Landscapes and Nature on the Mickelson Trail

This weekend, I road the Mickelson Trail with my buddy and some-time research partner Bret Weber. There was no research agenda for this ride, but like most excursions in a new landscape, I spent a good time thinking about the what I was seeing and trying to understand the trails route. The George Mickelson Trail follows the route of a spur line of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad which ran through the Black Hills of South Dakota from the late 19th century to the 1980s. 

The route linked the town of Deadwood to Edgemont where he line connected to a route running south from Sheridan, Wyoming and proceeding to points east and eventually Kansas City, Missouri. Presumably the line supplied the mining communities of the Black Hills where American prospectors discovered gold and silver in the 1870s and the US government violated their treaty with the Sioux and seized the Black Hills. Thus, the route through the Black Hills is an expression of American colonialism and the tragic history of settler-Native American relations.

It seems appropriate this still-unresolved chapter in the settler-colonial history of the US also traces the history of how European, white, males understand nature and the environment. On the one hand, the Mickelson Trail offers a fairly unique view of the Black Hills and the rangeland to their south. There were times when if felt like we were encountering nature on its own terms.

IMG 7909

IMG 7954

IMG 7915

This view is naive, of course. The trail itself is a former rail bed and the amazing vistas that we experienced almost always preserved evidence for human intervention. The most common sign of human investment in creating the landscape (beyond the rail bed itself) were fence posts that stood in even landscapes which to my untrained eye seemed unlikely to have required fencing.

IMG 7903

My biking partner who is both by profession and predisposition a historian of the American West, pointed out that some fencing probably marked grazing ranges, in some cases private property, and in some cases mining claims. Indeed, we never had to look far to see evidence for mining in the region. For example, the Homestake Mine in Lead, which left traces both deep underground and in large open pits, made more obvious the fundamental ways in which the landscape of the Black Hills reflects human intervention. It is simply a lovely coincidence that the current use of the mine as the site for experiments involving the search for “dark matter” occur in deep shafts over a mile beneath the surface. The hidden landscape of sub-atomic particles appears to be a poetic reuse for the hidden landscapes of modern mining. 

The not insignificant investment in connect this seemingly remote region to the main rail lines demonstrated the perceived viability of the region as a mining center. Tunnels, bridges, and carefully graded descents from the Black Hills trace the connections between the mines around Lead and Deadwood and the support services provided by towns at lower elevations which supported the mining centers. 

IMG 7912

IMG 7928IMG 7926

In short, the route that we followed linked the topography of the Black Hills to the networks of supply and settlement that supported the mining operations around Lead and Deadwood. Thus the route of the Mickelson Trail not only traced the local topography, but also showed how the region connected to larger national centers and how these two connections combined to create the string of small towns and settlements throughout the Black Hills.

IMG 7944

IMG 7921

In short (and to no one’s surprise other than my own, probably), the ride through the Black Hills on the Mickelson Trail pushed me to encounter not only the stunning topography and natural features of the region, but, more importantly, the mechanisms of settler colonialism, settlement, and the integration of this seemingly “remote” region with the wider world.

I sure, of course, there was an easier way than a 100+ mile bike ride to experience and think about this landscape, but nothing like 9 or so hours on a bike over a couple of days to give one time think!!!

Three Things Thursday: Pollen, Climate, and Grass

Today will be a hectic day toward the end of a hectic week. As we enter the “frog days” of summer, I think I’m feeling the start of the fall semester looming. 

As a result, all I have this morning is a very short three things Thursday, but maybe there’s a bit of thematic unity that extends across my posts this week!

Thing the First

My long time collaborator and friend, Dimitri Nakassis, sent some of his WARP colleagues a link to “Mid-late Holocene vegetation history of the Argive Plain (Peloponnese, Greece) as inferred from a pollen record from ancient Lake Lerna” by Cristiano Vignola, Martina Hättestrand, Anton Bonnier, Martin Finné, Adam Izdebski, Christos Katrantsiotis, Katerina Kouli, Georgios C. Liakopoulos, Elin Norström, Maria Papadaki, Nichola A. Strandberg, Erika Weiberg, and Alessia Masi in PLOS One.

As the title suggests, this article reports on the analysis of pollen in cores taken from bed of the now-drained Lerna Lake. It’s pretty technical, but offers a very readable “Interpretation and Discussion” section which offers some perspectives that while not entirely unsurprising are nevertheless useful: 

“During the Early Byzantine period from ca. 1480 to 1120 BP (470–830 CE) the increasing percentage and influx values of Pinus and Quercus robur type evidence the expansion of both pinewoods and oakwoods in the Lerna pollen catchment area. The Olea curve displays a severe drop and PI significantly increases, together with Artemisia, Cichorieae and Plantago undiff…pollen and archaeological data point out a reduced human pressure in the uplands and a more local food production in the plain, where olive groves contracted and pasturelands expanded following the collapse of the Eastern Roman control on the Balkans.”  

Thing the Second

It’s pretty rare that I’ll link to a book published by Springer on this blog, but I’ll make an (open access) exception today. I’m very much looking forward to reading Perspectives on Public Policy in Societal-Environmental Crises: What the Future Needs from History edited by Adam Izdebski, John Haldon, and Piotr Filipkowski.

The book, as its title suggests, look directly toward the relationship between environmental policy and history. More importantly, this book uses quite a few examples from Greece and the Medieval period, and includes chapters relating to how we narrate and tell stories about environmental history. I’m looking forward to checking this out over the next few days.

Thing the Third

As promised, this is a short post today, and the final thing for this “three thing Thursday” is a link to an essay by Judith Fetterley called “In Praise of Grass” which appeared last year in NDQ.  

It’s a brilliant little reminder that our lawns are both living things and vibrant ecosystems even if they’re very much cultivated by humans. 

Roman Climate

As I get old, one of my great weaknesses as a professional is becoming more and more apparent. As my always modest synapses have slowed down further and my limited pool of energy has gotten shallower, I find myself increasingly driven by deadlines rather than genuine curiosity about the past (or the present or the world). This summer, for example, has become a prolonged exercise in shooting the wolf closest to the sled and this is both unrewarding and exhausting.

As an antidote to this tendency, I still try to read things that capture my interest or that contribute to a broader understanding of the past. As I look at the prospects of teaching a class on the “End of the Roman Empire” (or some such thing) in the spring (alas another deadline), I’m feel an even greater sense of urgency to read and think more broadly about the past (or at least Late Antiquity).

At present, I have a “back of the napkin” idea how to organize my class on the End of the Roman World and I won’t burden this blog post with that kind of nattering, but I do want to include at least a week on Roman and Late Roman climate. The archaeology of climate, climate change, and its impact on society has long drawn my interest. The challenge, of course, for antiquity is that the paleoclimate data is hard to understand. Not only does it involve understanding the science of climate, but also a certain amount of statistics, sampling, and regional geography. 

Over the weekend, I read “Settlement, environment, and climate change in SW Anatolia: Dynamics of regional variation and the end of Antiquity” by Matthew J. Jacobson, Jordan Pickett, Alison L. Gascoigne, Dominik Fleitmann, and Hugh Elton in PLOS ONE. I was initially drawn to this piece because I noticed that the region was not only near Cyprus, but that some of the points that define this region were further from one another than they were from northwest Cyprus where I work. I’m not especially sanguine that data from southern Anatolia is likely to correlate directly to the climate conditions during Antiquity on Cyprus, and one of the authors discouraged me from thinking that way via the twitters

At the same time, this article offers some remarkable conclusions that suggest, for example, that the Roman Climate Optimum, which some scholars have treated almost as a given, might not be as obvious in the regional level climate data as big picture discussions of the Roman world have tended to assume. In fact, in this articles’ SW Anatolia study area, there was no evidence from the RCO in the climate data and it was impossible, then, to correlate the increase in agricultural activity, building, or trade during the Roman period with a milder regional climate. Indeed, this is consistent with data from across the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly. The Early Byzantine period (350-600) shows a predictable increase in settlement and a more or less continued investment in urban areas. That said, there’s little in the way of climate data from this specific region to correlate these investments and expansion of settlement with a pan-Mediterranean situation. Instead, there appears to be a regional patchwork moisture levels for example that likely contributed to the prosperity of the period, but perhaps did not represent a single transformative agent in the development of this period. 

As a result, the contraction of settlement and seeming decline in prosperity in the Middle Byzantine period does not emerge as the result of climate change, but similar to Roman and Late Roman prosperity, part of a more complex group of political, military, social, and environmental influences.

Returning to my class, this article has some real advantages for classroom use. Some advantages are clear, but go without saying, such as the robust footnoting and careful historical and archaeological contextualizing. Others are tacit, such as its open access status!

So, I’ve added it to my list! 

The Late Byzantine Landscape

Last week I finally finished Foteini Kondyli’s recent book, Rural Communities in Late Byzantium: Resilience and Vulnerability in the Northern Aegean (2022). It’s really quite brilliant and offers a model for the kind of intensive regional study that is possible as the result of slow, deliberate, careful research across archaeological survey, texts, architectural study, and digital techniques.

The book considers the strategies rural communities on Lemnos and Thasos used to survive during the tumultuous 14th and 15th centuries. Kondyli anchored her argument in an extensive survey of the islands where she used surface ceramics to help date surviving churches, the remains of settlements, and the various towers and other sites that have left traces in the landscape. She supplements these with data from the Athonite monastic archive which provide insights to land tenure practices and the structure of settlement across the island. In this context, Kondyli is able to outline some of the strategies families used especially in the aftermath of the demographic changes visited on these islands during these convulsive centuries. These ranged from marriage strategies and other forms of bonds between families, settlements insulated from the presence of pirates in the surrounding seas, cooperation in the construction of military fortification such as towers and spiritual fortifications such as churches and monasteries, and forms of cooperation with the Byzantine state (and even Ottoman) state.

As per usual, I’m not going to really review the book, but highlight a few things that I stuck out to me.

First, I thought Kondyli’s emphasis on resilience is in keeping with contemporary conversations about continuity and change in the ancient and Medieval worlds. Of course, resilience has emerged as a key way to think about Late Antiquity and the degree to which a community could survive, rebuild, and persist amid economic, military, and political disruptions is crucial for understanding how deep structures which are not always readily visible in textual or archaeological sources held societies together at challenging times. Kondyli’s emphasis on resilience and social strategies is appropriate for the Late Byzantine period as well which endured its share of disasters.

Our attention to resilience, I think, shifts how we think about matters of continuity and change in the past. In this context, continuity and change represent strategies rather than evidence for a kind of absent minded persistence of existing social structures and institutions and change becomes a way to understand how communities adapt to circumstances that may well be beyond their control rather than the arrival of new circumstances themselves. As a result, and as Kondyli so cleverly shows, focusing on resilience foregrounds everyday life at the level of the community and how they respond economic, political, and military events.      

Second, for most of my career, I’ve been a bit of an evangelist for intensive, pedestrian, siteless survey. And I still think it’s the best way to do to field survey in the Mediterranean. 

That said, I’m becoming a bit more willing to see the value in intensive survey. Perhaps I should credit my new found appreciation of modern extensive survey to Yannis Lolos’s extensive survey of Sikyonia. I can add Kondyli’s book to the list of influences that are expanding my perspective on the value of modern extensive survey projects. In particular, I admire her willingness to identify the function of specific sites. One of the challenges facing intensive survey work is our tendency to produce vast carpets of artifacts that blur functional (and chronological) borders of sites until they are essentially disappear. To be clear, this is a rather uncharitable reading of siteless survey, but I suspect there is a kernel of truth to it. Kondyli’s willingness to build arguments on the chronological and functional identification of sites – with a certain amount of caution and perspective – opens the landscape of Aegean islandscapes to the kind of historical interpretations that our siteless survey sometimes resists. 

Third, Kondyli balanced her awareness of how islands function as islands (she avoid the term  “islandscapes” but the concept suffuses some of her arguments) with a strong sensitivity for local landscapes. I’ve participated peripherally in several recent conversations about islands and island archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean and this got me thinking a good bit about whether models for understanding islands in historical periods add much to our understanding of the Mediterranean, in general. For example, the mountainous landscape of Thasos exerted a far more obvious impact on settlement patterns than its situation as an island. This isn’t to say that its insularity didn’t play a role in the organization of settlement on islands, but that it might not be the dominant, determining role. 

This understanding feels consistent with the growing interest in microecologies or microregions which often function at level far below that of an island. If we regard the Mediterranean as a patchwork of microregions, then certain larger regional characterization of spaces—from islandscapes to administrative districts—might contribute less to how we understand resilience of communities than we might expect.

As readers of this blog likely know, my excitement for the archaeology of Greece ebbs and flows with my commitments to field work and my (declining!) ability to formulate research questions that keep me engaged. Kondyli’s book when set alongside other recent-ish books such as  Effie Athanassopoulos’s Nemea Valley Archaeological Project II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside (2016, blogged about here) and John Haldon, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, Archaeology and Urban Settlement in Late Roman and Byzantine Anatolia: Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü and its Environment (Cambridge 2018, blogged about here) has got me once again thinking a bit about how we understand the Late Roman and Byzantine countryside in the Eastern Mediterranean. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Mediterranean this summer and thinking in more in situ ways about issues introduced in these works.

Two Article Wednesday

I’m obviously out of sync with my use of alliteration, but I am working my way through my “articles to read pile” albeit rather haphazardly. This week, I read two articles from the most recent Journal of Greek Archaeology 6 (2021), both of which were pretty cool.

The first was by Chris Cloke whose relatively recent dissertation analyzed the off-site ceramics from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP). As a young survey archaeologist in Greece, this project was the bee’s knees and a model for how we thought about intensive pedestrian survey. The survey part of this project was published primarily through a series of articles which, in turn, focused primarily on on-site data. Cloke’s work brings to light the significant quantity of off-site data which he marshals to contribute to ongoing discussion about the changing character of the Classical to Late Roman landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus. 

Cloke’s article on the JGA is titled “Farming on the Fringe: Diachronic Changes in Land-Use Patterns and Agricultural Strategies in Ancient Nemea” and it considers two variables. First (and most interesting to me) he considers the average size (in weight) of sherds found in off-site scatters from the Nemea Valley survey area and compared them to the size of “on-site” sherds. He discovered that artifacts in lower density assemblages (that is off-site) from the Classical and Hellenistic period tend to be about the same size as those from higher density “on site” assemblages. In the Roman and Late Roman period, however, he noted that the average sherd size for artifacts in off-site scatters was much lower than those found on-site. To Cloke, this suggests that during the Roman and Late Roman period off-site scatters represented different formation processes. The tendency for low-density, low artifact weight scatters to present a halo around sites from those periods may indicate manuring during these periods. The theory is that smaller sherds were more likely to be transported with other waste into the fields as fertilizer whereas larger sherds are likely to represent damaged objects associated with primary discard in proximity to habitation.

What makes this argument particularly clever is that Cloke goes on to suggest that the evidence for manuring coincides with a general intensification of agriculture during the Roman and Late Roman period in the region. There is abundant evidence for this during the Roman and Late Roman period across Greece and in the northeast Peloponnesus more specifically. More and more marginal lands appear to come into cultivation culminating with the 5th and 6th century agricultural boom where nearly every corner of the region appears to see Late Roman activity. If there was going to be a time where manuring happened, it would be in Late Antiquity.

I would have loved to be reminded a bit about how NVAP identified and collected from sites and off-site scatters. Cloke argues that the assemblages from both appear fundamentally similar suggesting that collection strategies did not bias one assemblage over the other. The main difference I would see is that off-site units are so much larger than the gridded collections (if memory serves) conducted on-site. How the differences in unit size might bias collection is a bit hard to know, but I’d be keen to see the variation in artifact size for off-site scatters. I’m wondering whether the appearance of larger sherds in any number indicate on-site scatters but even in these units, lower density scatters of smaller sherds remain ubiquitous. As a result, large units will naturally collect more smaller artifacts from expansive low density scatters. Or something. This might change how we understand the scatters of small artifacts, however, if on-site scatters are merely the presence of larger sherds and not the absence of smaller ones.

The second article looks at the distribution of Middle Byzantine churches in the Peloponnesus. Maria Papadaki’s “Church Construction as a Proxy for Economic Development: the Medieval Settlement Expansion Phase in the Peloponnese” offers a sweeping and thoughtful view of the Middle Byzantine landscape based on an impressive catalogue of 240 churches constructed between the 10th and 12th centuries.

I’m less interested in the specifics of Papadaki’s argument, which I suspect are sound, and more in the general trend in recent years to thinking about the Byzantine (and broadly Medieval) landscape more broadly. Papadaki brings together survey data with architecture, for example, to argue that Byzantine churches can be a persistent proxy for settlements as well as local wealth, demography, and connectivity within larger economic and political networks. 

The growing interest in Medieval landscapes that integrates architecture, art, archaeology, and texts feels like the foundation of new ways of thinking about Medieval Greece.

Three Things Thursday: Atari, Teaching, and Cyprus

Thanksgiving break is always an opportunity to slow down and be thankful for all the little things that make my life better. Historically, I dedicate Thanksgiving day to catching up on grading and taking a swing at the pile of books and articles that I’ve set aside to read “sometime.” Both of these tasks are pleasurable enough and remind me of the amazing privilege that I have both to teach and to read for a living. 

To start this celebration a bit early, I’m going to indulge in another favorite pastime and offer a little Three Things Thursday (albeit one day in advance):

Thing the First

As I continue to work to revise my book, one thing that I find both challenging and rewarding is re-writing the early chapters of the book so that they read more like the later chapters. One of the areas where I’m investing a good bit of effort are the little preludes that I include in each chapter. These preludes come before the … ludes… er… introduction and serve to connect each chapter to the two case studies that anchor the book: Atari and the Bakken. They also allow me to interject a more personal component to the book that connects the concept of the contemporary to the work of the archaeologist as an individual. 

Today I’m going to retool the short prelude to my chapter on things (that incidentally, will be the basis of a graduate reading class that I’ll teach on the topic next semester). As it stands now, I reflect a very common question that I get when someone learns that I’m an archaeologist: what’s the coolest thing that you’ve ever found? In my revision, I’m going to shift the focus to the moment that the massive excavator revealed the Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill in 2014. In this moment, the games shifted from being low value trash to being high value commodities. In some ways, this moment restored the games to the position that they held in my childhood when as far as I can recall, the latest Atari game was among the first things that I ever wanted. In other words, I was able to witness the moment when Atari games acquired new value and a new context. This also pushed me to consider how things work in our society. 

Thing the Second

I’m finding it more and more challenging to manage the end of the semester rush. It’s not that I feel particular flustered or stressed, but I have come to really worry about my students who are clearly struggling at the confluence of the holidays, the end of the semester workloads, family, and first sustained stretch of winter with its cold, shorter days, and weather. This distressing situation has once again pushed me to think about student workloads and the current structure of our semester. 

As I begin to design my classes for the spring semester, I’ve started to think about two alternative models. The first one would be a model that splits courses over two semester. Each semester would have a 7 week class focuses on one major assignment. The grade would be recorded in the second semester. A course of this design would keep the course clear of the end of the semester exhaustion, stress, and busyness. Of course, if a student took multiple classes with this schedule, it would do little to alleviate the anxiety caused by competing responsibilities. 

Another model would be one that makes a 16 week course into a 12 week course by giving the students a week off every 5 weeks (i.e. 4 weeks of class and one week off). This course design would help students manage their workload better for my course during the semester and perhaps provide them with an alternative structure for better pacing their energy over the course of the semester.

Thing the Third

I’m really enjoying some of the recent scholarship on Cyprus. This week, I’ve read Catherine T. Keane’s “Ecclesiastical Economies: The Integration of Sacred and Maritime Topographies of Late Antique Cyprus,” in Religions 12 (2022?). Keane situations Early Christian architecture within its economic and social landscape with particular attention to the coastal location of Christian churches. This, of course, not only contributes my (very slowly) ongoing work at Pyla-Koutsopetria where a church stood on the coast and my work at Polis which has worked to be more attentive to the larger context for the two Early Christian churches in the local landscape. 

I was similarly pleased to discover Simon James, Lucy Blue, Adam Rogers, and Vicki Score’s article “From phantom town to maritime cultural landscape and beyond: Dreamer’s Bay Roman-Byzantine ‘port’, the Akrotiri Peninsula, Cyprus, and eastern Mediterranean maritime communications,” in Levant 52.3 (2020), 337-360. I’ve just started to digest it, but it unpacks another coastal site that we’ve long known about, but have never seen published in a comprehensive or sophisticated way. The article by Simon James et al. looks to be a key step in that direction and the concept of a maritime landscape that is something other than a nucleated settlement is particularly appealing for a site like Koutsopetria which appears to have never developed any of the institutions that one might associated with a formal town or village.

It’ll take me a while to digest both of these rather recent articles, but I’m excited to try to apply some of these authors’ observations to my work on Cyprus.      
 

A Few Travel Notes on a Tour of the COVID-Cooridor

It’s catch-up day on the ole bloggeroo. My apologies for the somewhat erratic posting over the last two weeks. Now that I’m back home from a 5000+ mile road trip through the heart of COVID country, we will return to regularly scheduled programming. 

As part of that, I’d like to offer a few somewhat playful (but also honest) notes about my travels these past few weeks.

1. COVID Conscious. We did not spend the same amount of time in every state that we passed through, although we did spend at least one night in Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama. Of those five states, Alabama was the most mask conscious. In fact, several fast food restaurants where we stopped for some road food had their dining rooms closed to limit the spread of COVID. We ate in places that required masks and most service personnel wore masks. The same was true in St. Louis, but not the case in Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. 

2. Traffic. I was really surprised by how little traffic there was on the roads and generally how easy it was to travel through the southeast (with the exception of South Carolina). One of the more amusing things was noticing that drivers of Nissan Altimas and Chevy Tahoe/Yukons were by far the most aggressive and (to my mind) reckless drivers.

3. Landscapes. Perhaps it’s living in a place that is among the flattest in the world, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the diversity in the landscapes that we saw on our travels. Even traveling by interstate, I became fascinated by the subtle changes in topography and vegetation on our travels. The undulations of central Virginia, the jagged hills of around Birmingham, Alabama, the highway cut into the mountains of West Virginia, and the flat expanse of the Missouri valley in Iowa all struck me as particularly distinct, and while not unexpected, I feel like I appreciated the topography more after over a decade of traveling back and forth across the country largely in an airplane.

4. Seascapes. One of the coolest experiences that I had on my travels was a couple of boat tours of the Roosevelt Channel which runs between the islands of Captiva and Pine Island on the west coast of Florida. In particular I enjoyed a tour given by Brian Holaway who not only demonstrated a remarkable ability to read the landscape of low-lying barrier islands and, as impressively, the seascape of sand bars, channels, and buildings.

For example, I was fascinated by the Punta Gorda Company Ice House in the Safety Harbor off North Captiva Island (PDF of the National Register registration here). Set out on stilts, fishermen would bring their catch to the ice house, which would give them credit and transfer the fish to the mainland for sale. 

IMG 6499

We also cruised by the “Fish House” owned by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and built originally by J.N. “Ding” Darling. Darling who was a political cartoonist and conservationist, built the house in 1942 and the surrounding land as a base for his conservation efforts. It was purchased and is maintained by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation as part of an artist-in-residence program. 

He also took us to a shell mound on the island off Cayo Costa. I assumed that this shell pile might be a midden of some description, but our guide suggested that its size and the uniformity of shells might hint a ritual or ceremonial function. In any event, the site was impressive with large shells tumbling down the mound into the sea:

IMG 6495

5. Listening and Driving. For the first time in my life, I listened to an audio book!! Don’t judge me!! I downloaded Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, The Ministry for the Future (2020). I feel like this book deserves its own blog post, but the audiobook ran for over 20 hours of my 30+ hour drive and provided a distinct soundtrack to the low rumble of my truck’s big diesel engine.

It’s a bit odd not to have a paper (or even digital) book to fall back on for plot points or to check spellings. So I’m not entirely sure what my review will look like, but it probably won’t be any more impressionistic than my usual reviews!  

Three Things Thursday: Blogging, Archaeology and Climate, and Poetry

I’ve reached the point of the summer when all my projects seem to melt together into chaotic ball of deadlines, half-met expectations, and long bikes rides. Needless to say, it has not been very productive.

At the same time, I am having fun thinking about things to blog about and then stretching my morning blogging time well into my second cup of coffee. So this morning, I have three things that might, someday, mature into full blog posts.

Thing the First

Years ago (let’s say 2008), I wrote a piece on the archaeology of blogging (and blogging archaeology) for Archaeology magazine’s website. I returned to some of the ideas in that article with a piece co-written by Andrew Reinhard for Internet Archaeology which considered the place of blogs in the academic ecosystem.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how blogging has changed over the past five years. When I started blogging, I imagined an audience who would be interested in understanding how the [academic] sausage was made. Along those lines, my blog would serve as part idea box, part academic scratch pad, and part preview channel for my various research interests. At my most optimistic, I considered it to be living supplement to my academic CV (with occasional dog photo!) and as a way to move back the veil on how academics produce new knowledge. In any event, it may be that this was an optimistic program from the start, but I continue to think that it has relevance. I suspect that this is even more true for today as the general public has become increasingly invested in understanding how scientific knowledge forms the basis for public policy, authority, and expertise.

That said, I can completely understand how my blog is not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, it seems like public scholarship has two main areas of emphasis. One is works that approach historical problems with a journalistic flair for narrative, description, and analysis. Ed Watt’s recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic fits this category as do works by the likes of Eric Cline or my colleague Eric Burin. These works have the potential to attract the elusive crossover audience that includes both academics and the general public and have emerged as a revenue stream for publishers and scholars alike. This is important at a time when library purchasing power is in decline and faculty salaries have tended to stagnate.

The other major strain in public scholarship, and one that has particular prominence in the blogging community, is politically engaged outreach. This involves writing — often for blogs, but also in more established publications — on both academic issues that have an impact on contemporary society and in efforts to demonstrate how the contemporary political discourse has had an impact on what we do as researchers. I find the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, and the folks who blog at places like Everyday Orientalism (and previously Eidolon) compelling and important voices. At the same time, I recognize that this kind of public outreach often puts you in the crosshairs of the political outrage machine on social media. On the other hand, their work also attracts significant positive attention from readers within and outside the academy and if the goal of public outreach is actually reaching the public, then these authors have succeeded in spades. 

That said, it is a very different kind of blogging than what I envisioned when I started my blog and one wonders whether the changing political and cultural economy of academia has fundamentally transformed the character of outreach and public oriented scholarship? 

Thing the Second

I really enjoyed this article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Karim Alizadeh, M. Rouhollah Mohammadi, Sepideh Maziar, and Mohmmad Feizkhah titled: “The Islamic Conquest or Flooding? Sasanian Settlements and Irrigation Systems Collapse in Mughan, Iranian Azerbaijan.” It is another in the recent gaggle of articles interested in considering the role of climate change in the transformation of settlement and activity in the ancient Mediterranean (broadly construed) landscape. Alizadeh and colleagues look at evidence for fortifications and irrigation systems in the Mughan Steppe region of the Azerbaijan-Iranian borderland.

They argue that the Sassanians constructed a complex network of irrigation canals throughout the region that only faltered as a result of two major flooding events in the 7th century. These floods cut down the Aras River bed making disrupting its relationship to the steppe’s irrigation network. These flooding events may well be connected to changes in climate and hydrology precipitated by the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The subsequent abandonment of settlement in the Mughan Steppe in the late 7th century, then, may not be related to the Muslim Conquests and the arrival of Muslim military forces in the world. Or, alternately, the faltering irrigation may have made the regional less resilient in the face of political and military challenges. 

This kind of work has had me thinking more carefully about the settlement change in Greece in the 7th century and the relationship between climate change, changes in economic structures, and the evident reorganization of Greek rural settlement. While the data that we have for the environmental conditions at the local level remains fragmentary and inconclusive, comparisons with other regions of the Mediterranean give us another reason to resist assuming that political and military events precipitated changes in the settlement and economy.   

Thing the Third

Do go and check out the North Dakota Quarterly blog today. I’ve posted a poem by John Walser titled “Chronoscope 181: And that spot.” It’s a great example of how poetry (and music!) can do things with time that we struggle to accomplish in the more linear world of academic prose. Plus, it’s a perfect poem to read heading into midsummer and thinking about how long days can slow down time and make even the chaotic disorganization of summer feel like something significant… 

WARP 2021 Study Season

The 2021 WARP study season starts tomorrow. This means three things.

First, it means DATA. Like many contemporary archaeological projects and certainly most contemporary surveys, WARP produced a ton of data from its four seasons in the field and three study seasons. Despite spending some quality time with this data each year, it remained a bit provisional as our finds data was refined and updated and our survey unit data was polished. Moreover, as we digitize and analyze maps, we continue to produce more data that can inform our larger analysis. In short, this means a season of sitting in front of my laptop and crunching numbers.

Our biggest goals this season is to determine the main factors that impact artifact recovery rates from our survey area and then attempt to determine whether the variables impact recovery rates in the same way for artifacts from every period. 

Second, it means DISPLACEMENT. Some of my fondest memories of archaeological work do not involve toiling in a trench or slogging through another field looking for sherds. They don’t even involving hiking up a mountain and the rush at “discovering” an undocumented or unpublished fortification. Some of my favorite memories of doing archaeological work involve sitting at my laptop in the tiny room underneath the Marinos house in Ancient Corinth, crunching EKAS data with David Pettegrew. I also have fond memories of working on Polis data on Cyprus while sitting in the Polis storerooms or in the main room of our little apartment in the village.

In both of these cases, we had the ability to go out the door and wander around the excavation area or go and check out a particular unit, situation, or view. I’ve never been one for aimless driving around or hiking or other random outdoorsy activity that I don’t perceive as having a clear goal in mind. I do enjoy, however, checking things out and revisiting sites or scrutinizing problems at a site or in the landscape. The dialogue between the data and sites and landscapes ensures that the data remain tied to experience. In fact, I often think of data that we take with us into the field (either in our minds or quite literally when we check a measurement or test a hypothesis) as embodied data. These data are data that blend seamlessly with the sites themselves.

Of course, this year, like last, we can’t do that. I’m feeling a distinct sense of displacement from the field and it reinforces my idea that data as data, set adrift from a sense of place, loses something significant. 

Finally, no study season can happen without DONUTS. Tomorrow is National Donut Day. My plan is to make a donut pilgrimage to Sandy’s Donuts in Fargo to mark the official start of the WARP study season. 

Small Rural Sites in Cyprus

This weekend I read Catherine Kearns’s and Anna Georgiadou’s recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology (2021): “Rural Complexities: Comparative Investigations at Small Iron Age Sites in South-Central Cyprus.” The article is good for a number of reasons and should be added to any reading list on rural Mediterranean landscapes. If you have time (and are into that kind of thing), you should just go read it.

Without summarizing a fairly short article, Kearns and Georgiadou report on their work at two rural sites which they documented using intensive survey, remote sensing (magnetometry and ground penetrating radar), and targeted excavation. But that’s not all! The site of Kalavasos-Vounaritashi was initially identified by the Vasilikos Valley Survey and the site of Maroni-Vournes by the Maroni-Vournes Archaeological Survey Project. The former took place in the 1970s and 1980s and the latter in the 1990s. Kearns and Georgiadou’s work, then, not only followed recent trends toward examining using more intensive methods small sites initially identified by archaeological survey  (perhaps best exemplified in the Roman Peasant Project) and also reflects a growing interest in rural landscapes defined by small (and sometimes ephemeral) scatters of ceramics. 

Both sites stand in the territory of the city of Amathus in valley that connected copper ore producing area of the Troodos Mountains to the sea and also provided access to timber, gypsum, and undoubtedly agriculturally productive area upon which the city and local communities could draw. These rural sites, however, were not simply economic outposts of the urban center, but also defined regional religious landscapes with shrines, defensive landscapes with military installations, and transportation landscapes with routes and roads. For archaeologists, however, the challenge has been that these landscapes have largely been assumed rather than argued. Unpacking the function of sites in rural landscapes is a long standing challenge for archaeologists as short term or seasonal habitation, short lived religious sites, temporary or periodic fortified locations, and a wide range of small scale production sites can all produce surface assemblages of remarkably similar appearance. Moreover, many small scale rural activities are likely not to appear at all on the surface or blink on and off according to plough zone activity, erosion, and seasonal changes in visibility.

Work like that done by Kearns and Georgiadou plays a key role in not only understanding rural landscapes but also the relationship between surface and sub-surface material in the countryside. What was particularly valuable about this article is that that authors demonstrated how their methods – from survey to remote sensing – did not necessarily produce the kind of obvious correlations between the data collected from the surface and excavation results. In fact, the excavated remains were quite modest (and pretty reminiscent of the results from our first season of excavation on the height of Pyla-Vigla). It strikes me that this kind of transparency in the publication of problem-focused and methodological archaeological field work is pretty valuable.

Finally, the focus of this article on the Cypriot Iron Age reminds me that if I had to do it over again, I might have focused some of my research on this important transitional period on the island. The political coalescing of the Iron Age kingdoms, the changes in rural settlement and economy, and the role that sanctuaries and fortifications played in defining the these kingdoms’ territories offer a brilliant range of significant questions for archaeology. 

One last thing. As far as I can tell, this article also included the first reference to Katie Kearns’s book, which is listed as “in press” with Cambridge University Press. I’m looking forward to reading it:

Kearns, C. In press. The Rural Landscapes of Archaic Cyprus: An Archaeology of Environmental and Social Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.