Three Things Thursday: New Book, Teaching, and

It’s a Thursday at the end of the semester and I’m thinking about a new book that is neck deep in production, another book that is getting some good attention, some teaching situations that are amusing me, and …

Thing the First

This weekend, I’m wrapping up final edits on a new book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook edited by Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson. The book is due out in “early May” and is published in collaboration with the Rural Women’s Studies Association and will be featured at their meeting next month.

Here’s the blurb:

Sharing recipes is a form of intimate conversation that nourishes body and soul, family and community. Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook integrates formal scholarship with informal reflections, analyses of recipe books with heirloom recipes, and text with images to emphasize the ways that economics, politics, and personal meaning come together to shape our changing relationships with food. By embracing elements of history, rural studies, and women’s studies, this volume offers a unique perspective by relating food history with social dynamics. It is sure to inspire eclectic dining and conversations.  

Stay tuned for a landing page!

Thing the Second

The National Hellenic Research Foundation (Το Εθνικό Ίδρυμα Ερευνών) is hosting a digital conference next week on Mapping settlement desertion in Southeastern Europe from Antiquity to the Modern Era (the program is here and you can register here). The conference starts next Thursday and in the afternoon (8 pm EEST/12 pm CDT), there’ll be a presentation by Rebecca M. Seifried on the most recent title from The Digital Press: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean, edited by Seifried and Deborah Brown Stewart.

This will be a great chance for Seifried to bring the amazing work in this volume to a larger audience. I can’t stress enough both how impressed I am by the work in this volume and satisfied with my own contributions. If you haven’t downloaded a copy, you should here! Or, better still, grab a paper copy here.  

Thing the Third

As the semester has wound down, I’ve taken to thinking a bit about end of the semester work in my classes. In my introductory level history class, I use a few assignments to close the loop and to try to get students to reflect critically on the skills that they’ve learned in the class.

The class revolves around a series of group exercises which bring together individual work into more synthetic essays and projects. The best groups have a system in place “to workflow” this process and are now producing consistently high quality work.

My favorite late semester assignment involves asking students to rank the other groups’ work. These rankings are kept private, and there’s an essay required from each student that explains their rankings. The goal of the assignment isn’t so much to rank other students’ work, but to demonstrate that they can read each others’ work critically. 

The upside of this is that the best students who have really understood what I’ve been prattling on about all semester tend to do a nice job.

The downside is that by the end of the semester, so many students are struggling with workloads in other classes, burn out after the full school year, and the temptation of warming weather, summer break, and even graduation. As a result, just when my students are at a stage where they could start to reinforce (or at least demonstrate) how well they’ve understood the methods and approaches that I teach in class, they are also at the point where it’s hard for them to find the time and energy to do it.

The result is unsatisfactory, with the best and the worst students (who often reappear at the end of the semester with heroic promises and struggle mightily) performing to expectation, but the broad middle ground of students presenting a muddled mass which doesn’t really tell me much (and probably does even less to accomplish my pedagogical goals). It’s always frustrating when the best made plans crash against the reality of a complicated classroom.   

Baptisteries

Over the Easter weekend, I worked a bit a long simmering project on the Early Christian baptisteries of Greece. Since it seems likely that, initially, baptisms occurred primarily during the Easter vigil, it felt appropriate.

IMG 6080

The project includes a brief overview of the archaeological and architectural evidence and then a short catalogue of known buildings. At present, we don’t have much to say that would be unfamiliar to folks who have spent some time on these building. At the same time, there are few things that I hadn’t noticed before. My dissertation did not deal with baptisteries specifically as part of my study of Early Christian churches more generally, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, some of the most interesting buildings come from the Dodecanese which were both outside my dissertation’s specific purview and outside the Diocese of Illyricum Orientale. As part of the Diocese of Asia and the Prefecture of the East (at least until the early 6th century), it also seems likely to have enjoyed different liturgical traditions than regions in the Western facing Diocese of Illyricum Orientale.

Here are my random thoughts:

1. Baptisteries of Kos and Rhodes. There are at least eight known Early Christian baptisteries on Kos. This is an impressive total even for this relatively large island. It’s a bit hard to understand why a single place would require so many baptisteries if they all functioned more or less simultaneously and if the tradition was for the bishop to conduct baptisms only once per year. It may be, of course, that multiple bishops—representing multiple variants of Christianity—functioned on the island. It is also possible that not all the churches and baptisteries functioned simultaneously. Rhodes likewise has seven baptisteries which once again suggests either diverse communities or a rite administered by someone other than the bishop.

Considering that both of these islands are near the edge of an ecclesiastical diocese, this would bring them in contact with rites and practices common to both the Aegean (and the West) and the diverse Christianities present in Asia Minor.   

2. Locating the Baptistery. Athanassios Mailis observed in his short article on the baptisteries on Crete that baptisteries in the Dodecanese tended to appear more frequently on the eastern side of the churches. In mainland Greece, however, baptisteries tended to appear as annexes attached to the narthex or atrium. If I had understood this more clearly when I was writing my dissertation, I might have been able to connect this location of the baptisteries themselves to the movement of catechumens during the baptismal rite (or even during the weekly liturgy). If we assume that the narthex and atrium served as buffers between the “profane” space of the outside world and the sacred space of the church’s processional axis as well as staging areas for the various liturgical processions, then the presence of baptisteries adjacent to these liminal zones would reflect the liminal status of participants in the baptismal rites. More over, it might allow for a post-baptismal procession from the baptistery into the church.

The location the baptistery in the eastern part of the church associates the baptistery spatially with the bema and suggests a rite that may do less to emphasize the liminal status of the participants and more to emphasize the liturgical or even sacramental character of baptism and the baptismal font. While it’s hard to necessarily make any particular claims on the basis of the location of the baptistery, it is suggestive that the two regions understood the place of the rite in different ways both ritually and, perhaps, practically.

3. Multiple Fonts. I had always found the two fonts present at the Lechaion baptistery outside of Corinth pretty interesting. It was impossible to know whether the second, smaller font, represented a change in ritual or perhaps a supplement to the more monumental font in the center of the baptistery proper. 

I was struck when I came to realize that on Kos a number of churches have a similar arrangement with a smaller secondary font associated with the larger main font. This suggests to me change in liturgical ritual, perhaps associated with the development of infant baptism. By this logic, the larger central fonts likely reflected the requirements of adult baptism (and the functioning of an adult catechumenate). This, to me, indicates ongoing conversion of adults into the 6th century which is the latest possible date for many of these buildings and the emergence of infant baptism (which would represent second generation Christians) only sometime after this. We can allow, of course, for a certain amount of architectural conservatism in the design of baptisteries, but I still think that appearance of smaller secondary fonts is worthy of note.

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It’s been a pleasure to return to material and ideas that I explored over 20 years ago as I was working on my dissertation. The time away has ensured that the buildings, rituals, places, and arguments are a bit more fresh to me but still oddly familiar. I’m excited to share more about this small project in the coming weeks of Eastertide!     

Degrowth and Archaeology

This week has been hectic, but I managed to find some time the read James Flexner’s recent article in Archaeological Dialogues 27 (2020) titled “Degrowth and a sustainable future for archaeology.” 

I have to admit when I first skimmed it, I was pretty skeptical that the degrowth movement had much to offer archaeology as a discipline. Degrowth, broadly speaking, calls for voluntary efforts to reduce productivity in an effort to produce a more humane and sustainable world. It sees capitalism’s constant need for growth as firing the ever increasing rise in consumerism which, in turn, demands more and more exploitative labor regimes and extractive practices, with their attendant damages, on a global scale. Flexner and others who champion degrowth advocate for practices that demonstrate that the situations brought about by capitalism are neither inevitable nor unavoidable. By emphasizing collective, convivial, and caring practices in the place of choices directed by capitalism and consumerism, the degrowth movement looks to model another kind of future. 

This is utopian, of course, but like most utopias, the ideas explored by advocates for degrowth are not entirely naive. In fact, Flexner’s piece is another in a recent surge of articles that critique (in their own ways) the character of labor practices both in academic and professional archaeology. Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed  Allison Mickel’s new book, Why Those Who Shovel are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor (University Press of Colorado 2021) which considers the colonial aspects of archaeological labor.  Mary Leighton has written about “performative informality” in archaeology which highlights how  certain informal practices — drinking, sexual liaisons, banter and bullying — within contemporary academic archaeology serve a gatekeeping function that excludes a wide range of individuals from professional advancement. Just this week, Barbara Voss has published her two part study of “cultures of harassment in archaeology.” I’ve not read these yet, but they’re atop my pile. You can check them out here and here. As someone who has spent the better part of 25 years doing archaeological field work each summer, I have yet to find any aspect of the recent critiques of archaeological practices as inaccurate or inconsistent with my experiences (and in some cases my own behavior over the years). I’d like to think that my work on slow archaeology contributes to this conversation as well. 

Flexner’s call for degrowth looks to the fundamental problems associated with work, and archaeology in particular, within a capitalist system. He notes the oft-critiqued relationship between CRM and Heritage management and development which has increasingly pushed archaeology into a supporting role for those who seek to commodify the past or eradicate it in the name of progress and profits. Academic archaeology is no more pure as the publish or perish world of the ersatz meritocracy masks vast inequalities in opportunity and obscures exploitative labor practices driven by an often desperate need to collect more data, do more work, and make more knowledge in order to achieve or maintain precarious professional status. Anyone who has worked in the field has heard stories of academic projects that engage in dangerous practices, that push volunteer workers and staff beyond the level of exhaustion by maintaining crazy work hours and expectations, and that use the specter of professional critique as a prod to always do more often at the expense of quality, the physical well-being of archaeologists, and personal relationships. Of course, not all projects are like this, and all projects (I’d contend) have their moments when fatigue, stress, and passion for the work blur our judgement. 

That said, it is easy enough to recognize in academic field archaeology a kind of Wild West of academic labor (which I’m sure is also common in lab sciences and other fields). In these situations, the pursuit of professional riches (usually metaphorically) promotes the breakdown of the kind of conviviality and care that might mitigate not only the exploitative labor regimes present in so much archaeological work, but also (and frankly) the erosion of human decency which these regimes tend to promote. My work on slow archaeology, whatever its flaws (and they are many), has suggested that the emphasis on efficiency in archaeological practices has reinforced the tendency of the discipline to think about field work as a kind of industrial production or even as logistical challenge. In some of these situations, the tendency to dehumanize workers is not bug, but a feature. Since academic archaeology lacks (even the faulty and porous) fail-safes that have developed to protect workers in professional archaeological practice, industrial production, and other forms of skilled and semi-skilled labor (e.g. unions or even OSHA, even as  professional ethical guidelines exist, there are rarely mechanisms to enforce them), there are few ways for volunteers, students, and other workers on academic projects to seek protection. (As a relevant aside, the stories of excavators digging in flip-flops or photos of diggers standing beneath massive unsupported baulks make my blood run cold.) 

Flexner’s article reminded me that the problems within archaeology are related to the problems of capitalism particularly when it intersects with academic practices that which blend, on the one hand, pressures to achieve (often moving) professional and disciplinary benchmarks and, on the other hand, environments where traditional hierarchies, remote locations, limited funds, and seasonal schedules make the enforcement safeguards difficult.  

So while I remain skeptical of degrowth as a “solution” to archaeological problems (and to be clear, Flexner is not naive), I think Flexner’s effort to show that many of archaeology’s problems stem from its deep engagement with capitalistic expectations of productivity are commendable. More than that, an awareness of the link between capitalism and the wide range of problems surrounding academic labor might offer ways to reform the discipline that strike to the root of these problems rather than simply trying to paper over the worst offenses with calls for increased professionalism, oversight, policies, and management. It might sound simplistic or silly, but Flexner and other degrowth advocates interest in de-emphasizing the status of “the project” (with attendant professionally defined goals) and considering more fully how the discipline benefits the individual participants and broader social goals might offer a more productive, if challenging route to reform.   

Digital Practices, Workflows, and Scholar-Led Publishing

Yesterday I submitted an abstract for the 2021 ASOR annual meeting. It felt like a little expression of hope that things might have returned to a certain kind of normal by next fall. 

I proposed my paper for the third year in a workshop dedicated to “Best Practices for Digital Scholarship” organized by Sarah Kansa and Chuck Jones. It’s in the third year of a three year run and the topic for this year is “perspectives on publishing digital content.”    

My paper is titled “Digital Practices, Workflows, and Scholar-Led Publishing.” It argues that there are three trends that have shaped changes in scholarly publishing: (1) the rise of digital practices in the field which have created both new forms of archaeological information, (2) the decline in library spending and concomitant clamor for more open access resources in archaeology, and (3) the growing precarity and contingency in the archaeological job market. I’d like to argue that changes in both field practices and in the structure of academic labor and institutional priorities are converging and this will encourage new forms of publishing practices. 

I’ve explored many of the ideas that anchor issue (1) in a paper that I submitted last year for a volume edited by Kevin Garstki that emerged from the 2018 IEMA Conference at Buffalo on ““Critical Archaeology in a Digital Age.” You can read it here

It may be that my contribution to the ASOR workshop will focus more on issues (2) and (3). Scholar-led publishing, for example, relies on the willingness of scholars to take on some of the responsibilities traditionally organized or performed by publishers. These range from conducting peer review to copy-editing, book layout and design, and marketing and promotion of published open access books. The reasons for this are complex, of course. I’d contend that some of the shine associated with traditional high value publishers (e.g. Cambridge, Oxford, Chicago, Princeton, et c.) has dulled in some ways because scholars not on the tenure-track no longer feel the need to publish with presses whose prestige is partly tied to their reputation for producing books capable of earning their authors tenure. To go a step further, I’d contend that stagnation of faculty salaries at many institutions and the drift from pay scales anchored in merit to those shaped by a philosophy of austerity has undermined the status of traditional publishers as well. Austerity measures have similarly reduced the purchasing power of libraries, one of the main consumers of traditional academic monographs, and encouraged the rise of open access publishing. This, in turn, has garnered open access publishing its own kind of prestige in academic circles.

Open access publishing is further supported by the continued refinement of publishing software which makes it relatively easy to produce high quality layouts and designs. Print-on-demand technology supported by behemoths like Amazon and Ingram as well as a revolving door of smaller start ups makes it possible to create, sell, and distribute low-cost, decent-quality paperbacks and high-quality hardcover books without investing in massive print runs. For digital books, the rise in both academic and commercial repositories now support an expansive ecosystem of self-archived and open access publications accessible on the web. Social media offers a viable, if sometimes uneven, platform for both targeted and dispersed marketing.

In sum, many of the financial, technological, and professional barriers that have discouraged small-scale academic publishers appear to be diminishing at the same moment when many outwardly successful academic presses are under threat from within their institutions. To be clear, I don’t see scholar-led, open access publishing as replacing traditional academic publishers. Nor do I see this as an either/or situation, but rather as part of the ongoing transformation of both the academic and publishing landscape.

Here’s my abstract:

Digital Practices, Workflows, and Scholar-Led Publishing

Over the past thirty years digital practices have significantly changed archaeological workflows. The distinctive character of digital data now characterizes the processes associated with archaeological knowledge making from the trench or survey unit to the final publication. This shift has coincided with fundamental changes to scholarly publishing which is negotiating the strains of reduced library budgets and challenges linked to the growing pressure and expectation of open access publishing models. At the same time, recent years have seen a shift in the academic job market away from tenured and tenure stream positions and toward a more contingent and precarious workforce. It is hardly surprising, then, that the confluence of these unsettled conditions have provided a critical context for reconsidering the role digital practices play in scholarly publishing. This paper will sketch out the role of small-scale, scholar-led, open access publishing at the amid the increasingly digital character of archaeological publishing, the changing ecosystem of scholarly publishing, and the growing instability and precarity of careers in academic archaeology.

~

This is obviously new terrain for me and, as always, I’m eager to hear any and all thoughts on my ideas!

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Writing, and Hope

Next week is spring break and this means that the semester has only six weeks or so left. It also means that spring deadlines are barreling at me with alarming speed. This is both invigorating and challenging, of course, but I suppose the on-rush of deadlines, overlapping obligations, and complicated priorities is part of what makes academic life is so intoxicating to so many people.

This week’s Three Thing Thursday will focus on spring time and spring semester hope.

Thing the First

I’ve made no secret of my attitude toward hybrid and hyflex teaching this semester. I’ve come to dislike the grid of black boxes that constitute most of my Zoom meetings with students and dividing my attention between faceless and largely unresponsive students on Zoom and face-full and rather more responsive students in the classroom. 

That being said, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the work done by students in my History 101 class. As the number suggests, this class is an introductory level history class with a range of students from freshmen to graduating seniors. They mostly work in groups and do weekly assignments that involve both short form writing (500-1000 word essays) and both the synthesis of secondary source material and the analysis of primary source material.

Because of room capacity restrictions, I meet with each group for only about 40 minutes per week, and during this time, I lay out in detail the weekly work and give detailed feedback on previous assignments. The groups have time to ask questions, get comments clarified, and indulge their curiosity about the weekly subjects. As one might expect, the students are not particularly eager to engage with me during the class sessions, but the work that they’re producing in their groups is among the best that I’ve every encountered in my five or so years of running a class on this basic model. 

In other words, despite the hybrid Zoom situation, despite COVID, and despite all the other challenges of this strange academic year, my students are generally outperforming my classes during more typical semesters. I don’t think this is because I’m doing better as an instructor. I think it’s because the students have started to not only adapt, but also figured out how thrive in this strange learning environment.

Thing the Second 

I’m having fun writing this semester. While I don’t have a tremendous amount of time to commit to sustained writing projects, I’m finding little windows to write and savoring those moments. Right now, I’m trying to finish up the conclusion of my book project. This is a strange thing to write as I don’t want to be so arrogant to suggest that my book resolves in some kind of structured way. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that any kind of resolution offed in the conclusion somehow reflects reality. In other words, I don’t want to ever imply that my book could represent a plausible or totalizing reflection of the world. So, I’m trying to wrap up what I’ve said in my various chapters and then open the book up again to the complexities of the real world. This has turned out to be a challenge!

I’m also starting to work with David Pettegrew on a short piece about the Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. It’s wonderful to dip my toes back into the world of Early Christian archaeology and architecture and familiarize myself with some recent work and some older works that I haven’t looked at since the early 21st century! I’m enjoying thinking about the archaeology and architecture of these buildings with eyes refined by 15 years of more detailed study Early Christian buildings and their contexts. 

Finally, I have lots of bits and bobs projects to finish that involve filling in a little gap here and editing a little thing there. I really have come to enjoy these opportunities to think more carefully about my writing in a narrowly defined context. For so long I’ve struggled to put words on the page in a consistent way and worked to find ways to get over my writers’ block. Now, I feel like I can start to build some habits that allow me to not only write, but even to write reflectively and reflexively.

Thing the Third   

I can’t help feel a certain amount of hope the kind of year. Over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog I posted a couple poems from our forthcoming issue (88.1/2 for those keeping track at home!). The poems speak of the promise of spring (no matter how fragile and fleeting) as well the possibility for hope in a world full of potential. 

At the risk of being maudlin, do go and enjoy some poetry! 

Byzantine Landscapes

I read with great excitement Fotini Kondyli and Sarah Craft’s article in the most recent Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology. It’s titled “The Making of a Byzantine Monastic Landscape: A Case Study from the Mazi Plain in Northwest Attica, Greece,” and in an honest-to-goodness article on the archaeology of Byzantine landscapes in Greece. This is exciting for any number of reasons, but because there are so few articles that take Byzantine landscapes seriously as a quick skim of the article’s bibliography shows.

More than that, this article building upon traditional concern of Byzantine archaeologists and starts with the well-known monastery of Hosios Meletios and builds upon what we understand about that site’s history and architecture. The authors then trace the possible contours of the productive and religious landscape centered on the monastery across the Mazi plan. For example, they notice the use of cloisonné masonry, marble, and distinctive local stones in the architecture of the paralavaria (subsidiary churches) that might have connected these buildings to the monastery at Hosios Meletios. It’s interesting that the local porous stone associated with Megara would have made the links between the monastery at that city not only material visible in these churches, but its rough texture might have made the connections literally tangible. 

More than that, the authors fold in information grounded in an understanding of local routes through the region and argue that the paralavaria stood at places positioned to attract pilgrims, take advantage of the local movement of agriculture, and potentially monitor movement through the Mazi plain. The analysis of ceramics in the vicinity of these buildings supplemented these broader topographic conclusions by bolstering the arguments, at least in some cases, that these building were Byzantine in date. It would be interesting to understand a bit more about the distribution of glazed fine wares in the region and what their visible presence around a ruined church might say about its Byzantine and post-Byzantine function. Would Byzantine sherds be more likely to be visible around buildings abandoned in the Byzantine period  because churches that continued to attract attention tended to see the kinds of modification and surface cleaning that might erase or obscure the small number of Byzantine fine ware that might be expected at these sites?

This paper got me thinking—with more than a bit of regret!—how most of my regional level research has tended to be in areas oddly devoid of a clear Byzantine presence in the landscape. Our survey area in the Western Argolid, for example, does not include any known Byzantine churches (although a few of the churches are almost certainly Ottoman in date). The Isthmus of Corinth is likewise devoid of obvious Byzantine monuments, although Ancient Corinth stood as an important Byzantine center, and it is impossible for me to believe that the Hexamilion fortress lacked a church. The only area where there was a clear Byzantine signature on the landscape was the southeastern Corinthia where the Panayia at Steiri (perhaps 10th century?) stands between the village of Korphos and Sophiko amid a network of other Middle Byzantine and possibly late Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments. That I never thought more carefully about the interaction of these churches in this once bustling corner of the Peloponnesus, is something that will continue to bother me.

Maybe sometime in the future when the COVIDs have settled and I have a bit more bandwidth, I can head back to the Corinthia (maybe with the authors of the article!) and think big picture about that landscape again. In the meantime, (always be closing, right?), do check out what David Pettegrew and I wrote about the settlement of Lakka Skoutara down the (dirt) road from the church at Steiri and the lovely Middle Byzantine monastic churches around Sophiko

Why Those Who Shovel are Silent

This weekend, I read Allison Mickel’s wonderful new book, Why Those Who Shovel are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor (University Press of Colorado 2021). It’s pretty great and if the title appeals to you at all, then you’re best served by just going and buying a copy and reading it rather than mucking around with my blog post.

The book draws on ethnographic research at Çatalhöyük and the site of the Temple of the Winged Lions at Petra in Jordan. She analyzed the role of local labor in the work that these projects undertook both in the past and the present and demonstrates how certain long-standing colonial attitudes among archaeologists and the organization of archaeological labor continue to shape local practices and attitudes toward field work.

Some of her conclusions are not particularly surprising. For example, excavators recruited workers — especially at Petra — for their value as manual laborers and treated them as movable cogs in their knowledge-making machine. The precarious and seasonal nature of archaeological work also mitigated the kinds of intellectual commitments that workers were willing to make to projects. Workers in the area around Çatalhöyük, for example, often found agricultural work more remunerative; workers at Petra found the history of harsh and often unpredictable treatment at the hands of the excavators as a disincentive to developing any strong attachment to work. Even as projects sought to involve workers more explicitly in the knowledge making process, whether as ethnographic and ethno-archaeological informants or as recognized authorities on excavation methods, situations, and processes, workers at both sites continued to feel alienated from the final interpretations produced by the excavators in part as a result of historical practices and partly owing to the continued hierarchical nature of archaeological organization. To be clear, Mickel’s analysis is far more nuanced and sophisticated than what I presented here, but it makes apparent that despite the differences between the situation of work at Petra and Çatalhöyük, both projects produced similar sense of distance between the understandings produced among local workers and the synthetic analysis of the site.

(One thing that this got me wondering about is how digital practices will, in the present and the future, create more distance from local workers and the conclusions. Mickel considers this slightly in the final chapter of the book where she notes that context recording sheets could contribute to the alienation experienced by workers (both local and academic). Digital practices which facilitates the collection of data and facilitates the displacement analysis from the trench side to computers and offices around the world might create even a larger gap between workers and analysis.)

The most interesting finding of Mickel’s work, at least to me, is the way in which local workers tended to downplay their expertise. This involved downplaying not only their ability as excavators (that is as expert laborers who could perform the specialized tasks of identifying and removing strata, exposing and recognizing artifacts, and contributing to the accurate recording of information at trench side)) as well their ability to analyze and interpret the results of their work. Mickel argues that this reflects long-standing practices of valuing local workers as pliable, laboring bodies, whose specific expertise could be held against them if it meant that they might appear arrogant or less willing to follow the lead of a trench supervisor or research archaeologist. It also reflected a view of local labor that emphasized their authenticity as sources of ethnoarchaeologial knowledge. This encouraged an attitude that rewarded individuals who possessed a body of knowledge that was separate and in some ways antithetical to archaeological knowledge. Again, Mickel’s reading here is significantly more subtle than what I’m presenting and worth reading.

Mickel is not afraid to propose solutions to the ethical dilemmas that contemporary and historical archaeological practices continue to pose. For her, adjusting the criteria for pay on projects so that it encourages and rewards not only labor, but also the expertise possessed by local workers who make the production of archaeological knowledge making possible. This adjustment to how projects treat local workers should extend to giving them opportunities to demonstrate and refine both their specific expertise, but also specialized skills associated with the interpretative and analytical work that often occurs outside of the context of labor in the field. This creates opportunities for “local knowledge” and “academic knowledge” (for lack of better terms) establishing a middle ground that disrupts the outmoded, but persistent dichotomy of indigenous versus scientific knowledge.

One thing that I did wonder about Mickel’s work how local labor in Greece might fit into the paradigms that she discussed at Çatalhöyük and Petra. She demonstrates clear parallels in South America, South Asia, elsewhere. Superficially, it would seem that local labor in Greece and Cyprus continue to provide ethnoarchaeological perspectives and basic manual labor to foreign projects. On the other hand, perhaps Greece and Cyprus have practices that anchored in distinctive experiences with colonialism, orientalism, and archaeological practices? 

This is in no way a critique. In fact, it demonstrates how Mickel’s approach and questions have fired my imagination. In particular, I appreciate her effort to shed more light on archaeological labor in the present. It seems to me that many of the issues that she discusses in the context of local labor here open onto the context of archaeological labor more broadly. There’s part of me that has come to realize that for archaeology to become more ethical, equitable, and fair a discipline, we have to remake fieldwork from the ground up. It also seems to me that this will force us to be willing to accept that this might mean fewer new academic excavations, more costly academic excavations, and greater attention to ethical practices that produce what we claim as archaeological knowledge.    

More on Early Christian Baptisteries from Greece

A couple of weeks ago, I started to write some of a short introduction to the baptisteries of Greece that I’m working on with David Pettegew. I’m assuming writing about the Early Christian architecture of Greece is a bit like riding a bike… That said, right now, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge of random information mostly culled from recent publications. Below, I continue my rambling discussion on the topic that I hope will take shape over the next few weeks!

This will get tightened-up, re-ordered, and expanded over the next month, but I figured that Tsiknopempti was better than almost any time to think about Early Christianity in Greece. The first paragraph is the same as the one that I wrote in my previous post, but then I proceed to talk a bit about trends in the arrangement of baptisteries in Greece before summarizing a case study from a relatively recent article by Athanassios Mailis (which you can read here).

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

The baptisteries found within the modern boundaries of the nation of Greece produce a fairly inconsistent picture of their arrangement and basic form. We may partly attribute this to the opaque chronology of many of these structures, which we will discuss below. It is also worth noting that the modern nation of Greece includes falls mainly within the prefecture of Illyricum Orientalis which was under the jurisdiction of Rome until the 8th century but some of the Eastern Aegean islands were part of the prefecture of Asia which fell under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. While the liturgical influences of these two ecclesiastical spheres remain obscure in most cases, despite the efforts of Dimitrios Pallas (1979/1980) to associate the Constitutiones Apostolorum with the region, there appear to be traces of both Constantinopolitan and Adriatic influences on the ecclesiastical architecture as well as distinctly local trends. This suggests that the region likely saw a range of inter- and intra-regional liturgical influences and practices that may have shaped the architectural arrangement of the baptisteries and their change over time. Athanasios Mailis’s survey of the baptisteries in Greece noted for example that 50% of the baptisteries from churches in Illyricum Orieantalis (16 of 32) appear as annexes on the western part of the building. For churches in the Aegean islands, in contrast, baptisteries that stood as annexes on the western part of the church account for less than 25% of known examples (6 of 27). Mailis observed that same number of baptisteries arranged around the eastern part of the church represent examples located exclusively on the neighboring islands of Kos and Rhodes. This provides a compelling example of what was likely a regional tradition of architecture that perhaps reflected distinctive theological or liturgical understanding of baptismal practices.

The four known baptisteries with fonts located within the eastern part of church buildings on Crete, at either the north or south end of the aisles, likewise suggest regional practices (Mailis 2006). This rather unusual arrangement of baptisteries on Crete also demonstrates how complicated understanding the chronology, function, and influences of such structures can be. The baptisteries in churches at Panormos,
Vyzari, Archangel Michael Episkope, all have high stylobates which separate the nave from the aisles and this is characteristic of churches from the Aegean and mainland Greece. Mailis suggests that the tripartite organization of the eastern ends of these buildings and the appearance of apses at the eastern end of the nave and aisles at Vyzari suggests eastern liturgical influences perhaps associated with Constantinople or the churches of Cyprus or Asia Minor (Baldini 2013, 36). 

Narrating History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece

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

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

Here goes a very rough first swing:

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

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

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

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

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

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