Three Things Thursday

It’s been a while since we’ve done a three things Thursday and since I’m feeling like I have a bunch of little things starting to back up in my inbox. 

Thing The First

I was pleased to see that the interview that I recorded with Tristan Boyle for his The Modern Myth podcast has appeared. You can listen to it here.

I have to admit that I was pretty nervous speaking with Boyle. This not because I’m particularly media shy, but because there is so much going on in the world these days. Between the daily tragedy of the COVIDs, the BLM-related protests, and the anxiety surrounding the fiscal well-being of educational and cultural institutions, their diversity, and their priorities in a inevitably more austere, post-COVID world, I was acutely aware that reflecting on my own work was an act of significant indulgence. The frivolity of punk archaeology, the misguidedness of slow archaeology, and utter ambiguity (and idealism) of “the archaeology of care” reinforces their collective irrelevance in the face of the need for real and urgent change and a future with significantly diminished resources.

So if you do listen to the podcast, I ask that you please understand that my self-indulgent prattle belies my personal anxiety about the future of archaeology as both an academic discipline and as a meaningful contributor to a more diverse and just world.

Thing The Second  

Last week, I posted a list of volumes published by ASOR and available via the HathiTrust under an open license. After I published the post, I discovered that I had overlooked one small series published as three volumes between 1978 and 1981 and called the ASOR Monograph Series:

Volume 1: Robert T. Anderson, Studies in Samaritan manuscripts and artifacts : the Chamberlain-Warren collection. 1978. Not available.

Volume 2: Ziony Zevit, Matres lectionis in ancient Hebrew epigraphs. 1980. Download here.

Volume 3: James Hamilton Charlesworth. The New Discoveries in St. Catherine’s Monastery: a preliminary report on the manuscripts. 1981. Download here.

Thing The Third

Finally, I’m happy to announce the publication of Anna Kouremenos and Jody Gordon’s edited volume Mediterranean Archaeologies of Insularity in an Age of Globalization (2020). Jody invited me to work on an article with him that considered the impact of insularity and globalization on Cyprus in the Early and Late Roman period. Not only did we get to indulge in a bit of cross period comparisons, but it gave me a chance to develop some of my arguments in a more robust theoretic framework (almost entirely provided by Jody!).

I’ll figure out how and when I can share our contribution to this book. Of course, I’m happy enough to share a copy of our piece over email. 

Performative Informality in Archaeology

I really like Mary Leighton’s work and have found myself citing her work and referring to it regularly on my blog (e.g. here and here). Last week, I read her most recent piece in American Anthropologist on “performative informality” in academic archaeology and found it particularly compelling. She argues that the performance of informality marks many of the ways in which archaeology as a discipline functions. For Leighton, performative informality include practices that might appear benign or even admirable in our discipline – such as the familiar collegiality between faculty and students that emerges from hours in the field – to some of archaeology’s more toxic rituals such as binge drinking. Understanding the unspoken rules this informal behavior is often key to professional success within our field. Like many of the formal structures that dictate professional advancement in more formal academic settings, the rules of performative informality are likewise shaped by white, European, male privilege. Unlike the more structured environment of formal academia, however, the more shadowy informal world often operates in ways that escape critique, reinforces white male privilege, and serves as a gatekeeper function within academic circles. 

My little summary does not really do this article justice. Go read it.

Most field archaeologists are familiar with practices that Leighton describes in this article. These range from seemingly innocuous suggestion that, in the field, archaeologists use each others first names rather than academic titles to the deeply problematic rituals of late-night drinking, romantic liaisons between faculty, supervisors, and students, and moments of casual interaction that have real professional consequences for students seeking to receive a positive letter of recommendation, future opportunities for collaboration, or even just professional encouragement and professional. We all know far too well that a student or colleague that struggles with the informal world of archaeology — no matter how rigorous their formal scholarship — will often find themselves struggling to make the kind of informal connections that contribute to opportunities for career advancement. In fact, social awkwardness in the close knit world that emerges during field work often reflects an inability to discern the cues that shape the performance of informality that shapes field work relationships.    

Anyone who has read my blog knows that I have a growing distrust for many of the rules that structure our professional lives. I’ve complained about the assessocracy and the bureaucratized processes that reduce the complex work of research and teaching to measurable and comparable outputsI’ve worried about administrative structures such as colleges and departments, and their formal roles in keeping us siloed. I’ve worked on projects that seek to reject, or at very least complicate, the boundaries between various kinds of work in our field, especially publishing, and considered the potential of such abstract and elusive metaphors of flow as models for understanding relationship between the defined spaces of fieldwork, analysis, writing, and publishing.

Many of my critiques have drawn upon Ivan Illich’s ideas of conviviality as a mode of interaction that ostensibly sheds some of the social, institutional, and practical formality that dictates the maintenance of productive relationships in a world of (post)industrial capitalism. After reading Leighton’s article, however, I worry that so much of what I have tried to articulate is less about challenging practices in academia that seek to institutionalize forms of white, male, bourgeois privilege and more about finding new ways to act out these structural advantages by other means. While it is easy enough to critique the role of alcohol both in the field and in a professional settings, for example, as deeply problematic in archaeology, Leighton’s ethnographic study nudges us to see the drinking, overt and often physical performances of familiarity (my aversion to hugs is well-known), and cliquishness within our discipline as a kind of carnivalesque behavior designed not to subvert the existing structures institutionalized within policies at our institutions, but to reinforce them through their inversion.

(I really want to insert a long tirade against hugging here, but I won’t. Just don’t hug me. In fact, even before our virus-inflected new normal, I’d prefer that we not touch. A simple head nod will do just fine.) 

It may well be that my embrace of conviviality as a form of anti-modernism serves merely to reinforce the modern practices at the core of professional academic life. I’ve long conceded that “slow archaeology” (to which Leighton’s work contributed significantly) may well have its roots in privileged practices (as first called out by Shawn Graham). Leighton, of course, does not deal explicitly with my formulation of slow, but her article does suggest that my vision of a more egalitarian, “structureless,” and convivial discipline might do little to mitigate the kind of structural sexism, racism, and classism present in academia. In fact, Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (which I blogged about here) made a similar point by showing how both formal and informal expectations work together to create both administrative and social barriers for disadvantaged students.

Leighton’s article also got me thinking about the recent piece in History Australia by Yves Rees and Ben Huf (which I blogged about here) that proposes that historians work to create micro-utopias where we can both suspend the institutional practices that structure so much of our professional lives and create more inclusive spaces defined by new performative gestures and attendant relationships. Of course, the creation of such micro-utopias, even for a short lived period or under very specific circumstances, may do little to undermine structural inequalities that fundamentally shape our field if they rely too heavily on the simple inversion of more formal practices that define our professional relationships.

It seems to me that the formal/informal dichotomy that Leighton interrogates in her piece may be the relationship that most requires critique. This is not at all a criticism of Leighton’s important work. I recognize that heavy drinking, coerced familiarity, and other common forms of social inversion present on archaeological projects are deeply problematic. At the same time, I want to think that we can still challenge the institutional and policy-defined relationships that define our field and privilege individuals who can code-switch between manifestations of the same social structures whether manifest in the rules of performative informality, the unspoken formalism of “civility,” or policy mandated behaviors. I’d gently proposes that the problem with performative informality on archaeological projects is not that it the structures that shape the discipline with the “the tyranny of structurelessness,” but the opposite: performative informality make the ubiquity of these structures visible and reinforces their inescapability.

What I really want to understand is how do we move forward from the kinds of critique that Leighton offers? Her ambivalence throughout the article (especially at the end) demonstrates how deeply entrenched these structures are as they not only define professional communities but also give shape to how we perform such deeply personal acts as grieving. 

I don’t have answers, but I hope that it remains possible to construct communities in the field of archaeology that do not conform to the formal/informal dichotomy and, instead, create convivial and perhaps even utopian space for more a inclusive, meaningful, and productive discipline. 

Writing a Book and Slow Archaeology

One of the many downsides to the COVID pandemic is that I’ve had too much free time to thing. As a result, I’ve started not only to come up with new projects, but I’ve also come to second guess these same projects.

For example, this past week on a couple run and walks, I concocted a new book project, which I’ll unpack below, but I also started to wonder whether the world needs another book these days. As a tenured faculty member who is well and truly mid-career, I’ve struggled a bit to come to terms with my changing responsibilities both to my field and my colleagues.

We’re trained, of course, to read, write, and teach. In fact, most of us derive a good bit of pleasure from this routine. At the same time, most of us have become increasingly aware that reading, writing, and teaching are just one part of our larger social responsibilities as faculty members. We’re increasingly being called upon to give our frenetic keyboards a rest and listen. We’re becoming aware that when we speak, teach, write, and publish, we’re not just doing our jobs, but we’re also creating conditions in which other voices and perspectives will be less likely to be heard, read, and advanced. This is especially true as we move from early to mid-career status and our acquired skills and training often generate a kind of momentum of its own which allows us to produce scholarship, mould a classroom discussion, and acquire grants, publication opportunities, and audiences that often far exceed the value of our ideas. This creates a kind of obligation on our part to make sure what we’re doing is meaningful and not just the product of a well-conditioned routine and to examine our energies and commitments to determine whether our efforts really do make our field and society better. 

That being said, messing around with a book idea is a far cry from writing a book, and most readers will recognize that like so many ideas that bubble up from the COVID induced isolation, this one is probably best left in the idea box

Slow Archaeology: The Book

What if I wrote a book on “slow archaeology”? In some sense, this would be the ultimate vanity project. I’d be expanding an idea that I had five years ago and explored in a few articles. I’m under no illusions that I’m the best person to do this, but I’ll also admit that the idea seems really fun.

The book would be short (<50,000 words with references) and organized into two parts following an introduction.

Introduction: Slow Archaeology: This chapter would set out the historiography of the slow movement and seek to establish the intellectual roots of the slow movement in the larger critique of modernity, efficiency, and technological acceleration. This seeks to walk a fine line between conservative nostalgia and fantasies about the past (that inform so much of the slow food movement) and the most radical critiques of contemporary technology and our post-industrial world. In many ways, this introduction will allow me to return to formulations of slow archaeology presented in past publications, to respond to some thoughtful critiques, and, frankly, walk back some of the more ideologically fraught positions that I’ve found myself occupying.

More than that, it’ll frame the book as a good faith effort to infuse the discipline — and academic archaeology, in particular — with a greater attention to social critique. Slowing down pushes us to consider how our choices of technology, our organization of work, and disciplinary practice shapes not only the kind of information that archaeology produces, but also the kind of social relations that define our field.  

Part I: Slow Archaeology as Research

Chapter 1: Slow Archaeology in the Field.

This chapter would emphasize slow practice in the field. It’ll look at the technologies that have become our constant companions from GPS units to mobile phones, digital cameras, and, increasingly, tablet computers and consider how these technologies have changed the ways we view landscapes, survey units, stratigraphy, and most importantly, the organization of archaeological work. 

This will draw on my own experience in the field in Greece and Cyprus and leverage the growing body of work that draws upon ethnographic practices and historical research to understand the organization of archaeological labor in the past and the present.

Chapter 2: Slow Archaeology and Analysis

This chapter considers how slow archaeology can inform the tools that archaeologists have increasingly come to use for analysis. These took ranges from relational databases to GIS, computer aided illustrating tools, 3D imaging and manipulation technologies, and even the ubiquitous laptop or desktop computer.

The chapter will drawn upon my own experiences as well as projects like “The Secret Life of Data” project from the Alexandria Archive Institute and the work of folks like Costis Dallas and others who are working to produce an ethnography of digital practices. The goals is not to reject digital technology in analysis, but to argue for a more attentive set of practices in our use of digital tools.

Chapter 3: Slow Archaeology and Writing

This chapter would consider how a slow archaeology would shape the writing and dissemination of archaeological knowledge. Over the last 40 years, archaeologists have become increasingly attuned to how our forms of archaeological writing shape the arguments we make. This chapter won’t add much to this larger discussion, but will present an updated survey of recent efforts to explore more nuanced, complex, and affective forms of archaeological writing and presentation. 

Part 2: Slow Archaeology and the Academy

This chapter will look at three key areas of archaeological work through the lens of slow archaeology: professional practices, teaching, and publishing. The goal is to extend the basic critical principles of slow practice beyond the field work to publishing continuum and think about how both teaching slow practices and engaging in slow archaeology could shape a wider range of disciplinary practices in academic archaeology.

Chapter 4: Slow Archaeology as Professional Practices

This will be a grab bag chapter that considers things like graduate seminars, academic conferences, and even peer reviewing as places where various slow practices provide a  basis for critiquing academic archaeology. This chapter would argue that slow archaeology questions how archaeologists communicate with one another and the underlying practices and goals associated with supposed “merit-based” methods of advancement. To be clear, this chapter will consider how “generous thinking” can serve to undermine the persistent fantasy that the current set of disciplinary practices advance the best possible candidates to positions of leadership in our field. 

It will suggest that unconferences, collaborative projects, and greater efforts to engage with the community can challenge competitive models of advancement increasingly grounded in quantified methods for evaluating research and performance. In its place, slow archaeology proposes convivial practices that celebrate diversity, plurality of views, and egalitarian methods of creating new knowledge.

Chapter 5: Slow Archaeology and Teaching

Like the previous chapter, this chapter will develop conviviality as a mode through which to understand teaching at the university level (and ideally beyond). I’ve written a bit about this already without explicitly invoking slow archaeology, but I think my critique of technology and the “assessocracy” is consistent with my larger critique technologically-mediated and efficiency-driven archaeological practices. The emphasis here will largely be on the undergraduate classroom and I’ll lean on my work with the Wesley College Documentation Project as a case study.

Chapter 6: Slow Archaeology and Publishing

I’ve already developed many of the main ideas for this chapter in a paper that I submitted last fall titled: Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics. In a nutshell, this article proposes that changes in technology have allowed archaeologists to approach publishing in new and collaborative ways that can challenge the traditional role of publishers in our discipline. Like the other chapters in the book, this will chapter will demonstrate how slow archaeology is not necessarily anti-technology, but rather an approach to technology that allows for a more critical and ideally responsible (and egalitarian) approach to the discipline.

Conclusion: Toward a Slower Discipline

The final part of the book will look to the place of slow archaeology amid the changes taking place within the discipline of archaeology — from the casualization of academic labor, the rise of the assessocracy, and the pressure on our field to become more diverse, pluralistic, and responsive to a wider range of communities.

It goes without saying that slow archaeology will not solve all the discipline’s problems nor is it somehow above critique. Instead, I’ll suggest that slow practices have a place within our archaeological toolkit and offers ways to critique long-standing archaeological practices and create new ways of engaging with the public, students, and our peers.

Plague and Famine in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

Tomorrow I’m presenting in Prof. Sercan Yandim Aydin and Prof. Luca Zavagno’s Byzantium at Ankara seminar series in a session titled “Famine and Plagues in Byzantium: archaeology, documentary and hagiography in a comparative perspective.”

I have to admit to feeling more than a little nervous about the topic which is pretty far from my core area of expertise (however narrow that might be). I’ve spend the last few days reviewing some of the key works on the topic of plague and famine, and I have to admit that it’s been a nice break from my other simmering projects.

While I’m not planning to present a formal paper, it’s useful for me to get my ideas together. For the following observations, I’m indebted to the crowd-sourced “Archaeology of Epidemics” syllabus.

It seems to me that the archaeology of plagues and famines recognizes the long-standing ties between disease and sedentary agriculture. The latter tends to be a precondition for  historical understandings of famine (although famines are, of course, possible among hunter-gatherers, many of the preconditions for famine appear to be more prominent among settled agrarians than more mobile hunter-gatherers). More than that, settled agriculture increased human proximity to animals, to one another, and to human waste and distinct environmental conditions which undoubtedly contributed to an increase rates of infectious diseases. Settled agriculture is obviously case in the Later Roman and Byzantine Empires as were a series of epidemics (that verge on being pandemics) starting in the late 2nd century and continuing through the middle-8th century.

The second basic idea for any consideration of plagues and famines in the past is that both phenomena are incredibly complex and generally the result of multiple variable. Diseases, for example, can vary not only on the biological level. Yeresinia Pestis, for example, is a bacteria transmitted primarily by rats and humans; Malaria, as another example, is an amoeba transmitted by a limited number of types of mosquitos. Cholera and Typhoid are primarily transmitted through contaminated water (and food). The range of different kinds of diseases, therefore, impacts the ways in which diseases spread, take hold, and impact mortality.

Famines likewise represent a series of conditions that range from weather and climate to economic and political decisions. Famine often results in malnutrition and compromised immune systems that can produce not only a greater susceptibility to  The relationship between famine and disease then requires that we consider not only politics, ecology, economics, and environmental conditions, but also the distinctive character of the diseases moving through the human population.

The archaeology of plague and famine in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Mediterranean has its own unique characteristics as well. There are four major trends, I think, in how archaeologists have approached these phenomena.

1. Bioarchaeology. Certainly the most sensational efforts to understand disease in the ancient world have come from bioarchaeologists. The publication of evidence for Yersinia Pestis (the Bubonic Plague) in dental pulp DNA samples from two 6th century cemeteries in Bavaria has added weight to hypothesis that the Justinianic plague was, indeed, the Bubonic plague, although as a few commentators have noted, 10 individuals with the plague in a rather remote region hardly represents a meaningful sample of the Mediterranean population at the time.

The challenges facing bioarchaeology involve not only the still-developing technologies necessary to analyze human skeletal remains at the scale necessary to produce a sufficiently significant body of evidence to allow for large scale conclusions. More than that, only certain kinds of diseases leave recognizable traces in human remains. Tuberculosis, for example, leaves tell-tale lesions on bones, but other illnesses like malaria are more elusive meaning that our view of epidemics illnesses in the ancient world will likely remain uneven for the time.

2. Climate and Environmental Archaeology. The second major trend in understanding plagues and famines in Late Antiquity is the growing interest in ancient climate change and the role of climate and the environment in creating conditions favorable with the development of epidemic and pandemic outbreaks of disease. The most thorough version of this approach is Kyle Harper’s 2017 book  The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017)  or the recent volume of the Late Antique Archaeology series dedicated to Environment and Society in the Long Late Antiquity (Brill 2018).

Harper and others have sought to understand the appearance of pandemic scale diseases in the late 2nd century, starting with the Antonine plague, and continuing through to the Justinian’s plague. Harper argues that end of the Roman Climate Optimum and the start of the Late Antique Ice Age (and the Late Antique Little Ice Age) may have created environmental conditions suitable for spread of new diseases in the Mediterranean basin. Harper and other scholars who have emphasized that large scale climate change is not an explanation in and of itself, but the impact of these changes must be understood in the context of both local environmental conditions and the larger political and social world of Late Antiquity. There is little doubt however that changes in global climate triggered changes in the agricultural regimes that contributed to “years without summer” and subsequent famines that are known from literary sources. The wide ranging debate around the “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE” and its connection to the Justinianic plague is only one such example.

As any number of scholars have shown in recent years, for example the work done by Haldon, Elton and Newhart have done in Anatolia, regional variation in the environment plays a significant role in understand the impact of climate change at the local level. Sturt Manning has recently made clear the significant inter-annual variations in rain fall on Cyprus, which may have had as much of an impact on the health and prosperity of communities than large scale climate variation on the global level. Roman efforts to drain swamps, build roads, and deforest hills would have introduced new hydrological patterns that would have supported, for example, the mosquitos that carried malaria, as Robert Sallares has shown in his work. Bret Shaw has argued on the basis of epigraphic data from across the Mediterranean that there are clear seasonal patterns of mortality. The wide range of variables that contribute to these patterns include local weather during the hotter and more humid late summer months whose impact on the mortality of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis remains difficult to assess.

Environmental archaeology has also shed valuable light on global conditions that could have disrupted plague foci in, for example, rodent colonies in Central Asia or East Africa which would have dispatched plague bearing fleas to the Mediterranean through established trade routes in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Understanding these phenomena, of course, is extremely complex and we’re only at the very beginning of understand the existence of disease foci and their relationship to climate conditions. In fact, both of these things as independent variables remain difficult to understand much less in relation to one another.

That being said, a growing body of environmental proxies from Greenland ice cores to dendrochronology is beginning to allow us to map global climate change in antiquity. Unfortunately the chronological resolution and distribution of this data does not always coincide with the kinds of historical questions that Mediterranean archaeologists and historians are asking. Moreover, they do not always make the cause of climate variation clear and are often difficult to correlate with local conditions. This isn’t to say that this work is not producing meaningful results, but that the impact of climate science on our understanding of specific historical events like the Justinianic plaque continues to develop.

3. Archaeological Evidence. Michael McCormick, one of the leading scholars in the study of plagues in antiquity, has pulled together the evidence for mass burials in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period and published it in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. McCormick recognizes that these kinds of direct evidence for episodes of mass mortality may well provide indications of plague events and coincide with evidence from literary sources for mass burials.

The challenge, of course, is that the situation and dates of many of these mass burials remain unclear. In some cases, such as Kopetra on Cyprus, where a cistern becomes the tomb for at least 9 individuals, there is reason to at least suspect that these are people who died from disease. In other cases, like the Andritsa cave in Argolid, it’s more challenging to see the bodies of over 50 individuals as victims of the disease alone and might be better recognized as the result of a complex series of events that range from diseases and famine to regional political or military disruptions. As with efforts to understand the relationship between climate and disease, it seems likely that many of these burials represent the intersection of a series of conditions including the availability of a cave or a cistern for a mass burial. The analysis of the demographics of the individuals, when such data is available, and any chronological clustering of the incidents of mass burial likewise allow for a more refined interpretation of these events. McCormick shows that of the 48 mass burials datable to between 300 and 800, 36 of them occurred during the 6th and 7th century. That being said, the ongoing efforts to refine the dating of Late Roman ceramics, for example, may well complicate the chronology of these burials or at least complicate any clear correlation between events datable in the literary sources to a particular year or span and shifting archaeological chronologies.

4. Landscape, Settlement, and Demography. Finally, there has been a massive amount of attention on Late Roman settlement and demography over the last twenty years prompted in part by the rise in landscape and regional survey projects that have shed valuable light not only on rural settlement, but also on the relationship between city and country and between various regions in the Mediterranean basin.

On the most basic level questions of demography and settlement patterns provide a backdrop for the economic conditions present in the long Late Antiquity. As our understanding of the countryside, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, improves and reveals a “busy countryside” in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, traditional arguments for large scale demographic and economic decline have become less compelling. The neighborhood of the mass burial at Kopetra and the Andritsa cave in the Western Argolid appear to be active and even moderately prosperous with imported table wares, storage and transport amphora, and purpose made cooking pots appearing in urban and rural areas alike. Of course, this is not meant to suggest that plagues cannot strike economically prosperous communities or that they necessarily would have a negative impact on local economies, but to challenge views of the Late Antique landscape which saw conditions of decline and deprivation as particularly suitable for the outbreak of disease.

Instead, recent work has emphasized the ongoing connectivity of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and this connectivity goes well beyond well-known links between major urban centers or regions and now involves the myriad of small links that constituent the dense networks of small-scale and local exchange between microregions. These connections provided the Late Antique world with its remarkable resilience in times of political or environmental stress, and, at the same time, established the context for the spread of disease throughout the Later Roman world.

At present, our efforts to understand the character and extent of this connectivity in a nuanced way remains in its infancy. For example, we’re only now making strides to understand the countryside in the neighborhood of Adritsa Cave which in many ways shows remarkable continuity with earlier centuries. This makes it difficult to present even a local or regional context for this unusual site much less ascertain its place within larger regional trends.

~

If my contribution tomorrow does anything, I hope that I’m able to present a view of the archaeology of plagues and famines that provides some disciplinary context. This involves not only understanding the larger methodological trends that characterize research on these topics including bioarchaeology, environmental archaeology, excavations, and survey projects, but also emphasizes the epistemological and practical limits that shape archaeological discourse.

It’s cliche to note that the goal of archaeology is not necessarily to supplement the narratives established by historians and scholars of texts. In fact, archaeological evidence often remains oddly incompatible with these disciplines. Often the incommensurability stems from the different scales at which we operate. Even with the precisions of dendrochronology, most archaeological dates established through C14 dating or conventional ceramic typologies are more broad and imprecise than dates provided in texts.

As significantly, archaeologists sometimes work at the highly focused scale of a single site, part of a site, or trench, where evidence for phenomena like plagues may not be immediately visible. This situation means that even when archaeologists work at the scale of the region, we’re often forced to recognize that our inconsistent sample is better suited to understanding intraregional variation especially when considered at finer chronological resolutions.

Advances in bioarchaeological sampling are unlikely to resolve these issues quickly because of variability in discovery and preservation of human remains, the need to secure samples through particularly rigorous and time consuming excavation techniques that are not always possible, and the cost of analysis. The same holds true for many of the techniques that are producing important insights into regional environmental conditions that require specific situations (e.g. anaerobic lake beds), expertise, and funding that not all projects can access in the same way. The resulting patchworks, like the 10 individuals with the plague in Germany, will result in datasets that seemingly beg to be over generalized or dismissed as outliers especially in their relationship to particular environmental or epidemiological events.

Where archaeology shines is in providing evidence for long-term trends at the regional level and recognizing the ebb and flow of populations, prosperity, connectivity, and settlement. Plagues and famines while seemingly more common between the 3rd and 8th century often emerge as mere blips on the archaeological radar and soon disappear again the backdrop of persistent activity and the resilience of long-standing communities.

While this will likely disappoint historians who persist in their hope that archaeology or archaeological science can unlock the relationship between climate, disease, populations, economies, and politics, maybe it’ll be heartening in our contemporary situation where the COVIDs seem destined the fundamentally transform our everyday life. Viewed at the archaeological scale, it may be that The COVID pandemic will appear as little more than some discarded latex gloves and empty bottles of hand sanitizer.

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.