Three Things Thursday: New Book, Teaching, and

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

Thing the First

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

Here’s the blurb:

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

Stay tuned for a landing page!

Thing the Second

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waste Siege

This weekend, I read Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s recent book Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine (2020). It’s a pretty remarkable book that documents the role of waste in the life of Palestinians and the role that it plays in the way various authorities exert power in Palestinian territories. Her work is based on years of ethnographic work in Palestine where she got to know people from all walks of life, social positions, and responsibilities and situates their experiences at the intersection of the growing field of discard studies and the anthropology of infrastructure. Because this is at the periphery of what I study, I can’t really offer a thorough or critical review of the book, but I found so much of it useful to think with, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least highlight a few areas where Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s approach influenced stimulated my own thinking.

1. Waste and Violence. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the book was Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s argument that the control over waste constituted a key element in the political relationship between Palestine and Israel. While I had understood superficially the complex network of jurisdictions that made up Palestinian territory, Stamatopoulou-Robbins demonstrated the way that various authorities tasked with managing and governing these jurisdictions used the flow of waste – from waste water to construction waste and household trash – to exert control over the lives of Palestinians living there. Not only does Israel prohibit the exporting of most waste from Palestinian Territories, but they also control in many cases the development of infrastructure designed to handle waste effectively. This level of control over the movement and flow of waste informs the the richly detailed case studies presented in the book which consider both macro level issues, such as the complexities associated with efforts to build waste-water treatment plants and landfills, and personal issues such as the impact of construction debris which cannot be removed from isolated settlements on the lives of residents. True to its title, Stamatopoulou-Robbins makes a compelling argument that the control over waste (as well as its attendant infrastructure) represents a major aspect of Israeli control over the lives of Palestinians.   

2. Waste and Value. One of the most interesting aspect of Waste Siege was that despite the overtly political aspects of the control over waste in Palestine, Stamatopoulou-Robbins demonstrates that Palestinians nevertheless continued to exert agency in certain aspects of how they deal with waste. For example, she documents the role of rabish, used goods imported (and often smuggled) into Palestine from Israel and re-sold, in Palestinian consumer culture. While Palestinians continue to value the practice of shopping and acquiring new things as a way to shape their identities, the perception (and to some extent, reality) that most of the new goods available to Palestinians are of suspect quality hangs as a specter over their consumer culture. Stamatopoulou-Robbins argues that because Palestine cannot control its imports, that poor quality goods (often associated with China) are dumped on Palestinian consumers. In contrast, Israeli control over their own ports and import processes appears to ensure that Israeli consumers have access to better quality goods. Whether this is true or not (and it is clearly more complex than this simple summary implies), it adds value to rabish goods imported from Israel despite a persistent cultural bias against buying used things and a distaste for purchasing goods cast off by Israelis.

Stamatopoulou-Robbins also explores the prohibition against discarding bread which Muslim and Christian Palestinians consider a religious offense. This results in bags of bread being tied to the outside of trash tips and any other convenient, semi-public place from fences to window grates and tree branches. By doing this, Palestinians make the discarded bread available for the needy or anyone else who might have a use for it. At the same time, it is clear that the supply of discarded bread exceeds the need for it and this results in any number of subtle ways through which bread enters the waste stream.

3. Waste and the Environment. Stamatopoulou-Robbins is likewise compelling when she discusses the role of solid waste treatment and the politics of the environment in Palestine. Because Israel has made it very difficult for Palestinian authorities to develop their own waste treatment infrastructure, they either dispose of waste and waste water in the ground, which threatens what water table, or release it toward Israel in surface flows which prevents Palestinians from reclaiming and reusing waste water for agriculture. Israel’s control over the fresh water infrastructure, including prohibiting wells in much of the territory controlled by Palestinian authorities, means that Palestinians must rely on Israel for water, but the lack of adequate sewage treatment (and persistent barriers to its development among the overlapping and competing jurisdictions present in Palestinian Territories) means that their practices nevertheless influence access to clean water in the region. The balance between using the flow of waste as a source of control (and even resources) and the need to protect access to fresh water for Israelis and Palestinians alike has nudged both sides toward efforts to create infrastructure the accommodates the realities of the environment. This kind of negotiation offers a particularly tangible example of how infrastructure and the environment function as agents in political negotiations and complicates the how the waste siege impacts both communities.

The observations that I offer here only scratches the surface of this nuanced and sophisticated book and probably doesn’t do Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s research or the wider body of literature that she engages justice. At the same time, having dipped my toes into discard studies in some of my own work, it’s hard to imagine a better place to start than Waste Siege. Check it out!

Queering Narratives

Last week (or was it the week before?), I posted on the idea that the ubiquity of certain narrative forms has shaped how see the world and given rise to both “big book” history and conspiracy theories.

Last weekend, I read (after an inexcusable delay) Maggie Nelson’s remarkable book The Argonauts (2015). The book defies description or definition and in that way fits with my larger argument that what we need to make the second decade of the 21st century different from the first is new forms of narrative in our political culture and in our popular culture. She explores the transformation of her own body during motherhood, her partner’s body over the course of top surgery and testosterone therapy, and the bodies of her son and step-son. The book, though, is not about bodies as bodies, but, to attempt to describe a complicated book in a few sentences, about the blurry boundaries between ourselves and others and the inadequacy of the categories that we use to describe our world.   

I was particular drawn to a couple of paragraphs in the book that describe a conversation between Nelson and her partner after watching X-Men: First Class, as he recovered from top surgery:  

“We bantered good-naturedly, yet somehow allowed ourselves to get polarized into a needless binary. That’s what we’ve hated about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasion for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuff a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them rendering you less able to see out, to get out.

While we talked, we said word like nonviolence, assimilation, threats to survival, preserving the radical. But when I think about it now I hear only the background buzz of our trying to explain something to each other, to ourselves, about our lived experiences thus far on this peeled, endangered planet. As is so often the case, the intensity of our need to be understood distorted our positions, backed us further into the cage.”

~

Like everyone, I’ve struggled to come to terms with a world that seems to constantly be turning in on itself and presenting a series of binaries that give the appearance of choice, but actually lead one to a paralyzing cul-de-sac of contractions and paradoxes. Rather than encouraging us to engage in more sophisticated ways with our original binaries, however, our polarized world of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and us versus them, instead goes about building the intellectual infrastructures that justify and accommodate the binaries and our choices. This same infrastructure then then flickers on and off behind the scenes sometimes as the fleeting object of critique, sometimes as a provisional set of practical accommodations, sometimes as the deeply ingrained contradictions of social structures, and sometimes as deep network of conspiratorial relationships.

Most of us feel frustrated when we uncover the binding infrastructures that we’ve created that allows for this or that series of binaries to coexist simultaneously, but we also (speaking for myself at least), lack the tools to escape. I feel like reading more works of fiction that allows me to explore lightly-sketched, often-shadowy worlds that resist resolution. I also wonder whether taking a deep dive into “queer theory” (broadly defined) that seeks to complicate binaries of all kinds might also offer a way not to resolve the binaries that have to come to define daily (especially political) life in contemporary society, but to find more (socially, politically, culturally?) productive ways to ignore them. 

Three Things Thursday: Black History Month, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a New Book

I’m almost making a habit of these Three Things Thursdays! This week, I’m mostly sharing things that happening at my other two projects: The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota Quarterly.

Thing the First

Please go and check out this long interview with David Pettegrew on the making of the book One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920 that he co-edited with Calobe Jackson, Jr. and Katie Wingert McArdle.

It’s a brilliant example of public, digital archaeology that involved a diverse group of individuals and produce a wide range of products, experiences, and community.

Thing the Second

I brought together some stuff about the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the NDQ blog including a couple amusing stories about Ferlinghetti’s visit to the UND Writers Conference in 1974 which of course involved the cops and Tom McGrath because North Dakota. 

Thing the Third

This one is a bit top secret, but I want to share it with loyal readers to this blog.

On Monday, The Digital Press will release Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Stewart Brown’s Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean. This book is brilliant and brings together nine substantial papers on deserted and abandoned villages in a wide range of contexts (including North Dakota). 

If you want to download a copy for free, in advance of the official publication date, go here or you can be the first to receive your very own paper copy here.

1 Deserted Villages book cover

Narrating History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things Thursday: Art, Books, and Classics

I feel like I’m barely keeping my head above the whelming tide these days, but fortunately the incoming deluge seems to be those plastic balls rather than the roiling surf. As a result, there are dozens of things jostling for my attention and it seems best to tame three of them with a “three things Thursday post.” A few of these things might grow up to 

Thing the First

I just posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog a gaggle of prints by artist Marco Hernandez. They’re really pretty great. I love how he not only uses contemporary media to illustrate the complexities of Mexican identity and his experiences as a Mexican-American in the US. We published his prints in grey scale in the Quarterly, but he generously allowed us to post them in color on the NDQ website. The appearance of color is particularly compelling as Hernandez used it to add an edge to his often incisive cultural critiques.

Anyway, the prints are pretty great and if you don’t feel like reading my solipsistic ramblings this morning, please go and check them out.

Thing the Second

The History Department is being moved from its offices in the University of North Dakota’s O’Kelly Hall while our floor is being renovated. We’ve also been asked to downsize into smaller offices with less bookshelf and file space. This seemed like a good opportunity to go through the books that I have collected over the past two decades and determine which are worth keeping (and moving!) and which I could afford to give away or discard.

Going through the books has been a pretty interesting (and somewhat sobering) experience. First, my book collection has a clear stratigraphy with clear layers of book collected during particular periods in my academic life. For example, I still have dozens of books on the Roman Republic from my graduate school days before I drifted towardLate Antiquity. I also have a layer of books that reflect that interest and my growing interest in field archaeology. Finally, I have a clear break between my graduate school days and my days as a professor and the books that I collected to support the classes that I was teaching with a particular emphasis on books that deal with historical methods and major trends in historiography. Most recently levels reveal my drift toward historical archaeology and archaeology of the contemporary world.

More sobering was the prevalence of white, male authors throughout my collection. It is really depressing to realize that amid my hundreds of books, I probably have fewer than 50 books by women and people of color. Part of this might reflect a bias in my book buying habits in that for my recent research I have relied more heavily on digital resources and library subscriptions. Thus the most recent levels in my library’s stratigraphy are less representative of the earlier levels. Anyone who reads this blog know that I continue to lag behind on the wokeness scale, but I hope that over the five years or so I have shown some signs of progress toward a more diverse reading list. On the opposite end of the chronological spectrum are a few books that date to my undergraduate days whose yellowing paged and faded spines form a small, but distinct residual assemblage. 

Finally, going through my collection has made me think about which books I want to keep and are worth keeping. Which books are classics that might draw my attention in the future and which are books that I consumed and can be more profitably passed onto a more interested and welcoming student. There are a few books – desk copies of textbooks, trade novels bought for travel, and books grabbed on a whim from used book sales – that I can just discard. But there remains a distinct handful of books that I’ll probably never read again, but have sentimental value. It’ll be nice seeing them on the shelves of my home office.

Thing the Third

There’s been a good bit of thoughtful conversation about the future of Classics prompted in no small part by the recent New York Times magazine article on whether Classics can survive and a few “burn it down” threads on Twitter. I’ve appreciated the discussion, but have also felt further from the core of academia more than ever.

My university doesn’t have a Classics Department. In fact, the two or three of us who could be loosely considered Classicists teach in languages, history, and Philosophy and Religion. We do not really collaborate for many reasons including our different career paths and priorities, departmental territorialism, and general ambivalence toward building something (or anything) on the shifting sands of our institutional budget, priorities, and leadership.

What the conversation revealed to me, however, its that many places retain a sense of agency in the future of Classics and continue to have the administrative, disciplinary, and institutional support to grow, revise, and transform that discipline. On the one hand, this means the future of Classics – to some extent – remains in the hands of Classicists. On the other hand, it made even more apparent that Classics has really become a discipline –  in the formal sense – that is restricted to only the top (say 100?) universities and liberal arts colleges in the U.S. I wonder how much this institutional reality will impact the future of the field.    

It seems to me as long as the top schools view themselves as leaders in the field, then they will continue under the assumption that changes to Classics as a discipline have transformative potential. 

It also seems, however, that with the dissipation of Classics at lower tier and smaller schools, that there is another locus for changes to the study of Greek and Roman antiquity. I can only speak for my fairly narrow experience, but being at an institution that does not explicitly support Classics qua Classics has led me to think about my discipline (which to be fair, is Ancient History) in new ways. In fact, my stretch into historical archaeology and the archaeology and history of North Dakota has come because I’m part of a history department and my colleagues are interested in local history, archaeology, and material culture.

What I’m playing with here is that people trained as Classicists (Ancient Historians or whatever) who get jobs outside the top tier of institutions seem as likely transform Classics as those who are working at the top. I wonder whether a model for understanding change in Classics might involve imagining greater permeability between lower tier institutions and those at the top. The Classics diaspora might offer some post-disciplinary wisdom to departments who are working to transform the fields in a different institutional context.   

Book By Its Cover: Deserted Villages

Last week, I quietly dropped a little sneak peek to the next book that will appear from my little press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

I thought I’d share the completed cover today. The cover design is by Rebecca Seifried and I provided a couple of the photos for the back, which fans of this blog might recognize as from the Western Argolid. I played a tiny bit with the DP@ logo on the spin of the book.

DV book cover SUBMITTING A 01

We’re saying that it’ll drop on March 1, but I suspect it’ll appear just a bit ahead of schedule. If you’re interested in seeing a prepublication copy, drop me an email or hit me up on Twitter. We’d love to get some enthusiastic praise for the book or, if nothing else, another pair of informed eyes on the text before we go live!

Sneak Peek: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean

It’s incredibly exciting to offer a sneak peek of the next book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

This book is exciting for many reasons. 

First, it’s due to appear later this month (and a soon to appear book is the most exciting kind of book I know!)

It is also the only book length volume that considers the phenomenon of deserted and abandoned villages in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Medieval to Modern periods. Anyone familiar with Eastern Mediterranean knows that abandoned settlements are ubiquitous in the countryside, but despite being so common, they’re rarely the same and have only sporadically received detailed attention.

Most significantly, however, is that the contributions in this book are a uniform high quality. These are not lightly revised conference papers, but full articles often with archaeological evidence, sustained, critical arguments, and polished figures, images, and maps. The volume was incisively peer reviewed by top scholars in the field and every article under went thorough revision.  

Finally, this volume grew out of a pair of panels organized by Deb Brown Stewart and Kostis Kourelis at the 2016 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America meetings and sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Group of the AIA. As folks familiar with The Digital Press know, Kostis was a co-editor of the very first volume published by the press, Punk Archaeology, and Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Seifried have been strong open access advocates and supporters of the press from its early days. In other words, this book embodies the community that scholar-led publishing can establish as well as its ability to produce high-quality, open-access books.

DV book cover

Here’s the abstract for the book: 

Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean is a collection of case studies examining the abandonment of rural settlements over the past millennium and a half, focusing on modern-day Greece with contributions from Turkey and the United States. Unlike other parts of the world, where deserted villages have benefited from decades of meticulous archaeological research, in the eastern Mediterranean better-known ancient sites have often overshadowed the nearby remains of more recently abandoned settlements. Yet as the papers in this volume show, the tide is finally turning toward a more engaged, multidisciplinary, and anthropologically informed archaeology of medieval and post-medieval rural landscapes.

The inspiration for this volume was a two-part colloquium organized for the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Francisco. The sessions were sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Interest Group, a rag-tag team of archaeologists who set out in 2005 with the dual goals of promoting the study of later material cultural heritage and opening publication venues to the fruits of this research. The introduction to the volume reviews the state of the field and contextualizes the archaeological understanding of abandonment and post-abandonment as ongoing processes. The nine, peer reviewed chapters, which have been substantially revised and expanded since the colloquium, offer unparalleled glimpses into how this process has played out in different places and locations. In the first half, the studies focus on long-abandoned sites that have now entered the archaeological record. In the second half, the studies incorporate archival analysis and ethnographic interviews—alongside the archaeologists’ hyper-attention to material culture—to examine the processes of abandonment and post-abandonment in real time.

Edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

With contributions from Ioanna Antoniadou, Todd Brenningmeyer, William R. Caraher, Marica Cassis, Timothy E. Gregory, Miltiadis Katsaros, Kostis Kourelis, Anthony Lauricella, Dimitri Nakassis, David K. Pettegrew, Richard Rothaus, Guy D. R. Sanders, Isabel Sanders, Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory, Olga Vassi, Bret Weber, and Miyon Yoo.

Rebecca M. Seifried is the Geospatial Information Librarian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Deborah E. Brown Stewart is Head of the Penn Museum Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

To get a preview of Deserted Villages, click here.

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.