Systematically Sampling the Large Site

It was good timing that the newest Hesperia (85.1 (2016)) on the first weekend of my spring break. I particularly enjoyed the field report on the 2013 season of the Molyvoti, Thrace Archaeological Project (MTAP). This project has explored a large coastal site (approximately 50 ha) located on the Molyvoti peninsula in northern Greece. The current project is a collaboration with the Greek Archaeological Service and built upon their earlier topographical and excavation work at the site.

The article is one of those massive article that only places like Hesperia can publish. It runs to 65 pages and includes a little of almost everything from ceramics to coins, faunal remains, geophysical prospecting, surface survey, and, of course, excavation. The main focus is on a site that flourished in the 4th century BC and was at least partly reoccupied in Late Antiquity. Go read the article (if you can) in all its expansiveness. Here are my more limited observations.

1. Sampling the Large Site. The last decade has seen some interesting work done on large and midsize sites in the Mediterranean world. The combination of geophysical work and targeted excavation has started to replace the old “big dig” mentality for both practical and methodological reasons. On the practical side, Mediterranean archaeologists no longer have access to the vast resources of previous generations nor do they have the luxury of decades to excavate and expose large tracks of the urban plan. In terms of methodology, archaeologists have come to understand such massive scale excavations are not necessarily the most desirable approach to understanding the the dynamics of human activity across a large settlements. Our focus on economic activities, movement through space, expansive sampling strategies, and other concerns that are not necessarily rewarded by large-scale excavation focused on monumental architecture.  

While projects still look for monumental buildings and spaces, make efforts to reconstruct the urban plan, and, of course, trace city walls, archaeologists are becoming far more interested in also sampling artifacts from across the site generally through pedestrian survey. The goal of these more spatially extensive sampling methods is not necessarily to find specific variation in function across the site, but to produce a more diverse assemblage of largely ceramic artifacts that allows scholars to consider diachronic change, economic and cultural connections with other regions, and the presence of activities that may not manifest in monumental architecture.

2. Amphoras and Trade. One of the key contributions of this report is a more detailed understanding of the place of this peninsula in regional trade particularly in the Classical period. The majority of the amphoras came from the northern Aegean indicating that trade was rather localized. This may fit into a model of Mediterranean trade that emphasized dense networks of local connections rather than large-scale interregional exchange. In other words, a site like Molyvoti may well represent a local node in a network of exchange that expands largely by short connections between places rather than long-range economic ties. It was interesting to note that intensive pedestrian survey of the site produced more amphora sherds than excavation demonstrating that an more spatially expansive sample can lead to different conclusions about a site.

3. Late Roman Reoccupation. It’s now almost expected to find Late Roman material at any site in Greece. In fact, the absence of evidence for Late Roman occupation in a region is now met with skepticism. It appears that the site on the Molyvoti peninsula was re-occupied during Late Antiquity. The material present at the site included imported fine wares from North Africa (ARS) and from the Aegean (Phocaean Ware). Most of the material looks to be 4th or perhaps 5th century with some later sherds. The relatively early date of most of the Late Roman material accounts for the absence of explicitly Christian imagery. The faunal remains associated with Late Roman levels demonstrate a change in diet with an increase in pork. 

4. Diachronic Study. One of the coolest things about this report is that the authors documented a strange, post-Late Roman round structure of uncertain function. They also documented trenches dug across the site by Bulgarian soldiers during World War I. Rather than simply “digging through the Byz” or ignoring modern features of the landscape as later intrusions into otherwise “pristine” ancient levels, the excavators and surveyors took seriously these features and took pains to document them appropriately. It remains shocking, however, that the Bulgarian trenches preserved no modern artifacts. In our age of abundance, this is almost inconceivable. 

5. Co-Authors and Collaboration. Congratulations to Nathan T. Arrington, Domna Terzopoulou, Marina Tasaklaki, Mark L. Lawall, Demetrios J. Brellas, and Chantel E. White for their collaborative publication. They were a far cry from the Hesperia record of 11 co-authors, 6 is a nice start and obvious evidence for the collaborative, transnational nature of archaeological work. I only wish it was available open access… 

Adventures in Podcasting: Richard and I talk with Jon Frey talk about Digital Humanities, Greece, and Spolia

Since I have now outsources all non-Tourist Guide related related work to Dr. Rothaus (Thanks, Richard!) at least until the end of next week!

So please enjoy his show notes and his mad editing skills on our most recent Caraheard podcast:

(And, yeah, Richard, I’m going to step it up!)

Podcast fans can join Bill and Richard this episode in the rousing excitement of a discussion with Jon Frey on how to Stare at Walls!  or Scan Someone Else’s Notes!   We also discuss digital humanities and archaeology, swap some Ohio State University Excavation at Isthmia stories, and discuss Jon’s shiny new book Spolia in Fortifications and the Common Builder in Late Antiquity.

This weeks show notes are short because both Bill and Richard are grumpy, and together they are an exponential bad attitude multiplier.  But the critical info is here, as well as this gratuitous photo of Richard and Jon and the inimitable Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar in San Francisco.

frey and guy

During the podcast, we discuss how Jon illustrated some of the blocks of interest in his discussion of walls:

Capture

Jon uses a word that you almost never hear several times: euergetism.

Things we mention:

Bridge of the Untiring Sea

I’m super excited that Tim Gregory and Betsy Gebhard’s edited volume, Bridge of the Untiring Sea: The Corinthian Isthmus from Prehistory to Late Antiquity (Hesperia Supplement 48), has finally appeared. This is the proceedings of a conference held in the summer of 2007 when I was still a clean-shaven assistant professor. I vividly remember spilling a coffee on my shirt that morning on my commute through downtown Athens. 

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At that conference, I gave a paper titled “Epigraphy, Liturgy, and Imperial Policy on the Justinianic Isthmus.” I thought it was a good paper. After I gave it, a very well known Greek archaeologist approached me and told me that she had heard my paper and found it “very unlikely.” I blamed it on the coffee-stained shirt. The editors of The Bridge volume, however, suggested that something might still be amiss when they sent it out for two rounds of peer review. I assured them that I usually wear clean shirts, and the comments from the peer reviewers (and the editors) helped me make my case more compelling. 

This paper is the final paper published from my larger dissertation project (the link to chapter 2 is broken, but this link to this paper will replace it). Despite the disappointing reaction prior to publication, I still think that this paper represents the best idea that I’ve had as a scholar (and since I’ve only ever had one or two ideas, the competition is not steep), and maybe the best thing that I’ve ever written. It is one of the few times in my scholarly career that I rolled up my sleeves and actually did what I was trained to do: analyze a text. 

Anyway. Here’s a link to a preprint. It lacks the always-classy layout that the good folks at the American School of Classical Studies Publication office always seem to pull off. The editors there even made me correct my crazy footnotes. Tyrants!

If you want an off print, drop me a line. I’m eager to share! When I get permission I’ll post my paper here. 

UPDATE: BOO! The good folks at the American School of Classical Studies publication office won’t let me post a copy of my paper here for fear of losing tens of tens of dollars in book sales. POX ON THEM (in a nice way).

New Work on Churches in the Peloponnesus

I was pretty excited to read Rebecca Sweetman’s newest article on the Early Christian churches of the Peloponnesus in the the most recent American Journal of Archaeology. Not only has her work done a tremendous amount to recover my dissertation (on the same topic) from academic invisibility by citing regularly, but she also gave my blog a citation. More than the selfish pleasure of having one’s work recognized, Sweetman has done a great job bringing these neglected buildings into the scholarly spotlight. We can only hope that her insightful and important work will help these buildings gain more attention and enjoy for fully in the revived interest in Late Antiquity. 

Sweetman’s work is both better than mine, but also different. She has brought a more impressive arsenal of theoretical work to understanding these building and their role in Christianization. She has also a more intimate familiarity with the archaeology of these buildings from her time working at the acropolis basilica in Sparta. Finally, she has a more subtle and expansive view of the monuments themselves. In short, I’m jealous of her command of the source material. So, go read her work!

That being said, I do have a few little comments, which are less objections to her arguments than different takes on the same body of evidence:

1. Memory and Pagan Monuments. Sweetman thinks critically about memory in her work and agues that Early Christian basilicas and liturgy relied on the active memory of pagan and civic rituals to produce meaning, and by extension to produce a Christian ritual and social world. She notes that a few Early Christian churches in Greece were located near recently abandoned or still functioning pagan sanctuaries (the most famous examples being Olympia and Epidauros).

She also notes that Early Christian basilicas were built on the sites of long abandoned pagan monuments (e.g. Nemea). The usual reasoning for this phenomena is that abandoned pagan sanctuaries were a source of building material or the sites of settlements unrelated to the earlier history of the place. Sweetman hints (albeit vaguely) that memory of pagan activities could adhere to even long abandoned sanctuaries. I couldn’t help think of one of my favorite saints, John “The Strange” O Xenos from Crete. He discovered a long abandon pagan sanctuary and did spiritual battle with the lingering presence of paganism there and built a church. 

From the perspective of Early Christianity in Greece, these long abandoned pagan sanctuaries might be ideal places for Christian churches. They leverage lingering memories, but avoid direct confrontation with existing pagan practices. Moreover, the appropriation of these sites of lapsed pagan practices both emphasized continuity with the distant past as well as placing contemporary paganism as somehow innovative and different from historical practices. This move by Christianity had the potential of being more powerful than simply siddling up to existing sanctuaries. Christianity was appropriating the historical landscape of paganism.

2. Church Building and Elite Practice. Sweetman argues that some church construction paralleled elite practices of munificence by allowing elites to continue to patronize cult activities but to do so as part of Christian practices. I don’t disagree with this argument, but I do wonder whether emphasizing traditional practices of elite benefaction overlooks changes in Christian attitudes toward giving to the poor and to the church as part of a larger route to salvation. Changing Christian attitudes toward giving opened new ways for church builders to fund their buildings and freed them from existing networks of aristocratic wealth which often proved an obstacle to the centralizing tendency of the organized church.

There is evidence from the Adriatic coast and from Greece of rather small donations (<1 solidus) to the decoration of churches. This would have been within the budget of people of middling means in the Late Roman world. The tendency for these small donations to appear in groups in a building suggests that the church was recruiting groups of these donors. The appearance of anonymous donors of small amounts hints that the motive for giving was less about developing civic prestige and more about seeking divine rewards. 

3. Christianization vs. Monumentalization. Finally, I have come to wonder more and more whether looking at the Early Christian churches of the Peloponnesus has less to do with Christianization and more to do with the monumentalization process. While I recognize that building monumental architecture was closely tied to the spread of Christianity from the 4th on, I also wonder whether our linking of these two processes together obscure the real reason for the appearance of so many large buildings in Greece in the later 5th and 6th centuries. The 5th and 6th centuries were wracked by Christological debates that fractured Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean, but particularly in Greece where imperial and ecclesiastical policies were often at odds with each other.

Investment in monumental architecture, in this scenario, had less to do with the spread of Christianity, and more to do with the development of competition between groups within Christianity who had access to resources to make their claims in the Greek landscape. The proliferation of churches around cities like Corinth need not represent the expansion of the Christian community in this place, but rather may represent the appearance of groups with competing claims around this important city. This would help explain the multiple baptisteries, the multiple synthrona, and the subtle, but obvious differences in architecture and decoration in these buildings.

Finally, Sweetman and I would both have great little books on the Early Christian architecture and Christianization of Greece:

Hers would include her 2013 article, and the two articles she published this year (in the ABSA (pdf) and the AJA).

Mine is sketched out here.

It’s a good time to be an Early Christian basilica in Greece!

Early Byzantine Pottery from Kenchreai

I was pretty excited to see the most recent publication in the ISAW Papers series: “Preliminary Report on Early Byzantine Pottery from a Building Complex at Kenchreai (Greece)” by Sebastian Heath, Joseph L. Rife, Jorge J. Bravo III, and Gavin Blasdel. First, the ISAW Papers series is an innovative way to publish individual article length papers, with open access licenses, without the overhead and complications of running a conventional journal.

Second, and more importantly, Joe Rife is another guy with strong ties to Isthmian and the Eastern Corinthia, and he fits into my inadvertent theme this week of “people who influenced my early archaeological career through their work in the Eastern Corinthia.” Sebastian Heath is a fellow digital archaeologist, and he and I have some imaginative future projects together currently set to a low simmer, but, more than that, he is a fine ceramicist. So when they teamed up with some other fine archaeologists to produce a preliminary report on an assemblage from a site called the Threpsiades Complex near the harbor of Kenchreai, it was worth some of my time.

Kenchreai (or “Quencher” as my autocorrect insists on calling it) is the eastern port of the city of Corinth and sits on the Saronic gulf. It appears to have fallen out of large-scale use after a series of seismic events in the later 6th or 7th century and today is a small settlement of vacation homes. The site considered in this article was excavated by the Greek archaeological service nearly 40 years ago, and the finds came to the current teams attention when the storerooms at the Isthmia museum were reorganized in 2002-2003. Curiously, at that time, “as much as 25%” of the material was transported to Ancient Corinth and buried there to conserve space. There is a tradition of buried assemblages of Late Roman material in the Corinthia, and it would be very interesting to understand the context and location of this reburial of archaeological finds. (In fact, as I’ve read more and more about the archaeology of the contemporary world, I’m struck by how little archaeology of archaeology there is. Excavating a pottery dump – particularly a big one – would be a fascinating opportunity to understand a wide range of behaviors associated with modern archaeological practices (which are sometimes less well documented than one would like)).

The report documents the first reading of an assemblage of Early Byzantine pottery. The latest fineware at the site, African Red-Slip forms 105 and 99 and the later from of LRC (Phocaean Red-Slip) form 3 and 10, suggest the last phase of the site in the late 6th or early 7th century AD. Like our work at Polis on Cyprus, they don’t necessarily have complete control of the stratigraphy (yet?) so some intermixing of earlier and later material is likely in this preliminary analysis. 

The main focus of their study, however, is amphora and especially the remarkably common Late Roman 2 amphora which appeared at this site in great abundance (over 70% of the total assemblage of amphora). The presence of stoppers and funnels hints that the complex may have served as a transshipment point for goods into these amphora for import or export (or in the words of the authors “storing and pouring”), although the authors stop short of making that argument. In this way, this small site could be similar to our nearly contemporary site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus which likewise shared an abundance of a single type of amphora, in our case Late Roman 1, which almost certainly represented the large scale export. 

I was pleased to see some Late Roman 1 amphora in the assemblage as well as some other Eastern Mediterranean types reinforcing the connectedness of this site to larger Mediterranean trading patterns. I always feel bad that there is no Late Roman “D ware” (or the fineware formerly known as Cypriot Red Slip) at these sites, because I regard it as a fine and serviceable fineware that did not see as much circulation outside of the immediate neighborhood of Cyprus as I’d like. Aside for my sentimental feelings toward an obscure Late Roman fineware, this short publication presents enough to contribute meaningfully to the larger conversation about exchange in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

This site complements the recent short publication by Paul Reynolds and Evangelos Pavlidis on an assemblage of amphora and fineware from the “Bishop’s House” at Nikopolis. This site produced a substantial group of nearly complete LR1 and LR2 amphora (which accounted for over 40% of the total amphora at the site) and Samian amphora (which accounted for a third of the amphora at the site). It also featured a significant quantity of late 6th to early 7th century African Red Slip to the exclusion of almost any other kind of fineware. The presence of LR1 amphora indicate that the site had contact with the Eastern Mediterranean despite its western facing orientation, but this did not result in the importation of fineware like the very common Phocaean ware present at Kenchreai. Reynolds and Pavlidis observe that the absence of Phocaean ware and the preponderance of Samian amphora make the assemblage at this site is different from that observed at Butrint (to the north) or Corinth. This suggests the presence of “multilayered” distribution models for fineware and amphora.

The variation between the assemblages present at these sites make them useful points of comparison for the diversity of assemblages present on the island of Cyprus. On Cyprus, sites that are less than 20 km apart can produce very different assemblages of fineware and storage and transport vessels during Late Antiquity. Whether this represents multilayered distribution models offering different degrees of access or simply differences in taste across a region remains an open question. 

Pastoralism and Islands

I was really excited to receive a copy of P. Nick Katdulias’s most recent edited volume titled The Ecology of Pastoralism (Boulder 2015). I’ve known Nick for as long as I’ve been active in the field of archaeology and his career which has spanned periods from Late Antiquity and Byzantium to the modern age and embraced excavation, field survey and remote sensing, has been a kind of model for my own, although he is far more of the anthropologist and archaeologist than I will likely ever be.

As readers of this blog know, I spent a couple weeks this summer with a team of graduate students and volunteers documenting an early modern pastoral site called Chelmis while on the Western Argolid Regional Project. Nick’s book will provide a cutting edge backdrop for our reflections on the history and archaeology of the site of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. I wish I had time right now to read this book, follow the various references, and begin to interrogate our evidence from Chelmis. The good news is that I’ll have to process at least some of this book before we give our paper on our work at Chelmis at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting this winter.

That being said, I couldn’t resist reading Nick’s contribution to this volume in large part because he documents a modern site on the almost abandoned island of Dokos off the coast of the Southern Argolid in the Aegean. The trips to this island were motivated in part by its proximity to the main land and other inhabited islands as well as Nick’s and Tim Gregory’s interest in deserted coastal islands in the Corinthian and Saronic Gulf. Like many of these islands, Dokos lacks a natural water source forcing any longterm residents of the island to rely on cistern for water. Tim and Nick worked to challenge the idea that during Late Antiquity (especially the 7th century) these islands became refuges for cowering imperial subjects as Roman (or Byzantine) control of Greece collapsed. Instead, they’ve suggested that settlements on these islands represented new strategies of economic exploitation brought on as much by population pressure and changing economic opportunities as disruptive invasions. This work has done a good bit to change how we think about Greece during Late Antiquity. (And a full publication of the Late Antique remains from Dokos would certainly contribute even more evidence to their larger arguments.)

Kardulias’s contribution to his edited volume does not deal with the Late Antique phase of activity on Dokos but draws on interviews with the modern residents of the island and some basic investigation of their settlement. The modern residents of the island consist of a single couple who have lived on-and-off on Dokos since the late 1940s. At that time they had herds of goats and sheep and grew grain and olives on the island’s rocky terraces. At times they’d move the flocks from Dokos to pastures in the Southern Argolid, but today, the couple keeps a goats, sheep, chickens, a few donkeys and a couple of dogs on the island full time.

Kardulias emphasized that their life on the island may be lonely, but it’s hardly isolated. Their family first settled on the island during the disrupted period of the Greek Civil Wars, but always relied on markets on surrounding islands and on the mainland. In fact, changes in the economic fortunes of the Southern Argolid in the 1940s and 1950s provided new opportunities for the residents on Dokos both in terms of markets and in terms of places for their  flocks to graze.

Like our work at Chelmis, Nick’s team complemented their interviews with archaeological documentation of the small settlement which consisted of the homes of the resident couple and on of their sons, a cheese making shed, pens for animals, and, of course, a cistern as well as a church. An abandoned cistern served as a dump for discarded household material and equipment. 

Our site at Chelmis shared certain characteristics with the settlement on Dokos. It clearly flourished in the period after the World War II as both a pastoral settlement and the site of agriculture with olives and grain being harvested by the same families whose sheep and goats grazed in the area. Moreover, despite the relatively marginal appearance and location of these sites, it is clear that they were deeply embedded in larger networks of travel and exchange. As the work in the nearby Southern Argolid has shown, the changing relationship of Greece with both Mediterranean and European markets had as much to do with the shifting strategies of settlement and creative opportunities to exploit even isolated landscapes for their value to nearby, regional, and even global markets.

Toward an Ottoman Archaeology

I really enjoyed Benjamin Anderson’s recent article in the new and more frequent Journal of Field Archaeology. Anderson considers Ottoman attitudes toward antiquities and challenges the long-held view that Ottoman society did not have a coherent discourse or substantial interest in antiquities. 

Any discussion of “Ottoman” society is tricky, of course, because the Ottomans only rarely promoted a single, national discourse as one might expect from contemporary European nation-states. As a result, Anderson turns his attention to evidence for a “local” archaeological discourse through a series of case studies that explore the removal of antiquities from Ottoman cities by European agents in collaboration with the Ottoman state. He described how the removal of the Incantadas in Thessaloniki and the Parthenon metopes from Athens both encountered determined local resistance. While the latter case study is relatively well known, the former was more dramatic. The Incantadas were part of a Roman period portico built into a Jewish home in Thessaloniki. The efforts of the French to dismantle and remove this structure to Paris met resistance both from the Jewish community as well as the Turks and the Greeks of the city. In both cases, the European agents attempting to remove the antiquities reported that the locals believed that the statues were prominent residents of the community who had been turned to stone. Anderson unpacks this story and suggests that they might represent both a sense of local pride in the communities’ past achievements and their sense of petrified helplessness in the face of the authority of the state. The strong reaction to the removal of these antiquities and the parallels between the two incidents hints that local residents of the Ottoman world developed identities that involved interpretation of local antiquities. 

One thing that I did notice was missing from this article was any reflection on Christian traditions of archaeology which date to at least as early as St. Helena’s excavation of the True Cross and continued, at least in hagiographic texts, through the Ottoman and into the modern period. The discovery of lost icons, earlier religious buildings, and various relics through excavation reflects a consistent attitude toward antiquities as well as a view of excavation as reveling a lost part of the past. Considering the constant interaction between various religious groups, it would be interesting to know whether some Christian ideas about the relationship between the past and the present made inroads into larger considerations of archaeological identity. For example, was part of the mystery and power of ancient statues related to the concept of icons or relics which both represented past holy men and women and literally embodied their sacred status.   

For some reason the Byzantine period continues to be overlooked in studies of the post-ancient reception of antiquities. Scholars are eager to identify continuities between the modern and early modern period without giving much consideration of the intervening processes that shaped mnemonic practices. I continue to think that the Byzantine period plays a key role in understanding how early modern and even modern Greeks (or Ottoman subjects) constructed a relationship with their archaeological past. 

A Guide to Byzantine Greece

Each summer my Facebook feed fills study-tour travelogues posted by my faculty colleagues. The best of these trips reflect careful selection of sites, thoughtful readings, and clear learning goals. Most study tours focus on the monuments of ancient Greece, but many of the most visually arresting monuments in the Greek landscape do not date to antiquity. Talking to students participating on the Western Argolid Regional Project for the last couple of year and contributing to study tours in Cyprus, I’ve come to realize that students are generally interested in the post-ancient world in part because they’re simply not as familiar with the narrative, and it has a sense of exotic novelty. In contrast the unfamiliar narrative, Medieval monuments associated are often more immediately accessible to their developing archaeological imaginations because many of them are still standing. 

This realization has led me to think a bit about producing a Guide to Byzantine Greece as a complement to the common itineraries followed by American study tours. 

If I was to do this, or find someone to do it with me, I figure that our guide has to have a couple features to make it useful.

1. Complementary. One of the most significant challenges will be that the guide has to complement traditional study tour itineraries which focus on ancient sites. While I’d love to write a book that leads a group of excited and interested students to the spectacular late Byzantine church of the Panayia Kosmostira in Ferres in Thrace, it’s not a realistic addition to most study tours of Greece. Instead, we have to focus on the main heartland of American study tours which tend to focus on Athens, Delphi, Olympia, the Corinthia and the Argolid. Fortunately, there are plenty of important and interesting post-ancient sites in this area.     

2. Modular. Along with being complementary, we have to write our guide in such a way that it can be used in a modular way. The traditional itinerary-based approach favored by, say, the Blue Guide, is a lovely way to experience Greece, but for the modern study tour which will not stop to enjoy the “lovely principle city of the demos Koutsopodi,” this approach makes dipping into the guide for some information on a particular building or site difficult.    

3. Encounters. The challenge of a modular guide is that they tend to fragment the landscape into distinct, isolated sites, and this works against presenting a cohesive view of Greece in the Medieval period. So, we have to figure out a way to weave unifying narrative throughout the encounters with individual places. We have to assume that the average American study tour might only see one Early Christian basilica or one middle Byzantine church or one “Slavic” cemetery, and our guide will need to find a way to make encounters with these single sites serve as synecdoches for larger trends, processes, or types. 

4. Open Access. It goes without saying that our guide should be available for free in some kind of digital form. I suspect that .pdfs will be the way to go for cross-platform compatibility, but we would also make a print copy of the guide available at as low a cost as possible. This would encourage adoptions (particularly if the book was to function as a supplement to a more traditional guide focused on ancient sites). 

5. Images, Rights, and Plans. One of the challenges of this kind of production is that there are some restrictive rules in place about using images of monuments in Greece and we’d have to reproduce plans which can be a time-consuming and frustrating project. It would be appealing to imagine ways that use the huge quantity of digital sources to supplement our book, but it is probably not useful to expect students to have constant internet connections while in Greece. Connectivity issues could make it more difficult to produce an interactive map that would provide directions to particular sites (although our students and staff this year almost all had phones with good internet connections).

Aside from the technical aspects of this kind of project, the intellectual challenge is very appealing to me. I’m not sure that I have time to do it properly, but I might have a collaborator who has both some time and expertise. For now, I’ll tuck this into my idea box and we’ll see where it goes over the next year or so…

The Historian and the Greek Crisis

As a historian who has spent most of his life studying the ancient and Medieval Greek world in a serious way, the recent financial and political crisis in Greece has caused me more than a little anxiety. That the most recent paroxysm took place while I was in Greece and working away on an archaeological project made the entire experience even more stressful. We had front row seats to the painful political wrangling that would have such a tremendous impact on the lives of our Greek friends and colleagues.

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Now that I’m home, people are naturally curious about what life was like in Greece during the most recent crisis. For obvious reasons, they expect me to have insights into the fiscal and political culture of Greece. As someone who has lived in Greece, I can offer some very superficial insights and recite the same difficult story about cost of austerity, the fear of economic instability, and the resilience of everyday life.

As a historian, however, I’m frankly at a loss. My dedication to the material, political, and religious culture of premodern Greece has equipped me with very few tools to understand the particular complexities of the global economy and the current situation in Greek and European political life. In fact, even specialists in these matters have struggled to see or understand the situation clearly through the rancorous and dissimulating political rhetoric. 

At the same time, the media has continued to evoke Greece’s ancient past to add a bit of national color to a story that has played out on a global scale over the last decade. I’ve blogged about this already, and noted that this lazy lede and headline writing does little more than evoke a watered-down version of the same Classicizing fantasies that contributed to the creation of the Greek state in the 19th century. Recently, observers of the crisis have begun to critique this practice, and a few authors have swapped Classical allusions for those of Byzantium. We can maybe thank Patrick Leigh Fermor’s well-known distinction between the Hellenic and Romaic (i.e. Byzantine) for that. While this distinction offers a framework for Fermor to narrative a rich and sweeping narrative of the Greek landscape, I’ve found that it offers little in terms of real explanatory value. We should probably prefer an approach like Tom Gallant’s recent contribution to Chronos magazine which looks to the relatively recent legacy of Greek-German relations. 

Where does that leave the historian of Ancient and Medieval Greece? It is inevitable that we’ll be asked our opinions on the recent events and expected to be able to offer some kind of deeper understanding of the situation (owing more to our expertise in, say, the Early Christian architecture of the Peloponnesus as much as our time in the country). At the same time, we’re all aware (pdf) of the tragicomic bizarreness that can result when scholars of antiquity wade into contemporary geopolitics. It is humbling to admit that our specific expertise is irrelevant for understanding the current crisis, but it is our obligation to avoid the frankly ahistorical conceit of conflating (our knowledge) of the ancient and modern worlds. At moments of particular frustration, my inability to deploy two decades of historical understanding of Greece to explain or understand the current situation has made me despair the value of the humanities. At the same time, I hope that my background in the humanities has made it possible to recognize and appreciate in a critical way the limits to what we know no matter how frustrating that may be.

The Greek Crisis

Our field season at the Western Argolid Regional Project has felt the impact of the Greek economic crisis in rather direct ways. Suddenly all the undergraduates decided that they needed cash and our graduate students have discovered long-neglected piles of receipts that require immediate reimbursement. We’ve made more trips to the ATM than usual, have begun to conserve cash, and have started to feel a bit nervous about the complex web financial arrangements that an archaeological project relies upon to survive.

Our insecurity and inconvenience, however, are nowhere close to what most Greeks are experiencing right now.

The media appears to share our concerns about how the current crisis in Greece will impact both Greece and the rest of the world. Despite this concern, it would seem that many commentators struggle because they have only a very basic understanding of modern Greek history and, as a result, are only too ready to fall back on unhelpful statements about Greece’s ancient traditions of democracy or their foundational role in European civilization. It is nice to remember that our notions of democracy owe a debt to ancient Greece, but it is more important to recall that in the modern world, democracy remains more a lovely Western, historical fantasy than a consistently applied set of political principles.    

This tendency to look back seems to have obscured any critical understanding of Greece’s recent past. For example, few commentators have noted that Greece is among the oldest nations in Europe, but even at the very moment of its birth the powers of Western Europe took an active role in shaping its future. Few have recognized or discussed the difficult periods of financial dependency which robbed Greece of political independence throughout the last 150 years. Finally, commentators have generally overlooked the painful political experience of the Greek Civil War and rule of the military junta which shape Greek attitudes toward modern democracy and European intervention. 

Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s referendum, the results will express the unique history of the modern Greek state more than any Classicizing fantasy about the ancient origins of European and Western democracy.