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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands (Part 2)

I’m tired these days. It’s the end of the semester. There’s a pandemic. And I feel vaguely overextended and haven’t been very good about keeping up with my ominous to do list. I’m not saying this to complain really. I know that a lot of people are feeling much worse than me these days. I’m just acknowledging it.

I’m slogging through finishing the last chapter of my slowly developing book. I’m looking at a stack of grading landing on my desk later this week and I’m fussing around with letters of recommendation, end of the semester service work, a stack of books and articles that I want to read and digest, and a couple of manuscripts that I’m editing, publishing, or reviewing that need attention.  

I’m also slogging through a review essay that I agreed to write on Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands. The book, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, is quite remarkable, and this alone has made it challenging to review. I posted the first part of my review essay yesterday. Here’s the second part: 

The dual emphasis on antiquity and the early modern and modern periods reinforces the link between chorography and 19th-century encounters with Classical Greece and the modern Greeks. While he distinguishes chorography from these older traditions, he acknowledges that the structure of the book cleaves closely to the routes of early travelers and nineteenth century archaeologists which the contemporary decedents continue to cite and mimic. The work of these scholars and their approaches clings to the objects that constitute Witmore’s chorography. Witmore’s efforts to construct a landscape that “adds nuance” to centuries-old practices of diachronic study of objects, strata, buildings, routes and regions, encounters significant resistance from the scholarly residues that cling things themselves. In many ways, Witmore’s book encounters the same problems as ”Carpenter’s Folly“ at Corinth. Standing perched above the Peirene Spring, Rhys Carpenter built a two-story structure on and around the remains of a 2-story house that dated to the 10th or 11th century. Carpenter’s building, which he meant to house Byzantine objects from the site, was a confused and ambiguous combination of modern, Byzantine, and ancient material some of which archaeologists brought to the site and immured in the building. It was never finished, partly dismantled during World War II and continued to house Byzantine sculpture into the 1950s. At this point, archaeologists at Corinth start to identify the building as a folly. As Kostis Kourelis observed in the most thorough published treatment of this building (Kourelis 2007), this term evoked both 18th century Romantic associations with aristocratic garden culture and the ultimate failure of the building to its intentions successful. Carpenter’s drew as heavily on an utterly foreign early-20th century fascination with Byzantium and resisted mid-century attitudes toward the reconstruction of historical buildings which framed the Stoa of Attalus in the Athenian Agora, the Cloisters in New York, and Colonial Williamburg. Witmore’s text, like this building, dislodged objects from their original context to create new relationships, while never quite severing them from their diachronic past. Like Carpenter’s folly, Witmore does not mean his folly to provide the only stories from the old lands, but to reflect the kinds of stories that things encourage us to tell.

Recent years have seen increasingly desperate calls to reimagine Classics and Classical (or Mediterranean) archaeology. Old Lands clearly hopes to contribute to this ongoing and crucial conversation. In particular, chorography challenges the growing pressure toward fragmentation and specialization that characterize contemporary archaeological (and, indeed, scholarly) practices (##). Increasing chronological and regional knowledge, expertise in ever narrower classes of objects, and competence in specialized tools, scientific methods and techniques, all frame a century long shift in our discipline toward professionalization. Following the logic of the assembly line, academics honed their expertise in the name of industrial knowledge making and eschewed the messy and inconsistent process of craft. Such an approach to scholarship also reinforced efforts to construe academia as a meritocracy where advancement came through demonstrations of professional competence better measured through the incremental advancement of specialized knowledge than in works aspiring to distinctive modes of engagement or broad synthesis. As Michael Given has recently noted, changes in the discipline of archaeology have called for a more convivial practice (2018). Evoking Ivan Illich’s anti-modern notion of conviviality, Given shares Witmore’s desire for an archaeology that engages with the material presence and resists the trap of ontological dead ends. It may be that conviviality offers a way forward that is more consistent with the character of contemporary academic knowledge.

This critique, however, speaks more to my theoretical predilections than the character of the book. There is no doubt that there will be sympathetic readers in archaeology, Classics, Ancient history, and anthropology. Many of them will find in Witmore’s work echoes of their time traveling with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, working on excavations and survey projects in the Corinthia and the Argolid, or visiting important sites with detours to the beach at Tolo, the gelaterias in Nafplio, and wineries around Nemea. For all that these readers might find familiar, they might think strange that his periegesis overlooks the politics of archaeology in the region. Long standing projects carved their own routes into the landscape with well-known walks from Ancient Corinth to Nemea or from Ay. Vasilios to Mycenae pass down from one generation to the next. Stories of a particular archaeologist’s pants abandoned on a rugged crag on Mt. Oneion ensured that any visits to this mountain included a question: “Did you find Richard’s pants?” A scatter of sherds, tiles, and revetment fragments became the “Villa of the Pig Dog” because archaeologists on the Eastern Korinthian Archaeological Survey encountered a dog that some thought resembled a pig. This has now entered academic literature (Pettegrew 2015, no. 38). Elsewhere, we can talk of a road that crosses a ravine in the Western Argolid because of its proximity to a flea infested mandra. Our interaction with these landscapes preserve their convivial origins in formal and informal archaeological practices.

The landscape of the northeast Peloponnesus also preserves the marks of intense and often bitter academic rivalries. For an outsider, these rivalries may only appear in negative and contested reviews in leading journals, pointed questions at academic panels, and palpable frostiness between significant contributors to the field. For someone who worked in the region for decades, however, these tensions are constituent of the landscape itself. As a graduate student working on the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, the forbidding walls of the American School’s Hill House in Ancient Corinth did more than suggest the institution’s colonial past but defined a project with different goals, practices, and academic attitudes. Sites such as Isthmia and Mycenae that have multiple ongoing projects often have competing agendas and interpretations that spill over into tense interpersonal and professional relations which the various foreign schools attempt to mediated awkwardly. Various Greek projects and the relationship between foreign excavators and the Greek archaeological authorities produce fault lines for relations and shape how archaeologists and visitors to the region view both objects and landscapes. The shear number of projects in the Northeastern Peloponnesus fosters competition for excavation and survey permits, specialized staff, and even accommodations. This, in turn, fortifies a vibrant rumor mill where whispered critique of competence in the field, professional comportment, personal relationships, wealth, and character continue to shape archaeological knowledge. It is not unreasonable that Witmore’s book avoids these kinds of messy political entanglements. Indeed, discussion of these matters remains as rare in archaeological literature as they are influential.

Old ways of thinking about the past cling to the old lands. It may be that the future of our field will emerge from the interplay of old and modern just as Witmore traces the old lands through his chorography and readers find echoes of their own experiences in the text. I suspect, though, that the burden of the old ways that weighs so heavily the old lands will continue to spur archaeologists to excavate alway those residues of the past than to embrace them for new ways forward.

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

My blogging plans for today involved another heroic swing at the slowly developing final chapter of my book manuscript. It has already developed to a series of nips and tucks and hardly anything worth blogging about. Maybe next Monday. Maybe.

Fortunately, I’ve also been working on a little essay about Christopher Witmore’s very recent book Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) for a forum type review in an archaeology journal. I posted about it a six months ago in a pair of blog posts here and here. Since then, I’ve re-read the book, thought a good bit more about it over the course of some long walks, and started to put together a rather flailing essay.

Here’s the first part of it (warts and all). I’ll post the second part tomorrow:

Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) is rather difficult book to review. It a personal journey through the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus, and, as such, it is sui generis, at least in the field of contemporary Greek archaeology. Witmore’s periegesis through the Corinthia and the Argolid, which he calls a chorography, follows the well-trod routes established by Pausanias, early travelers, and 20th century excavators and survey archaeologist. He treats these landscapes, however, with a distinctive eye that follows the ancient and modern things that he encounters into tangles of conversations, secondary literature, archaeological reports, and ancient sources. In this regard, his book inverts the conventional narrative technique in archaeology that so often starts with the ancient testimonia, early travelers, and modern scholarship and presents these works as context necessary for things to have meaning. Witmore’s approach, in contrast, locates the authors within in the landscape, rather than behind dusty tomes of past scholars and returns objects to their place within our lived experiences. Needless to say, Old Lands is particularly welcome at a time when many of us have been unable to travel to the Mediterranean because of the ongoing pandemic.

Witmore’s narratives are earnest and devoid of irony. In fact, its earnestness evokes the image of the “heroic archaeologist” who reassembles the past from their personal encounters with sites, objects, and contexts. To be clear, this is not meant to imply that Witmore seeks to play the role as a savior of a particularly worthy past, the discipline, or the contemporary communities which described (e.g. Cleland 2001, 2; González-Ruibal 2009, xx). Instead, Witmore looks back to traditions in archaeology that started with the learned traveler and continued with the the individual archaeologist as the revealer of the past and the producer of knowledge. The epithets associated with an excavator’s notebook — Blegen’s notebook, for example — center the individual agent in knowledge making, often at the expense of workers and colleagues. Witmore puckishly recognizes as much by noting the “here unmentioned” retinue of Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (##). This is not to suggest that Witmore’s colleagues go unmentioned. Indeed, he is dutiful in naming his companions, but these individuals always play bit roles to Witmore’s enthusiastic inquisitiveness. They are nearly as marginal as his footnotes which nevertheless demonstrate a nearly encyclopedic understanding of the vast scholarship on the northeast Peloponnesus. They function to advance the story, and their presence never lingers or distracts.

Witmore’s presence in the landscape also shapes his encounter with the diverse chronology of the northeastern Peloponnesus. This approach to the landscape locates the past not as hidden, buried, or requiring extraction and but as contemporary with the archaeologist. The past is superficial and requires selection, assembling, and sampling rather than discovery. In this regard, he parallels Rodney Harrison’s proposed “archaeology-as-surface-survey” (Harrison 2011) and draws inspiration from Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time (2011). As with intensive survey practices, it is impossible for the archaeologist to identify every object, artifact, sherd, or plant. Instead, the survey archaeologist stresses the relationships between the objects to create a surface that produces archaeological knowledge “in and of the present.” Witmore and most survey archaeologists are familiar with the abrupt disjunctions that occur when we document a sherd of Final Neolithic pottery next to a Late Roman amphora fragment amid fragments of modern plastic. The ghostly figures that appear alongside the survey team in the first page of Given and Knapp’s volume on the Sydney Cyprus Survey (2003) and the brief first person digressions that situate the modern reader in the landscapes produced in Pettegrew’s The Isthmus of Corinth (2018, ##-##) anticipate the diachronic, contemporary landscapes of Witmore’s book, albeit in less developed ways. Like the surface assemblages studied by Given, Knapp, and Pettegrew, Witmore’s book does more to reveal what we could know about the landscape than what we do know. As such, it presents a future archaeology rather than one anchored in a recovered past.

It is, of course, easy enough to critique survey archaeology and books like this for what it has left out or remains hidden. There is a certain glee with which scholars discuss the excavations at Pyrgouthi tower in the Berbati Valley, for example, because standing Classical remains and Classical and Hellenistic sherds obscured a later, Late Roman phase that only became visible with excavation (Hjohlman et al. 2005; Sanders 2004, 165-166; Pettegrew 2010, 221-224). Similarly, it would be easy enough (and even vaguely gratifying) to critique Witmore for overlooking the Byzantine and Frankish periods in his perambulations. The twin poles of antiquity and the modern (and contemporary) create a landscape of light and shadow that makes the temporal discontinuities more abrupt and the ambiguities all the more salient. Witmore used this to good effect in his description of the First National Assembly of Greece which met in Hellenistic theater of Argos. This setting reinforced the view of the northern European Philhellenes that “the lot of contemporary Greeks was rarely illuminated outside the long shadows of Classical antiquity.” (##). A different narrative was possible. Prior to this meeting, the assembly had met in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin which stands a half a kilometer south of the theater. There they received a blessing from Orthodox clergy (Witmore, Rt 13). The walls of church which appears to date to the Middle Byzantine period contain numerous ancient blocks (Hadji-Minaglou 1980). Like the nearby church at Merbaka, the spolia grounded the church in antiquity (cf. Sanders 2015; Palalexandrou 2003) just as the church and the Hellenistic theater grounded the assembly in the Byzantine tradition of the Orthodox faith and the modern, archaeological Neohellenism. At the church of the Dormition, the ancient blocks themselves carry the weight of not only vaults from which the central doom springs, but also the connection to antiquity. In the place of the disjunctive friction between the ancient and modern worlds, this Byzantine monument offered a narrative where the Philhellenic shadows turn to grey.

Three Things Thursday: Fiction, Archaeology, and Reading

It’s a Thursday and just after the mid-point of the semester. Most years, the wheels start to come off about now, and I’m certainly feeling a greater sense of general urgency than I usually do. 

As a gesture to a rather frantic time, it feels right to do a little “Three Things Thursday” to clear the deck of wandering blog material that is bound to get caught up in the machinery of daily life and bring everything to a stop.

Thing The First

Last weekend, I read Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence. It’s short and like so much “Late DeLillo” atmospheric. It describes a world when all digital technology simply stops working and five people are forced to encounter life in a fundamentally different way. 

For archaeologists interested in issues of ontology, the book is short enough to be a “must read.”  As the five individuals lose their digital tools (and the digital tools that make the contemporary world possible), they lose part of themselves. The loss of their digital prosthetics leave them with phantom memories that bubble up through their consciousness suggesting that the disruption of digital technology is not enough to entirely divest ourselves of the imprint of our digital tools.

The book also engages with time in interesting ways (and here it seems to pick up where Point Omega, his 2010 novel leaves off. In Point Omega time alternately slows down and speeds up as the characters encounter existence through various modalities including the vastness of the desert, a slowed-down version of the film Psycho, and the structure of a haiku (which apparently give the novel its structure). In The Silence, time appears to stutter, lurch, and double back on itself. One character begins to recite Einstein, the other the fractured commentary on the Super Bowl, while another attempts to understand how they arrived in New York after crossing the Atlantic on a flight when all technology stopped. The staccato stratigraphy presented through DeLillo’s dialogue will be immediately recognizable to the archaeologist who is asked to make sense of the sequence of events (which are so often non-linear) as well as the definition of each object.

Thing the Second

I also enjoyed Anton Bonnier and Martin Finné’s recent article in Antiquity, “Climate variability and landscape dynamics in the Late Hellenistic and Roman north-eastern Peloponnese.” As readers of this blog know, I’ve become increasingly interested in historical climate change and they way in which changes in climate shaped past societies and their archaeological remains. Bonnier and Finné’s article consider climate proxies from three caves in the Peloponnesus and attempt to correlate this data with evidence from intensive pedestrian surveys in the Argolid and the Corinthia. Needless to say this is a messy project, but the results are suggestive.

They propose that a shift is visible away from land on hill slopes during the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods. They then suggest that there exist the political and economic explanations for this: the shift away from diversified agricultural strategies associated with the “family farm” toward less diverse practices associated with the supplying of urban centers with grain. They add to this explanation the possibility that the Late Hellenistic and Roman period was also notably drier than the Classical and Hellenistic era. As a result, more marginal fields on hill slopes with thinner soils that were less likely to retain moisture, for example, were abandoned for better and more erosionally stable fields on the valley bottoms. They make clear that climate change was not the primary driver of this putative shift, but could have been a contributing factor.   

Thing The Third

I’ve been thinking a bit about how we read in the 21st century. In my introductory level World History class, I’ve asked the students to engage in non-linear reading of the class’s open access history textbook. Instead of moving chapter to chapter, region to region, I’ve suggested that student use the search function and read across certain themes, ideas, phenomena, and situations. Searching for topics such as “joy,” “love,” and “anger” connects Confucius’s quip on the joys of a contemplative life, the joy of Buddhist nirvana, and the joy of a Classical Greek religious festival. Love brings together Chinese and ancient Egyptian love poetry. Anger connects the fate of kings, the wrath of deities, and daily life in the Levant. For me, this kind of reading is exciting and disorienting, but for my students, it’s frustrating. Without the coherence and context of narrative (preferably supported by a strong sense of progress!), history becomes a cacophony of unrelated events.

I spend far more time working as an editor and publisher these days than I do as a conventional researcher and writer. As a result, I often find my day defined by oddly juxtaposed texts. Snippets of emails, poetry, typeset text, and academic prose jostle with each other more attention. On some days, it’s deeply fatiguing mostly because like my students, I want to encounter some kind of pattern. I want to find that rhythm of meaning that comes from sustained reading of a single or related texts. In its place, I find jostling voices and snippets of conversation overheard at a crowded bar. On my best days, this feels more real than a tidy narrative or a scholarly argument. The orderly style, tone, and forensic detachment feel inadequate to represent the chaotic realities of everyday life. 

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

I finished Christopher Witmore’s  Old Lands: a chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. As I said last week, it was a great way to kick off my summer reading and a useful tonic for a summer without fieldwork.

This is the kind of book that will likely resist any kind of useful, formal review. It’s easy enough to note places where Witmore overlooked scholarship relevant to his larger arguments (e.g. Kostis Kourelis’s important 2007 Hesperia article, “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde” would have fit nicely into Witmore’s treatment of Corinth, for example, or Evi Karouzou’s 2014 monograph,  Les jardins de la Méditerranée: agriculture et société dans la Grèce du sud, 1860-1910, would have complemented and expanded his considerations of the agricultural history of the Corinthia and Argolid, or, finally, David Pettegrew’s observations on Kromna on the Isthmus of Corinth would have complicated Witmore’s analysis of that site). Likewise, it will also be convenient for a reviewer to observe that the routes Witmore took through the Northeast Peloponnesus overlooked certain areas like the Southeastern Corinthia, the Western Argolid, or the Inachos Valley. As a result, he overlooked the delicious abundance of souvlaki stands at the intersection of the old national road and old Peloponnesian narrow-gauge railway in the village of Myloi. There are, of course, little factual slips from time to time: the Athos canning plant near Nauplio (referred to in Route 18) is probably the former Kyknos canning plant.

None of this really matters, however, because the book is not meant to be an exhaustive history of the landscape of the Argolid and Corinthia. Instead, the book represents an unapologetically personal look at the region. This approach reflects Witmore’s commitment to the tradition of chorography which he offers as both a kind of critical commentary on the ancient writings of Strabo and Pausanias, the Ottoman period in the writings of Evlyia Celebi, the early modern works of Jacob Spon and George Wheler and the Expédition scientifique de Morée, and the modern period with the travels of Martin Leake, Edward Dodwell, and Gertrude Bell. Contemporary scholars, John Cherry, Alex Knodell, join Witmore from time to time as do various other Greeks, American students, and family members. At the center of the book, however, is Witmore and his interests, relationships, and restless feet guide carry the reader through the Greek countryside.

Chorography, if I understand it, challenges views of the landscape dominated by cartography, geography, and modern landscape archaeology which serves to create the homogeneous spaces of the modern map. If the lines and points of the modern scholar serves to measure and rectify space into some form of universally recognized pattern, the routes of the chorographer are embedded in the landscape itself and follow the contours of the land, the rhythm of the fields, and the often abrupt discontinuities between the present and a visible past. While archaeologists have often seen Witmore’s work elsewhere as overly (and maybe even oppressively?) theoretical, Old Lands serves as a critical and important corrective. Witmore’s goals are not to use the eastern Peloponnesus as at the basis for some kind of theoretical exegesis, but to offer this landscape as a kind of anti-theory (echoing, in some ways, the work of Peter Sloterdijk who appears frequently in his footnotes). For example, the landscape is not a text to be decoded or deconstructed. It is not a place to be unpacked, analyzed, compared, or abstracted. Instead, it’s a space to be experienced and encountered.  

At times (and as an avowedly selfish reader), I wondered how Witmore’s chorography relates to our modern and perhaps contemporary experience of tourism. His effort to defamiliarize a landscape well-known to archaeologists and scholars evokes the modern promise of the tourists gaze which seeks to bridge the gap between the everyday and the exotic. Witmore makes romantic a walk through an olive grove which represents one of the most banal and unremarkable experiences of time in the northeast Peloponnesus. Fishfarms, irrigation systems, terrace walls, dirt and paved roads, goat tracks, maquis, and even the annoying hillsides of Jerusalem sage take on a wondrous quality in Witmore’s work. But is this because these experiences are wondrous or because, in Witmore’s able hands, he is creating a wondrous experience for the reader in much the same way an able tour guide brings a landscape or encounter alive and something as banal as “Mexican Coke” becomes an invitation to an unfamiliar world. (This relates, of course, to my own work along similar lines here.)

Witmore’s work also nudged me to think a bit more about my idea of a “slow archaeology.” While most of my work has focused on “slow” as a challenge to our technologically mediated encounters with archaeological work, Witmore’s chorography with its attention to the details of experience and encounter feels like it occupies a similar space. The absence of any technology in Witmore’s work (other than the maps which he includes at the end) and the emphasis on the individual rather than the team of archaeologists, the procedures of data collection, and the methods of analysis, creates a view of archaeological practice that differs from the almost-automated routines of the intensive pedestrian surveys or of systematic excavation that so defined the archaeological landscapes of the northeastern Peloponnesus.

In this way, Old Lands offers a critique of contemporary archaeological practices, but doesn’t reject them. It also offers a new way to think about the field of Mediterranean archaeology. In recent years, Mediterranean archaeologists have pushed more archaeological practices that align more closely with our peers in “world archaeology.” This frequently involves more specialized training in scientific methods, the use of digital tools, and systematic approaches grounded in the literature of anthropological archaeology. Witmore doesn’t contest this, but by grounding his approach in chorography, he proposes an alternative that is no less grounded in the latest technologically mediated approach to the past, but is also explicitly aware of the experience of being in the landscape. 

Old Lands: Nostalgia, Archaeology, and a Summer without Fieldwork

This weekend, I started to read Chris Witmore’s Old Lands: a chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020). Witmore is perhaps best known among archaeologists as a theory guy whose work on thingness, symmetrical archaeology, and agency has contributed to the larger “thing turn” or “material turn” in the field. 

This book certainly draws upon his formidably grasp of archaeological theory, but much of it is not explicitly theoretical. Instead, it offers a series of “segments” between points win the northeastern Peloponnesus that provide an opportunity for Witmore to dilate on various topics ranging from fish farming to tourism, antiquity, archaeology, history and agriculture. The thread connecting these largely self-contained segments, each of which gets its own bibliography is the heterogeneity of space and place. By following the things “on the ground” rather than the discursive pathways established by our disciplinary training and knowledge, Witmore offers a literary simulation of the typical archaeological encounter. This encounter, at least in my experience, almost always begins with the question: “what the hell is that?” And proceeds from there.

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t offer more than a superficial reaction, and I’ll probably write a more formal review sometime next week when I’ve had more of a chance to digest it. I will offer three observations now, though:

First, this book couldn’t appear at a better time. Like many academic archaeologists, I’m still coming to grips with the idea that there will be no fieldwork or study this summer. While I have plenty of writing and reading to do and have no projects that required fieldwork this summer, it’ll still be strange to be at home rather than living out of a suitcase in Cyprus and Greece and attending to the needs of objects, landscapes, buildings, and places (as well as maps and databases). I do have some fieldwork in town here and a plan for some work in August in Idaho that might still happen, but even that seems unlikely right now.

More than that, I’m worried that without being in Greece and Cyprus and without spending time in the landscape, village, storerooms, and survey area, my reservoir of encounters will diminish. It’ll be harder for me to ask “what the hell is that?” and to follow these encounters in new directions and toward new hypotheses. 

As an aside, I had long wondered what this odd building was south of Kiveri near where the Western Argolid Regional Project was based in Myloi. Apparently it was a pumping station designed to tap a fresh water spring beneath the saltwater Argolidic Gulf. So there you go.

Second, I’ve been thinking a good bit about nostalgia lately. I’m partly blaming this on Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), and partly on a new, small-scale research project into the history of the suburbs, and partly on being an old white male. When I was younger, I spent a good bit of each summer hiking around the landscape of the Eastern Corinthia, looking for and at sites, wondering about things, and talking with guys like Tim Gregory, David Pettegrew, and Dimitri Nakassis. More recently, I spent time walking the Western Argolid with Dimitri, Grace Erny, Machal Gardoz, Joey Frankel, Melanie Gadsey, and Alyssa Friedman. While in most cases, we were mapping survey units, it also afforded me the opportunity to become more familiar with the Inachos valley and surrounding landscape.   

Old Lands is set in the olive grooves, orange orchards, dirt roads, “not paths, but routes” hills, valleys, ravines, seaside towns, inland villages, and cities of the northeast Peloponnesus. This is where I’ve learned to be an archaeologist (and continue to learn from both my colleagues and the landscape). Feeling nostalgic for the long days in the field may be no more than just the idylls of a privileged white male, but thinking about those days and weeks walking in the countryside push me to recognize this privileged perspective and reflect on the tension between my own encounters, my memories, and these rugged and difficult landscapes.

Finally, so far, Witmore’s book has reminded me how much my understanding of the Greek countryside is anchored in place. In other words, so much of what I know about Greece is based on my encounters with buildings, landscapes, and relationships rather than predefined academic problems. Whatever one thinks of the theoretical perspectives offered through symmetrical archaeology (e.g. here), Witmore’s book does a good job (again, so far) connecting how archaeologists make knowledge to the landscape itself and then introducing the secondary literature. Witmore’s process of describing the situation with detail and nuance, however literary it is in presentation here, mimics the process of engaging the landscape and starting with the question “what the hell is that?”

As I said, this is my impression based on the first 350 or so pages. I’ll prepare a more careful review sometime in the next week or so.

Writing during The COVIDs: Lakka Skoutara

As the realities of staying at home during the “Time of the COVIDs” has sunk in, my writing routine is looking more and more like the fourth round of the infamous second Lennox Lewis – Oliver McCall fight. If you have no idea what that means, you can watch it here. It’s not violent, but it certainly ain’t pretty.

In an effort to resist just wandering around the ring in tears, I’ve tried to invest some time in revising things that had slipped to being overdue. 

Last week, I revised a paper that Amy Papalexandrou, Scott Moore, and I had submitted to a volume on Byzantine neighborhoods which is now headed out for peer review. 

This past week, for example, I took a few days to revise a paper that is due to Becky Seifried and Deborah Brown for a volume on abandoned settlements. David Pettegrew and I decided that it was a great place for our long-standing project on the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia. 

Here’s the abstract.

Life in Abandonment: The Village of Lakka Skoutara, Corinthia

Between 2001 and 2018 a team from the Eastern Korinthian Archaeological Survey investigated a small, semi-abandoned settlement in a remote upland valley of the southeast Corinthia. Known locally by the toponym Lakka Skoutara, the settlement consists of a church, six standing buildings, a dozen abandoned and collapsing houses, dense ceramic assemblages, groves and fields, and agricultural and domestic features dating to the 19th and 20th centuries. Teams documented the valley through intensive pedestrian survey, interviews with local informants, and a thorough recording of the houses and their assemblages. Our documentation highlighted the complex material signature of dynamic land use patterns in the Greek rural landscape, as well as the formation processes of use, recycling, and abandonment associated with domestic residence. By combining the survey of houses, features, fields, and oral information obtained from local residents, we have been able to create a rich record of abandonment in a small Greek village. Our observations complicate tidy definitions of abandonment sometimes assumed by archaeologists in showing the small-scale continuities of settlement, building refurbishment, seasonal habitation, olive cultivation, shepherding, hunting, and investment in road infrastructure.

Here’s the original version that we submitted.
Here’s the slightly revised version.

Stay tuned for the published version of this paper in early 2021!

Excavations at Corinth in Hesperia

I really like Hesperia. It’s the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The quality of production and editing is outstanding and I can find something interesting in almost every issue that appears. I’ve submitted a few articles to Hesperia over my career, in part, because my work fits their remit, but also because the results are such fine quality. I know that they treat even the most modest contribution to the journal with the same care and attention that they lavish on the most dynamic, important, or sophisticated article.

This past issue had a long article on recent excavations at Corinth, “Corinth, 2018: Northeast of the Theater” by the project’s new director Chris Pfaff. The article is over 65 pages and I’d guess about 20,000 words of text plus another 10,000 of notes and bibliography; by my count, the article clocked in at just under 35,000 words. It was pretty amazing, and I keep going back to it. Unlike many Hesperia articles, Pfaff’s article lacks a clear thesis. It’s not an argument. And what makes it most wonderful to me is that it doesn’t even have a conclusion. In fact, it just ends after the description of some kind of early modern or medieval ditch that cut across part of the site. That’s it. A “Diagonal Ditch.”

Here’s the final paragraph:

The purpose of the diagonal ditch remains unknown. No masonry of any kind was found within it to support the idea that it served as a founda­tion trench for a built structure. Its great length would be consistent with a ditch to accommodate a drain or pipeline, but no drain tiles or pipes came to light in the fill. In general, the finds from the fill, including an equine cranium, can be characterized as refuse that has no association with the original function of the ditch.

This isn’t the say that the article was pointless, of course. Part of me suspects that this article represents a throwback to a tradition of reporting on the annual work at a site. When we started our project on Cyprus, for example, we published short descriptive annual reports in the Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus that we hoped would let folks know that a particular site existed, give them a sense for what we found, and announce ourselves as serious archaeologists doing serious work. They were provisional and preliminary, and, to my mind, a fine thing for a junior scholar to write when starting work on their first project.

This logic, of course, does not apply to Corinth. Chris Pfaff is a senior scholar and nothing in the report would strike someone casually familiar with Corinth as surprising. Most of the material is Late Roman in date, most of it derives from secondary contexts as one would expect at a continuously occupied site, and none of the results would challenge long held views or announce some distinct, new aspect in the history of the city.

Instead, the article simply runs up the flag that work is ongoing. It appears, from what I can tell, to be continuing in the same vein as excavations over the last 20 years. The article lacks much in the way of a formal catalogue, assemblages are only presented in a summary way, the architecture and features consist primarily of walls, roads, and known buildings (like the Late Antique “Good Seasons” mosaic and the course of the Late Roman (perhaps 6th century?) fortification wall). None of these features is published in enough detail to be considered a final publication. It’s nice to know that they are still there though and to know someone cares.

What’s great about this article is its attention to description. Rather than present some sweeping conclusion, launch into some theoretically overwrought article, or attempt some kind of exhaustive review of past literature, this article simply describes things. In other words, in its unusual way, it takes things seriously, even when these things are a “diagonal ditch” with the skull of a horse and some early 20th century artifacts in it. By putting aside, at least explicitly, the need for a formal thesis, Pfaff’s article refuses to reduce the “things” of archaeology to the status of evidence in the service of an argument. Even the occasional objects in the article that received more careful description floated against an ambiguous background and often lacked fully developed archaeological context. At best they represent types of evidence as if to say that the excavators have this kind of thing and this kind of thing can speak to chronology, function, or context. But at no point do they unpack the entire context of a strata or an assemblage. They do, as one would expect, locate the objects within a context, but this remains hard to understand to a reader because most contexts are not fully described. Thus this treatment of things alludes to a context, but also avoids becoming unduly burdened by it. The photographs of the objects against a white background reinforce their independence and integrity.

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This image of iron hobnails(?) could inspire a volume of essays.

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It’s also worth noting that this article also lacks people. Some of the previous excavators are present: Henry Robinson and Charles Williams make cameos to personify their interpretations and work, but the 2018 excavations largely occurred without human intervention. There are no decisions presented and the descriptions of features and things stand on their own. This is both bracing and just a bit disconcerting. A generation of reflexive practices and methodological preoccupation which have so frequently sought to diminish the significance of things in the name of relationships with humans is refreshingly absent.

In the end, this article is provocative. I calls into question the goals of archaeological publication. Surely, it is not meant to be a definitive “final” publication. As I’ve said, it’s also not meant to be a preliminary report. No one needs to 30,000+ to know that Corinth has a prosperous and complex Roman and Late Roman phase. It doesn’t offer enough detail or context for regular citation. The objects represented throughout are generally of a type that is known both at Corinth and more broadly in Southern Greece and the Peloponnesus.

Instead, the purpose of this article appears to be simply to present these things, features, and lightly sketched contexts. Hesperia’s typically fine and careful style allows the things to stand on their own and largely to speak for themselves and, in some way, speak to themselves (rather to other things or to some kind of abstract notion of argument, assemblage, or context). As such the article is both a step backward in time to a day when such reports regularly appeared in scholarly journals to let far flung colleagues know about “the work of the School” as well as a step forward in a practice of presenting things in a disconcertingly discrete way.

Lakka Skoutara and Abandonment: PrePrint with Pictures

Over almost 15 years, David Pettegrew and I have been revisiting the rural settlement of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and documenting the changes. At first, our interest was to document site formation processes at the site and observe how abandoned buildings and houses fell down over time.

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After only one or two visits, however, we discovered that these houses were not simply left alone to collapse in the Greek countryside, but continued to be centers of a wide range of rural activities. For example, several of the houses lost their ceramic tile roofs during over the past 15 years, and others have seen regular maintenance and, in at least one case, expansion. As a result, our research shifted from a rather abstract (and naive) view of this settlement as a case study for site formation to a more dynamic and complex project designed to document the material engagement with the Greek countryside over a period of 15 years.

While it goes without saying that the history of rural Greece continues to attract attention from anthropologists, historians, geographers, as well as local antiquarians, there has been relatively less formal and systematic archaeological study of 20th century rural sites. Our work at Lakka Skoutara is not entirely unique, but it makes a useful contribution to the small number 20th century rural sites that have received systematic and sustained archaeological study in Greece.

You can download a draft of our paper here. Or read about our most recent visit to the site here.

Lakka Skoutara: (Almost) 20 Years at a Rural Site in Greece

This past week, David Pettegrew and I revisited the rural site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinth. This is a settlement that developed over the course of the  first half of the 20th century with around 15 houses loosely clustered around a rural crossroad with a church dedicated to Ay. Katerini. There is also the crusher base for what must have been an olive press that likely dates to before the 20th century settlement, a number of impressive threshing floors, and series of cisterns providing water to this dry upland depression. Residents from the nearby village of Sophiko had occupied the houses in this valley periodically over the course of the 20th century usually during the harvest. There were periods when residents lived more or less full time in these houses in an effort to escape from the mid-century disruptions of World War II and the Greek Civil War. In 2001, we visited the valley and found that the houses were in various states of abandonment that ranged from total abandonment to occasional use and seasonal re-use.

The goal of our visit yesterday was to see how houses that we have documented (somewhat) regularly over the last 19 years were holding up. The initial goal of the project, when we started it, was to use these houses to think about formation processes in the Greek countryside. This visit was our first since 2009 (although we seem to recall a visit in 2012, but so far we can’t seem to find the photographic evidence for that trip). Having decade between visits meant that we had to get re-oriented to the area, but after a bit we were able to find our study houses, take some (but not nearly enough) photographs, and think about change (while) in the Greek countryside.

We have three snap impressions from our day wandering this settlement:

1. Houses fall down at an irregular pace. One thing that we certainly noticed is that relatively little had changed for buildings whose walls had collapsed prior to our first visit in 2001. In some cases, the walls were more visible because of changes in vegetation. But the general character of the collapse and associated material appeared more or less unchanged with some of the same scatters of artifacts present collapsed houses being more or less stable over the past 10 years.

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The reasons for this are, of course, obvious. The largely collapsed houses are less the focus of human activity and, as a result, less susceptible to various curation strategies and various other intentional and accidental human interventions. The remains of these houses are more resistant to various natural processes as most of the vulnerable elements in the houses have already given way, collapsed, or otherwise deteriorated. The remains, for example, of a brick and tile oven look essentially the same after 10 years.  

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2. Wall plaster disappears quickly. When we first encountered House 14 in 2001, it had some of its roof intact as well as plaster on its exterior walls and on a plaster-and-lathe dividing wall that originally separated two rooms. By 2009, the roof had collapsed and exposed the walls and the plaster-and-lathe wall had fallen to the floor. In 2018, most of the plaster had melted from the exterior walls and the plaster on the lathe wall had vanished to the point where the wall was no longer visible.

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3. Continuous Change. One of the less surprising aspects of Lakka Skoutara is the continuous change to the region and to its buildings. In one house, that appeared to be maintained but not in significant use, a plaster-and-lathe dividing wall was carefully removed. 

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Another house, constructed of cinderblocks in rough courses received a new balcony and a series of nicely built patios suggesting a transition from a kind of rough functionality to perhaps a more recreational purpose.

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The western part of the Lakka has seen the development of all sorts of new structures.

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These include some curious examples of reuse.

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Lakka Skoutara remains a dynamic landscape even in “abandonment.”