What Time Is This Place (Part 2)

This past weekend, I put aside some of my irrational qualms about reading an older book and dove head first into Kevin Lynch’s What Time Is This Place? (MIT 1972). I was stunned by how prescient the book appeared to be, and in my post yesterday started to observe how nearly every chapter explored issues that tangentially related, in some way, to my own research and interest.

I’ll continue that practice today starting with chapter 6. 

6. Boston Time. This chapter is a photo essay that starts with images of clocks in Boston before proceeding to trace the changing character of the city as it represents the changes in Boston time. The opening images invariably reminded me of Scott W. Schwartz’s new book, The Archaeology of Temperature: Numerical Materials in the Capitalized Landscape (2022) which I blogged about here. Schwartz notes the prevalence of clocks and temperature displays in cities and parallels the experience of time with temperature. Both tend to be represented in absolute (or at very least numerical) terms, but experienced in physical ways. As I write this its -5° F outside here, which is quite cold but not terribly unusual for this time of year. Such consistently low temperatures makes the 30° F days we experienced late last week feel downright balmy. In the same way that the 45 minutes that I’m waiting for the Eagles playoff game to start (I’m writing this on a Sunday), will speed along provided I continue to try to finish this blog post. If I were to put aside my computer, time would slow to a drag.

7. Change Made Visible. The chapter on the ways in which changes are visible, reminded me a good bit of my work with students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. In this project, we documented two buildings on campus between their abandonment and their demolition. The buildings were laced with evidence for the passage of time both in the ways that they were adapted over their century of use to the immediate decisions their most recent residents made when they decamped for the final time. At the end of our work in the building — immediately before asbestos mitigation began — we put on a concert in building’s former recital hall. The weeks before the buildings’ scheduled demolition, we had a short ceremony recognizing their memorial function on our campus. These events made the passage of time visible. You can see some of the work here.

8. Managing Transitions. In his chapter on managing transitions, it is hard to avoid thinking of the recent work on migrants of various kinds. In some ways, Lynch seems to anticipate some of the ways in which we thought about the spaces of “man camps” in Western North Dakota during the Bakken boom. These camps embodied a landscape caught in a kind of transition between low density rural settlements and the concentrated workforce necessary to support extractive industries. The ephemerality of the oil industry presented a landscape that we always only transitioning and contingent. The communities of the Bakken struggled to manage the contingency of the boom in part because the landscape preserved so little from previous booms to remind these communities how they adapted to the stress of demographic change. Elsewhere in the world the architecture of migration reflected the transitional state that migrants often find themselves as they depart economically, environmentally, or politically compromised homes and seek new ones.  

9. Environmental Change and Social Change. One way that Lynch’s work shows its age is when he talks about environmental change. In the 21st century, our mind naturally turn to thoughts about climate change rather than changes in our built environment. Lynch remains optimistic that build environments can transform social experiences. I’ve been watching my institution try to transform campus culture through architecture over the last decade. For example, the university has changed most classrooms into active learning type spaces and, as a result, students (and faculty) have come to expect both active learning and teaching techniques suited to these spaces. Alternately, the campus has invested in architectural forms and spaces designed to promote informal gathering, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a consistent sense of campus. I’ve suggested that these two impulses — student space and a consistent campus — are not necessarily complementary. 

10. Some Policies for Changing Things. Kevin Lynch made his name as an urban planner so it is hardly surprising that he concludes this book with some reflections on policy. The most compelling of these is that suggestion that we think more deliberately about the temporary rhythms and routines we expect of our students and peers. As someone who is unnaturally preoccupied with synchronizing my own schedule with clock time, I have to admit that I’d struggle with a policy that allows greater freedom for individuals to organize their lives according to different temporal rhythms. That said, I don’t think it would be bad for me to have to encounter that. Even little things like allowing students to turn in papers in their own time and developing the patience to deal with people and processes that operate on different times serve as useful reminders that I should not reduce time to a fungible commodity, but as a deeply personal form of social experience. 

Reading an older book as a way to become aware of how the passage of time enriches and transforms how we read and understand a classic text is a wonderful reminder that as creatures of the present, we are never quite free from the past and recognizing the different rhythms of life and senses of time that operate around us should not be a burden. Instead, experiences different senses of time should enrich our experiences and our ability to appreciate our world.

What Time Is This Place (Part 1)

I have a phobia of reading old books. It’s irrational as most phobia are, but nevertheless guides my actions to an embarrassing extent. As a result, it took a particular nudge from my buddy Kostis Kourelis (and a generous copy of the book) to will myself to read Kevin Lynch’s What Time Is This Place? (MIT 1972). 

This book blew my mind. To make everything about me: this book was like a cross section of my recent interest in time, ruins, urbanism, campus life, and even teaching. It’s like I was simply living in a world sketched out by Kevin Lynch. 

The book in broad strokes is a meditation on time and place. Lynch fearlessly traces the role of time in our daily lives, our building environments, and, as you’d expect, our lived experiences. In particular, Lynch is interested in the experience of time as change.

Here are some running notes chapter to chapter. 

1. Cities Transforming. The first chapter considers change on the level of the city and the way in which people’s experience and idea of the city shaped the transforming of cities. It made me think a good bit about my work on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and our efforts to document (and in some ways influence) the transformation of the city of Grand Forks. For example, my wife and I produced a massive study of mid-century housing in the city that traced its transformation from a city largely anchored in its pre-war pedestrian plan to one defined by cars, post-war prosperity, and the rise of the suburb. You can read the report here

2. The Presence of the Past. This chapter is even more relevant for my wok on the GFHPC. It focuses on the role of ruins and material evidence for the past in creating a sense of presence in a community. This is literally the mission of the Commission, but as Lynch points out, one that is not as straight forward as preservation for the sake of preservation might allow. Over the past five or six years, we’ve talked more and more about the value of attempting to preserve and document buildings and districts not limited to the obvious or even elite building which often carry the burden of the past for a community. Instead, we have shifted at least some of our attention to apartment buildings, schools, commercial spaces, and (if I had my way) neighborhood bars that preserve the workaday landscapes of the city. We’ve also talked more about how to make present a past that has disappeared as a result of the city’s floods, urban renewal, and social change. What do we do to inscribe the memory of these places into the urban fabric?   

3. Alive Now. Lynch’s brilliant contribution to urban planning is that he foregrounded the experience of the city and sought to create urban forms sensitive to the needs of an individual. In this book, he considers time as more than simply made manifest on a collective level (so that everything doesn’t happen at once), but also experienced individually. As readers of this blog might know, I am obsessed with time both personally through my modest collection of watches (or my collection of modest watches) and professionally through my work as an archaeologist. It is hardly surprising that I’ve been fixated on the concept of slow as not only an antidote to the sense of urgency that suffuses so much of our professional life, but also as way to make explicit the tension between clock time and the time of experience. 

4. The Future Preserved. When Kostis sent me this book, he made explicit reference to the world of Sun Ra who has become an obsession for me. For those of you unfamiliar with Sun Ra, he is one of the founders of mid-century Afro-futurism which he expertly grafted to afrocentric views of the Black past (as his name suggests). As Lynch recognizes in this chapter title, there is a crucial need to preserve the past not only as a way to remember past presents, but also to remember past futures. The growing interest in Afrofuturism reveals the potential of past futures to shape present futures and to make us aware of how we have and have not lived up to our aspirations (however well intended). It goes without saying that continued struggle for racial equality offers a sobering context for mid-century Afrofuturism. It is also a good reminder that as much as we cringe or even protest at pseudohistory, pseudoarchaeology, and other “false” views of the past, the line between false pasts and false futures is a fine one indeed and the goals of both projects tend to intersect in the messy politics of hope. 

5. The Time Inside. One of the more fascinating chapters of the book considers how our internal sense of time clashes with external constraints. Anyone whose body resists the tradition of eight continuous hours of sleep is familiar with this feeling. I’ve speculated on this as it applies to the length and rhythm of the academic semester. Lynch clearly recognizes that time is a factor in learning and how and when we learn, remember, and think various not only as individuals but also collectively. Last year, for example, I started to notice how student workloads, commitments, and time often doesn’t serve to advance student learning.  Instead, the time for student learning is a constantly negotiation of space, finances, and other commitments. This is inevitable, of course, but it nevertheless reinforces how the personal time of student experience is not entirely under their own control.  

I’ll come back with Part 2 tomorrow!

Three Things Thursday: Punk is Next, Buzz about the Bakken, and Hanging Out!

There’s a lot of stuff going on these days and I suppose it is better than getting bored, but it sometimes results in me feeling a bit scattered. Today’s “Three Things Thursday” is a reflection of my scattered feeling. I’m know some of this stuff means something to me and hopefully you’ll find it at least vaguely interesting.

Thing the First

Aaron Barth posted something on social media about distributing posters for our conferences on punk archaeology in January 2013. I figured this was a memory of a memory or something, but sure enough, punk archaeology is ten years old this year.  

For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember. Punk archaeology was this alternative conference, event, concert, gathering in Fargo, North Dakota. It produced a book and for a brief moment on one very cold and still night, an intense feeling of community. 

I’m not sure that it produced anything else. Maybe that’s all it was meant to do. Or maybe it could have produced something more tangible and substantial. It seems like ten years out is a good time to reflect on it.

Thing the Second

Resource booms are, by definition, abrupt and short lived. They strike communities that are unprepared and often dissipate before they’re completely understood. In fact, part of what makes booms so damaging and confusing is their unpredictability. Unfortunately, scholars often struggle to research unpredictable, abrupt, and short-lived events. Academic research agendas are like big ships or trains which take a long time to gain momentum, stop, or turn.

There’s been a bit of lag between the peak of the Bakken oil boom and scholarship designed to interrogate, unpack, and even understand it. I’m very much looking forward to Kyle Conway’s forthcoming book on Bakken hospitality. I’m also eager to read Mary E. Thomas’s and Bruce Braun’s edited collection Settling the Boom: The Sites and Subjects of Bakken Oil which should appear in coming weeks (paperback apparently in April)!   

I was very excited to be told about the completion of Nestor L. Silva’s Stanford dissertation, “Bakken Ecology: the Culture and Space of Fracked Farmland in North Dakota” (2022). Unfortunately, it is embargoed for two years, but I am dying (well, not literally) to get my hands on a copy of it.

If you have a contact at Stanford who can help me get a copy, I’d be very grateful!   

Thing the Third

Finally, I’m pretty excited for my friend Sheila Liming’s book to come out next week. The book is called Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time and she agreed to chat about it a bit over at the NDQ blog.

Check it out here.

More on Rivers

This weekend, I read and enjoyed Donald Worster’s classic Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (1985). I read this as part of my effort to become a bit more familiar with American environmental history, but also get to understand the larger conversations surrounding “hydraulic society” in the American West. In many ways, Worster provides a key formative statement in how we understand the environmental manifestations of the United States’s quest for empire. By tracing the changing attitudes toward water and rivers in the American West from the 19th century to the mid-20th, we get to see the interplay between small farmers, wealth landowners, local communities, state governments, and the federal government in creating a new hydraulic society with both democratic potential and the capacity for exacerbating economic and social inequalities at a nationwide scale.

Some of this is also relevant for my growing interest in the flood mitigation efforts made along the Red River of the North. To be clear, Worster’s main focus was not only managing floods. In fact, flood management and navigation fell under the domain of the Army Corps of Engineers and Worster’s main focus was on the Bureau of Reclamation which sought to transform the rivers of the American west into a source of water for agricultural prosperity both in the region and nationally.

Worster’s understanding of American attitudes toward nature and to the flow of rivers, however, emphasized the desire of Americans to project their imperial yearnings not simply over the Indigenous people and territory of this vast region, but also of the rivers and natural resources. The earliest efforts were small scale and directed immediately toward the needs of communities struggling with the aridity of the region and the need to adapt their eastern crops and practices to irrigated farming.

By the early 20th-century, however, these limited and pragmatic approach quickly gave way to more expansive plans driven by competition and profit. At this stage the control of water and the ability to irrigate represented a pathway to wealth and wealthier landowners found ways to contravene efforts to preserve equality (or at very least fair) access to water in the West. As a result, control over water in the West soon took on the form of an ironic tragedy as the rhetoric used to champion increasingly bold and costly hydraulic interventions became increasingly detached from the outcomes of these intervention which rather than fortifying an idealized agricultural democracy, created more wealthy and powerful landowning class. The only commonality between rhetorical posturing of Bureau of Reclamation and the avarice of landowners was the desire to control the rivers of the West. 

How this all applies to my work here in the Red River of the North is bit unclear right now. Certainly there is reason to suspect that flood control along the Red River of the North is part of a larger effort to control western rivers in the name of stable settlement. The flooding of the river in the 19th century had revealed its destructive potential and floods in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s promoted increasingly monumental and ambitious interventions.

All this was done against the backdrop of the Pick-Sloan plan along the Missouri River which sought to control and harness the flow of the Big Muddy to irrigate farms, mitigate floods, and provide recreational opportunities. The destructive ambition behind the Garrison Dam, which led to the flooding of thousands of acres of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation made clear that North Dakota was part of the larger mid-century hydraulic landscape of the American West punctuated by massive dams and large scale diversions. Even today, massive diversions of the Red River around Fargo-Moorhead and around Winnipeg reflect a persistent willingness to transform the region by controlling the flow of rivers. 

My interest in reading Worster’s book, then, is less to discern whether the particular conditions that shape the Red River of the North appear in his analysis. For most of the time that this book covers, the Red River is both too far east (climatically speaking) and relatively untapped for irrigation. At the same time, I suspect that areas on the margins of the American West found themselves particularly susceptible to the mentalities that developed in the wider region. If we see Worster’s book as much a commentary on shifting attitudes toward empire building in North America as it is a specific technocratic, bureaucratic, or even economic response to certain environmental conditions (and the claim that Worster’s work smacks of a healthy dose of environmental determinism have been greatly exaggerated), then the work to control the Red River of the North fits into wider pattern that by the middle years of the 20th century had largely become unhinged from any particular justification. This ensured that the broader Western mindset that guided the continued damming of western rivers to provide irrigation for crops that would not sell, electricity for towns that did not exist, and solutions to problems that did not exist, could be applied to marginal cases because there was no longer a tight connection between the problem, the solution, and the justification for the approach.

This is not to suggest that the flood mitigation efforts imposed on the Red River of the North weren’t adequate or technically appropriate. Instead, I’m hypothesizing that the approach by the Army Corps of Engineers to the Red River in Grand Forks reflects attitudes developed in very different circumstances elsewhere in the American West. 

Whether this proves to be the case will involve some deeper digging!

Two Book Tuesday: Organic Machine and Billion Black Anthropocenes

Two book Tuesdays are kind of a rare thing largely because I’m hard pressed to find time to read ONE book much less two. The combination of the last week of winter break and two short books made this rare event possible!

Book the First

I’m scratching around in American environmental history largely because I have a small research project (or something) involving some mid-century flood management furniture around the Red River of the North here in Grand Forks. I’m also keen to learn to think in a bit more of an environmentally sensitive way in my research in Greece and Cyprus as well as here in the US.

This gave me a bit of an excuse to enjoy some of the classics in late-20th century environmental history. Richard White’s The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (1996) fits this bill (and I have a used copy of Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (1985) on its way).

White’s book tells the story of the Columbia River as a source of energy for the American northwest. His emphasis on the river as a source of energy allows him to weave together the organic life that existed along its banks and in its hinterland with the powerful flow of the river itself. This meant that salmon burning calories on their final journal up river to spawn and engineers designing dams that would harvest the flow of the river for electrical power operate in a conceptual universe dominated by the river’s energy. The focus on energy in White’s book anticipates some of the moves common to the “ontological-turn” which explicitly questions categorical divisions between humans and animals, the natural and the cultural, the animate and the inanimate. His emphasis on energy created the kind of hybrid space where various forces could interact, combine, dissipate, and develop. It allowed, for example, the wind and human power of the pre-steam ships that attempted to navigate the violent rapids of the Columbia to exist alongside the nuclear power plants of the Hanford Site. It’s a fantastic book as a generation of environmental historians know full well.  

Book the Second

It was an interesting book to read alongside Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2019). Yusoff argues that the concept of the Anthropocene is part of a larger anti-Black and radicalized discourse in geology. Some of her critiques will be familiar. They make clear that the universalizing language of geology and particularly its assigning of “humans”  in a central role of creating a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, erases the role of racialization in the construction of the human. She further notes the parallels between the work of geology in distinguishing strata with the methods used to categories in races. Thus, the very concept of the Anthropocene in anchored in the kind of thinking that produced a radicalized world. This radicalized world was not just an unfortunate side effect of a emergent modernity, but a fundament step in creating the conditions that allowed for the development of geology and Anthropocene. In fact, Yusoff’s stressed the role of  geology in creating economically productive spaces through the identification of natural resources. Enslaved Black people, then, worked and died in mines to extract this geological wealth.

Yusoff’s particularly compelling when she observed that the various dates proposed for the beginning of the Anthropocene from 15th century to 1950 rely on arguments that conspicuously ignore role that  radicalized logic played in creating the conditions in which white Europeans (uncritically defined as the anthropos in the Anthropocene) transformed the geological record. 

Yusoff makes the point that by erasing the role of race in defining the relationship between geology and history, we normalize a white, settler, colonial, conceptualization of humanity (that is the anthropos in the Anthropocene). By using this lens to define a geological epoch, we also inscribe in stone both this exclusionary narrative, but also a method that continues to organize the space of the planet in terms of resources available for colonial exploitation. It is crucial to realize that the concept of the Anthropocene however shallow or recent its historical origins — that is whether we see it as a 15th or 20th century phenomena — serves to define both the origins of a new planetary geological epoch but also the future of the planet.   

In other words, it reminds us that the stories we tell about the past create the conditions for the future and the methods that we use to create these pasts and futures are resistant to kinds of rhetorical purification that attempts to elevate the good that these methods have or can do as a salve for the evil and damage they have done in the past.

Whatever one thinks of Yusoff’s argument (and I think it has much to recommend it), the larger framing of the conversations surrounding the Anthropocene, geology, and white, settler, colonialist epistemologies certainly require continued interrogation. As a reader, I couldn’t help but think about how this kind of epistemological scrutiny could inform recent conversations on pseudoarchaeology, for example, and help my discipline avoid the casting about for specs in the eyes of others while ignoring the log in our own.

On the Edge of a Roman Port

I have to admit that today’s blog post is a bit of a hot take on the very recently published volume: On the Edge of a Roman Port: Excavations at Koutsongila, Kenchreai, 2007-2014 edited by Elena Korka and Joe Rife. I’m not going to come out and say that this is the perfect holiday read, but runs to 1376 pages (about 400 pages longer than the new Cambridge Centenary Ulysses for some casual perspective). Like Ulysses, it’s probably best to realize that this is not a book that one can read in a single sitting.  

That said, it is an interesting and, at least for those of us invested in the Corinthia, an important book. It describes three major campaigns of excavation at the coastal site of Koutsongila on the littoral of the Eastern Corinthia. Koutsongila stands just to the north of the site of Kenchreai and features not only the northern and eastern extent of the Roman settlement but also a per-urban graveyard. The site primarily saw activity from the first century BC to the 7th century AD and then again during World War II when the Germans fortified the Koutsongila ridge with gun emplacements and trenches. The project directors embraced a diachronic approach that understood the importance of later activity at the site both in its own right, but also as contributing to site formation processes and how they understood the earlier material.  

It is also a significant book for those of us invested in thinking about the future of archaeological publishing. My hot take will introduce this work and offer some thoughts after spending four or so hours with it yesterday afternoon. In other words, this is not a review or even a definitive “take” on the book, but a series of excited observations inspired by my first few hours with this volume.

Here goes:

1. Lavish. This book is almost absurdly lavish. The cover is spectacular, graphics are sharp and abundant, and the pages are glossy. The design draws on the familiar format of the journal Hesperia which makes sense since this is a volume in their supplement series. 

The book runs to two volumes which together must weigh close to 10 lbs. As a result, this is very much an office, library, sturdy end-table book as opposed to “a work room in Greece” or “toss it in your carry on to use in the field” book. This is a bit of a shame since the detailed catalogue would be nice to use on the pottery bench.

Fortunately, the book will appear at some point in digital form via Jstor. 

More fortunately, much of the finds data is available via Open Context including this sexy little piece of Slavic Ware, which can then be located in its trench and locus (or excavation unit). Unfortunately, I can’t seem to figure out whether the also recorded deposit numbers (that is stratigraphic units) as part of their published dataset. It wouldn’t be very hard, though, to create a concordance of deposits to loci to allow a user to access all the material defined by a particular depositional context.

I do wonder whether the digital version of the book will include hyperlinks to the online data. This could be  massively helpful (or even something that a clever user retrofits at a later date).

2. This Is the End. Over the last year or so, I’ve been chatting with a bunch of folks about the future of archaeological publishing. Hecks, Jennie Ebeling and I even wrote a little “Op-Ed” about it in Near Eastern Archaeology. Generally speaking, we’ve been talking about whether it is worth planning volumes as the final or definitive publication of an archaeological project or whether we should start to think in terms of a wider range of interrelated outputs.

The Koutsongila volumes are traditional archaeological publications in their most refined and “late” form. Even the impeccable design and layout sensitivities of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens publication office, however, fell short of making this a genuinely user-friendly publication. The brilliantly reproduced illustrations, for example, often were hard to connect to the text or appeared several pages before they were discussed.

This is not a criticism of the layout!

This is just the reality of a visually rich publication attempting to accommodate equally robust textual interpretation and analysis. In fact, the ASCSA publication office even included key artifact illustrations (for example) in two places — once near the description of their context and once in the catalogue — so that the reader doesn’t have to flip back and forth between two volumes. This is thoughtful, but also must have been very demanding on the design team. Even with this kind of thoughtful detail, however, my effort to coordinate the illustrations with the text was not instinctive or natural. 

My point here is that the codex — even at its apogee — is not always well suited to reproduce in an intuitive way the complexities of archaeological information and the densely interwoven threads of archaeological knowledge making. This may be as far as our ability to adapt the codex form to intended task can take us. 

3. The Octagon. My hot take did go beyond my critique of the book’s form and consider its substance. The excavations at Koutsongila revealed a fairly lavish octagonal building dating to the 5th and 6th centuries that the excavators quite plausibly associated with some kind of Christian ritual activity at the site. Its connection with the surrounding cemetery and its octagonal shape make it plausible to assume that the building has connections to a local elite family or individual or even perhaps a local martyr cult. From what I could gather, the octagonal building does not have anything that they could plausibly associated with liturgical furnishings. So it seems unlikely to be a church. At the same time, its visibility and its contemporary date with the construction of a basilica on the south mole at Kenchreai suggests that it contributed to the Christianization of the town’s landscape and almost certainly reflected the growing prestige of town’s Christian community. It is interesting to note that the baptistery at Corinth’s western port of Lechaion is also octagonal in shape and plausibly associated with the martyr cult of St. Leonidas. Closer to Corinth, remote sensing near the still unexcavated so-called amphitheater church showed evidence for an octagonal anomaly that might be a baptistery. It seems that the Corinthians have a thing for octagons and the reproduction of this form at Lechaion, near Kenchreai, and perhaps at Corinth would have contributed to the experience of a Christian landscape.

4. Resilience. The excavators at Koutsongila do a great job demonstrating the resilience of the community over the 700 years of ancient activity at the site. By tracing the long life of structures at the site, the excavators demonstrate how the community adapted them constantly to changing needs and situations. 

Their ability to offer these kinds of observations and arguments emerges from the incredible care that the excavators took to document the material at the site. This includes analyzing of 220,000 objects (which must form an important dataset for making arguments about the kinds and proportions of material present at the site over time) and excavating with a keen eye for the human (and natural!) depositional processes  that shaped the site. As a result of this care, they have demonstrated how much it is possible to say about the long history of the site on the edge of a Roman port.

5. Koutsongila in Context. One of the great things about having such a thorough and thoughtful publication from a site in the Eastern Corinthia is that it raises the bar for everyone working in this region. More than that, it also presents a corpus of buildings, material, and developments that will invariably create a backdrop for analysis of, say, the analysis of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, the ongoing work of the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia, and the ongoing work at the Corinth Excavations itself (not to mention ongoing field and publication work at Nemea, at the Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project, at the Lechaion Harbor and Settlement Land Project, and projects elsewhere in the region).

Even as my “hot take” cools to more tepid temperatures, On the Edge of a Roman Port: Excavations at Koutsongila, Kenchreai, 2007-2014 will continue to provide the kinds of fundamental data that will fuel  hypotheses ready to be tested, challenged, and confirmed with material, histories, and buildings across the region. I’m looking forward to digging into more of the book over the holidays!

Finding Home in Grassland Grown

Over the weekend, I read the first of a little gaggle of books on the environmental history of the Northern Plains and the West that have been staring at me from my shelf. Molly Rozum’s Grasslands Grown: Creating Place on the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairie (Nebraska 2021) was a pleasant read. Rozum argues that the first generation of settlers born on the grassland plains of the Dakotas and Prairie Provinces played a vital role in creating a sense of place and identity for this the white settler society of this region. In fact, she argues that the creation of this settler identity was part of a larger colonial process that involved the overwriting of Native American understandings of the landscape and replacing it with a view deeply embedded in settler experiences on the land. 

There are any number of things that made this book particularly compelling to me, but one of the key arguments Rozum makes is the role of childhood experiences with animals, in nature, and at home that shaped the distinctive character of settler identity in this place at the turn of the 19th century. In other words, this first generation of prairie born settlers experienced the landscape not as adults who grew up in points east or Europe, but as individuals who only knew this country as their home. By examining dairies, journals, and published accounts of growing up on the Northern Plains, Rozum was able to trace how individual experiences (even if filtered through nostalgia of adulthood) constructed a real sense of identity, priorities, and regional character. Her use of a diverse range of sources from both sides of the US-Canadian border was fascinating to me (unfamiliar as I have tended to be with literature that treated this area as a transnational zone). Her use of Era Bell Thompson’s 1946 memoir was another revelation. It was remarkable to see the prairie (and Grand Forks) through the eyes of a black girl and woman.   

Rozum goes on the show how the various ecologies, experiences, and environments encountered by settlers shape their efforts even after they’ve left the Northern Plains to construct a sense of regionalism and regional identity.

The book is far enough from my professional bailiwick that I’ll refrain from even attempting a review, but three things did strike me as interesting.

First, over the last few years, I’ve made a more serious effort to get out into the landscape of the Red River Valley. At first, I did this by walking along the banks of the Red in our local park and then I did this by riding my gravel bike outside of town. As I did this, I think that I’ve become a more careful observer of the countryside, come to appreciate local animals (especially birds!), and even have come to understand the path of the rivers and creeks throughout the intensely flat plains that surround Grand Forks.

I had never really thought about my efforts to develop a greater sense of place in the area as part of a process of settler colonialism. In fact, I had vaguely considered my growing appreciation of the local landscape as part of my effort to connect with a world that extended far beyond my limited sense of self. Whatever my intellectual (and not a little arrogant) assumptions about locating myself in the landscape, my developing sense of home represented the transposing my views of countryside over those that had gone before (whether Native American or white settler). Making Grand Forks “my home” represented a sense of possession.

Second, Rozum did a wonderful job connecting the developing sense of regional identity to both global and local trends in literature. This led me to start to root around in early 20th century literature from folks who grew up on the Northern Plains. For example, I discovered the work of Robert McAlmon whose book of poems, Explorations (London 1921), interlaces his travels (after his marriage of convenience to the writer Annie Winifred Ellerman [pen name Bryher] which provided him with a significant source of income) with images of the grassland prairies. He went on the live in New York and then Paris where he founded the literary magazine Contact with William Carlos Williams (which is now available via the HathiTrust), started a small press of the same name, and publish poetry, short stories, and the novel Village: As It Happened Through a Fifteen Year Period (Contact 1924). Despite this galavanting, he continued to recognize the value of grounding critical voices in a sense of place and regionalism. Perhaps because of his travels, he recognized this as a tonic for the dreadful character of the modern world. 

I also was introduced to Clell Gannon another prairie poet and also a painter whose art contributed to the cover of North Dakota Quarterly in 1950s. If McAlmon’s work had all the literary pretensions of Modernism in interwar Paris, Gannon’s work was more homespun, but no less accomplished. In fact, there’s something about Gannon’s work that makes me want to republish his 1924 collection, Songs of the Bunch Grass Acres which features his endearing sketches and even more endearing poetry.

Finally, the penultimate chapter discusses the definition of a region by interrogating the terms used to describe the Great Plains, Northern Plains, the Northwest, the West and myriad variants. And, Rozum unpacks its borders (and the borders of the arid west from its sub-humid neighbors to the east). Debates centering on the 100th, 98th, and even 96th Meridien reminded me that despite the everyday colonialism of my effort to make this landscape home, I inhabited a borderland characterized by constant hybridity, cultural interaction, and movement both to the north-south and to the east-west.  

Reading the debates about naming and defining this region struck me a bit a hard than I expected. Rozum doesn’t delve back into how the acts of defining (much less describing) a region once again traced the contours of colonialism across the region, but perhaps at this point the book, this understanding is tacit. 

New Work on Early Christian Attica

Every now and then I go back to reading something on Late Antique and Early Christian archaeology. It feels a bit like checking in with a favorite musician to see what they’re up to these days or watching the latest installment of a long running music franchise. You rarely expect something better or even different, but revisiting an old friend is always rewarding in its own right.

In that spirit, I’ve taken note of the recent buzz of activity in Early Christian and Late Antique Athens and Attica, and this weekend, I read parts of Cilliers Breytenbach and Elli Tzavella new book, Early Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas, from Paul to Justinian (1st-6th cent. AD) published by Brill as the first volume in a series called Early Christianity in Greece (ECG). I have on my “desk” a copy of Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler and Leonie von Alvensleben’s Athens II: Athens in Late Antiquity (2020) that I will likely dip into today.

The Breytenbach and Tzavella book is nice work and while I haven’t made my way through all of it, I did read and enjoy the first two chapters and chapter four which was dedicated to the archaeological evidence. I might dip into chapter five, on epigraphy, and chapter six which seems to offer a social reading of the archaeological and literary evidence for Christianity in Attica. In other words, this is not a review of the book, per se, but a kind of sounding designed to discern whether the book warrants further excavations.

In that spirit, here are some thoughts:

1. Thorough Synthesis. I’ve always found the archaeological evidence for Early Christianity in Athens a bit daunting. Some of this is because the prestige of Athens has produced a particular kind of archaeology who is less a Greek archaeologist and more an archaeologist of Ancient Athens. These individuals tend to celebrate encyclopedic knowledge of both published and unpublished sites in the city and often flaunt obscure knowledge as a mark of their seriousness as a scholar. All in all, it’s pretty annoying.

That said, the centuries of archaeological work in Athens has produced a massive bibliographic record which includes thousands reports, publications, and dissertations. Claiming that any work is exhaustive even on a single monument is a fool’s errand, but Breytenbach and Tzavella do produce what appears to me to be a thorough synthesis of the diverse range of sources available for studying Late Antique and Early Christian Athens and that alone is worth noting.

2. Context Matters. What this broad synthesis has allowed them to do is to situate both monumental Early Christian remains (namely churches) and Christian epigraphy (and burials) in a broader archaeological and physical landscape. As a result, buildings (and burials) which habits of study long isolated from their archaeological landscapes suddenly appear again as the centers of settlements and garrisons, along transportation routes through the region, and, sometimes, as isolated monuments standing sentry over abandoned pagan sanctuaries. 

The relationship between settlements, churches, burials, and movement in the landscape drew heavily on the tradition of intensive and extensive survey work in Attica. Aside from some of the work that I’ve done with David Pettegrew in the Corinthia (and maybe some of the work that Thansis Vionis has done in Boeotia), I can’t recall much scholarship that combines excavated Early Christian architecture, burials, and settlements with the results of survey in such a careful way. This feels like a watershed for how we think about Early Christian landscapes. I need to dig into Chapter Six: Aspects of Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas 

3. Catalogues. No work by a German scholar is complete without a catalogue and the tradition of cataloguing basilicas, burials, and sites is a long-standing one both in Late Antique Greece and in Athens and Attica. 100+ pages of catalogue of basilicas and burials is a useful description and a clear upgrade over my catalogue of Greek churches (which included those in Attica) and Ioannis Varalis’s catalogue in Greek. It may well supersede Laskaris’s Monuments funéraires paléochrétiens (et byzantins) de la Grèce (2000) for Attica.

4. Periodizing the Early Christian World. In a very recent review of the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology that I edited with David Pettegrew and Tom Davis, J.-M. Spieser complained that our definition of the Early Christianity as “understood in the old, German, tradition of “christliche Archäologie” and not, as it is more usual by now, with a chronological meaning.” This is a fair enough criticism, I suppose, and I suspect he will find fault with this new Brill series and this volume on Athens and Attica. The volume’s scope from Paul to Justinian is both an unconventional chronological range (straddling both conventional understandings of Roman and Late Antique Greece) and an especially Germanic view of “Christian Greece” (i.e. Christian remains in Greece). 

I suppose if I were editing this volume, I might have extended the chronological range about a century later. This would be consistent with the recent trend to stretch Late Antiquity into 7th century (if not later) and to understand the disruptions of the later 6th and 7th century as part of longer term processes in the history of Late Roman Greece (as opposed to radical breaks or episodes of historical discontinuity). It would also be consistent with the ecclesiastical history of Greece during these centuries which remained under the jurisdiction of the Papacy (at least nominally) until the 8th century.  

5. Publishing the Early Christian Archaeology of Greece. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been invited to write up synthetic treatments of the Corinthia for various volumes dedicated to the Early Christian period in this region. It looks as though the ECG series will produce a volume edited by C. Zimmerman dedicated to Early Christianity in Corinth and the Peloponnese

I suspect most of these works represent efforts of publishers to cash in on the library market for synthetic studies and encyclopedic surveys of particular periods and places. Indeed, our Oxford Handbook project is another example of this same impulse among publishers. On the one hand, this is probably a good thing since the sale of these synthetic works likely subsidizes the ability of publishers to produce more specialized studies and monographs. On the other hand, I wonder how much scholarly energy is being drawn into projects like these that even when exemplary produce little new knowledge. The Breytenbach and Tzavella book is best case scenario because it produces a valuable new synthesis, but even then, an honest scholar will only recognize something new in about 20% of the book. In other words, 400 pages of this book is summary and catalogue.

Cyber Monday from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (feat. North Dakota Quarterly)

It’s Cyber Monday which, to my mind, isn’t really a thing. That said, we live in a world where quite a few things that aren’t things (e.g. the entire internet) seem to exist and go about their daily business. As a result, it seems wise to at least acknowledge Cyber Monday has a kind of existence even if its “thingness” should be qualified.

Once we get to the point of acknowledging its existence, it makes sense to celebrate it in some way. 

So, here’s the deal.

Below is a link, click the link and download the entire 2022 catalogue from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and a special gift from North Dakota Quarterly. It’s free. The books are good, and since I’m not charging anything, I feel like I’m doing my part to subvert the commercial non-thing energy of Cyber Monday and to replace it with something more joyful, more convivial, and more positive. 


With that one click, you’ll get:

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Mindful Wandering: Nature and Global Travel through the Eyes of a Farmgirl Scientist. 2021. From Bookshop.org.

Epoiesen 5 (2021). From Amazon.com.

Michael G. Michlovic and George R. Holley, Archaeological Cultures of the Sheyenne Bend. 2022. From Bookshop.org.

Brian R. Urlacher, The Library of Chester Fritz. 2022. From Amazon.com.

Jurij Koch, The Cherry Tree. Translated by John. K. Cox. North Dakota Quarterly Supplement Series, Volume 2. 2022. From Amazon.com.

Rodger Coleman, Sun Ra Sundays. Edited by Sam Byrd. 2022. From Amazon.com.

And remember, if you really HAVE to buy a book in paper, proceeds from each sale helps The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota continue to publish more books and make them available for free! Likewise, consider subscribing to NDQ.

Sun Ra Sundays at ASOR

While I’m hanging out at the annual ASOR meeting, you could be checking out the newest book on Sun Ra’s music from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota (or my review essay on recent work on Sun Ra from North Dakota Quarterly).

If you’re at the ASOR meeting, check out Rita Lucarelli’s paper on Sun Ra on Saturday morning!

If you’re not sure why you should care about Sun Ra, because you’re just here for the archaeology (dammit!), then check out my responses to a recent Twitter dust up about pseudoarchaeology or check out this paper that I wrote with the aim of convincing archaeologists that it’s fine to like some kinds of pseduoarchaeology.

If you see me, feel free to button hole me and tell me that I’m wrong!