The Conquered

Over the weekend, I read Eleni Kefala’s book, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks 2020). It’s really great. 

The book juxtaposes the “Lament for Constantinople” which describes the fall of Constantinople in 1453 with the nearly contemporary fall of the Mexica empire and a pair of poetic laments that appeared after these events: “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece.” She explores the complex textual related to these works and offers the original texts and  translations. More importantly, she attempts to locate these works in the subsequent history of the communities shaped by these events at the “cusp of Modernity.”

Of particular interest to Kefala is the role of these texts in creating a sense of intergenerational trauma grounded in the social memory of the fall of these cities. For the Greeks, who positioned themselves as the heir to the Roman Empire, the memory of the fall of The City became a significant touchstone to their identity fueling ultimately the emergence of a Greek, Orthodox national identity and, of course, the early-20th irredentism of the Megali Idea. In contrast, the laments produced after the fall of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco to the Spanish remained marginal pieces of literature whose origins and even meaning remained difficult to unpack. The emergence of a “Mestizaje” (or mixed-race) identity at the center of Mexican national identity especially in the 20th century (and roughly contemporary with the most destructive episodes associated with the Megali Idea in Greece), created a deep ambivalence toward the memory of the fall of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. This ambivalence is clear in modern historical accounts of the siege and sack of the city that emphasize the key role that indigenous allies played in the Spanish conquest of the Mexica empire. In fact, the difficulty in interpreting the two dolorous poems, “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece,” stems in no small part from inability to clearly contextualize these works in the ethnic, political, and cultural landscape of 15th century Mexico. In contrast to the millenarianism of the Byzantine aristocracy, the indigenous elite in Mexico were far more likely to view the world in a cyclical way and see the destruction of the Mexica empire and its capital as part of the regular ebb and flow of history and events. Like the Byzantine elites who soon found themselves in positions of power in the Ottoman state, indigenous elites likewise negotiated positions of authority in Spanish Mexico. In a Mexican context, however, this tempered any tendency to present the fall of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco as the opportunity for generational trauma. Among the Greeks, in contrast, the fall of Constantinople remained a persistent trope for morning and loss. Kefala notes that even today the Laments are included in textbooks.

The book is notable for the modesty of its claims and the clarity of its argument. In a time when we seem to mainly celebrate big books espousing big ideas, The Conquered is a small book that bring attention to two distinct situations and their aftermath at the beginning of the modern era. 

This may reflect my waning attention span or the fatigue caused by big problems and even bigger solutions. 

It may also reflect my growing affinity for small books. 

One last comment… the book is $25. I’d spend that much just to be reminded that the story of the snake and the eagle features in both the founding of Constantinople and Spanish versions of the Aztec foundation legend. 

Mostly, Almost Final Draft of my Review of Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands

For the last couple of months, I’ve been struggling to write a short review essay on Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnesus (2020). You can read my series of false starts and halting efforts here and here.

To be clear, it’s not that the book isn’t good or interesting. In fact, the book is entertaining which is something can only rarely be said about academic books. 

It’s that the book is sui generis. And, from the perspective of someone who has spent 20-odd years in the northeastern Peloponnesus, it doesn’t really say anything new so much as say things in a new way. For an academic reviewer who is looking to understand the new knowledge that a project has produced, it’s a bit hard to wrap my head around a book that is itself the new thing. 

In any event, you can read the draft of my review here, if you want

Or you can wait for it to come out alongside a couple of undoubtedly more thoughtful and sophisticated reviews in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology this spring.

Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean

I spent this weekend typesetting a new book for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean edited by Rebecca Seifried and Deborah Brown Stewart. It should be out in early 2021. 

I’m excited about this book for quite a few reasons. First, this book is the third publication based on the work of the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Interest Group of the Archaeological Institute of America. This book is a heavily revised selection of papers from a panel titled “Deserted Villages” held at the 117th Annual Meeting of the AIA in 2016. This has significant personal meaning as a number of us founded this group 15 years ago to support and encourage the growing interest in Medieval archaeology present at the AIA. It’s exciting to see that the group continues to have momentum and has expanded its reach. 

Next, and more substantively, the chapters in the book are really, really good. These are not warmed-over conference papers, but carefully peer-reviewed, substantial, and engaged works of archaeological interpretation. In fact, almost every chapter in the book involves the publication of new archaeological material, analysis, and interpretation. Most run to over 40 pages in length. The introduction blends theoretical and regional perspectives to set up the volume. 

Finally, on a more personal note, the volume includes a paper that David Pettegrew and I have book working on for almost 20 years. The chapter publishes for the first time our longitudinal study of the houses and landscape of a site called Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia.This is a settlement site that we happened upon in (I’m guessing here) 2001 as part of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey and started to document as, what we then called, a “formation process playground.” Around 20 abandoned Balkan-style long-houses stood in a broad valley in various states of abandonment and collapse. Over the past 20 years, we witnessed some of them collapse, others be refurbished, and some continue to dissipate into the insect-infested olive groves. I can’t wait for people to finally read our work.

The book is also a model of how a collaborative, scholar-led, press can work. The peer reviewers offered meaningful and incisive feedback on all of the manuscripts most of which went through at least two rounds of substantive revision. The manuscript itself have been copy edited by Rebecca Seifried, who is an archaeologist, librarian, and copy editor (who has copy edited other books for the Press in the past). Her attention to detail combine with the editors concern for length and tone to give the volume a cohesive and polished character.

The editors have also contributed to the overall look of the volume. They suggested that we typeset the book in the open-source Cardo font. I’ve added chapter titles and author names in Proxima Nova (to give the book a little continuity with other Digital Press titles). The main text block is 10 point which might look a little on the large side on the paper page, but will make the book more easy to read on tablets and computer screens.   

Deserted Villages PROOF 1

The editors have also enthusiastically contributed book cover ideas which makes my life much easier and is really fun.

Here are a few of the ideas that we’ve been bandying about:

Cover 1: I’m partial to the image here and sort of like the funky font, but it might not be as legible as I would want it when it’s reduced to a grainy little thumbnail on the Amazon page.

Book cover ex2

Cover 2: I like the “olde tyme” or Medieval font and the image, but the sky feels too washed out to me. 

Book cover ex1 v2

Cover 2.1: This uses a slightly different font on the same cover. On the whole, I think the more “manuscripty” font works better than this typewritten one, but I still like it!

Book cover ex1 v3

Cover 3: This cover may be my favorite (although I really like Cover 1 as well). There’s something really archaeological about it and the black text box makes the title pop. I wonder if it would look good with the more Medieval font in Cover 2? I also love the dark clouds in the sky behind the wall. 

Book cover ex3 v2

As always, feedback on these cover is welcome and encouraged!

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.

Old Wine in New Skins: The University of North Dakota and the Great War

A few years ago, when The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota was just starting and when I was feeling my way forward as the editor of North Dakota Quarterly, I produced a little book as much as a design study as anything: The University of North Dakota and the Great War. The book was a reprint of nine articles published in North Dakota Quarterly between 1916 and 1919 that deal with the Great War. I set the book in Doves type which has just been re-released at around the same time. 

This past fall a colleague in the Department of English here at UND asked me whether we had ever produced a print version of the book. I admitted that we had not. He then wondered whether it would be possible to do this for a class he’s teaching on the literature of World War I. 

Six weeks later, we’ve prepared a print version of the book. I’ll release it over at the NDQ blog later this week and cross post with The Digital Press then as well. 

To be honest, it’s not my best work. There are some inconsistencies in the table of contents that will haunt me for a while (O.G. Libby versus Orin G. Libby?). I decided this morning that these reflect the historical place of the book in my development as a designer and publisher. I don’t have as clever an explanation for why I had to quickly upload a corrected cover to Amazon and revise the Amazon product description yesterday afternoon (ideally this will be live by noon-ish today).  

Anyway, warts and all, it’s here and available for anyone who wants it for the low, low price of $7.

As a little inducement to purchase this little book, the money raised by this little volume will support both the mission of The Digital Press and it’s role as the financial and production backstop for North Dakota Quarterly. In 2021, NDQ will embark on a rather ambitious new project: a book series. While we’re still trying to work out some of the details, our current plan is for the books to be published under their own imprint from The Digital Press and distributed by the University of Nebraska Press, the publisher of NDQ. The Digital Press will support production and the proceeds will contribute to the financial viability of both NDQ and The Digital Press.  

Of course, the best way to support NDQ is to subscribe, but if you’re looking for a less serious commitment with a historical flavor, grab a copy of the University of North Dakota and the Great War. If you looking for something more poetic, consider buying a copy of Snichimal Vayuchil, which is an experimental poetry workshop in bats’i k’op, or Tsotsil Maya, where writers create poetry in their own mother language and Spanish, sharing their work as a form of what they call relational poetry. 

Download it here or buy it in paperback here.

UND and The Great War COVER SINGLE FINAL 01

Digital Innovations in European Archaeology

This weekend, I read Kevin Garstki’s little book Digital Innovations in European Archaeology, which is part of the Cambridge Elements: The Archaeology of Europe series.  When I described it as “little” it is literally only 90 pages, but these are pages as dense with ideas and citations as they are easy to read. This is a rare feat for any book and true t the idea that this work is elemental for anyone interested in digital practices in archaeology.

It is also available this week for FREE. Go here to download it. And while you’re at it, consider downloading this book’s close cousin: Visualizing Votive Practice by Derek Counts, Erin Walcek Averett, Michael Toumazou, and the very same Kevin Garstki!

At 90 pages, it does seem very useful to review the volume. After all, you can grab a copy for free and read it on a lazy holiday afternoon. I will highlight four things that I found compelling in the volume and which would make it a great little book for a class on digital archaeology.  

Voyant Tools 2020 11 23 05 54 24

[If you click on the images in this piece, they’ll take you to the data behind them which is drawn from a simple text analysis of Garstki’s book!]

First, Garstki has a knack for identifying areas where challenges exist in our use of digital technology in archaeology. As you might expect, the book begins with an assessment of digital technologies associated with field practices. It was gratifying to see my work on slow archaeology make a cameo in the book and for Garskti to think carefully about the way in which our enthusiasm for the efficiencies gained through the use of digital tools can sometimes obscure the way in which various kinds of digital data collected in the field can shape our analysis. Unlike my sometimes overwrought critiques, Garstki is more balanced, thoughtful, and practice-based in his assessment of the use of digital tools in the field. We need to be attentive to situations when digital tools become technological “black boxes” (in a Latourian sense), but also realistic about the benefits that will come from our ability to collect more data more quickly.

Voyant Tools 2020 11 23 06 08 54

Garstki is also clear and thoughtful in his discussion of the fate of our digital data. He highlights the ongoing challenges associated with copyright, openness, and ownership of digital data. On the one hand, he is clear that you can’t copyright data. On the other hand, he recognizes that archaeological data from 3D scans to geographic information is connected to real world concerns about cultural property, heritage, and community. It is now commonplace, for example, to obscure the specific location of certain sites not only as a way to acknowledge cultural sensitivities of communities, but also to protect vulnerable sites from looter or others who might want to do them harm.

Issues surrounding the ownership and use of 3D models, on the other hand, remain a bit less clear. As Garstki notes, from a legal standpoint, a 3D model, like a photograph, is not the same as the object and is not subject necessarily to the same limits on the circulation and display of these objects. 3D images become even more complicated in that we have technology to produce highly accurate models from artifacts. In fact, these models might contain more information than is visible on the object itself (e.g. multispectral data or scans that capture microscopic details). As digital surrogates for objects become more common, the prospects for a kind of digital colonialism looms. It is already possible to store and disseminate collections of digital surrogates at a far lower cost than what is necessary to store and curate the physical originals. These digital scans are on the verge of supporting sophisticated and robust analyses. It is concerning to imagine a near future where repatriation of objects is not an acknowledgement of a destructive and alienating colonial legacy, but a cost saving measure which burdens the countries of origin with the expense of storage and curation while preserving the benefit of access to the object through digital means. 

Voyant Tools 2020 11 23 06 46 23

Garstki also acknowledges the opportunities and challenges associated with using the web and social media for outreach. It is one thing to share 3D images of objects as a way to expand access to these objects, but another to create a meaningful interpretative space for these objects on the internet. The increasingly politicized character of social media, for example, has increased the personal and professional risk for any scholar looking to engage a wider audience. This reality offers a useful counter point to the growing calls for public scholarship in archaeology and the humanities and social sciences more broadly.

Voyant Tools 2020 11 23 07 02 48

Finally, no publication on digital archaeology is complete without a discussion of “big data.” The term has become synonymous with unlocking the untapped potential of digital information, but also has become associated with the risks of digital overreach. The growing recognition that archaeological data requires robust metadata and should follow standards that support linked-data protocols supports a vision that encourages big data approaches to archaeological knowledge making. While our datasets might seems too small to qualify as big data, the tendency of archaeology as a discipline to produced standardized and formally organized information means that the quantity of structured data available in our field is particularly high. At the same time, the examples of analysis driven by large, multisite, structured data remains relatively few suggesting that the big data revolution in our discipline is still on the horizon. In short, the potential of a data driven digital archaeology on a regional or trans-regional scale remains untapped.

Voyant Tools 2020 11 23 07 30 16
As you probably can guess, I’m a fan of this little book. It’s an cutting edge assessment of digital practices in archaeology that has obvious value in the classroom, but is also thoughtful and at time provocative enough to engage even a seasoned scholar in the digital archaeology scene. Check it out! 

On Short Books

This weekend, I have a pair of short books on my reading list. One is Sheila Liming’s Office, a contribution to the Bloomsbury’s Object Lesson series, and the other is Kevin Garstki’s Digital Innovations in European Archaeology in the Cambridge Elements series. Both books are short, with Liming’s book officially listed at 152 pages and Garstki’s at about 90. My guess is that neither book is over 30,000 words.

These two slim volumes got me thinking once again about the sudden increase in the number of short book series. I remember when Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series appeared in 2003 and thinking that the idea of short books dedicated to iconic albums was brilliant. I’ve probably read four or five of them and at $10-15 a pop, I never feel like there’s too much of a commitment of time or money to take a risk on one. Like the Object Lesson series, the 33 1/3 books came in such a nice size (approximately 4.5 x 6.5), shared common design elements, and were typeset for easy and comfortable reading in a single sitting.

The convenience and elegance of small books notwithstanding, I’ve started to think a bit more about the place of small books in academic publishing (and whether publishing small book series might be a fun thing for The Digital Press). 

The Long Article

As editor of the Annual of ASOR, I annual book series dedicated to archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean, Levant, and Middle East, I often receive inquiries from authors with manuscripts that are too long to be an article and too short to be a stand alone volume. Historically, we have found ways to bring together manuscripts on similar topics and publish them together even if they’re not strictly speaking related. This is a generally unsatisfactory compromise. 

Despite the proliferation of journals, it would seem that the basic form factor of the article (8,000-15,000 words) remains more or less the same. A few journals, notably in my field Hesperia, the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, will publish longer articles especially if they are site reports. Many other journals, however, will not. I suppose the interest is in allowing room for a range of contributions in each issue or volume. This makes sense, I suppose, if we live in a strange world where readers consume issues of volumes front to back. In reality, articles tend to travel on their own in digital form or consumed without much attention to the rest of the issue. From the viewpoint of the consumer accustomed to disaggregation, the length of the article doesn’t really matter. It might, then, have more to do with preserving space for multiple contributors in each volume and avoiding backlogs of articles and the like. This makes sense only inasmuch as journals exist to serve their contributors (and advance their careers and the like) more than their readers who I suspect care more about the quality and relevance of an article than its length. Provided that a journal didn’t start to publishing on a few very long articles in a year (and thereby undermine the diversity of content), there doesn’t seem any real reason why journals could not publish 20,000 or even 30,000 word articles that meet their standards. In fact, it’s sort of appealing to imagine an academic journal that would publish longer and shorter (say <5,000 word pieces) each volume in much the same way that a literary magazine might publish a novella, a 3-page essay, and a 10-line poem. I could even imagine that longer articles would offer some efficiencies in review, editing, and production. 

Edited volumes likewise tend to favor shorter (5,000-8,000 word articles) or at very least a kind of uniformity in length. This decision seems arbitrary to me, but I do appreciate the aesthetic interest in a kind of symmetry of content.

As a result of these standards, long articles many of which would be nice, small books, find themselves without an appropriate venue. I suspect many long article find themselves inelegantly compressed to meet length standards or worse still blown up into marginal monographs. The academic monograph can be as short, I suppose, as 50,000 words, but, as a friend once told me, most serious monographs are over 80,000 (or 250 odd page of text). In other words, there is a vast chasm between the longest article likely to appear in a typical journal and the shortest academic book.

Reading Habits

I also wonder whether our reading habits have changed significantly over the last 20 years. In my life, I have room for about one long book (>400 pages) per year. It’s not that I don’t find some long books compelling. I often do, but I rarely have time to commit four or five sittings to a single volume on a single topic. Like most scholars my research time is limited and my interests are diverse. Reading a long book is risky. It takes time away from reading other scholar’s work, exploring diverse perspectives, and writing. This isn’t to suggest that no long books would reward the risk of sustained engagement, but as most academics find more and more pressure on their time, it is hard to find the potential of a long book appealing.

It seems likely that the pressures of academic life has also led most scholars to focus more narrowly and spend less time worrying about “big picture” issues that longer book tend to explore. In other words, the era of the long book might well be over. 

Publisher Economics

The struggles of the academic monograph are well known. They’re expensive to produce, generally have small print runs, and reduced library budgets have cut deeply into their typical market. To make up for declining sales and tight margins on academic monographs, many larger publishers have invested in more commercial book series. The most common examples of this is the proliferation of “Companion” and “Handbook” volumes designed for libraries, but also suitable for disaggregation and sale through online subscriptions. 

Short books would seem to be the opposite of these larger projects, but in some ways, they may be their complement. If large companion and handbook volumes are meant for generalist collections at libraries and digital subscription, small books sold at low prices are clearly intended for individual readers to consume in paper rather than digital form.

The economies come from presumably greater sales volume, standardized production workflow, and series wide marketing campaigns. That these bite-sized books fit into our hectic reading lives is a bonus. Most of these books, however, have not really found a place within the academic ecosystem yet. Of course, short books that appeal to a general audience are much more likely to find a market among the interested reader than, say, a short book that is a long article on a specialized topic. At the same time, these volumes might share some of the efficiencies in production and marketing.

~

Maybe we’re not on the verge of a new wave of short academic books, but if someone were to propose a series of short specialized volumes, I’d want to have that conversation.

 

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. 

Review of Martin Devecka’s Broken Cities

I generally enjoy writing book reviews, but for whatever reason, I haven’t been invited to write very many in recent years. As a result, I tend to get pretty excited when I am asked to write a review and almost immediately start to fret about how I can be thoughtful, fair, critical, and constructive. 

This fretting inevitably leads to the fussing with whatever draft I manage to concoct for weeks and weeks and second guessing even the most banal observations. The only thing that prevents me from spiraling into some kind of intellectual lock up is the need to get the review off my desk before it is no longer relevant.

Here’s a link to a review that I’ve more or less finished of Martin Devecka’s Broken Cities. If you’re interested in the development of a review from a rough draft to a somewhat more polished final version, you can check out my preliminary draft here.

Martin Devecka, Broken Cities: a historical sociology of ruins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. 184 p. ISBN 9781421438429. $34.95. 

Look for the final version wherever you find fine reviews on the interwebs.