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.