A List: The 15 Best Early Christian Baptisteries in Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5. Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

There’s nothing more to say here.

 

 

 

More on WARP Data (Part Two)

Yesterday, I wrote about “Densities and Visibility” and “Hidden Landscapes” with regard to the data generated by the Western Argolid Regional Project. Today, I am going to write up four more aspects of our virtual study season in what should be the final installment of WARP related writing this summer. (You can read the rest here, herehere, and here). 

Next week, I return to Cyprus (at least in my writing and reading), but for now, WARP is the place.

Here are the final four observations on the WARP data crunching season.  

3. Land Use. As part of our standard descriptions of each survey unit, we recorded a good bit of land use data. This includes things like dominant vegetation, evidence for recent plowing, and the presence of features such as terrace walls that indicate material investment in the landscape. We initially chose to record this kind of information to provide insights to artifact recovery rates, but we soon discovered that this data also provided a high resolution perspective on contemporary (and recent) land use in the Inachos valley. 

For example, it became clear from our data that three main commercial crops in the Inachos valley were olives, stone fruit (primarily apricots), and citrus. While olives are more or less ubiquitous throughout the survey area, citrus tend to only appear in units under 150 masl in elevation. Apricots appear in units under 200 masl leaving units of 250 masl and higher in elevation to olives. This likely has to do with the susceptibility of these crops to frost damage. The presence of windmill-like air circulators in the citrus fields to the northwest of Argos confirm that this territory receives some manageable frost during the winter months. More durable apricots, a major export crop in our survey area, can endure occasional frosts, but are less rugged than the ubiquitous Greek olive tree. 

Evidence for plowing tends to be most common at fields under 200 masl which have, for our survey area, moderate slopes of less than 13 degrees although fields with compacted soils that show some evidence for plowing in the recent past (which we call “plowed, compacted” soils) extend slightly higher in elevation (and average 215 masl) and with slightly greater slopes of an average of 14 degrees. Higher elevations and greater slopes than these tend not to see regular plowing and are characterized by unplowed field even when the erosion of soils on slopes exceeding 20 degrees creates loose soil conditions. It should come as little surprise that units with plowed and loose soils tend to have the highest artifact densities and the highest visibilities. It is worth noting, however, that units with plowed and compacted soils, which indicate recent, but not ongoing plowing, produced the higher densities than predicted by visibility alone. 

A significant network of terrace walls manage the sloping walls of the Inachos river valley, and we recorded over 850 units with terrace walls. This is over 10% of all survey units. The average elevation of a terraced field is 247 masl with no terraces appearing below 108 masl and the highest over 500 masl. The average slope of a terraced field was 26 degrees. Predictably, most of the higher terraced fields (over 245 masl) were not plowed and these tended to have steeper slopes. There were, however, a number of recently or currently plowed terraced fields at lower elevations and slightly lower slopes suggesting that access rather than elevation and slope alone determined whether terraced fields saw plowing. In fact, these recently or currently plowed terraced fields tended to produce much higher artifact densities than visibility alone would predict whereas unplowed terraced fields tended to perform closer to what one would expect based on their visibility. This almost certainly reflects the high artifact densities from fields surrounding the ancient acropolis of Orneai which is also in the immediate vicinity of the village of Lyrkeia and accessible via a network of paved and field roads.      

4. Describing Chronological Landscapes. Over the last week or so, the project directors have been thinking about how best to describe the distribution of material from various periods across the entire landscape. This is distinct from how we interpret or understand the historical significance of particular patterns in the landscape. Instead, the idea (to my mind) is to describe the distribution of material in a consistent way across the entire survey area that allows for at least basic comparisons.

On the most basic level we can compare the character of assemblages by number of artifacts alone, but this speaks very little to the distribution of artifacts across our survey area. Thus combining the number of artifacts with the area of the units in which they appear helps to give some sense of distribution. David Pettegrew in his recent (unpublished) analysis of the distribution of EKAS data used nearest neighbor analysis (based, I believed on the centroid of units) determine whether the pattern produced by artifacts from various periods is clustered or dispersed. The vagaries of artifact recovery patterns could, I imagine, be managed by comparison with the overall pattern of the survey which would allow us to say whether the overall distribution of artifacts from a particular period is more or less dispersed than the overall distribution of all artifacts from the survey (imagining that the latter reflects recovery rates). 

Obviously one challenge here is the differential visibility or diagnosticity of particular periods on the surface. Certain periods – such as Pettegrew famously argued for the Late Roman period in Greece – are more visible than others complicating a simple reading of distributional analysis as a measure for (say) the character of settlement in the survey area. The other challenge, of course, is the different date ranges for various periods which mean that comparing, say, the Late Roman period (which we date to AD300-AD700) tends to be a good bit longer than, say, the Classical period (450BC-300BC) which means that the Late Roman assemblage has had twice as long to develop in the landscape.

There are various ways to manage for the differential diagnosticity and the different length of various periods to make these assemblages comparable. I tend to be fairly pessimistic about the potential of comparing assemblages from different periods. In other words, I think it is pretty hard to make arguments for the expansion or contraction of settlement by comparing assemblages from two different periods unless one establishes that the material signature of the two periods is fundamentally comparable.

That said, I suspect that the distribution patterns of material from various period between different survey projects is likely to be more comparable than between periods in the same survey project. For example, issues of differential visibility or diagnosticity on the surface tend to be common to most survey projects in a region and in most cases periodization schemes are, if not absolutely the same, at least broadly consistent at a regional level. In other words, being able to describe the various period landscapes across the survey area serves as the basis for later analysis of the periods in question rather than the analysis, necessarily, of the survey area across time (although it should also inform how we understand the survey area diachronically).  

5. Chasing the Data. One thing that crunching data does reveal is the strengths and weakness of any dataset. Our dataset is quite a way from what I would consider big data and as a consequence little problems with our data can create big issues during analysis. (And here I’m assuming that the strength of big data schemes is that small imperfections or outliers in the data set tend be washed out by the scale of the data more generally, for better or worse). As I ran queries and did analyses and produced new datasets on the basis of data that we collected in the field, I discovered little problems. For example, the aoristic analysis that I posted last week was based on a chronology table that had the Archaic period dating from 750BC-AD450 rather than 750BC-450BC. This is meant that pottery dated to the Archaic period was rather significantly underrepresented in the aoristic analysis that I conducted. It is an easy enough fix, fortunately, one that probably would have become clear at some point in the publication process.

At the same time, doing the work of analyzing our material is part of what brings various limitations to our data to the fore. For example, we didn’t ask our field teams to record the presence of terrace walls. So I had to excavate this data from the a more general comment field. This was easy enough to do, of course, but I suspect that the dataset is a bit fuzzier around the edges than one generated by a simple check box. 

In the end, querying the data will both reveal its analytical limits and make it a stronger dataset. This kind of “slow data” work is both humbling, in that it reveals the limits of data collection processes in the field, and energizing in that it only through analysis do we recognize the potential of our data to reveal more about the landscape than we had intended.

6. Solitary Data Crunching. Finally, crunching data by myself has been pretty boring. One of the great things about study seasons is not so much the work of study, but the time to reflect, ask questions, make false starts, share processes, and think out loud (although my colleagues might not entirely agree about that last one!).

Crunching data alone in my home office feels so disconnected from the work of the survey. I’m left to my own devices and my own questions, I often end up spinning my wheels or working my way into a dead end of data which does neither speaks to whatever hypothesis that I have imagined nor leads me to new questions. 

When doing data crunching next to my (often much smarter) colleagues, however, I constantly encounter new ways of seeing the data and imagining how it speaks to the archaeological landscapes that we explored together. In that context, data oriented study seasons often led to trips through the survey area (and surrounding regions), shared memories and reflections on units and field practices, and deeper engagements with both the landscape and our data.

Data-ing alone, on the other hand, has made me feel not only a bit detached from the survey universe, but also mildly confounded by our data. Hopefully before we get to the publication stage, we’ll have time to revisit our data together in a more collaborative and conversational way, but for now, this is what we have and despite it being a bit uncomfortable, I think I’ve made a bit of progress. 

More on WARP Data (Part One)

As readers of this blog know, my colleagues and I on the Western Argolid Regional Project have been working our way through the data that the project produced over its three main field seasons. This (virtual) study season focused on producing some reports that would start to describe the survey area in general ways. These reports will help us in the future as we attempt to unpack the character of more specific artifact scatters and distribution patterns. They’ll also contribute to address some “big picture” questions in survey methods and methodologies. I’ve already blogged a bit on my work over the last few weeks (here, here, and here). This week’s installment will likely be my last and the most general.

Six things that I learned this WARP study season.

1. Densities and Visibility. Like most intensive surveys we counted the total number of sherds and tile fragments in each survey unit. These numbers alone don’t tell us much about the past, but they do provide insights into artifact recovery rates across the entire survey area. For example, we know that surface visibility and the quantity of artifacts in the plow zone are likely independent variables. The question then becomes whether the areas with higher artifact densities represent the quantity of material in the plow zone or simply zones where we have higher visibility (or geomorphological processes took place that revealed past surfaces). As I blogged about a few weeks ago, for our survey area lower visibility tended to mean lower densities in a fairly consistent way. This indicates that across the entire survey zone lower visibility areas are as likely to have significant quantities of artifacts as higher visibility areas (and vice versa). In other words, it suggests that the two variables are independent. We might see a different trend if the two variables were related. For example, if ancient settlements tended to appear more frequently in fields that were currently abandoned and overgrown, we might see unusual spikes in artifact densities at lower surface visibilities and lower densities – either proportionately or in absolute terms – with greater visibility.  

Another measure for this considers the variability of artifact densities at different levels of visibilities. A number of scholars have noted that as visibilities decrease our ability to consistently recover artifacts becomes more random. This may be the case in some environments, but at WARP, the variability present across visibilities (measured by the standard deviation divided by the mean) does not pattern consistently and if anything appears to slightly increase as visibility increases. 

VarVis

Background disturbance is another factor that archaeologists have recognized as impacting artifact recovery rates (as I’ve blogged about before). Background disturbance describes the amount of distracting material on the surface that complicates artifact recovery. In general, we did not notice background disturbance having a significant impact on artifact recovery rates at WARP in general. That said, when consider variability in artifact densities per visibility split out by background disturbance (which we recorded as light, moderate, and heavy) we can see that variability decreases with higher densities, but the pattern is not a particular strong one. It is telling, however, that variability increases with visibility in units with moderate and light artifact densities.

VarBGD

While the patterns here are not particularly compelling, I think they do hint at how background disturbances shape recovery rates even if the story they tell is not a dramatic one.

2. Hidden Landscapes. Survey archaeologist have long worried about hidden landscapes, a phrase coined by John Bintliff, Phil Howard and Anthony Snodgrass in an influential late 1999s article. While this article introduces a whole range of reasons for landscapes being hidden – from geomorphology to the fragility of ceramics fired at lower temperatures at certain periods – in crunching the WARP data, I concerned myself with just one or two factors. The main factor that I fretted about was the possibility that contemporary land use which shapes not only recovery rates (through factors like surface visibility and plowing; units that remain under cultivation, for example, tend to have better surface visibility and to receive the kind of attention that increases the amount of subsurface contexts visible to field walkers), but as importantly shaped access to fields. Overgrown fields, steep slopes or units inaccessible via field road, walking paths, or undergraduate clambering may well hide landscapes that survey projects could systematically overlook. At this point in our project, there is no chance of us going back to field to survey steep slopes or dense thickets of maquis, but we can look at the data to see if there are hints that certain periods were more common in certain kinds of fields or, better still, whether they appeared somehow out of sync with predominant densities across the survey area. Again, overall artifact densities do not necessarily suggest certain units saw more activity throughout the past than others, but suggest the happy confluence of field conditions and surface material.

To do this analysis, I ranked the units in our survey area by artifact density according to equal intervals. The lowest density unit was 1 and the highest was 5. I think looked at any period of under 1100 years (and these constitute “narrow” periods from WARP) and ordered them according to average density rank. The idea was to determine whether certain periods appeared consistently in fields where artifact recovery rates produced low densities. I recognize that this is not the only method to suss out whether certain periods were more hidden than others, but it offered at least a preliminary way to consider the problem at scale across our survey area.

For Bintliff and co. there was a thought that certain prehistoric periods might be hidden in their landscapes in Boeotia. On WARP, however, it appears that prehistoric periods – even rather narrow ones such as Late Helladic IIIA-B – tend to appear most consistently in units with the highest artifact densities suggesting the confluence of recovery rates and material in the plow zone revealed a significant assemblage of pre-historic material. Of course, this can’t tell us what we didn’t find, but it is suggestive when compared to material from the Medieval period, the Venetian/Ottoman period, and the Early Modern period. This material tended to appear in units with lower average densities and lower average visibilities suggesting that contemporary land use, access, and surface visibility might be working to obscure the Late Medieval and post-Medieval landscape in the survey area. The densely overgrown Medieval site near the village of Sterna which produced Late Medieval through Venetian material despite may be a useful example of an area where our survey might not consistently explore. The site stood above the highest cultivated fields in the Inachos valley and was densely overgrown in vines, trees, and weeds. Artifact densities was spotty owing to the difficult surface visibility and it seems probable that artifact densities if not otherwise compromised would have been significant. That said, the site near Sterna did produce some standing architecture, a series of (you guessed it!) cisterns, and stood at a strategic location where the Inachos river valley narrowed before opening out into the wider Lyrkeia valley. In other words, there are certain characteristics of the site that encouraged us to explore it in greater detail despite the limited visibility and challenging landscape. To my mind, this mitigates to some extent against the idea that the absence of certain landforms and situations have led to the underrepresentation of Late Medieval to Early Modern material, but this hypothesis will, of course, require greater testing.

Stay tuned for more tomorrow!

Preliminary Thoughts on Artifact Recovery Rates from the Western Argolid Regional Project

This past week, I’ve started the intimidating task of crunching the data produced over three field seasons with the Western Argolid Regional Project. While we’ve made a few efforts to make sense of the data over the past five years, our dataset has been varying degrees of provisional and more pressing matters in the field and in the storerooms often attracted our attention. With the field and storeroom over five thousand mile away and our data as clean as any project can reasonably expect, now is the time for number crunching! 

In the past, we have tried to focus on a number of rather well defined publication projects: a preliminary report and various side projects that required some attention. This year, we wanted to shift our attention back to analysis and instead of producing fully formed publishable quality manuscripts, we wanted to produce some reports and moved the project forward without the pressure of polished final publications.

This summer, I elected to look at the variables that shaped artifact recovery in the field with the hope that this might inform how we analyze artifact patterns in the landscape. So far, I’ve just started but I can make a few observations (and these, if I recall correctly, largely follow observations that I made several years ago when analyzing a rougher version of the same data).

First, the most significant variable in artifact recover is surface visibility. Survey archaeologists have know this for years so it comes as no surprise. It appears that sherd density tracks pretty closely with density up to the highest visibility units (100%) where densities drop rather steeply (as does sample size!).

WARP Charts  Google Docs 2021 06 08 09 43 32

WARP Charts  Google Docs 2021 06 08 09 44 16

 

 

Tile densities track visibility a bit less regularly and follow a kind dromedary curve with a hump at 40% visibility and another peak at 90%. The reason for this is a bit unclear. It may be that tiles are generally a bit more visible in the plow zone so surface visibility doesn’t impact their recovery quite as dramatically. A good example of this is that many of the highest density units with tile are from the immediate vicinity of collapsing houses at Chelmis and Iliopouleika (6 of the top 10 and 13 of the top 20), and these units tend to have visibility below 50%. In these units, tiles are abundant and often fairly well preserved and this likely contributed to their relatively high recovery rates even from units with lower visibility.

Second, my old buddy David Pettegrew has been running similar analyses on the EKAS data (which is rapidly becoming available at Open Context). Of particular interest to him (and to us!) is the impact of background disturbance on artifact recovery rates. As we say in the WARP field manual: this category represents the degree to which a field walker’s ability to see artifacts on the ground is hindered or obscured. This is a distinct category from visibility since even a field with 100% visibility could still have heavy background disturbance. A useful rule of thumb is that when walkers are spending much of their time picking up rocks they think are pieces of pottery, the background disturbance is heavy.

There are any number of ways to measure background disturbance. For example, units with high background disturbance took about 2 minutes longer to walk than units with moderate or light background disturbance despite having an average visibility of 68.5% as compared to 47.3% and 57.0% for light and moderate background disturbance respectively. Units with high or moderate background disturbance had a tendency to produce more “Stone, Unworked” (which are really just rocks) than those with light or none (2.8 and 2.3 rocks from units with high and moderate background disturbance and 1.9 rocks from those with light and none). 

On EKAS, there was a relationship between background disturbance and artifact recovery rates. In fact, David has proposed a metric that takes into account background disturbance and visibility to understand recovery rates in those units (and he has plans to unpack some of this in a future publication). That said, when we analyze the background disturbance from the Western Argolid, it doesn’t seem to have a particularly strong relationship with recovery rates at least as manifest in artifact densities. 

For units with the heaviest background disturbance (n=672), in fact, artifact densities tracked more or less along with those from similar visibility units with the exception of two spikes at 40% (n=33) and 90% visibility (n=88) where units with heavy background disturbance produced higher densities than might be expected from visibility alone. In contrast, units with moderate and light background disturbances more or less followed the expected trajectory based on visibility alone. This suggests that background disturbance did not exert a predictable influence over artifact recovery.

WARP Charts  Google Docs 2021 06 08 09 45 08

WARP Charts  Google Docs 2021 06 08 09 45 59

WARP Charts  Google Docs 2021 06 08 09 46 42

We obviously recorded more variable than background disturbance and I have began to run quarries on our data that looks at these variable as well. So, if you’re a survey archaeology “method-head” you might want to stay tuned for more “exciting” methodological reflections in the coming week.

In the meantime, I also ran some queries based on artifact recovery and vegetation in our units. We had standardized recording terms for vegetation in each unit which ranged from “weeds,” “maquis,” and “phrygana,” to “citrus,” “olives,” “grain,” and “grain stubble.” It was possible to select multiple vegetation types for each field resulting in 27 combinations which appeared in at least 50 units. Various combinations produce artifact densities that under performed what one might expect from visibility alone.

The lowest visibility were typically flat units lower elevations (< 200 masl) with citrus or stone fruits (and not infrequently weeds). My guess is that these units were as likely to be shaped by their proximity to the Inachos River and its wandering course that deposit sediments carried toward the Argolidic Gulf. In contrast, units with higher slopes and elevations, often populated with olives, weeds, and (mostly volunteer) grains produced artifact densities that exceeded those predicted by visibility alone. This is as likely the result of historical phenomena as artifact recovery variables and shaped by the dense scatters associated with the fields around the acropolis of Orneai.

As you might guess, such hypotheses will have to be tested using our GIS data, but for now, I’m mostly just crunching numbers without too much attention to spatial concerns. Once again, this means more “method-head” goodness is likely to appear in these pages in the near future!   

Three Things Thursday: Roads, Books, and Things

Thing the First

Last week, I read a rather well executed article by Alvise Matessi titled “The ways of an empire: Continuity and change of route landscapes across the Taurus during the Hittite Period (ca. 1650–1200 BCE)” in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 62 (2021).

The article does exactly what it says in the title: it analyzes the routes through the Taurus mountains during the Hittite period. The method is as (relatively) simple as it is compelling. The author generated Least Cost Corridors through the area on the basis 90 m DEMs and compared these corridors to the location of Hittite settlements and landmarks. While I’m not terribly interested in his conclusions per se, this approach struck an intriguing balance between the presence of longer term routes through the region (defined in large part by topography) and short term shifts within these larger patterns. 

My colleague and collaborator Dimitri Nakassis sent this along to me with the intent to get us thinking a bit about how patterns of movement across the Western Argolid reflect a similar tension between longer term routes through the region and more narrowly historically defined variation that might be visible at the scale of our intensive survey. In fact, an article on settlement and the Early Modern road network in the region that we published earlier this year offered a nice, if less sophisticated, example of how two different patterns of movement across the region intersected. The main corridor through our survey area followed the route of the Inachos River, but at various periods other routes including those that crisscross the region perpendicular to the river’s path, were significant and remain visible in organization of settlements in the Western Argolid     

Thing the Second

I’m starting to pull together my annual summer reading list. This list is mainly aspirational (at best) and at worst hangs over my head all summer (an into the fall) as as a reminder of my lack of discipline.

Right now, I’m trying to develop the part of my summer list that will deal with the music and context of Sun Ra. It’s for a post-book project that’s just starting to simmer. This weekend, for example, I started to read Anthony Reed’s Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke 2021) which is a challenging read (and vaguely reminds me of my buddy Paul Worley’s Telling and Being Told (Arizona 2013)  which focuses on orality and performances in Mayan literature), but it evokes many of the artists and musicians that I want to understand better. I’m also eager to tuck into William Site’s new book Sun Ra’s Chicago (Chicago 2020) which I hope will expand my understanding of Ra’s early career and formative influences in that city.

To balance these more recent books, I also plan to read some classic works that unpack the history of jazz (especially the kind of avant-garde creative music with which Sun Ra has been associated). I’m familiar with works like Szwed’s biography of Sun Ra and Paul Youngquist’s A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (Texas 2016), but I need to familiarize myself with works like Graham Lock’s Blutopia (Duke 1999) which is a bit of a touchstone for later scholars working both Sun Ra and jazz. 

Along similar lines, I need to read a bit more seriously on Afrocentrism, particularly in a mid-century American context. I have Stephen Howe’s book, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verson 1999) on my “to read” shelf  as well as Wilson Moses’s Afrotopia: the Roots of African American Popular History (Cambridge  1998), Clarence E. Walker’s We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism (Oxford 2001), and Algernon Austin’s Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, and Afrocentrism in the Twentieth Century (NYU 2006). 

At the risk of a bad pun, I’m jazzed!

Thing the Third

The final thing is about things. This weekend, I aim to retire my long-serving MacBook Pro laptop. There was a time when I upgraded computers every year or so and this prevented me from developing much of a sentimental attachment to chunks of plastic, silicon, glass, and aluminum. This laptop, however, has served me well for almost five years. In fact, it’ll serve out the rest of its day doing light-duty file serving and storage. 

Last year, I traded in my beloved 2004 F150 for a newer truck. It’s a cliche to say this, but it happened so fast. One day, the truck and I were inseparable, and the next, it was sitting in the back lot of a car dealer.

I know its crazy to assume that things have feelings, but I also think a good bit about how our long term attachment to things like cars, laptops, watches, and homes creates an attachment that is both irrational and real.

How should I retire my laptop? Or trade in a beloved truck? Or gently allow a treasured watch to fall out of my weekly rotation? 

Shouldn’t there be some kind of ceremony or moment recognizing the bond and at least allowing for the slimmest possibility that the connection between a thing and myself is mutual?  

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.

~

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 

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands (Part 2)

I’m tired these days. It’s the end of the semester. There’s a pandemic. And I feel vaguely overextended and haven’t been very good about keeping up with my ominous to do list. I’m not saying this to complain really. I know that a lot of people are feeling much worse than me these days. I’m just acknowledging it.

I’m slogging through finishing the last chapter of my slowly developing book. I’m looking at a stack of grading landing on my desk later this week and I’m fussing around with letters of recommendation, end of the semester service work, a stack of books and articles that I want to read and digest, and a couple of manuscripts that I’m editing, publishing, or reviewing that need attention.  

I’m also slogging through a review essay that I agreed to write on Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands. The book, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, is quite remarkable, and this alone has made it challenging to review. I posted the first part of my review essay yesterday. Here’s the second part: 

The dual emphasis on antiquity and the early modern and modern periods reinforces the link between chorography and 19th-century encounters with Classical Greece and the modern Greeks. While he distinguishes chorography from these older traditions, he acknowledges that the structure of the book cleaves closely to the routes of early travelers and nineteenth century archaeologists which the contemporary decedents continue to cite and mimic. The work of these scholars and their approaches clings to the objects that constitute Witmore’s chorography. Witmore’s efforts to construct a landscape that “adds nuance” to centuries-old practices of diachronic study of objects, strata, buildings, routes and regions, encounters significant resistance from the scholarly residues that cling things themselves. In many ways, Witmore’s book encounters the same problems as ”Carpenter’s Folly“ at Corinth. Standing perched above the Peirene Spring, Rhys Carpenter built a two-story structure on and around the remains of a 2-story house that dated to the 10th or 11th century. Carpenter’s building, which he meant to house Byzantine objects from the site, was a confused and ambiguous combination of modern, Byzantine, and ancient material some of which archaeologists brought to the site and immured in the building. It was never finished, partly dismantled during World War II and continued to house Byzantine sculpture into the 1950s. At this point, archaeologists at Corinth start to identify the building as a folly. As Kostis Kourelis observed in the most thorough published treatment of this building (Kourelis 2007), this term evoked both 18th century Romantic associations with aristocratic garden culture and the ultimate failure of the building to its intentions successful. Carpenter’s drew as heavily on an utterly foreign early-20th century fascination with Byzantium and resisted mid-century attitudes toward the reconstruction of historical buildings which framed the Stoa of Attalus in the Athenian Agora, the Cloisters in New York, and Colonial Williamburg. Witmore’s text, like this building, dislodged objects from their original context to create new relationships, while never quite severing them from their diachronic past. Like Carpenter’s folly, Witmore does not mean his folly to provide the only stories from the old lands, but to reflect the kinds of stories that things encourage us to tell.

Recent years have seen increasingly desperate calls to reimagine Classics and Classical (or Mediterranean) archaeology. Old Lands clearly hopes to contribute to this ongoing and crucial conversation. In particular, chorography challenges the growing pressure toward fragmentation and specialization that characterize contemporary archaeological (and, indeed, scholarly) practices (##). Increasing chronological and regional knowledge, expertise in ever narrower classes of objects, and competence in specialized tools, scientific methods and techniques, all frame a century long shift in our discipline toward professionalization. Following the logic of the assembly line, academics honed their expertise in the name of industrial knowledge making and eschewed the messy and inconsistent process of craft. Such an approach to scholarship also reinforced efforts to construe academia as a meritocracy where advancement came through demonstrations of professional competence better measured through the incremental advancement of specialized knowledge than in works aspiring to distinctive modes of engagement or broad synthesis. As Michael Given has recently noted, changes in the discipline of archaeology have called for a more convivial practice (2018). Evoking Ivan Illich’s anti-modern notion of conviviality, Given shares Witmore’s desire for an archaeology that engages with the material presence and resists the trap of ontological dead ends. It may be that conviviality offers a way forward that is more consistent with the character of contemporary academic knowledge.

This critique, however, speaks more to my theoretical predilections than the character of the book. There is no doubt that there will be sympathetic readers in archaeology, Classics, Ancient history, and anthropology. Many of them will find in Witmore’s work echoes of their time traveling with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, working on excavations and survey projects in the Corinthia and the Argolid, or visiting important sites with detours to the beach at Tolo, the gelaterias in Nafplio, and wineries around Nemea. For all that these readers might find familiar, they might think strange that his periegesis overlooks the politics of archaeology in the region. Long standing projects carved their own routes into the landscape with well-known walks from Ancient Corinth to Nemea or from Ay. Vasilios to Mycenae pass down from one generation to the next. Stories of a particular archaeologist’s pants abandoned on a rugged crag on Mt. Oneion ensured that any visits to this mountain included a question: “Did you find Richard’s pants?” A scatter of sherds, tiles, and revetment fragments became the “Villa of the Pig Dog” because archaeologists on the Eastern Korinthian Archaeological Survey encountered a dog that some thought resembled a pig. This has now entered academic literature (Pettegrew 2015, no. 38). Elsewhere, we can talk of a road that crosses a ravine in the Western Argolid because of its proximity to a flea infested mandra. Our interaction with these landscapes preserve their convivial origins in formal and informal archaeological practices.

The landscape of the northeast Peloponnesus also preserves the marks of intense and often bitter academic rivalries. For an outsider, these rivalries may only appear in negative and contested reviews in leading journals, pointed questions at academic panels, and palpable frostiness between significant contributors to the field. For someone who worked in the region for decades, however, these tensions are constituent of the landscape itself. As a graduate student working on the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, the forbidding walls of the American School’s Hill House in Ancient Corinth did more than suggest the institution’s colonial past but defined a project with different goals, practices, and academic attitudes. Sites such as Isthmia and Mycenae that have multiple ongoing projects often have competing agendas and interpretations that spill over into tense interpersonal and professional relations which the various foreign schools attempt to mediated awkwardly. Various Greek projects and the relationship between foreign excavators and the Greek archaeological authorities produce fault lines for relations and shape how archaeologists and visitors to the region view both objects and landscapes. The shear number of projects in the Northeastern Peloponnesus fosters competition for excavation and survey permits, specialized staff, and even accommodations. This, in turn, fortifies a vibrant rumor mill where whispered critique of competence in the field, professional comportment, personal relationships, wealth, and character continue to shape archaeological knowledge. It is not unreasonable that Witmore’s book avoids these kinds of messy political entanglements. Indeed, discussion of these matters remains as rare in archaeological literature as they are influential.

Old ways of thinking about the past cling to the old lands. It may be that the future of our field will emerge from the interplay of old and modern just as Witmore traces the old lands through his chorography and readers find echoes of their own experiences in the text. I suspect, though, that the burden of the old ways that weighs so heavily the old lands will continue to spur archaeologists to excavate alway those residues of the past than to embrace them for new ways forward.

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

My blogging plans for today involved another heroic swing at the slowly developing final chapter of my book manuscript. It has already developed to a series of nips and tucks and hardly anything worth blogging about. Maybe next Monday. Maybe.

Fortunately, I’ve also been working on a little essay about Christopher Witmore’s very recent book Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) for a forum type review in an archaeology journal. I posted about it a six months ago in a pair of blog posts here and here. Since then, I’ve re-read the book, thought a good bit more about it over the course of some long walks, and started to put together a rather flailing essay.

Here’s the first part of it (warts and all). I’ll post the second part tomorrow:

Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) is rather difficult book to review. It a personal journey through the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus, and, as such, it is sui generis, at least in the field of contemporary Greek archaeology. Witmore’s periegesis through the Corinthia and the Argolid, which he calls a chorography, follows the well-trod routes established by Pausanias, early travelers, and 20th century excavators and survey archaeologist. He treats these landscapes, however, with a distinctive eye that follows the ancient and modern things that he encounters into tangles of conversations, secondary literature, archaeological reports, and ancient sources. In this regard, his book inverts the conventional narrative technique in archaeology that so often starts with the ancient testimonia, early travelers, and modern scholarship and presents these works as context necessary for things to have meaning. Witmore’s approach, in contrast, locates the authors within in the landscape, rather than behind dusty tomes of past scholars and returns objects to their place within our lived experiences. Needless to say, Old Lands is particularly welcome at a time when many of us have been unable to travel to the Mediterranean because of the ongoing pandemic.

Witmore’s narratives are earnest and devoid of irony. In fact, its earnestness evokes the image of the “heroic archaeologist” who reassembles the past from their personal encounters with sites, objects, and contexts. To be clear, this is not meant to imply that Witmore seeks to play the role as a savior of a particularly worthy past, the discipline, or the contemporary communities which described (e.g. Cleland 2001, 2; González-Ruibal 2009, xx). Instead, Witmore looks back to traditions in archaeology that started with the learned traveler and continued with the the individual archaeologist as the revealer of the past and the producer of knowledge. The epithets associated with an excavator’s notebook — Blegen’s notebook, for example — center the individual agent in knowledge making, often at the expense of workers and colleagues. Witmore puckishly recognizes as much by noting the “here unmentioned” retinue of Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (##). This is not to suggest that Witmore’s colleagues go unmentioned. Indeed, he is dutiful in naming his companions, but these individuals always play bit roles to Witmore’s enthusiastic inquisitiveness. They are nearly as marginal as his footnotes which nevertheless demonstrate a nearly encyclopedic understanding of the vast scholarship on the northeast Peloponnesus. They function to advance the story, and their presence never lingers or distracts.

Witmore’s presence in the landscape also shapes his encounter with the diverse chronology of the northeastern Peloponnesus. This approach to the landscape locates the past not as hidden, buried, or requiring extraction and but as contemporary with the archaeologist. The past is superficial and requires selection, assembling, and sampling rather than discovery. In this regard, he parallels Rodney Harrison’s proposed “archaeology-as-surface-survey” (Harrison 2011) and draws inspiration from Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time (2011). As with intensive survey practices, it is impossible for the archaeologist to identify every object, artifact, sherd, or plant. Instead, the survey archaeologist stresses the relationships between the objects to create a surface that produces archaeological knowledge “in and of the present.” Witmore and most survey archaeologists are familiar with the abrupt disjunctions that occur when we document a sherd of Final Neolithic pottery next to a Late Roman amphora fragment amid fragments of modern plastic. The ghostly figures that appear alongside the survey team in the first page of Given and Knapp’s volume on the Sydney Cyprus Survey (2003) and the brief first person digressions that situate the modern reader in the landscapes produced in Pettegrew’s The Isthmus of Corinth (2018, ##-##) anticipate the diachronic, contemporary landscapes of Witmore’s book, albeit in less developed ways. Like the surface assemblages studied by Given, Knapp, and Pettegrew, Witmore’s book does more to reveal what we could know about the landscape than what we do know. As such, it presents a future archaeology rather than one anchored in a recovered past.

It is, of course, easy enough to critique survey archaeology and books like this for what it has left out or remains hidden. There is a certain glee with which scholars discuss the excavations at Pyrgouthi tower in the Berbati Valley, for example, because standing Classical remains and Classical and Hellenistic sherds obscured a later, Late Roman phase that only became visible with excavation (Hjohlman et al. 2005; Sanders 2004, 165-166; Pettegrew 2010, 221-224). Similarly, it would be easy enough (and even vaguely gratifying) to critique Witmore for overlooking the Byzantine and Frankish periods in his perambulations. The twin poles of antiquity and the modern (and contemporary) create a landscape of light and shadow that makes the temporal discontinuities more abrupt and the ambiguities all the more salient. Witmore used this to good effect in his description of the First National Assembly of Greece which met in Hellenistic theater of Argos. This setting reinforced the view of the northern European Philhellenes that “the lot of contemporary Greeks was rarely illuminated outside the long shadows of Classical antiquity.” (##). A different narrative was possible. Prior to this meeting, the assembly had met in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin which stands a half a kilometer south of the theater. There they received a blessing from Orthodox clergy (Witmore, Rt 13). The walls of church which appears to date to the Middle Byzantine period contain numerous ancient blocks (Hadji-Minaglou 1980). Like the nearby church at Merbaka, the spolia grounded the church in antiquity (cf. Sanders 2015; Palalexandrou 2003) just as the church and the Hellenistic theater grounded the assembly in the Byzantine tradition of the Orthodox faith and the modern, archaeological Neohellenism. At the church of the Dormition, the ancient blocks themselves carry the weight of not only vaults from which the central doom springs, but also the connection to antiquity. In the place of the disjunctive friction between the ancient and modern worlds, this Byzantine monument offered a narrative where the Philhellenic shadows turn to grey.

Three Things Thursday: Fiction, Archaeology, and Reading

It’s a Thursday and just after the mid-point of the semester. Most years, the wheels start to come off about now, and I’m certainly feeling a greater sense of general urgency than I usually do. 

As a gesture to a rather frantic time, it feels right to do a little “Three Things Thursday” to clear the deck of wandering blog material that is bound to get caught up in the machinery of daily life and bring everything to a stop.

Thing The First

Last weekend, I read Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence. It’s short and like so much “Late DeLillo” atmospheric. It describes a world when all digital technology simply stops working and five people are forced to encounter life in a fundamentally different way. 

For archaeologists interested in issues of ontology, the book is short enough to be a “must read.”  As the five individuals lose their digital tools (and the digital tools that make the contemporary world possible), they lose part of themselves. The loss of their digital prosthetics leave them with phantom memories that bubble up through their consciousness suggesting that the disruption of digital technology is not enough to entirely divest ourselves of the imprint of our digital tools.

The book also engages with time in interesting ways (and here it seems to pick up where Point Omega, his 2010 novel leaves off. In Point Omega time alternately slows down and speeds up as the characters encounter existence through various modalities including the vastness of the desert, a slowed-down version of the film Psycho, and the structure of a haiku (which apparently give the novel its structure). In The Silence, time appears to stutter, lurch, and double back on itself. One character begins to recite Einstein, the other the fractured commentary on the Super Bowl, while another attempts to understand how they arrived in New York after crossing the Atlantic on a flight when all technology stopped. The staccato stratigraphy presented through DeLillo’s dialogue will be immediately recognizable to the archaeologist who is asked to make sense of the sequence of events (which are so often non-linear) as well as the definition of each object.

Thing the Second

I also enjoyed Anton Bonnier and Martin Finné’s recent article in Antiquity, “Climate variability and landscape dynamics in the Late Hellenistic and Roman north-eastern Peloponnese.” As readers of this blog know, I’ve become increasingly interested in historical climate change and they way in which changes in climate shaped past societies and their archaeological remains. Bonnier and Finné’s article consider climate proxies from three caves in the Peloponnesus and attempt to correlate this data with evidence from intensive pedestrian surveys in the Argolid and the Corinthia. Needless to say this is a messy project, but the results are suggestive.

They propose that a shift is visible away from land on hill slopes during the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods. They then suggest that there exist the political and economic explanations for this: the shift away from diversified agricultural strategies associated with the “family farm” toward less diverse practices associated with the supplying of urban centers with grain. They add to this explanation the possibility that the Late Hellenistic and Roman period was also notably drier than the Classical and Hellenistic era. As a result, more marginal fields on hill slopes with thinner soils that were less likely to retain moisture, for example, were abandoned for better and more erosionally stable fields on the valley bottoms. They make clear that climate change was not the primary driver of this putative shift, but could have been a contributing factor.   

Thing The Third

I’ve been thinking a bit about how we read in the 21st century. In my introductory level World History class, I’ve asked the students to engage in non-linear reading of the class’s open access history textbook. Instead of moving chapter to chapter, region to region, I’ve suggested that student use the search function and read across certain themes, ideas, phenomena, and situations. Searching for topics such as “joy,” “love,” and “anger” connects Confucius’s quip on the joys of a contemplative life, the joy of Buddhist nirvana, and the joy of a Classical Greek religious festival. Love brings together Chinese and ancient Egyptian love poetry. Anger connects the fate of kings, the wrath of deities, and daily life in the Levant. For me, this kind of reading is exciting and disorienting, but for my students, it’s frustrating. Without the coherence and context of narrative (preferably supported by a strong sense of progress!), history becomes a cacophony of unrelated events.

I spend far more time working as an editor and publisher these days than I do as a conventional researcher and writer. As a result, I often find my day defined by oddly juxtaposed texts. Snippets of emails, poetry, typeset text, and academic prose jostle with each other more attention. On some days, it’s deeply fatiguing mostly because like my students, I want to encounter some kind of pattern. I want to find that rhythm of meaning that comes from sustained reading of a single or related texts. In its place, I find jostling voices and snippets of conversation overheard at a crowded bar. On my best days, this feels more real than a tidy narrative or a scholarly argument. The orderly style, tone, and forensic detachment feel inadequate to represent the chaotic realities of everyday life. 

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.