Plague and Famine in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

Tomorrow I’m presenting in Prof. Sercan Yandim Aydin and Prof. Luca Zavagno’s Byzantium at Ankara seminar series in a session titled “Famine and Plagues in Byzantium: archaeology, documentary and hagiography in a comparative perspective.”

I have to admit to feeling more than a little nervous about the topic which is pretty far from my core area of expertise (however narrow that might be). I’ve spend the last few days reviewing some of the key works on the topic of plague and famine, and I have to admit that it’s been a nice break from my other simmering projects.

While I’m not planning to present a formal paper, it’s useful for me to get my ideas together. For the following observations, I’m indebted to the crowd-sourced “Archaeology of Epidemics” syllabus.

It seems to me that the archaeology of plagues and famines recognizes the long-standing ties between disease and sedentary agriculture. The latter tends to be a precondition for  historical understandings of famine (although famines are, of course, possible among hunter-gatherers, many of the preconditions for famine appear to be more prominent among settled agrarians than more mobile hunter-gatherers). More than that, settled agriculture increased human proximity to animals, to one another, and to human waste and distinct environmental conditions which undoubtedly contributed to an increase rates of infectious diseases. Settled agriculture is obviously case in the Later Roman and Byzantine Empires as were a series of epidemics (that verge on being pandemics) starting in the late 2nd century and continuing through the middle-8th century.

The second basic idea for any consideration of plagues and famines in the past is that both phenomena are incredibly complex and generally the result of multiple variable. Diseases, for example, can vary not only on the biological level. Yeresinia Pestis, for example, is a bacteria transmitted primarily by rats and humans; Malaria, as another example, is an amoeba transmitted by a limited number of types of mosquitos. Cholera and Typhoid are primarily transmitted through contaminated water (and food). The range of different kinds of diseases, therefore, impacts the ways in which diseases spread, take hold, and impact mortality.

Famines likewise represent a series of conditions that range from weather and climate to economic and political decisions. Famine often results in malnutrition and compromised immune systems that can produce not only a greater susceptibility to  The relationship between famine and disease then requires that we consider not only politics, ecology, economics, and environmental conditions, but also the distinctive character of the diseases moving through the human population.

The archaeology of plague and famine in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Mediterranean has its own unique characteristics as well. There are four major trends, I think, in how archaeologists have approached these phenomena.

1. Bioarchaeology. Certainly the most sensational efforts to understand disease in the ancient world have come from bioarchaeologists. The publication of evidence for Yersinia Pestis (the Bubonic Plague) in dental pulp DNA samples from two 6th century cemeteries in Bavaria has added weight to hypothesis that the Justinianic plague was, indeed, the Bubonic plague, although as a few commentators have noted, 10 individuals with the plague in a rather remote region hardly represents a meaningful sample of the Mediterranean population at the time.

The challenges facing bioarchaeology involve not only the still-developing technologies necessary to analyze human skeletal remains at the scale necessary to produce a sufficiently significant body of evidence to allow for large scale conclusions. More than that, only certain kinds of diseases leave recognizable traces in human remains. Tuberculosis, for example, leaves tell-tale lesions on bones, but other illnesses like malaria are more elusive meaning that our view of epidemics illnesses in the ancient world will likely remain uneven for the time.

2. Climate and Environmental Archaeology. The second major trend in understanding plagues and famines in Late Antiquity is the growing interest in ancient climate change and the role of climate and the environment in creating conditions favorable with the development of epidemic and pandemic outbreaks of disease. The most thorough version of this approach is Kyle Harper’s 2017 book  The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017)  or the recent volume of the Late Antique Archaeology series dedicated to Environment and Society in the Long Late Antiquity (Brill 2018).

Harper and others have sought to understand the appearance of pandemic scale diseases in the late 2nd century, starting with the Antonine plague, and continuing through to the Justinian’s plague. Harper argues that end of the Roman Climate Optimum and the start of the Late Antique Ice Age (and the Late Antique Little Ice Age) may have created environmental conditions suitable for spread of new diseases in the Mediterranean basin. Harper and other scholars who have emphasized that large scale climate change is not an explanation in and of itself, but the impact of these changes must be understood in the context of both local environmental conditions and the larger political and social world of Late Antiquity. There is little doubt however that changes in global climate triggered changes in the agricultural regimes that contributed to “years without summer” and subsequent famines that are known from literary sources. The wide ranging debate around the “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE” and its connection to the Justinianic plague is only one such example.

As any number of scholars have shown in recent years, for example the work done by Haldon, Elton and Newhart have done in Anatolia, regional variation in the environment plays a significant role in understand the impact of climate change at the local level. Sturt Manning has recently made clear the significant inter-annual variations in rain fall on Cyprus, which may have had as much of an impact on the health and prosperity of communities than large scale climate variation on the global level. Roman efforts to drain swamps, build roads, and deforest hills would have introduced new hydrological patterns that would have supported, for example, the mosquitos that carried malaria, as Robert Sallares has shown in his work. Bret Shaw has argued on the basis of epigraphic data from across the Mediterranean that there are clear seasonal patterns of mortality. The wide range of variables that contribute to these patterns include local weather during the hotter and more humid late summer months whose impact on the mortality of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis remains difficult to assess.

Environmental archaeology has also shed valuable light on global conditions that could have disrupted plague foci in, for example, rodent colonies in Central Asia or East Africa which would have dispatched plague bearing fleas to the Mediterranean through established trade routes in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Understanding these phenomena, of course, is extremely complex and we’re only at the very beginning of understand the existence of disease foci and their relationship to climate conditions. In fact, both of these things as independent variables remain difficult to understand much less in relation to one another.

That being said, a growing body of environmental proxies from Greenland ice cores to dendrochronology is beginning to allow us to map global climate change in antiquity. Unfortunately the chronological resolution and distribution of this data does not always coincide with the kinds of historical questions that Mediterranean archaeologists and historians are asking. Moreover, they do not always make the cause of climate variation clear and are often difficult to correlate with local conditions. This isn’t to say that this work is not producing meaningful results, but that the impact of climate science on our understanding of specific historical events like the Justinianic plaque continues to develop.

3. Archaeological Evidence. Michael McCormick, one of the leading scholars in the study of plagues in antiquity, has pulled together the evidence for mass burials in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period and published it in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. McCormick recognizes that these kinds of direct evidence for episodes of mass mortality may well provide indications of plague events and coincide with evidence from literary sources for mass burials.

The challenge, of course, is that the situation and dates of many of these mass burials remain unclear. In some cases, such as Kopetra on Cyprus, where a cistern becomes the tomb for at least 9 individuals, there is reason to at least suspect that these are people who died from disease. In other cases, like the Andritsa cave in Argolid, it’s more challenging to see the bodies of over 50 individuals as victims of the disease alone and might be better recognized as the result of a complex series of events that range from diseases and famine to regional political or military disruptions. As with efforts to understand the relationship between climate and disease, it seems likely that many of these burials represent the intersection of a series of conditions including the availability of a cave or a cistern for a mass burial. The analysis of the demographics of the individuals, when such data is available, and any chronological clustering of the incidents of mass burial likewise allow for a more refined interpretation of these events. McCormick shows that of the 48 mass burials datable to between 300 and 800, 36 of them occurred during the 6th and 7th century. That being said, the ongoing efforts to refine the dating of Late Roman ceramics, for example, may well complicate the chronology of these burials or at least complicate any clear correlation between events datable in the literary sources to a particular year or span and shifting archaeological chronologies.

4. Landscape, Settlement, and Demography. Finally, there has been a massive amount of attention on Late Roman settlement and demography over the last twenty years prompted in part by the rise in landscape and regional survey projects that have shed valuable light not only on rural settlement, but also on the relationship between city and country and between various regions in the Mediterranean basin.

On the most basic level questions of demography and settlement patterns provide a backdrop for the economic conditions present in the long Late Antiquity. As our understanding of the countryside, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, improves and reveals a “busy countryside” in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, traditional arguments for large scale demographic and economic decline have become less compelling. The neighborhood of the mass burial at Kopetra and the Andritsa cave in the Western Argolid appear to be active and even moderately prosperous with imported table wares, storage and transport amphora, and purpose made cooking pots appearing in urban and rural areas alike. Of course, this is not meant to suggest that plagues cannot strike economically prosperous communities or that they necessarily would have a negative impact on local economies, but to challenge views of the Late Antique landscape which saw conditions of decline and deprivation as particularly suitable for the outbreak of disease.

Instead, recent work has emphasized the ongoing connectivity of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and this connectivity goes well beyond well-known links between major urban centers or regions and now involves the myriad of small links that constituent the dense networks of small-scale and local exchange between microregions. These connections provided the Late Antique world with its remarkable resilience in times of political or environmental stress, and, at the same time, established the context for the spread of disease throughout the Later Roman world.

At present, our efforts to understand the character and extent of this connectivity in a nuanced way remains in its infancy. For example, we’re only now making strides to understand the countryside in the neighborhood of Adritsa Cave which in many ways shows remarkable continuity with earlier centuries. This makes it difficult to present even a local or regional context for this unusual site much less ascertain its place within larger regional trends.

~

If my contribution tomorrow does anything, I hope that I’m able to present a view of the archaeology of plagues and famines that provides some disciplinary context. This involves not only understanding the larger methodological trends that characterize research on these topics including bioarchaeology, environmental archaeology, excavations, and survey projects, but also emphasizes the epistemological and practical limits that shape archaeological discourse.

It’s cliche to note that the goal of archaeology is not necessarily to supplement the narratives established by historians and scholars of texts. In fact, archaeological evidence often remains oddly incompatible with these disciplines. Often the incommensurability stems from the different scales at which we operate. Even with the precisions of dendrochronology, most archaeological dates established through C14 dating or conventional ceramic typologies are more broad and imprecise than dates provided in texts.

As significantly, archaeologists sometimes work at the highly focused scale of a single site, part of a site, or trench, where evidence for phenomena like plagues may not be immediately visible. This situation means that even when archaeologists work at the scale of the region, we’re often forced to recognize that our inconsistent sample is better suited to understanding intraregional variation especially when considered at finer chronological resolutions.

Advances in bioarchaeological sampling are unlikely to resolve these issues quickly because of variability in discovery and preservation of human remains, the need to secure samples through particularly rigorous and time consuming excavation techniques that are not always possible, and the cost of analysis. The same holds true for many of the techniques that are producing important insights into regional environmental conditions that require specific situations (e.g. anaerobic lake beds), expertise, and funding that not all projects can access in the same way. The resulting patchworks, like the 10 individuals with the plague in Germany, will result in datasets that seemingly beg to be over generalized or dismissed as outliers especially in their relationship to particular environmental or epidemiological events.

Where archaeology shines is in providing evidence for long-term trends at the regional level and recognizing the ebb and flow of populations, prosperity, connectivity, and settlement. Plagues and famines while seemingly more common between the 3rd and 8th century often emerge as mere blips on the archaeological radar and soon disappear again the backdrop of persistent activity and the resilience of long-standing communities.

While this will likely disappoint historians who persist in their hope that archaeology or archaeological science can unlock the relationship between climate, disease, populations, economies, and politics, maybe it’ll be heartening in our contemporary situation where the COVIDs seem destined the fundamentally transform our everyday life. Viewed at the archaeological scale, it may be that The COVID pandemic will appear as little more than some discarded latex gloves and empty bottles of hand sanitizer.

Five Thoughts from the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting

I spent two hectic days in Washington, DC on the weekend attending the AIA/SCS annual meeting. I try to go every other year and despite my griping about having to attend and my general feeling of being an impostor, I still very much view it as “my annual meeting.” In other words, the AIA feels like my disciplinary and institutional home.

 I attended a handful of panels at this years meeting and mostly knew what was going on (which was pretty good for me) and on uneventful flights home, I had six thoughts.

1. Legacy Data. I gave a paper in a panel on legacy data organized by Jon Frey and Fotini Kondyli. To my great surprise, the room was packed with an engaged and enthusiastic audience. The papers walked the intriguing line between the practical and the conceptual demonstrating not only the pressing need to discuss the challenging realities associated with working on legacy data and the potential for work on legacy data to inform the larger methodological and theoretical framework of archaeology. 

I left the panel realizing that most of the challenges that archaeologists encounter when dealing with legacy data are conceptually consistent with the challenges that archaeologists encounter in the field. They involve issues of context, classification, documentation, workflow, and historical and historiographical analysis. Perhaps this is why the panel attracted so much interest. You can read my paper here.

2. The Future of Publishing in the Humanities. I also attended a roundtable discussion on the future of publishing in the humanities with representatives of two presses, a pair of librarians, and a couple hybrid scholars who work between publishing, scholarship, and information science. 

Three things emerged from that discussion. First, the monolithic notion of “publishing a book” or “publishing an article,” belies a very diverse range of processes, possibilities, and publishers who range from very conventional academic presses to smaller “scholar-led” operations. Moreover, even among these groups, there are a range of different approaches and priorities for an author to consider. Second, a significant part of this diversity comes from the challenge of digital practices in both knowledge making and in its dissemination. Libraries, scholars, and publishers are all working hard to figure out how to distribute books across digital channels, preserve digital data, and support opportunities for scholars working not just on the bleeding edge of their fields, but close to the center of our hybrid analog-digital scholars practice. 

Finally, open access is coming and we don’t really understand how it will impact the landscape of scholarly publishing yet. My impression is that most presses do not have sustainable models for open access publishing and they don’t necessarily have models for the large scale dissemination of open access books, data sets, and content. The big change across the entire landscape of academic publishing is still on the horizon.

Here’s what I had planned to say in this panel

3. Survey Archaeology. About 10 years ago, I was up to my eyeballs in articles and papers on the analysis of survey data and, in particular, discussions of survey method. The methodological consequences of “third wave” siteless survey had outstripped, to some extent, our interpretative paradigms for understanding the data that we had produced in historically significant ways. It felt like survey archaeology might be at an impasse. Our desperate need to convince excavators that our work was rigorous, thoughtful, and sophisticated, had pushed us to develop the methodological context for our practices to the detriment of analysis.

This past meeting, it feels like that stage in survey archaeology has finally passed. None of the papers that discussed survey included an apologia nor did they drag the audience through a kind of pseudo-apologetic methodological digression designed to reassure the listen that this wasn’t just a bunch of students picking up random pottery in the countryside. Instead, the papers focused on the potential for survey to inform current debates concerning Romanization, rural land use, connectivity between places, and even seasonal patterns and taskscapes in countryside. Survey archaeology felt very grown up. 

4. Archaeology for the General Reader. This was an 8 am round table of very distinguished scholars who discuss their experiences writing for a general audience and receiving funding from an NEH Public Scholar Program Grant. The participants on the panel were gracious and open about their writing processes and their achievements. They did not waste time arguing for the value of this kind of work. 

At the same time, I struggled to understand how they envisioned a “general reader.” Over the course of the panel I began to realize that the general reader was not really a person, but rather a proxy useful to describe a work that could be marketed to a wide audience. The general reader is actually some who can and will buy these books. In fact, the model for most of the books seemed unapologetically commercial with their emphasis on characters, action, and authority. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not disputing necessarily the viability and even importance of this model of writing and publishing, but it causes me worries. First, it equates the general reader as a book buyer rather than a content consumer, and this seems out of step with the diverse ways in which most of us consumer knowledge across a wide range of media in our daily lives.

Second, this panel assumes that the general reader exists rather than is created by the way in which we market, structure, and distribute our works. While so much important scholarship today is focused on recognizing, creating, and elevating diversity in both the past and the present, this panel seemed to imagine its audience as somehow monolithic. As writers for a non-academic audiences, I was expecting a greater sensitivity toward the kinds of audiences that their works sought to reach and how their writing responded to the needs of groups or sought to produce new communities of readers.   

Most painfully for me was the dismissive attitude toward significant emerging forms of writing like creative non-fiction that seek to challenge how non-fiction works in crucial ways. Creative-non-fiction can encourage the reader to question the authority of the text, can open up new and important spaces to critique how knowledge is made, and push readers out of their emotional and intellectual comfort zones. Even if we limit our view of significant public scholarship to works that have engaged a broad audience, it is impossible to deny the impact of works like Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Martin Guerre (1983), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), and Roxanne Gay’s Hunger (2017) (not to mention Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocmented (2016)). That the NEH Public Scholars Program was uninterested in publishing this kind of work seems more than just a missed opportunity. It appears to have conflated the existence of a general reader with the ability of compelling works both to speak to and create  communities. 

To be clear, I have no beef with the authors on the panel and their works —many of which I have read—are both good and, in the right light, compelling, but there is so much more to writing to a broad audiences than this panel presented.  

5. The Value of Conferences. As per usual there was discussion about the value of meetings like the AIA/SCS conference. It was great to see graduate students presenting their work — sometimes for the first time, to engage with mid-career scholars writing at the edge of their comfort zones to a supportive and critical audience, and to celebrate with the community the work and wisdom of senior scholars. It was also nice to see old friends and to meet folks from social media for the first time, face-to-face. I made plans with colleagues and discussed professional opportunities and challenges. 

At the same time, attending the conference was expensive and exhausting. As a scholar at a relatively poorly funded mid- to lower-tier university, it also felt decadent and there was the palpable sense from quite a number of attendees that these kinds of events were unwise and inefficient in the current culture of austerity. If nothing else the optics of events like these were not good because they not only made clear the racial, gender, and class inequalities at the core of our disciplines, but also created a venue for any number of cringe-worthy displays of public and professional power which seems increasingly Byzantine as our fields of study fight for survival in the changing landscape of higher education. I don’t really have an answer for whether the good that comes from these kinds of conferences continues to outweigh the bad, and I obviously realize that this kind of annual event is likely to continue into the future long after it has outlived its usefulness. I think, however, that attending the conference every couple years does push us to reflect on their continued value to our fields.

Finally, there’s this amazing advertisement from the SCS program. I spent a good bit of time admiring book covers in the exhibition hall, but none have created the buzz of this advertisement:

2020SCSProgram 2 3 pdf 2020 01 06 08 23 55

The text on features a quote from Edith Hall: “I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal [TLS] to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre.” 

I’ve always considered Edith Hall, the Lester Bangs’ of Classics world, so it’s fitting that the quote from her review of Duban’s book evokes (obliquely) the rock critic’s famous liner notes for the Mekons’ album, The Mekons’ Story:

“The Mekons may now assume their proper place in the highest bowers in the hallowed halls of Rocque (co-leased by Wolfman Jack and Sid Bernstein). THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE BEATLES. They are better than Budgie and REO Speedwagon combined, they gave me $1500 for writing these notes. They come not to bury rock but to gourmandize it. All their Daddies are rich which is why they get to keep putting out this swill.”

I only wish that I had thought of this marketing strategy first.

A Couple of Thoughts on the ASOR Annual Meeting

Institutions, particularly academic institutions, are slow to change. In most cases, this is a good thing. After all, universities and colleges are responsible for both their existing programs and students, and the degrees conferred to past students, the often long careers of faculty and staff, and the gifts of donors, loyalty of alumni, and responsibilities to communities. Professional organizations like the ASOR, or the American Schools of Oriental Research, are also prone to incremental changes rather than quick pivots and abrupt reorientations and tend to see the historical legacy of their organization on equal footing with its current relevance. Generally speaking, the organization of these institutions makes change difficult as well with complex bylaws, multiple committees, and various checks that prevent decision-making without general consensus. 

While in many ways the reluctance to change quickly is a good thing. For example, many academic organizations rely on a diverse portfolio of stakeholders for funding and lack a robust financial safety net. A misstep could lead not simply to a dilution of their historic mission, but to real financial and existential problems.

There were two big decisions that took center stage at the ASOR annual meeting. First, we continue to discuss the long-term relationship with the Society of Biblical Literature meeting which generally overlaps with ASOR and occurs in the same city. Since the American Academy of Religion annual meeting now also coincides with SBL and ASOR, it has become difficult for ASOR to find suitable accommodations in the same city. As a result, ASOR has to decide whether it needs to change when and where it holds its meetings. There are real practical implications to this since about a fifth of ASOR members also are SBL members and participate in both meetings.

This also has opened a conversation about how to make the meetings more accommodating to graduate students, contingent faculty, avocational scholars, and recent Ph.Ds who often have fewer resources and time to attend meetings. The cost of airfare, for example, was a concern especially if ASOR moved to a “second tier” city. At the same time, the cost and quality of accommodations were a concern in cities that tend to be airport hubs. Some fretted also about having to pick between ASOR and SBL and about the impact on the range and quality of papers at both conferences if they were to go their separate ways. 

While this might appear to be a largely practical matter of cost and convenience, it also has an intellectual component. Over the past 20 years, ASOR has changed and come to embrace more than the archaeology of the Levant and “Biblical” concerns, periods, and problems. A divorce from SBL would likely continue, if not accelerate, this trend and contribute to the ongoing transformation of ASOR members, its conference, and publications.

The other major conversation at the conference was about ASOR’s name: the American Schools of Oriental Research. They hosted a workshop on this topic at their annual meeting, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend. Fortunately, the issue was a constant topic of conversation throughout the meeting. The context for this name change is that the term “Oriental” is closely associated with colonialist practice as scholars like Edward Said has taught us. The concept of the “Orient” from which the name of organization (and countless others) derives carries with it a dense network of racial, cultural, political, and even economic associations that developed from the various branches of continental “Oriental studies” that defined and supported colonial practices. 

The persistence of the term “Oriental” in the ASOR name is a historical artifact laden with baggage that directly impacts the intellectual mission of our organization. We simply cannot be both “oriental” and post-colonial, for example. We can’t preach that we respect and value our colleagues and communities in Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt or anywhere else that ASOR affiliated scholars work, while also officially recognizing Orientalism in our name. It’s intellectually inconsistent and politically incongruous. 

The name has to change and there appears to be broad consensus on this point. A new name for ASOR, however, will certainly be the greater challenge. On the one hand, renaming ASOR will not eliminate the Orientalist past (and, frankly, present) of the organization, but it will de-emphasize its impact on our future. On the other hand, so much of our discipline of archaeology (and history) is grounded in the same intellectual and political moments that produced Orientalism (for example, the Enlightenment), if we can even consider Orientalism and archaeology to be genuinely separate things. Rebranding ASOR will show intent to challenge basic assumptions about archaeological ways of thinking, traditions, methods, and practices, but the job itself is far from over. If incremental changes within the disciplines that make up ASOR have led us to this point, then we have to hope that they’re part of a longer trajectory that bends toward practices that are more inclusive, dynamic, and liberating. 

American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting

The American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting starts tomorrow in Denver, Colorado. Generally speaking, I’m too socially awkward and introverted to enjoy these big meetings very much. They’re long and tiring for me and I dislike travel.

At the same time, over the past five years, I’ve come to feel more and more part of the ASOR community through my service on the Program Committee, the Committee on Publication, and as an academic trustee of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI). Despite my normal apprehension, I know that the meetings will be interesting and panels will remind me of why I became a student of the ancient Mediterranean.

Following Dimitri Nakassis’s lead, I ran the abstract book through Voyant tools (h/t to Shawn Graham for this idea!) and made the word cloud below from this dataset

BillCaraher 2018 Nov 10

I also pulled from the online program book the various panels on Cyprus this year. Nancy Serwint in the chair of the Cyprus sessions and they look good and filled with the usual suspects! I’m particularly intrigued to get an update from the folks at the Makounta-Voules Archaeological Project, which shared our hotel at Polis this last summer, and Tom Davis’s ongoing work at Kourion. Our paper, I’m moderately excited about our paper, which is at 4:50 on Friday. It is super empirical and descriptive, but has an interesting interpretative twist at the end. Come and check it out (or check back here tomorrow and read it!).

Friday, November 16th

6B. Archaeology of Cyprus I Evergreen B

Theme: The Archaeology of Cyprus sessions focus on archaeological, art historical, and material culture investigation and assessment covering the broad spectrum of Cypriot studies from prehistory to the modern period. 

CHAIR: Nancy Serwint (Arizona State University)

PRESENTERS: 10:40 Alan Simmons (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), “Sailing Neanderthals: Early Mediterranean Voyagers and the Role of Cyprus in Perspective” (20 min.)

11:05 Kathryn Grossman (North Carolina State University), Tate Paulette (North Carolina State University), Andrew McCarthy (University of Edinburgh), and Lisa Graham (University of Edinburgh), “Pre-urban Trajectories on the Northwest Coast of Cyprus: The First Two Seasons of the Makounta-Voules Archaeological Project” (20 min.)

11:30 Lindy Crewe (Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute), “Kissonerga-Skalia Bronze Age Settlement Excavation” (20 min.)

11:55 Christine Johnston (Western Washington University), “Import Distribution and Network Integration in Bronze Age Cyprus” (20 min.)

12:20 Ellis Monahan (Cornell University), “A History of Violence? A Reassessment of the Evidence for Internecine Conflict in Bronze Age Cyprus” (20 min.)

7B. Archaeology of Cyprus II Evergreen B

PRESENTERS: 2:00 Zuzana Chovanec (Institute of Archaeology, Slovak Academy of Sciences), “The Symbolic Landscape of Prehistoric Bronze Age Cyprus as Represented in Figural Representation in Ritual Vessels: A New Interpretation” (20 min.)

2:25 Thierry Petit (Université Laval), “The First ‘Ruler’s Dwelling’ in Cyprus? A Pre-Palatial Building on the Acropolis of Amathus” (20 min.)

2:50 Nassos Papalexandrou (University of Texas at Austin), “Tomb 79 Salamis, Cyprus: The Griffin Cauldron in Its Local, Near Eastern, and Mediterranean Context” (20 min.)

3:15 Georgia Bonny Bazemore (Eastern Washington University), “Aphrodite Aside: The Sanctuary of the Male Deity and the Religion of the Ancient Paphian Kingdom” (20 min.)

3:40 Laura Gagne (Carleton University), “Silencing the God Who Speaks: The Destruction of the Sanctuary at Lingrin tou Digheni”’ (20 min.)

8B. Archaeology of Cyprus III Evergreen B

PRESENTERS:

4:20 Introduction (5 min.) 4:25 Nancy Serwint (Arizona State University), “The Terracotta Corpus from Marion/Arsinoe: How a Coroplast Thinks” (20 min.)

4:50 R. Scott Moore (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) and William Caraher (University of North Dakota), “A Small Production Site at Polis” (20 min.)

5:15 Lucas Grimsley (Southwestern Theological Seminary), Laura Swantek (Arizona State University), Thomas Davis (Southwestern Theological Seminary), Christopher Davey (University of Melbourne), and William Weir (University of Cincinnati), “Kourion Urban Space Project: 2018 Season Preliminary Results” (20 min.)

5:40 Ann-Marie Knoblauch (Virginia Tech), “Cypriot Antiquities, Cesnola, and American Cultural Identity in 1880s New York” (20 min.) 

An Abstract for 12th IEMA Conference: Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age

I’m behind with everything including finishing my abstract for the 12th annual IEMA Conference at the University of Buffalo. The conference is titled: Critical Archaeology in the Digital Age and from the looks of the preliminary program, it should be fantastic! 

My paper will be an effort to weave together my evolving thoughts on publishing and my interest in how digital approaches to both fieldwork and data dissemination are challenging the fundamental paradigms that shape how archaeology is practiced. Hopefully, some of my stuttering and stammering paper for the European Journal of Archaeology staggers its way into this paper.

Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics

Historically, the culmination of archaeological work was a final report or definitive monograph. In fact, publication has become an ethical imperative for our discipline and major excavations became known as much by their neatly arranged series of publications as monumental remains. For most of the 20th century, the expertise, care, and funds necessary to produce these publications represented a separate phase of knowledge making shaped by its own technical, economic, and practical limits.

In the 21st century, digital practices are transforming both archaeological practices in the field and the concept publication. The fragmentation of archaeological knowledge as digital data produces portable, sharable, remixable, and transformable publications that are less stable and less definitive than their predecessors in print. As a result, while final publications continue to appear, they are joined by published data of various kinds – from GPS and total station coordinates to digitally generated point clouds, photographs and videos, and XRF results. Project are also more invested than ever in creating unique ways to understand, interpret, and engage their site. These collaborations have eroded the conceptual and disciplinary barriers between field work, analysis and publication. It is possible, for example, to publish from the trenchside or survey unit and to create definitive digital publications that are modular and open to revision. The growing permeability between the processes of field work, analysis, and publishing, has both the potential to transform the concept of publication in archaeology (as well as across the humanities) and marks the rise of a new intellectual model for the production of knowledge. If 20th century archaeology followed the linear logic of the assembly line and culminated in the final publication, 21st century archaeology draws on the disperse efficiency sought in the contemporary focus on logistics. Logistics, with its emphasis on streamlining the movement of goods, data, and people, offers a useful, if problematic paradigm, for a discipline increasingly committed to finding new ways to make archaeological knowledge accessible and usable to a broader constituency. 

Thoughts on the #DATAM conference

I was blown away by the quality and diversity of conversations at last week’s DATAM conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU.

The papers at the conference reminded me of the tremendous range of digital tools at use by my colleagues who study the Ancient world that allowed their students to organize, analyze, map, play, and animate the ancient world.

Five things:

1. Real World Experiences. One of the key aspect of this conference is that the participants and the audience members were willing to share their experiences in using digital tools. Folks at the conference drew from across the digital (and digital humanities) ecosystem and discussed frankly the results of applying these tools in their classes. Sebastian Heath showed how students placed elephants at Ostia, Eric Poehler discussed his use of vertiginous first person videos, Sandra Blakey worked with students to populate a video games with proxenoi and pirates, and Sarah Bond mapped readings of ancient Rome. The frankness of these discussions motivated me to continue to experiment with digital approaches and opened my eyes to new tools.

2. Student Directed Learning. So much of what the conference participants did was not scripted by the instructors but student directed. Instructors presented digital tools, experiences, and goals, but students framed questions, figured how to work with the tools, and presented their results. Marie-Claire Beaulieu and Anthony Bucci encouraged students to ask questions of datasets and create workflows to answer them. Lisl Walsh worked with a class to consider word frequency in Seneca in a statistical way. While there was nothing distinctly digital about student directed learning, it was hard to avoid the feeling that digital tools offered students at least the feeling of greater control over how they created knowledge, and this seems to have been empowering to students.

3. Empathy and Democracy. One of the more compelling observations made is that the use of digital tools in the classroom exposed students to their democratizing potential. Sarah Bond emphasized how digital humanities can affect empathy in participants in these projects and serve as a significant counterweight to narrow and illiberal perspectives on both the past and present. The projects that she developed in her classes used digital technology (as well as analog tools) to contemporary University of Iowa students to an earlier time on they campus were both accessible to anyone with basic digital skills and inspiring. 

4. Politics of the Digital. The final session of the day featured two papers that looked at the politics of digital tools and the digital classroom. These ranged from the kinds of narratives that digital tools (as they currently exist) allow in our classroom to the danger of seeing sources as “data.” I added my usual screed in which I called my class a “late capital and neoliberal disaster.” You can read my paper here.

5. The Goal of the Digital and the Goal of Classics. The most interesting conversation of the day occurred at the end of the conference when we began to unpack the relationship between digital tools, digital practices, and the goals of Classics. Several participants set the role of Classics in a digital world against its unique place in the academy. On the one hand, the lack of a neat connection to a singular method (or even methodology) makes it hard to place Classics within a modern university organized around discipline grounded in particular (if often ill-defined) methods. On the other hand, Classics would appear to be a model for a post-disciplinary (and perhaps post-departmental) university organized around particular problems, periods, or issues. This latter scenario might appear forward looking and appealing to the current climate of university politics, but is also risky for a field like Classics that has historically been risk averse. 

The role of digital tools – in the classroom as well as in the field of Classics – offers ways for Classics to redefine itself as both forward looking, dynamic, and engaged with technological and social changes. At the same time, this move involves certain risks both to how the field sees itself and to how it fits into the modern university. These risks involve change for the field and change will involve new opportunities for students and faculty who position themselves to take advantage of the changing landscape of higher education as well as new dangers for vulnerable individuals who don’t, won’t, or can’t adapt. 

The conversations started at the #Datam conference will linger in my mind for a long time, and I hope they’ll continue as we work to publish a little volume based on the papers at the conference through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean

I’m off to New York this morning to give a paper at the Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. I’m also hoping to convince the participants (and hopefully some of the other folks who are doing using digital approaches to teach the ancient world) to publish a little book of the paper with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The hashtag is #DATAM and since the usual ancient world twitteroti will be in attendance, I suspect the twitter stream will be vibrant. Who knows, I might even flex my twitter fingers a bit.    

Conference Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean  Institute for the Study of the Ancient World 2018 10 25 05 57 48

If you follow the link above, you’ll see that there are some pretty interesting papers. For my part, I’ll be presenting on my use of the Scale-Up Classroom at UND to bridge digital divides. My paper is here.

Long time followers of the ole bloggeroo, will recognize that this paper is a version of a larger and more buttoned-down paper that I wrote in 2013-2014 on my experiences teaching in UND’s Scale-Up room. I still would like to send this out somewhere, but right now, it’s a pretty low priority!

 

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean: Dissecting Digital Divides

Next month, I’m giving a paper at a conference called “Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean” and hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. It’s title is “Dissecting Digital Divides: Teaching, Writing, and Making Knowledge of the Mediterranean Past.”

Right now, I only have a title and the dread feeling that I really have nothing significant to say about digital approaches to teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. 

I do, of course, have a little swarm of unrelated ideas and a strong yearning to be the kind of senior professor who can give a paper on three of four random things to a rapt audience. (Rather than feeling like an undergraduate who is trying to recycle the same three ideas that I’ve had since 2004 into another paper and hoping that nobody notices!).

So here are my ideas.

1. Digital Divide. There’s been a good bit of scholarship on the digital divide in secondary and higher education. The digital divide, in its most basic form, argues that a significant divide exists between those who use and have access to digital technologies and those who do not. This divide usually mapped along social, economic, and regional lines. Rural states, like North Dakota, tend to fall on one side of the digital divide especially when access to broadband internet is concerned, but I’d also argue —at least anecdotally— that students at UND are generally less technologically savvy and comfortable in digital environments than their more affluent and more suburban counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. 

I need to get data for this, but just observing my classes over the last few semesters, I continue to be struck by the significant number of students for whom technology is not a constant companion. Many of my students do not bring their laptops to class regularly, for example. In a recent field project that involved using mobile phones to take video, a number of students had such outdated phones that they could not accommodate more than short video clips; one student had a flip phone. While it was easy enough to negotiate the different access to technology, it remains clear that the digital divide—in terms of hardware—remains firmly in place. (A recently updated “smart classroom” with a series of small group work stations relies on students to use their own laptops too access the large, shared monitor. This seems like an optimistic implementation of technology.)   

Access to the right hardware, however, is only part of the digital divide. Over the last decade of teaching at UND, it has become clear to me that something as simple as a broken hyperlink or a pdf document oriented the wrong way, represents a significant barrier to accessing information. A significant group of students lack the standard tool kit of web “work arounds” that range from savvy web searches to negotiating the standard elements of user interfaces across multiple software. Even something as simple as using a mobile device as a quick and dirty scanner or looking for an article on Academia.edu or institutional repositories that they can’t access at UND remains on the fringes of their practice (even when such approaches are modeled in class).     

In my larger Scale-Up style class where groups of 9 work together to produce text, it was pretty apparent that even relatively simply digital interfaces – like editable Wikis or shared documents in Google or Microsoft 365 – caused myriad small scale obstacles that frustrated students and complicated group work. 

2. Prosumer and Consumers. My experience teaching at UND has suggested that access to hardware and familiarity with software (and these often go hand-in-hand) sketches one level of the digital divide and contributes to the existence of the “second level digital divide.” The second level divide maps the difference between individuals who are consumers of digital material on the web and those who are so-called “prosumers” of digital and web-based content. I contend that this second level divide is far more problematic that the first level divide for implementing digital approaches to teaching and, as a result, I have dedicated more time to cultivating prosumer culture among my students and demonstrating how digital tools facilitate certain kinds of collective knowledge making.

I will admit that my general approach is a naive one. I continue to have a certain amount of faith that the last unfettered wilds of the internet hold out a glimmer of hope for a society that is far more likely to be shackled, monitored, and manipulated by technology than liberated by it. I want my students to understand the power of Wikipedia, the ecosystem that produced the growing number of open educational resources and good quality open access software, and the potential, if not unproblematic character, of maker culture, and be prepared to contribute to it. 

On the other hand, I also understand that most aspects of prosumer culture have been coopted by the usual suspects of capitalism, exploitation, sexism, racism, and technological solutionism. By producing new knowledge, creative works, and tools, we are also likely to be producing profits for transnational corporations who are as comfortable limiting access to our own work as they are preventing us from foment even very small revolutions that cannot be monetized. As the kids say: “the revolution will now be monetized.”   

I still have hope, though, and at very least I want to work to undermine still-persistent attitudes that certain incredibly exploitative industries (like textbook publishing) represent a meaningful source of authority in the time of Wikipedia. 

3. The Other Digital Divide. History students obsess over and are baffled by the distinction between primary and secondary sources. For students of the ancient Mediterranean, their consternation is understandable and useful in unpacking the relative uselessness of this distinction among practicing historians. A source is a source and only primary or secondary in relation to its use. 

Practicing archaeologists sometimes find ourselves in the same bind, of course. The divide between “data” and “interpretation,” for example, coincides with the primary and secondary source divide among historians. The persistence of terms like “raw data” (which I think is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from use) reveals an understanding of archaeological knowledge making the divides data from interpretation. It seems to me that digital data makes this divide all the more convenient in part because the data itself appears so distinct from interpretative texts, and partly because digging down into the data represents a useful play on the modernist assumption that excavation (literally or metaphorically) provides access to a view of the past less encumbered by present interpretation. While intellectually, we may understand this divide as naive—as generations of archaeologists who celebrate reflexivity and methodology has taught us, we nevertheless tend to lean on the distinction between data and interpretation to frame our conversations. Endless references to archaeological data populate academic conferences, publications, and, I suspect, our teaching. For students who continue to want to see “facts” as the antidote to “fake news,” the transparent use of data appears to be a compelling ontological tonic for their epistemological anxiety. 

To my mind, this digital divide is every bit a pernicious as the other digital divides described in this post. In fact, it might be more dangerous in the era of “Big Data” than the other digital divides because it tends to see data as holding a particular kind of fundamental and inescapable authority in how it describes the world.  

4. Prosumption Critique. For the last 5 years, I’ve taught a large, Introduction to Western Civilization class at the University of North Dakota in a Scale-Up style classroom. The class generally enrolled 150-180 students and the room was set up for them to sit around round, 9-person tables. Each table had three laptops connected to a monitor and also came with a whiteboard and a microphone for the students to play with when bored. A central teaching station allowed me to observe most of the groups and to project content from the tables onto four large projection screens in the corners of the room.

The design of the room encouraged students work together and at least in theory sought to mitigate the hardware aspects of the digital divide by ensuring that at least three students had access to a laptop. In the most common implementations of this design, a student or students worked as the scribe for the table on a provided laptop or students worked in smaller groups, three to a laptop, sometimes installed with appropriate software for the task at hand. While I did not formally leverage the practical aspects of three-laptop design, it did work to mitigate the uneven access to technology among my students.

The class sought to mitigate the “second level digital divide” by encouraging students too critically work as prosumers of educational content. In practice, this involved having the students write a Western Civilization textbook with each table working on a series of chapters that would come together at the end fo the class as a completed book. This task encouraged students to recognize the value of their own voice, critical abilities, and their ability (and maybe even responsibility) to produce their own historical narratives and analysis. It also subverts some of the economic and political power of textbook publishers, although, I do ask them to buy a used copy of an older version of a textbook as a model.

Finally, the students start with more or less a blank document. I do not provide an approved list of primary or secondary sources or even offer much in the way of a critical guide to navigating the internet. Most students get that journal articles are “better” than random webpages (of uncertain authorship and content), that Wikipedia is a good place to glean chronology, geography, and additional sources, and that historical arguments are only as good as the sources they identify to build their arguments. If they can’t find good evidence for an argument, then no amount of rhetorical savvy is likely to make it compelling.

 

At the same time, this approach de-emphasizes the idea that there is a body of data “out there” ready for consumption, analysis, and interpretation. Instead, it encourages the students to see the body of useful evidence and data as the product of their research questions and priorities. The “raw material” of history is not something that is “mined” for knowledge, but something that’s built up as evidence FOR arguments about the past. 

In an era where relational data is literally being treated and traded as a commodity, it is hardly surprising that we envision knowledge making as a kind of extractive industry (and, here, I’m thinking of a paper that I recall my colleague Sheila Liming giving a few years back on the metaphor of “data mining” and “text mining”) rather than, say, performative or generative. It seems to me that encouraging students to be critical and conscientious prosumers of historical knowledge offers a little space to push back on both the economic and intellectual (or at very least metaphorical or rhetorical) underpinnings of our digital world.     

 

Five Quick Reactions to the 2018 European Association of Archaeologists Meeting

I just got home from the 2018 European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona and was really impressed by my experience. Since, I’m still shaking off jet leg and racing to play catch up with my classes and other responsibilities, I’ll keep my comments here pretty short and impressionistic, but hopefully I’ll have to space to post something more involved later in the week.

1. So Many Panels. The EAAs were literally the opposite of the old joke that the food is bad and the portions are too small. The panels were good and there were so many of them. It was impossible to get anything more than a taste of the conference with panels stretching for four, five, or six hours, huge numbers of overlapping panels, and panels that might appeal to the same audience being held at the same time (e.g. a panel on Early Medieval transitions in the archaeology of Europe at the same time as a panel on Medieval archaeology more generally). At times people had to scoot between two panels in which they were participating or to see papers.

To be clear, this isn’t a complaint, after all there’s a limit to how a conference can organize over 1000 papers in over a 3-day event, but it’s important to recognize that any observation on the conference will only represent a small sampling of panels at the event.

2. Socially Conscious Archaeology. The theme of the conference was “Reflɘctiᴎg Futuᴙɘs”(weirdly, there are no flipped lowercase versions of Latin “n” or “r” in unicode), and, if I came away with one impression, it’s that the future of archaeology is socially engaged with pressing problems facing the world. I was particularly impressed that papers the dealt with the challenges of climate change, political pressures, and neoliberalism generally avoided the “c-word” (crisis) and preferred a sober, practical, systematic, and disciplinary approach to problems facing the future of the past. 

In fact, I sort of wanted a bit more urgency at times, but I also appreciated that so much of my desire for the urgent (OUTRAGE) demonstrates my own addiction to the excitement offered by our hyperactive media cycles and “theory of the day” approaches to problem solving and knowledge making in the humanities. What the EAAs showed me is that concepts like anarchism, decolonization, indigeneity, and public engagement have deep roots in archaeological work in the present that could produce a strong, relevant discipline for the future.     

3. Heritage, Contract, and Academic Archaeology. Maybe I’m more used to attending the ASOR or AIA annual meeting than, say, the SAAs, but I was particularly struck my the interaction between heritage and museum professionals, contract archaeologists, and academic archaeologists at the EAAs. In my panel on transhuman archaeologies, several of the heritage archaeologists deftly applied the more conceptual and academic papers to their own sites in the discussion periods. In a panel on climate change, heritage managers, contract, and academic archaeologists shared their work in documenting and preserving sites made vulnerable by coastal erosion and other climate change driven environmental concerns. 

It was really energizing and challenging as an academic archaeologist thinking in terms ontologies and epistemologies mediated largely by academic practice, to get pressed earnestly by folks involved in contract work and teaching contract archaeologists as to how what I’m saying is relevant to their work and students. This wasn’t done in a dismissive or confrontational way but as a genuinely intellectual challenge to my work and it was very much appreciated.   

4. More Bakken than Byzantine. I joked with my colleagues the week before going to the conference that every once in a while I remember that I’m a Europeanist and should attend conferences on the Continent and engage with my colleagues in Europe in a face-to-face way. What was funny though is that I found myself reflecting on my work as an Americanist far more regularly than my work in Cyprus or Greece throughout the conference. The sessions that I attended on time, climate change, and digital technologies had stronger grounding in “historical” or “world” archaeology than the work that I do when wearing my “Classical Archaeologist” hat (safety first, kids!) in Europe.

In the future, I’d like to present my work in the Bakken to the EAA audience as much to engage more thoughtfully with the social impact of my work as to grasp the role of heritage management and memory in ephemeral modern landscapes.

5. Barcelona Backdrop. Finally, Barcelona was a genuinely inspired place to hold a conference on Reflɘctiᴎg Futuᴙɘs in archaeology. The city provides a master class not only on past futures visible in the Modernisme movement as well as museums dedicated to Picasso and Miró, but also a legacy of radicalism, industrialism, post-nationalism, and neoliberalism as well. A visit to Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Família is a literal reminder of modernism as an unfinished and deeply ambiguous project which juxtaposes profound, religious truth and rebar protruding through roughly finished concrete spires. 

Just to make this point more clearly the conference itself was situated at the edge of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic where the Medieval plan of the city is best preserved and tourists and pickpockets jostle with each other down this tree-line and commodified thoroughfare. We were a short walk from Richard Meier’s well-known Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (a museum that famously opened without a collection!) whose glass and white walls reminded us of the fraught character of transparency and cosmopolitan ambivalence in the 21st century.

The University of North Dakota’s Writers Conference

The first week after spring break every year (well, at least for the last 49 years), is the University of North Dakota’s Writers Conference. It’s an annual gathering of writers and readers from around the world and around the state.

This year’s theme is “Truth and Lies” which seems both intriguing and contemporary. The features authors include Molly McCully Brown, Nicholas Galanin, David Grann, Marlon James, Lauren Markham, and Ocean Vuong who offer readings, speak on panels, and show films that inspire and excite them.  

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The complete schedule is here.

This year, there will be a parallel event called the Grand Challenges Information Symposium. It features panels that intersect in some way with the Grand Challenges articulated by the visionary president of the University of North Dakota. Two editorial board members, David Haeselin and Eric Burin, and yours truly will be at a panel on Wednesday, March 21, from 2-2:45 in the Lecture Bowl of the Memorial Union to talk about the future of publishing. 

So if you’re in the region, please plan to attend the Writers Conference and our panel at the Grand Challenges Information Symposium!