understand large scale changes in the Late Roman world as shaped by non-human actors such as disease and climate and environmental change. A number of recent articles have sought to re-assert the role of human agents in Late Antique. I tend to find this line of argument vaguely misguided, but in the case of Lewitt’s article it offers a clear point of departure for her consideration of community resilience.

Lewitt argued that five things allowed for ancient communities to rebound for various disruptions: “high volume and diversity of economic activities, a degree of equitable distribution of income, effective routes of communication, the existence of social capital, and capacity for cooperation and technological innovation.”

She then draws upon archaeological data to demonstrate how the most resilience communities shared many of these features. Of particular interest to me was the role of the church which not only served as a nodes in larger communication networks, but also as institutions around which social capital accumulates. Lewitt suggests that the bonds created through shared support of the local church, for example, created pathways to pool resources during times of crisis. As an contemporary example, she notes that the Vietnamese community in New Orleans rebuilt more quickly after Katrina because they relied on close social bonds.

Years ago, I was interested in how Christianity introduced new forms of giving. Unlike the elite euergetism that characterized Classical antiquity and relied upon the generosity of a few very wealthy patrons who competed with one another for status, the church promoted a model of charity that applied to all Christians and led to individuals of even modest means contributing to the construction and decoration of churches as well as to other charitable ventures. This new vision of charity would have undoubtedly led to new forms of social organization that may have led to greater community resilience.

The other interesting observation is that communities with greater economic equality tend to be more resilient than those with great divisions in wealth. Lewitt looks at the relative size of houses in the deserted villages in Syria to argue for social and economic equality in those communities. Once again, Lewitt notes that part of the challenges facing recovery in New Orleans was the deeply uneven distribution of wealth which made cooperation and collective action more difficult. It almost goes without saying that it is very difficult to track economic and social equality in the ancient world other than at the very ends of the spectrum. Moreover, it seems that villages and rural settlements, especially in Greece and Cyprus, seem to have been abandoned whereas urban areas proved more resilient. If we understand smaller rural communities to have less social and economic diversity, then we might expect these communities to be more resilient than the evidence tends to indicate. That being said, this is not fatal to Lewitt’s arguments, but it does beg for an explanation for why certain kinds of resilience ultimately failed. 

It is interesting to see how this plays out around the world as we attempt to recover from the economic and human impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Lewitt’s regular appeals to data from the recovery after Hurricane Katrina provide a modern point of comparison for resilience in antiquity. The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will provide another. 

Three Thing Thursday: Greeks, Roads, and Oil

For whatever reason, I’m having trouble getting myself into gear over spring break and have been jumping from one thing to the next all week. It’s predictable, then, that today blog post will be a dreaded “three things” rather than a more sustained consideration of one issue, topic, question, or publication. What’s the biggest bummer is that I wanted to write more about each of these three things. Maybe I can next week, but for now, here’s a sampling of what I’ve been up to.

Thing The First

If I had all the time and energy into the world, I’d publish a little volume featuring the work of Byzantine and Late Antique archaeologist outside of the Mediterranean basin. David Pettegrew and Kostis Kourelis would appear in it, of course. This week, I was really happy to receive a copy of Pennsylvania History 87.1 (2020) which is co-edited by Pettegrew and includes an article by Kourelis and Pettegrew on the Greek communities of Harrisburg and Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. 

The article draws primarily from census data to paint a picture of the changing Greek communities in those towns and their divergent trajectories. The broader argument is that the tendency to emphasize Greek communities in major urban areas (Chicago, New York, et c.) obscures the fact that most Greek communities were small. More than that, these small Greek communities developed according the vagaries of these locales. The city of Harrisburg with its higher rents and involvement in the City Beautiful movement saw a very different kind of Greek community than the city of Lancaster. The Greek community in Harrisburg was more male-dominated and slower to include families although perhaps slightly more affluent, and these features most likely delayed the organization of a Greek church in the city which further slowed the development of this community.

Pettegrew and Kourelis construct their images of these two communities from the scrappy evidence provided by the census and their broad understanding of trends in these two cities. Their ability to paint vivid pictures from fragmentary evidence almost certainly derives from their years of patient work with the fragments of the Late Roman and Byzantine periods in Greece. 

(I couldn’t find the article online yet, but a few of the articles from the special issue are available here for free!).

Thing the Second

A good bit of our work on the Western Argolid Regional Project has focused on roads through our region. As a result, I’ve been trying to digest anything that drifts across my desk about roads in the Eastern Mediterranean. A couple of weeks ago, I spied Peri Johnson and Ömür Harmanşah’s “The Political Ecology of Roads And Movement: The Yalburt Yaylası Archaeological Landscape Research Project 2018 Season” from The Archaeology of Anatolia, Volume III (2019). Ömür Harmanşah has quietly established himself as one of the most insightful readers of the Mediterranean landscape and this article with Peri Johnson reflects his careful sophistication.

Johnson and Harmanşah consider the roads through their survey area in Central Anatolia from both a diachronic and decentralized perspective. In other words, they were not as concerned with the well-known roads through their area in particularly well documented periods and more interested in the ways in which local communities in their area interacted with one another and the wide region. By decentering their research and engaging with local communities, they were not only able to discover neglected roads and routes, but also associated sites. 

Their work and the situation in their survey area has close parallels with ours in the Western Argolid where in the Inachos valley formed the major route through our area throughout the ancient and into the modern period. At the same time, it has become clear that a number of significant routes linked sites in our survey area in ways that did not follow the dominant interregional road along the valley bottom. 

Thing the Third

I read John Sayles’ new book Yellow Earth this weekend. I really want to write a more substantive review of it, in part, because I really wanted to like it more than I did. Here are a few quick observations.

First, a colleague of mine mentioned once that most novels these days are really just short stories cobbled together. This book is that with plots and characters that come and go, intersect obliquely, and sometimes just fade away.

Second, Sayles does some interesting things with time. The book begins in the early days of the Bakken boom and ends just as the bust begins. For the characters, however, time passes at different rates. For two of the characters, their final year in high school traces the trajectory of the boom. For another, it occurs over the course of her pregnancy. For another still, it follow the construction of a house, the life span of a strip club, or the travels of a Mexican migrant from the border to North Dakota. The varying times at play during a boom is fascinating.

Third, the book navigates a difficult space in that one of the main characters is modeled after Tex Hall, the well-known and controversial former chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. This means Sayles spends much of the novel writing a number of Native American characters. While I don’t necessarily want to imply that his depiction of these characters was somehow inappropriate, instead, I’d like to acknowledge the ethical complications associated with this move and with depicting and understanding the complex attitudes among the Native American community to the oil boom.

Fourth and finally, for now, I still rankle at the depiction of the Bakken as the Wild West. I understand and appreciate the drama and the moral ambiguity latent in the concept of the Wild West, but I worry that this depiction somehow naturalizes the situation in the Bakken and undermines a reading that recognizes a series of very deliberate choices that allowed corrupt practices to prevail. 

Brokenness and Repair

Over the last week or so, I’ve been carrying around Francisco Martínez’s and Patrick Laviolette’s book Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough: Ethnographic Responses (Berghahn 2019) in part to keep my fingers in the book that I’m trying to write on the archaeology of contemporary America and, in part, because I thought it might speak to me about the headlines these days that emphasize the brokenness of, say, the US health systems. (That there are case studies involving the Pantheon clock and Swiss watches is just a happy bonus!). 

The essays largely focus on the materiality of brokenness and repair. The case studies from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia offered particularly compelling case studies. In these contexts, brokenness largely represented the transition from state-controlled and centrally administered regimes of maintenance to a system grounded in the market economics. Tamta Khalvashi’s ethnography of brokenness and maintenance in the elevators of Georgia, for example, provided insights into the strategies used to ensure that the elevators in Soviet era apartment buildings continued to function once the centralized maintenance systems became privatized. From coin boxes to the contributions of residents (and the various efforts from folks to game the system or to avoid paying their share of elevator maintenance costs), Khalvashi maps the adaptive strategies of various communities in their effort to preserve the material manifestations of an earlier regime. Similar ethnographies of roads, holes, and buildings in other former communist block countries demonstrated similar trajectories where brokenness represents discontinuities within the history of these places and repairs present efforts both at preserving experiences and utility of objects and places as well as marking the passage of time.

As someone who has spent most of my adult life on university campuses and some recent time exploring and documenting soon-to-be-demolished buildings, I found the exploration of brokenness and repair a useful way of understanding the fabric of these buildings. More than that, it helped me appreciate the materiality of their history and how their fragmented and discontinuous pasts challenge the kinds of cohesive narratives that institutions cultivate. If the two tensions of traditional and progress define university campuses, then the visibility of repairs complicates a present constructed as an uninterrupted expression of past values. It also suggests that progress does not follow a continuous and rational trajectory from the flawed and imperfect to the improved and perfected. Repairs indicate recursive and imperfect encounters with tradition and the halting and discontinuous working of progress.

On our campus, then, the buildings most scarred with repairs the first buildings that ambitious administrators seek to erase with new constructions. These new buildings embody progress by overwriting the past and suggest tradition by creating a purified version of the architectural styles present across campus which then stand is as pure examples of an uninterrupted past.

In short, brokenness and repair create problematic ruptures in the way in which communities understand their past. At the same time, preserving evidence for repair, in turn, preserves the ruptures in the past that reveal agency in ways that the rather disembodied or heroic narratives of progress and tradition attempt to overwrite. 

Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity

Next week, I was supposed to head to the UK to give a paper at a conference dedicated to the long Late Antiquity on Cyprus. For coronavirus reasons, the conference has been rescheduled for January 2021. You can check out the program(me) here.

Whatever I write for that conference will likely be a bit different from what I’ve prepared for the March 18th conference. In fact, with some summer field seasons likely suspended, I suspect an outpouring of new work of a more synthetic character or drawing on legacy or unpublished data. While this might not occur in time to be included in my paper, I hope that it will make the conference next January a richer and more dynamic experience (as well as a safer one) for everyone involved!

Here’s a link to the paper that I would have given next week. It lacks citations and images, but the content is more or less all there, and I think it’s a pretty good “state of my thinking” (such as it is) on the long late antiquity on Cyprus.

Three Things Thursday: The Perfect, Photography, and Big Data in Archaeology

It feels like I have a ton going on right now (although I’m sure it’s not nearly as much as other people do on a daily basis!). I’m finishing a paper that I’m scheduled to give in a couple of weeks in the UK (coronavirus permitting), I’m working on a chapter for my book, and I’m getting a couple of books and a journal issue off the ground. As a result, I’m more scattered than usual. So here’s a little sampling of the things occupying my brain.

Thing the First

I’ve been meaning to write a long blog post on the recent Journal of Field Archaeology supplement on big data in archaeology. To cut to the chase: I really like it. It balances the potential of big data with some very incisive and thoughtful critiques. Jeremy Huggett’s piece continues his long standing project of a critical digital archaeology, for example, and urges archaeologists to pay more attention to the underlying structures that shape digital data. In particular, he suggests that archaeologists be more explicit in how they clean, integrate, and organize datasets from various sources. Mark McCoy’s critique of the site as an organizing concept in the effort to integrate and analyze big data at the regional or transregional scale connects how archaeologists interpret big data to one of the most basic debates in field archaeology: the definition of the site. Neha Gupta ,Sue Blair, and Ramona Nicholas discuss the rules governing big data in Canada and how these rules create challenges for indigenous communities when they seek to use, create, and control the flow of sensitive or culturally relevant data. They emphasize the role of crown copyrights in limiting access and use of data in ways that do not always work to the advantage of indigenous groups. Morag Kersel and Chad Hill demonstrate how drone imagery and the careful curation of data can link archaeologists with cultural institutions to mitigate and document illegal digging in Jordan. There are other articles, most of which I really liked, but one more deserves a little additional attention. Allison Mickel’s piece explores the relationship between big data and communities using case studies from Turkey and Jordan. The disconnect between the two and local knowledge and big data knowledge is striking in her case studies and her work – here and elsewhere – is a great reminder of the limits to our data driven world.

Thing the Second

I’ve started to read a bit about photography and archaeology. I think I had been keeping this topic at arms length because it seemed both theoretically daunting and massively complex. Yesterday, I got drawn into Lesley McFadyen and Dan Hicks’ edited volume, Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity, and Archive (Bloomsbury 2020) which sucked me in through Dan Hicks’ thoughtful and compelling discussion of time and photography in archaeology. First, he critiques Representational Archaeology which understands archaeologists as assembling persistent fragments of the past into compelling archaeological arguments and proposes a visual archaeology which emphasizes archaeology as a “complex of transformation.” Instead of archaeology assembling or revealing or producing the past, a visual archaeology recognizes the role of the archaeologist and technology in making the past visible. He’s quick to stress that this doesn’t mean making the occluded or hidden visible, but rather creating a distinct vision of the past produced through our discipline’s methods and techniques. 

This not only foregrounds the contemporaneity of the archaeologist with what they see and document (which is very much in keeping with how I’m trying to think of archaeology of the contemporary world), but also reinforces the view that photography is not a kind of documentation or a method used by archaeology, but in some ways IS archaeology as much as archaeology is documentation of the past.

Thing the Third

One of the things that I’ve worked on refining recently is the ability to apologize. As the fourth issue of North Dakota Quarterly goes into production this week, I am once again left with things that have slipped through the cracks or just aren’t quite right. I’m bummed that the issue and the process of production won’t be perfect. Many people won’t even notice the imperfections or little problems that linger. I’m not a perfectionist as any reader of this blog undoubtedly knows, but I find that my desire for the really good is much higher when I’m dealing with other people’s work.

Concluding Pyla-Koutsopetria

Over the last 5 years, my colleagues and I have been struggling to bring our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria to a close. We have largely stepped away from work there (which continues under the direction of Brandon Olson and Tom Landvatter), but have struggled to publish the results of our three seasons of excavation at the site. I suspect that the main reason for this is that growing sense that with the final publication of our work there, that project is over

And when we confront the end of our first major project, all of us start to feel our age and the ephemeral character of all academic work. It’s a sobering and depressing realization, but one that we need to embrace In some sense, the fleeting nature of our work should embolden us to finish the project, make our claims, and move on. There are other scholars who are waiting.

Here’s my start:

The conclusion to this second volume from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project is also the conclusion to the first phase of fieldwork at the site. Our conclusion to the first PKAP volume offered a historical overview of the site grounded in the distributions and assemblages produced by our survey. This evidence allowed us to make a series of historical arguments concerning the relationship between town and territory, the organization of settlement in the region, the religious landscape of our survey area, and its connections with other sites on the island and in the wider Eastern Mediterranean. While we feel that the results of our excavations largely confirm and reinforce the results of the survey, we will not rehash those conclusions here.  

Instead, this section will emphasize three distinct conclusions from our excavation. First, it will offer some methodological notes on the relationship between our survey assemblages and our excavation assemblages. This will contribute to our second conclusion which will emphasize how attention to the site formation processes revealed through excavation allowed for more nuanced interpretation of change both at the end of antiquity and at the end of the Iron Age. In particular, we will complicate the notion of abandonment in the region. Finally, our conclusion will return to issues of regional variation on Cyprus and in the Eastern Mediterranean to consider how Koutsopetra and Vigla fit into wider patterns of settlement, architecture, and a change. 

Since the excavations at Vigla and Koutsopetria involved features and assemblages of different periods, there will be some variation in how the following sections addresses the themes of this conclusion. 

Koutsopetria 

The two distinct excavation campaigns at Koutsopetria produced two distinct sets of excavation data. Reconciling the two systems of excavation and their corresponding datasets parallels the growing interest in legacy data among archaeologists seeking both to publish from earlier excavations and to use data from earlier excavations to support contemporary research questions. Our work at Koutsopetria demonstrated that even in the absence of stratigraphic controls, the results of the 1990s excavation contributed to how we understood the result from our campaign in 2008. Careful study of the plaster windows, for example, revealed that they were covered over at some point in the room’s history. The similarity between the plaster covering the windows and the plaster used on roof fragments suggests that the building’s roof saw repairs at the same time. The presence of a plate and a coin on the floor likewise established a terminus post quem for the collapse of the room and the second storey. The small assemblage of Dhiorios cooking pots found to the north of the room and covered with collapse likewise allows us to establish a late-7th or even early-8th century date for activity around the building even without the kind of tight stratigraphic controls common to contemporary excavation practices. 

Our 2008 excavations reinforced many of the results from the 1990s excavations. The 2008 excavation campaigns revealed at least two phases of consolidation at Koutsopetria and one of these likely coincided with the covering of the windows. A second phase of consolidation probably predated the abandonment of the building and perhaps stabilized the room enough to allow for the stripping of gypsum floor tiles. The salvage work may have coincided with the loss of a coin or even the presence of an imported plate on the floor. The small group of Dhiorios cooking pot rims on to the north of the room may have marked the location of a small cooking fire, sheltered from the winds coming off the sea. Megaw made a similar argument for the presence of a similar assemblage of cooking pots at the Episcopal Basilica at Kourion which date to later than the building’s collapse.

Excavations at Corinth in Hesperia

I really like Hesperia. It’s the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The quality of production and editing is outstanding and I can find something interesting in almost every issue that appears. I’ve submitted a few articles to Hesperia over my career, in part, because my work fits their remit, but also because the results are such fine quality. I know that they treat even the most modest contribution to the journal with the same care and attention that they lavish on the most dynamic, important, or sophisticated article.

This past issue had a long article on recent excavations at Corinth, “Corinth, 2018: Northeast of the Theater” by the project’s new director Chris Pfaff. The article is over 65 pages and I’d guess about 20,000 words of text plus another 10,000 of notes and bibliography; by my count, the article clocked in at just under 35,000 words. It was pretty amazing, and I keep going back to it. Unlike many Hesperia articles, Pfaff’s article lacks a clear thesis. It’s not an argument. And what makes it most wonderful to me is that it doesn’t even have a conclusion. In fact, it just ends after the description of some kind of early modern or medieval ditch that cut across part of the site. That’s it. A “Diagonal Ditch.”

Here’s the final paragraph:

The purpose of the diagonal ditch remains unknown. No masonry of any kind was found within it to support the idea that it served as a founda­tion trench for a built structure. Its great length would be consistent with a ditch to accommodate a drain or pipeline, but no drain tiles or pipes came to light in the fill. In general, the finds from the fill, including an equine cranium, can be characterized as refuse that has no association with the original function of the ditch.

This isn’t the say that the article was pointless, of course. Part of me suspects that this article represents a throwback to a tradition of reporting on the annual work at a site. When we started our project on Cyprus, for example, we published short descriptive annual reports in the Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus that we hoped would let folks know that a particular site existed, give them a sense for what we found, and announce ourselves as serious archaeologists doing serious work. They were provisional and preliminary, and, to my mind, a fine thing for a junior scholar to write when starting work on their first project.

This logic, of course, does not apply to Corinth. Chris Pfaff is a senior scholar and nothing in the report would strike someone casually familiar with Corinth as surprising. Most of the material is Late Roman in date, most of it derives from secondary contexts as one would expect at a continuously occupied site, and none of the results would challenge long held views or announce some distinct, new aspect in the history of the city.

Instead, the article simply runs up the flag that work is ongoing. It appears, from what I can tell, to be continuing in the same vein as excavations over the last 20 years. The article lacks much in the way of a formal catalogue, assemblages are only presented in a summary way, the architecture and features consist primarily of walls, roads, and known buildings (like the Late Antique “Good Seasons” mosaic and the course of the Late Roman (perhaps 6th century?) fortification wall). None of these features is published in enough detail to be considered a final publication. It’s nice to know that they are still there though and to know someone cares.

What’s great about this article is its attention to description. Rather than present some sweeping conclusion, launch into some theoretically overwrought article, or attempt some kind of exhaustive review of past literature, this article simply describes things. In other words, in its unusual way, it takes things seriously, even when these things are a “diagonal ditch” with the skull of a horse and some early 20th century artifacts in it. By putting aside, at least explicitly, the need for a formal thesis, Pfaff’s article refuses to reduce the “things” of archaeology to the status of evidence in the service of an argument. Even the occasional objects in the article that received more careful description floated against an ambiguous background and often lacked fully developed archaeological context. At best they represent types of evidence as if to say that the excavators have this kind of thing and this kind of thing can speak to chronology, function, or context. But at no point do they unpack the entire context of a strata or an assemblage. They do, as one would expect, locate the objects within a context, but this remains hard to understand to a reader because most contexts are not fully described. Thus this treatment of things alludes to a context, but also avoids becoming unduly burdened by it. The photographs of the objects against a white background reinforce their independence and integrity.

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This image of iron hobnails(?) could inspire a volume of essays.

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It’s also worth noting that this article also lacks people. Some of the previous excavators are present: Henry Robinson and Charles Williams make cameos to personify their interpretations and work, but the 2018 excavations largely occurred without human intervention. There are no decisions presented and the descriptions of features and things stand on their own. This is both bracing and just a bit disconcerting. A generation of reflexive practices and methodological preoccupation which have so frequently sought to diminish the significance of things in the name of relationships with humans is refreshingly absent.

In the end, this article is provocative. I calls into question the goals of archaeological publication. Surely, it is not meant to be a definitive “final” publication. As I’ve said, it’s also not meant to be a preliminary report. No one needs to 30,000+ to know that Corinth has a prosperous and complex Roman and Late Roman phase. It doesn’t offer enough detail or context for regular citation. The objects represented throughout are generally of a type that is known both at Corinth and more broadly in Southern Greece and the Peloponnesus.

Instead, the purpose of this article appears to be simply to present these things, features, and lightly sketched contexts. Hesperia’s typically fine and careful style allows the things to stand on their own and largely to speak for themselves and, in some way, speak to themselves (rather to other things or to some kind of abstract notion of argument, assemblage, or context). As such the article is both a step backward in time to a day when such reports regularly appeared in scholarly journals to let far flung colleagues know about “the work of the School” as well as a step forward in a practice of presenting things in a disconcertingly discrete way.

Five Thoughts from the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting

I spent two hectic days in Washington, DC on the weekend attending the AIA/SCS annual meeting. I try to go every other year and despite my griping about having to attend and my general feeling of being an impostor, I still very much view it as “my annual meeting.” In other words, the AIA feels like my disciplinary and institutional home.

 I attended a handful of panels at this years meeting and mostly knew what was going on (which was pretty good for me) and on uneventful flights home, I had six thoughts.

1. Legacy Data. I gave a paper in a panel on legacy data organized by Jon Frey and Fotini Kondyli. To my great surprise, the room was packed with an engaged and enthusiastic audience. The papers walked the intriguing line between the practical and the conceptual demonstrating not only the pressing need to discuss the challenging realities associated with working on legacy data and the potential for work on legacy data to inform the larger methodological and theoretical framework of archaeology. 

I left the panel realizing that most of the challenges that archaeologists encounter when dealing with legacy data are conceptually consistent with the challenges that archaeologists encounter in the field. They involve issues of context, classification, documentation, workflow, and historical and historiographical analysis. Perhaps this is why the panel attracted so much interest. You can read my paper here.

2. The Future of Publishing in the Humanities. I also attended a roundtable discussion on the future of publishing in the humanities with representatives of two presses, a pair of librarians, and a couple hybrid scholars who work between publishing, scholarship, and information science. 

Three things emerged from that discussion. First, the monolithic notion of “publishing a book” or “publishing an article,” belies a very diverse range of processes, possibilities, and publishers who range from very conventional academic presses to smaller “scholar-led” operations. Moreover, even among these groups, there are a range of different approaches and priorities for an author to consider. Second, a significant part of this diversity comes from the challenge of digital practices in both knowledge making and in its dissemination. Libraries, scholars, and publishers are all working hard to figure out how to distribute books across digital channels, preserve digital data, and support opportunities for scholars working not just on the bleeding edge of their fields, but close to the center of our hybrid analog-digital scholars practice. 

Finally, open access is coming and we don’t really understand how it will impact the landscape of scholarly publishing yet. My impression is that most presses do not have sustainable models for open access publishing and they don’t necessarily have models for the large scale dissemination of open access books, data sets, and content. The big change across the entire landscape of academic publishing is still on the horizon.

Here’s what I had planned to say in this panel

3. Survey Archaeology. About 10 years ago, I was up to my eyeballs in articles and papers on the analysis of survey data and, in particular, discussions of survey method. The methodological consequences of “third wave” siteless survey had outstripped, to some extent, our interpretative paradigms for understanding the data that we had produced in historically significant ways. It felt like survey archaeology might be at an impasse. Our desperate need to convince excavators that our work was rigorous, thoughtful, and sophisticated, had pushed us to develop the methodological context for our practices to the detriment of analysis.

This past meeting, it feels like that stage in survey archaeology has finally passed. None of the papers that discussed survey included an apologia nor did they drag the audience through a kind of pseudo-apologetic methodological digression designed to reassure the listen that this wasn’t just a bunch of students picking up random pottery in the countryside. Instead, the papers focused on the potential for survey to inform current debates concerning Romanization, rural land use, connectivity between places, and even seasonal patterns and taskscapes in countryside. Survey archaeology felt very grown up. 

4. Archaeology for the General Reader. This was an 8 am round table of very distinguished scholars who discuss their experiences writing for a general audience and receiving funding from an NEH Public Scholar Program Grant. The participants on the panel were gracious and open about their writing processes and their achievements. They did not waste time arguing for the value of this kind of work. 

At the same time, I struggled to understand how they envisioned a “general reader.” Over the course of the panel I began to realize that the general reader was not really a person, but rather a proxy useful to describe a work that could be marketed to a wide audience. The general reader is actually some who can and will buy these books. In fact, the model for most of the books seemed unapologetically commercial with their emphasis on characters, action, and authority. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not disputing necessarily the viability and even importance of this model of writing and publishing, but it causes me worries. First, it equates the general reader as a book buyer rather than a content consumer, and this seems out of step with the diverse ways in which most of us consumer knowledge across a wide range of media in our daily lives.

Second, this panel assumes that the general reader exists rather than is created by the way in which we market, structure, and distribute our works. While so much important scholarship today is focused on recognizing, creating, and elevating diversity in both the past and the present, this panel seemed to imagine its audience as somehow monolithic. As writers for a non-academic audiences, I was expecting a greater sensitivity toward the kinds of audiences that their works sought to reach and how their writing responded to the needs of groups or sought to produce new communities of readers.   

Most painfully for me was the dismissive attitude toward significant emerging forms of writing like creative non-fiction that seek to challenge how non-fiction works in crucial ways. Creative-non-fiction can encourage the reader to question the authority of the text, can open up new and important spaces to critique how knowledge is made, and push readers out of their emotional and intellectual comfort zones. Even if we limit our view of significant public scholarship to works that have engaged a broad audience, it is impossible to deny the impact of works like Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Martin Guerre (1983), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), and Roxanne Gay’s Hunger (2017) (not to mention Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocmented (2016)). That the NEH Public Scholars Program was uninterested in publishing this kind of work seems more than just a missed opportunity. It appears to have conflated the existence of a general reader with the ability of compelling works both to speak to and create  communities. 

To be clear, I have no beef with the authors on the panel and their works —many of which I have read—are both good and, in the right light, compelling, but there is so much more to writing to a broad audiences than this panel presented.  

5. The Value of Conferences. As per usual there was discussion about the value of meetings like the AIA/SCS conference. It was great to see graduate students presenting their work — sometimes for the first time, to engage with mid-career scholars writing at the edge of their comfort zones to a supportive and critical audience, and to celebrate with the community the work and wisdom of senior scholars. It was also nice to see old friends and to meet folks from social media for the first time, face-to-face. I made plans with colleagues and discussed professional opportunities and challenges. 

At the same time, attending the conference was expensive and exhausting. As a scholar at a relatively poorly funded mid- to lower-tier university, it also felt decadent and there was the palpable sense from quite a number of attendees that these kinds of events were unwise and inefficient in the current culture of austerity. If nothing else the optics of events like these were not good because they not only made clear the racial, gender, and class inequalities at the core of our disciplines, but also created a venue for any number of cringe-worthy displays of public and professional power which seems increasingly Byzantine as our fields of study fight for survival in the changing landscape of higher education. I don’t really have an answer for whether the good that comes from these kinds of conferences continues to outweigh the bad, and I obviously realize that this kind of annual event is likely to continue into the future long after it has outlived its usefulness. I think, however, that attending the conference every couple years does push us to reflect on their continued value to our fields.

Finally, there’s this amazing advertisement from the SCS program. I spent a good bit of time admiring book covers in the exhibition hall, but none have created the buzz of this advertisement:

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The text on features a quote from Edith Hall: “I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal [TLS] to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre.” 

I’ve always considered Edith Hall, the Lester Bangs’ of Classics world, so it’s fitting that the quote from her review of Duban’s book evokes (obliquely) the rock critic’s famous liner notes for the Mekons’ album, The Mekons’ Story:

“The Mekons may now assume their proper place in the highest bowers in the hallowed halls of Rocque (co-leased by Wolfman Jack and Sid Bernstein). THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE BEATLES. They are better than Budgie and REO Speedwagon combined, they gave me $1500 for writing these notes. They come not to bury rock but to gourmandize it. All their Daddies are rich which is why they get to keep putting out this swill.”

I only wish that I had thought of this marketing strategy first.