Taco Terpstra’s Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean: Finished Review

In my effort to clear my plate before the semester gets under way next week, I finished my short review of Terpstra’s Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean for the Ancient History Bulletin. The book was pretty good and engaged ancient trade in a thoughtful and sophisticated way. 

Terpstra argued, in a nutshell, that the parallel rise of ancient states and ancient trade represents the complex interplay between trade and community in the ancient world. States do not so much protect the property rights of merchants and property owners, but create social and political conditions where groups and individuals could create ways to protect their economic interests. He looks at diaspora communities in the Classical Greek world, the messy overlap between political and economic interests among royal administrators in the Hellenistic Egypt, and witness lists on private contracts in the Roman Empire. As I note in my review, Terpstra’s argument gets a bit shaky when he attempts to extend it to the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th to 7th centuries AD. The transformation of the Ancient Mediterranean creates new forms of social and political relationships that both adapt and disrupt long-standing economic relationships. For many parts of the Mediterranean, the emergence of new social and religious groups as well as new states changed the context for economic relationships, but as archaeological evidence from the Eastern Mediterranean increasingly shows, many economic ties between communities persisted even after their political ties dissolved. 

If you’d like to read my entire review, go here.   

Despite these quibbles, this book represented another really impressive volume from Princeton University Press. Last week, I read Kyle Harper’s 2017 book The Fate of Rome (more on that here) which is another well-produced book from Princeton. When you add to their catalogue, Josh Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (2015) and Eric Cline’s 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2015) Princeton has set the standard for well-produced, broadly accessible, and affordable books on the ancient world. The publisher in me admires their catalogue and the scholar in me wishes he had more time to read. 

Doing Late Antiquity

One of the funny things about expertise is that if you don’t practice being an expert on something, you begin not to be. Over the past few years, my interests have changed and my level of expertise has declined in general. I tend to see this as a good thing. My interest in the world is democratizing, but at times, I have nostalgia for the times when I knew enough to confidently critique a colleague’s argument or offer a nuanced understanding of a complicated problem.

Over the last few months, I’ve been quietly reading on Late Antiquity. I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that I am becoming an expert again, but it’s been fun to visit the Late Antique world, to write about, and to think about it again.

I’m just about finished reading Georgios Deligiannakis, The Dodecanese and East Aegean islands in late Antiquity, AD 300-700 (2016) in part because I’m preparing for a conference this fall on island archaeology and Byzantium and partly because I’m working on an article on the Western Argolid in the 7th century. Deligiannakis book includes both a useful gazetteer and a synthetic analysis of Late Antiquity in the Dodecanese with special attention to Rhodes and Kos.

The book is filled with useful observations and I’ll mention just two. First, he notes that the proliferation of churches on Rhodes where there are around 80 Early Christian basilica likely reflects changing practices in euergetism in the Christian community. Citing the work of Rudolf Haensch and Peter Baumann as well as the modest epigraphic record from churches in the Dodecanese,  he argues that Christian theology motivated more modest donors to churches and this expanded the resources available to both Christian communities and the emerging ecclesiastical elite. This is compelling to me. In fact, I made a similar argument – very quietly and without any confidence – in my dissertation

Deligiannakis pays particular attention to the 7th century. This is not only useful because I’m working on a paper on the 7th century (and have been a bit obsessed with it), but also because Deligiannakis goes to some length to demonstrate the issues with using coins to date deposits in the 6th and 7th centuries. On Cyprus, the tendency to date buildings and deposits by coins – rather than ceramics – has served to align archaeological evidence too neatly with literary sources, particularly on the impact of the Arab raids. This overlooks complicated issues like the supply of coins and their survival rates. On a larger scale, this practice tends to drag the dates for ceramics and sites (and destruction layers) earlier than the ceramics alone might suggest and to cluster diverse and diffuse events into periods well-represented numismatically. Thus, the reigns of Heraclius and Constans II tend to be overrepresented in archaeological narratives. Some of the buildings, deposits, and destruction (and construction) levels dated to the reigns of these two emperor should probably be dated later.

Now, off to actually write about Late Antiquity. I might not be an expert any more, but I’ve certainly forgotten enough to find it fascinating. 

The Ancient Economy

This summer, I read Taco Terpstra’s little book on the ancient economy for a short review. I’ve not had the most productive summer, but I did get a draft of this review done. Here it is: 

Taco Terpstra’s book, Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean: Private Order and Public Institutions, seeks to transform and complicate our understanding of the ancient economy. Writing in the tradition of Moses Finley’s Ancient Economy, Terpstra returns to the idea that Ancient Mediterranean economies shared certain common elements that derive primarily from their relationship to the state. In this way, Terpstra challenges the prevailing view that the basic structure of economies in the antiquity were regionally and chronologically diverse. He employs a Neo-institutionalist perspective on the relationship between the Ancient state and economy to argue the emergence of the state created the environment promoting economic growth starting in the 7th century BCE. Parallels between the trend lines produced from graphs showing the number of shipwrecks and quantity of lead pollution in Greenland ice cores offers a surrogate from economic growth and traces the emergence and collapse of ancient states in the Mediterranean. The significant contribution of this book, however, is to add nuance to this parallel between economic growth and the growth of states. Terpstra argues with varying degrees of effectiveness, that the development of the ancient economy did not rely on the state’s enforcement of private property.

Chapters two to four of the book offer argue for the complicated interaction between state and non-state groups and relationships in the ancient economy. Chapter two considers the trade diaspora in the ancient Mediterranean and demonstrates that ancient cities maintained relationships and supported diaspora communities. The epigraphic record and textual sources document the ongoing relationship between the Phoenician city of Tyre and various cities in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. Terpstra indicates that while the city councils at Tyre and in host cities recognized the diaspora communities, these groups largely acted independent of state control. In chapter three, Terpstra drew upon papyrological evidence from the Hellenistic Zenon Archive. This archive preserved the correspondence of Zenon, an employee of Apollonios who was a high official in the Ptolemaic kingdom, and documented the easy combination of official and private affairs for government officials. For Terpstra, the use of official status for private gain, as is evident in these letters, shows how the state functioned as a “stationary bandit” and state officials leveraged their access to resources for personal gain. Even in this situation, however, the state did not provide enforcement or protection of private property; in fact, private actions and terms almost always resolved incidences of unethical, illegal, or uncooperative behavior in the archive. Chapter four considers the role of witnesses in the Roman world drawing upon a number of preserved witness lists from Italy and the provinces. The arrangement of these lists by social rank suggested that status within Roman society provided a meaningful check on private contracts and transactions. While status within the Roman world depended upon and paralleled the organization of the state, it was not strictly speaking a state function nor did it mark state involvement in the enforcement of private dealings. In these chapters, Terpstra paints a compelling picture of the limits of the state’s involvement in the ancient economy and the way in which private relationships structured economic activity. That these private relationships often depend upon the authority of the state to thrive and grow explains parallel rise of the Mediterranean’s economic fortunes between the 7th c. BCE and the 2nd c. CE.

Terpstra’s work finds itself on shakier grounds when he reaches Late Antiquity. Rather than continuing to trace the role of non-state relations in the changing economy of the 4th-5th centuries, Terpstra turns his attention to how changes in the reach of the state may have led to the constriction of the ancient economy. He acknowledged a wide range of probable causes for the decline of the Roman economy including environmental, political, and military challenges. At the same time, he suggested that the rise of Christianity and the suppression of polytheism undermined one of the main ways in which non-state diaspora communities created “honest signaling” across the Mediterranean. The suppression of paganism compromised diaspora communities organized around the devotion to regional deities and the interregional relationships that these communities maintained. To support this point, however, Terpstra looks at the destruction of the Marneion in Gaza and the Sarapeion in Alexandria by Christian groups. Absent is any clear connection between these events and the diaspora communities among who identified with these cults. An epilogue explores the decline of the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean economy in the 6th century. Terpstra suggests the loss of Egypt to Roman rule in the early 7th century marked the end of the ancient world and its economy. We are left to assume that the non-state relationships and practices so carefully outlined in the first three chapters expired with the decline of the state structures in which they incubated. Absent is any discussion of the growing body of archaeological evidence for the persistence of economic ties in the century or so after the collapse of Roman rule in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Terpstra’s book concludes on a more speculative note. He suggests that the political and social stability enjoyed by the Roman Empire may have served to suppress innovation by carefully managing competition between groups and for access to commodities. In contrast, the dynamism of the Late Medieval and Early Modern economy benefited from the highly fragmented political landscape of that period. The adventurous expansiveness of the book’s final pages does little to undermine the compelling arguments in the first four chapters which could have easily stood alone as a much shorter and tidier volume. Terpstra acknowledges that much more work is necessary to produce a definitive perspective on the ancient economy. In this context, perhaps readers will excuse the unevenness of this short book and share the author’s optimism.

Academia as the Universal Baseball Association

Anyone who likes sports and baseball, in particular, should read (or re-read) Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. The book describes a fantasy baseball league designed by Henry Waugh and played with roles of dice and a series of charts that allowed Henry to simulate the complexities of the game. Henry played the game for years creating seasons, statistics, dynasties, and storylines that introduced personalities, character, and politics to the Association.

The game preoccupied Henry especially after a young, start pitcher was killed when he was struck in the head by a pitch during a game. This caused Henry to spiral into a deep depression and the border between the world that he built up around the game and reality began to blur. Soon, he started missing work and drinking heavily and becoming more erratic around his friends. This began to impact the game and the Association culminating in his efforts to include a friend in the playing of the game. Henry then manipulated a roll of the dice to kill the pitcher who though the lethal pitch. This effort to restore balance in the league made clear the enormity of Henry’s responsibility as proprietor of the league and keeper of both its statistics and narratives. The players in the league depended on Henry for their existence, but also for their autonomy through his honest rolls of the dice. 

As I spend more time in academia, I start to wonder how much of what we do exists in a kind of fantasy world where the players, narratives, and situations that inspire our work depend on our own imagination to have agency. This isn’t to suggest that our scholarship doesn’t have real consequences. As the death of a star player in Henry’s Association demonstrated, the worlds that we create spill over into our realities and shape our lives and the lives of other people. While many critics have seen in Coover’s work a commentary on free will and the divine (observing that J. Henry Waugh is very close to Yahweh, one of the names for God in the Old Testament). I wonder whether it might also be a commentary on academia, where so many of our arguments exist in this self-referential world that only sometimes spills over into the rest of our realities. Our expertise, our claims to knowledge, and our positions of social, political, or cultural authority all depend on the relationship between what we do and the existence of a meaningful reality outside of the limits of our game. 

Selling Books

A colleague once described a book that I wrote as “selling well, but in very small numbers.” If I had a goal as a publisher, that would essentially sum it up. I’d rather my books circulate to people who genuinely appreciated them than to ascend a best seller list.

That being said, this last two weeks have been pretty special for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Not only do we have a series of amazing books in advanced stages of production (and ready for a fall release), but we also have two books that hit sales targets.

The Digital Press and our authors works hard to promote our books, but as a small press, our advertising budget is small. More than that, true to our laboratory roots we never think much about book sales when we pursue a book for publication. In part, this is because we give our books away for free as digital downloads and, in some cases, don’t even hold paper publishing rights to the works. As a result, we tend to get more excited about downloads than sales, but it remains intriguing and exciting to see a book sell paper copies.

This past week, both Eric Burin’s Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College (2017) and the book that Kyle Conway’s and I edited, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016) sold their 200th copy. This might not sound like much, but bear in mind that many academic monographs have print runs of fewer than 500 (and many have runs of only 300 copies). Moreover, The Bakken Goes Boom has had almost 1000 downloads and is starting to collect a scholarly citations. Picking the President has seen just a few clicks short of 500 downloads. 

Congratulations to everyone involved in these two books and their success. Download copies of these books or any of the books from the Digital Press here, and if the spirit moves you or you just prefer paper, order a copy as well! 

More Books by the Cover from The Digital Press

This summer, I’m doing a bit of design work for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as we prepare for a very busy fall.

We’re eagerly anticipating the publication of the Dakota Datebook in book form. For those of you who aren’t from North Dakota, Dakota Datebook is a beloved Prairie Public Radio program that offers short interesting (and often fun) stories about North Dakota history on a daily basis. Over the past decade, Prairie Public Radio has produced and broadcast over 3000 of these 300-500 word stories. The students in David Haeselin’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing class selected 365 of the best for the book. 

For the cover, which is not final, of course, we partnered with North Dakota artist Jessie Thorson who provided the menagerie of character for the calendar set into the outline of North Dakota. The bold color bars combine the shade of blue used by Prairie Public and the yellow from the North Dakota state flag. The font is the ubiquitous “ChunkFive”. 

Dakota Datebook WRC Draft2 01 01

The second book cover that I’ve been working on is for a new book of essays by the Electric Archaeologist, Shawn Graham. It’s titled Failing Gloriously, and we wanted a cover that was both uncluttered, a bit playful, and makes reference to the digital aspect of his work. Here’s the first draft:

Failing Gloriously Cover Draft 1 01

More on these two books (and their covers!) as we move forward this summer. The Digital Press is looking forward to an exciting fall!

Summer Reading List

It’s almost summer and my stack of books and stalled projects has grown to the point of being embarrassing. But each summer brings a bit of hope with, maybe, a bit more time and a bit more clarity of purpose, or at very least some long flights and hazy jet-lagged nights where reading can happen.

To add a bit to the difficulty level this summer, I managed to break my glasses yesterday and leave for the Mediterranean on Wednesday armed with a pair of “store boughten” reading glasses that makes everything a bit more consistently blurry.

It’s an exciting time to consider my annual summer reading list.  

You can check out my past reading lists here:  2018, 20172016201520142013, and 2011. I try to go back and re-read them each year to keep from feeling a sense of accomplishment at the end of a long semester. Reinforcing inferiority and failure is a key element to scholarly productivity.

This summer, my top priority is writing and databasing. Reading is secondary, but I do have a paper in the fall that deals with Cyprus and insularity. I need to think more about what it means to work on an island. This has pushed me read Anna Kouremenos recent edited volume: Insularity and Identity in the Roman Mediterranean  (2018). I also need to check out Constantakopoulou’s Dance of the Islands: Insularity, Networks, the Athenian Empire, and the Aegean world (2007), Paul Rainbird, The Archaeology of Islands (2007), James Conolly and Matthew Campbell, Comparative Island Archaeologies (2008), Thansis Vionis, A Crusader, Ottoman, and Early Modern Aegean Archaeology (2012),  Helen Dawson’s Mediterranean Voyages: The Archaeology of Island Colonization and Abandonment (2013), Jane Francis and Anna Kouremenos’ Roman Crete: New Perspectives (2016). I’m sure there is more.

Dimitri Nakassis has nudged me to think about landscapes in a different way in the run up to our field season on WARP and on his recommendation I’ve grabbed a copy of David Hinton’s Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape (2012). It’s also got me thinking a bit about drones and dronoscopy and seeing the landscape from above (with a hat tip to conversations that I had at the EAA’s with Becky Sefried!).  I’ll try to read Caren Kaplan’s Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above (2018) and the book that she co-edited with Lisa Parks, Life in the Age of Drone Warfare (2017). 

[As an aside, Duke University Press and the University of Minnesota Press are just killing it right now!] 

I also know that I need to keep thinking a bit about what I do as editor of North Dakota Quarterly and at The Digital Press. Last year I started but didn’t finish Peter Ginna’s What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing (2017) and this year,  a copy of Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019). I still need to finish Joy Williams’ The Changeling (1978), and since she appears in the next issue of NDQ, it seems like a good time to try to do that. I also got a copies of Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoire (2018) and Long Division: A Novel (2013) because I was really struck by him at the 2019 UND Writers Conference

Along similar lines (with another hat tip to the UND Writers Conference), this spring, I read Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019) while listening to Sun-Ra and some more recent Afrofuturist space jazz (The Comet is Coming’s latest, for example) convinced me to get some Octavia Butler, particularly the Xenogenesis trilogy, collected as Lilith’s Brood, and her Patternist series collected as Seeds to Harvest.

There are some other odds and ends that I’ll work through this summer, I’m sure. Some of it will invariably chasing this or that footnote; some of it will be what passes for fun these days; some of it will be a flailing effort to think more critically about what I do as a teacher and a scholar. 

In the end, if I read 25% of these books, I’ll have done something. I probably won’t manage to do even that (as a gaggle of J.G. Ballard and Ursula K. LeGuin novels stare at me from lists of reading past). Maybe making the list public will keep me humble, though, and remind me that for every book I intend to read there are three or four more than I really should read instead.  

 

 

New Directions in Cypriot Archaeology

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks hanging out with Catherine Kearns’s and Sturt Manning’s new edited volume, New Directions in Cypriot Archaeology (2019). It’s a pretty interesting read and was a good way to start thinking in a more sustained way about the archaeology of Cyprus in the run up to a summer study season at Polis. 

The volume derived from a conference in 2014 and, as a result, the papers are not on the bleeding edge of archaeological research. In some ways, this is a good thing. The editors assert that recent trends in Cypriot archaeology follow three registers: efforts to rework established chronologies, an interest in archaeometric techniques that range from the petrographic and chemical analysis of ceramics to remote sensing, and new ways to think about landscapes and space on the island. For better or for worse, there is relatively little discussion of our disciplines current interest in assemblages, agency, symmetry, and materiality. Most of the contributions to the book are unapologetically processual (with one or two exception). 

The book also focuses almost exclusively on the heart of Cypriot archaeology: the Bronze and Iron Age. When the authors talk about the diachronic, they mean the relationship between the Bronze and Iron Age. That being said, the most historically productive discussions of the archaeology of Cyprus have tended to focus on the earlier periods and most of the issues that the authors in this volume consider can be applied to later periods in various ways. In fact, I joked on Twitter that replacing the word “Cypriot” in the tripartite Bronze Age chronology of the island with the word “Roman” (e.g. the Middle Cypriot III-Late Cypriot I transition can be the Middle Roman III to Late Roman I transition) is an amusing and not entirely frivolous exercise. So many of the basic issues of continuity, change, and periodization exist across the entire history of the island. More than that, the long shadow of Evans’ and Blegen’s tripartite chronologies, shapes how we define essential elements of each period in Cypriot (and broader Mediterranean) archaeology. Plus, I can’t stop fantasizing about how an audience might react to a paper that calmly uses the unfamiliar, yet recognizable periodization scheme to discuss the transition from the Middle Roman IIIC to Late Roman I period at the site of Polis on Cyprus. It would be really fun to do.

Finally, the book nudged me to think more about what constitutes an archaeology of Cyprus for later periods. I’m scheduled to give a paper at Dumbarton Oaks in the fall at a conference on the “insular world of Byzantium” that will have to consider what makes Cyprus just like any other island in the Eastern Mediterranean and what makes it distinct. Like it’s neighbor Crete, the archaeology of Cyprus has its own history of practice, theoretical predilections, and priorities and these have – as any number of archaeologists have acknowledged – shaped the study of all periods. Moreover, scholars like Sturt Manning, Hector Catling, Michael Given, Maria Hadjicostii, and many others have shown a willingness to work across multiple periods on the island ensuring that ideas, questions, and frameworks from one period cross pollinate with others. A moderately ambitious scholars can keep up with scholarship from almost every period on Cyprus, even if some of the finer points of the discussion remain obscure or difficult to grasp. 

I admit to getting a bit lost in the details of the individual contributions to the book, but a few themes stood out as significant for how we think about any period in the archaeology of the island. I found the keynote paper by David Frankel and the two contributions from the editors the most useful for thinking diachronically about the archaeology of Cyprus. I took three things away from the book:

First, we need to continue to work to establish tighter and more nuanced chronologies for assemblages, if we want to understand the complexities of change and community identity on the island. In most cases, this means getting a better grasp on ceramic forms and fabrics and unpacking the relationship between these various forms within assemblages across the island. These ceramic assemblages need also to be correlated with architectural forms, settlement types, and other artifacts, which have their own distinct temporal and chronological characteristics. This is challenging work at the level of a single site, but renewed attention to the kinds of typologies and the character of assemblages offers significance at an island-wide scale.  

Second, understanding the ancient climate of Cyprus in a more nuanced way is essential to understanding the organization of space and change across the island. Sturt Manning’s contribution complicates the notion of Cyprus as a wealthy and “blessed island” which is often projected back from the Roman period into prehistory. Using contemporary and historic climate data he was able to show that rainfall across the island varied widely and the agricultural potential of the island in antiquity varied from year to year. Strategies to endure dry years and to maximize access to more consistent water sources shaped settlement and the organization communities.

Finally, Catherine Kearns contribution on the environment and ecology of Cyprus over time has pushed me to think about the variables that led to settlement at our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria as well as changes to the urban fabric at Polis. While Kearns does not explicitly discuss post-Iron Age Cyprus, her approach to understanding how access to resources, resilience, and climate intersect has widespread applicability on Cyprus particular when mapped atop landscapes shaped by monumental investment, historical memory, and extra-insular resources provided by trade routes, neighboring communities, or state functions. While these latter characteristics of the Mediterranean landscape have tended to take precedence in scholarship on historic periods (although not always), the data necessary to develop more dynamic models of settlement across the island and region have become increasingly available. 

As an archaeologists who tends to think of both Cyprus and landscapes in a fairly traditional way, New Directions in Cypriot Archaeology offers a useful primer for current trends in the field. There is no doubt that future research on the island, for all periods, will develop with a more expansive methods and more complex theoretical and scientific toolkit. These new directions will invariably produce a more nuanced and dynamic landscape and a more collaborative and specialized archaeological practice as well.

As a random aside, the book is published by Cornell University Press which is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. I love their commemorative logo which is on the back of this book. You can check it out here on the front cover of their Spring/Summer 2019 catalogue

 

Late Antique and Byzantine Anatolia

Last week I worked my way through John Haldon, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, Archaeology and Urban Settlement in Late Roman and Byzantine Anatolia: Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü and its Environment (Cambridge 2018) in preparation for my annual trek to the Eastern Mediterranean for field work. As the major field seasons for the survey phase of the Western Argolid Regional Project have concluded, we have begun to think more about what we need to do to publish our results. While I have tended to focus on the sherds on the ground (and in the project’s GIS), Haldon et al. reminded me that there was much more than just field data to producing a significant regional study. 

I don’t really write reviews here, but here are four or five thoughts on the book:

1. Low Density and Limited Collection. The area around Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü produced very few sherds and even fewer that were diagnostic. Moreover, they could only collect sherds from the Roman period and later, and this created a particularly challenging relationship between their study assemblages and the distribution of material on the ground. James Newhard’s clever methods for smoothing ceramic densities over different sized units, different surface conditions, and different visibilities provided a foundation for interpreting the assemblages collected and studied from the survey area. 

A bit less clear was the relationship between these artifact densities and the kinds of sites that the project asserted existed in the landscape. It was a bit hard to understand the difference between an independent structure, house, farmstead, and watchtower, for example, in the text itself, but the detailed discussion of these functional categories appeared in a later appendix. I’m still not entirely sold on this method of creating sites, but there is something compelling about the complexity of the historical, landscape, and archaeological variables considered in site definition.    

2. Climate and the Environment. I tend to look at the surface and artifacts when I think about archaeology. In a pinch, I’ll think about a building or a strata. I rarely step far enough away from the artifactual landscape to think clearly about the environment and climate as important factors in understanding how people in the past lived in their world. This is obviously a blind spot in my research focus, and as I extend my interests into more recent periods, the pressing realities of climate change, for example, and our adaptation to the changing environment in the last 50 years, has nudged me to expand how I think about the archaeological universes that I study.

Archaeology and Urban Settlement demonstrated the potential of a careful study of the ancient environment at a regional scale for understanding the development of settlement, agriculture, and land use in their region. Interestingly, their study area had rather few opportunities for sampling pollen or other scientific approaches to studying paleoenvironmental variable. Nevertheless, the team was able to draw one evidence from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern texts as well as modern agricultural and climate date to model the ancient environment in useful ways. They demonstrated that the landscape around Avkat was not unproductive, but as relatively marginal in antiquity as it was in the 21st century with most communities surviving on the cultivation of cereals and pastoralism. Climate change appears to be just one of the variable that shaped changes in agricultural practice, settlement and life in the area. 

3. Roads and Routes. In the Western Argolid, we think constantly about roads and routes through our survey area. In fact, travel through the Inachos valley and its relationship both to neighboring Arcadia and Corinthia as well as the Argive plain to the east, was part of the original plan for the survey project from the onset. So far, we’ve written a few papers that attempted to understand settlement and movement in our landscape and have thought about the relationship between water, routes, bridges, and churches. In general, we have not used least-cost path kinds of analysis, in part because we have some ethnographic and archaeological information on movement through the valley, and in part, because the flat or gently sloping Inachos River valley bottom exerts a strong pull on any path through the area. As a result, we’ve leaned a bit more heavily on cultural factors on movement through the valley, and considered the ways and reasons for which known routes defy least-cost expectations to avoid crops and fields, to follow the line of an aqueduct, or to pass close or far from settlements.

 Archaeology and Urban Settlement does a nice job integrating historical and topographic information into mapping movement in their survey area. This not only provides context for the relationship between sites and routes, but also demonstrates the tension between persistent major routes that shaped the significance of major settlements in the region and the dynamism of smaller routes that linked settlements to their fields or rural sites to other rural sites. While such temporal variability across the landscape is hardly surprising, it is worth noting the trans regional movement on major routes likely represented a less common and regular kind of movement in a landscape. The permeability of the countryside, in contrast, might have reflected myriad, changing smaller routes that accommodated more regular traffic on a daily basis. 

4. Foodways and Ceramics. One of the more intriguing sections of the volume was Joanita Vroom’s chapter of Byzantine foodways and ceramics. Because the local ceramic typologies were relatively poorly know, it was rather difficult to identify and date the surface assemblages. Rather than create an unmoored typology or speculate too wildly on potential economic or social links between the ceramics present in the survey area and potential production sites, Vroom focused on the evidence for Byzantine foodways in the region. By compiling evidence for food, trade, and the related vessels need to provide sustenance to communities who lived in the region.

On the one hand, there is little that is specifically related to the region around Avkat, but, on the other hand, her chapter continued her effort to redefine the study of ceramics from the vessels themselves to their role in the everyday life of Late Roman and Byzantine communities. When this attention to foodways intersects with routes through the area, paleoclimate studies, and agricultural history and ethnoarchaeology, and, of course, excavated and survey ceramics, I can imagine an opportunity to connect the broadly general with the individual at the scale of the landscape, and this is an exciting proposition. 

5. Publishing Data. One particularly intriguing element of the book is that most of the maps and many images were published digitally via Open Context rather than printed in the book itself. This is useful for the digital book, where, if you’re on wifi, the image is just a click away. I was reading on my iPad, on a flight, so I lost a bit of that convenience, but back at my laptop everything worked fine. I imagine that for a reader of the paper book, this would be a bit more inconvenient. 

More promising still is the prospect that the project will publish its full datasets on Open Context in the future.  

 

Politics of Mass Digitization

This weekend I read and really enjoyed Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s The Politics of Mass Digitization (2018). The book considered the approaches, implications, and politics behind the early 21st century move to mass digitization. Thylstrup unpacks the responses, for example, to Google Books from the European Union and their Europeana portal or platform to the various shadow libraries that emerged to provide access to collections overlooked or paywalled by conventional digitization schemes. It is a sophisticated, but accessible primer to the main issues surrounding mass digitization from a range of perspectives and theoretical paradigms. It’s good.

As someone who has thought a good bit about digitization in archaeology – although certainly not at the scale of Google Books, for example – and is alternately drawn to the potential of large scale digital collections and worried about the ways in which these collections tie archaeologists to ways of thinking, working, and interpreting, the book offers some useful observations. 

There are four that I found especially compelling:

1. Assemblages. Thylstrup emphasizes that the work of digitization is far more than simply a technical challenge or even economic or legal one. Instead, a wide range of pressures, technologies, systems, social expectations, rules, governments, and objects interact to shape mass digitization projects. This cautions us from reading mass digitization as simply a technical challenge that must be overcome or a set of legal or political challenges that will invariably give way to progress. It was particularly interesting to understand how various project – particularly the European, Europeana project – situated itself as a response to Google Books – and, as a result, showed the imprint of this formation on how it sought to preserve and disseminate European culture. At the same time, different European copyright laws, priorities, and the organization of cultural institutions, also gave Europeana a distinct character.   

2. Standardization. Anyone who has read this blog knows that standardization is something that has fascinated me over the last few years. The need to prepare archaeological data in such a way to make it susceptible to linked open data standards, for example, links standardization of data with certain expectations of use. Thylstrup noted that the need to standardize data in mass digitization, however, resisted the rigidity of the Fordist assembly line and instead promoted interoperability. This interoperability promoted the “free range of actions” and “innovation” that are so central to neoliberal ways of thinking. In other words, standardization is a method of displacing and decontextualizing information that allows for it to exist within a world that values the flexibility of use and reuse over the restrictive notions of context. This has obvious relevance for archaeology as it seeks to leverage both the potential of largescale linked datasets and the tradition of provenience and context.  

3. Labyrinths, Flaneurs, and Serendipity. One of the more intriguing sections of the book considers the models of discovery present in mass digitization projects. In particular, Thylstrup considers the the social context for serendipitous discover or the leisurely and unstructured encounter of the flaneur who invariably is a white, able-bodied, male. The labyrinth, in contrast, speaks to intimidating character of the digitized and seemingly infinite library that always is expanding. The need for the ambivalent figure of the disinterested flaneur to tame the terror of the always expanding labyrinth presents a compelling counterpoint to the economic and cultural imperative for standardization and the need to create digital objects that can freely mingle in the service of innovation. This is a subtle but fascinating critique that suggests that the very structure of the digital world serves to simultaneously intimidate and liberate, to make information useful and to promote serendipity, and to ultimate to reinscribe the control within a new space of digital encounters.

For an archaeologist, this reality should give us pause. After all, the importance of context and structure to the archaeological encounter motivates most of the fundamental positions in disciplinary ethics from the need to maintain and preserve an archive to our understanding of repatriation and provenience. By presenting data as both susceptible to the unconstrained ambivalence of the flaneur as well as the structured world of fragmented data, we’re creating a tension that challenges some of the basic professional expectations of our work.       

4. The Politics of the Digital World. Finally, Thylstrup’s work emphasizes in both the micro and macro level the role of politics in shaping mass digitization projects. While there is always as risk (as she herself notes) of using the word politics so broadly to undermine its very meaning, by recognizing the political character of the assemblages responsible for our digital repositories, she offers a useful lens through which to consider the power relations that even the most utopian mass digitization projects create and reinforce. 

This reminder that our digital world is fundamentally political is not new, but its always a useful reminder in an age where it becomes so easy to use and celebrate the potential of digital tools and data without much critique.