Three Things Thursday: Survey, Oil, and Mild Anarchism

Every now and then, life happens in threes and that makes me wonder whether I’m blogging about my life or I’m simply living out a series of blog posts. In some ways, I suppose, it doesn’t matter, but it sure makes three things Thursday a bit easier.

My next few days will be focused (such as I can at all these days) on these three things:

Thing the First

My old survey buddy David Pettegrew has put together an article that offers a preliminary analysis of the Medieval material from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey. This is a pretty exciting piece for two reasons. First, at some point in the distant past, it was originally intended to be a chapter of his soon to be completed book on the material from EKAS. When it dropped out of that volume, it wandered a bit in the wilderness before he found a home for it. 

Because these are hectic times for all of us, and writing about archaeology in the best of situations often takes a village, I offered to help get this article into final shape. One of the things that I’m working on is adding hyperlinks to the EKAS data in Open Context. This will allow the reader to drill down into the data from the article text, validate David’s arguments, and ask new questions from the raw material. This could mean looking at the data spatially in new ways, aggregating new assemblages based on material fro the same survey unit, or even connecting this data to other publicly available data sets. 

With David’s permission, I’ll share some of the linked assemblages new week.

Thing the Second

Last year, I wrote a short piece on the archaeology of petroleum production. My buddy Kostis Kourelis is pretty sure that the archaeology of oil will be next big thing. Oil is not only the quintessential modern hyper object, but also represents a type fossil for supermodernity. My article mostly just scratched the surface of the potential of an archaeology of oil as a key component of archaeology of the contemporary world as well as the kind of critical archaeology that offers new ways of understanding the modern age.

Part of the reason for this is because the article is destined for some kind of handbook of the archaeology of plastics. In fact, the editors and reviewers patiently pointed out, my article needed to connect oil and petroleum production to plastic more explicitly throughout. This was a fair point and I’ve been nibbling away at their helpful comments. 

In many ways, their urging that I connect petroleum production to plastics was more than just appropriate for the volume, but also useful for reconsidering oil and petroleum production as the definitive phenomenon of the supermodern world. The ubiquity of plastics in our everyday life is just one example of oil’s central place in our contemporary society. That said, plastic manufacturing and petroleum production rely on shared spatial footprints. The profoundly toxic sites of petroleum refineries attract similarly toxic petrochemical manufacturing plants that churn out the stock from which most new plastics are made. These plastic pellets then find their way into the world through some of the same infrastructure as our gasoline, heating oil, and other forms of petroleum that we use as fuel. In other words, plastic and oil share more than chemical DNA, but also leverage the same infrastructure that allows both to be always at hand in the contemporary world. Stay tuned for a plasticized draft.

Thing the Third

The third thing that I’m working on with a mid-February deadline is the revision of an article on a class that I taught as the centerpiece of the Wesley College Documentation Project. The article celebrated (I admit) the prospects of a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that undermined the increasingly bureaucratized nature of both the modern university and archaeology as an industry. It attempted to embrace many aspects of slow, punk, and anarchist archaeology. Unfortunately, it also appears to have captured some of the more traditional elements of writing about archaeology as well. Namely the congratulatory nature of so many fieldwork publications that elevates the archaeologist from the deeply collaborative space of archaeological knowledge making to the august heights of heroic truth teller. 

This, of course, was the opposite of what my paper was intending to accomplish. I was hoping to celebrate the remarkable creativity that occurred over the course of a spontaneous, place-based, research program freed from much of the administrative oversight that can stifle the simply joy of wandering an abandoned place, thinking about the past, and working together to make sense of a building and its history.

That all said, the reviewers were probably doing me a favor by telling me to temper my congratulatory tone and do what I can to ground my excitement for the project in the dusty and incomplete world of reality. The last thing I want to do is to alienate a reader or conform to some kind of stereotype of ego-driven, tenured, middle aged, truth teller. Stay tuned for an updated and tempered draft. 

Three Things Thursday: Late Antique Corinth, Travel, and End Games

In about 5 days, I return home from my first summer field season in the last three years. It was productive and honestly exhausting even if I never did any real field work and spent most of my time looking at material excavated years ago. Most of our progress, then, hasn’t been revealing or creating new knowledge, but marshalling what already existed into more easily digested forms.

Thing the First

Some of the most useful moments in a field season come from casual conversations over coffee, a meal, or a beer. Last week, my long-time buddy and collaborator, David Pettegrew and I talked about a article that we are writing that surveys research on Late Antique Corinth. The article starts predictably with Oscar Broneer’s famous description of Late Antique Corinth as an “unhappy period of twilight” in his 1954 article on the south stoa.

Within ten years, Dimitrios Pallas unearths the Lechaion basilica, which was among the largest churches in the world in the 6th century. The building was not only architecturally imposing and sophisticated in design, but it was also lavishly adorned with imported marble from imperial quarries. Whatever one thinks of the aesthetics of Early Christian Greece, this building does little to suggest that the city or the region has entered a period of “unhappy twilight.” In fact, the Lechaion church represents just one example of elaborate monumental architecture in the region revealed over the course of the middle decades of the 20th century outside the city of Corinth (and largely, although not exclusively conducted by Greek archaeologists). In this way, interest in the Late Antique city mapped onto the different political and academic agendas pursued by archaeologists with the Americans at Corinth continuing to research the Greek (and Roman) city and the archaeologists in the countryside often working to understand the substantial remains of Late and Post Roman within a different discourse. Archaeologists such as Dimitrios Pallas, for example, sought to locate Early Christian architecture within a continuous tradition of Greek Christianity and, in this context, it less about a twilight of some putative Classical past and more about the emergence of new forms of political, religious, social, and cultural expression both anchored in Classical antiquity and anticipating Medieval and even modern forms of identity. This tension is, of course, bound up in a wide range of commitments that range from the national (or very least broadly political) to the institutional.

Thing the Second

Man, traveling sucks. I spent about four hours in the Athens airport standing in line, sitting in waiting areas, and shuffling amid various crowds of travelers. I was surprised to see the number of American groups in the Athens airport. Most of the groups seemed to be students and there was a palpable excitement surrounding them.

I know it’s not nice to be annoyed by another people’s excitement, but it’s going to take me a while to acclimate to the experience of navigating the traveling public and both ignoring and (whenever possible) avoiding the outward manifestations of other people’s encounters with a new and different world.

On a more positive note, our global COVID sabbatical has certainly made some things more obvious and I wonder whether this will not only require us to re-establish our tolerance for others and consider whether this tolerance is a good thing.

Thing the Third

Now, that I’m back in Cyprus, we have to wrap up the 2022 Polis study season. This involves not only checking the various finds that we’ve catalogued, illustrated, described, and analyzed, as well as going through the massive document that we’ve produced over the last four weeks and figuring out whether all the moving parts work together and make sense.

This is, as you might guess, a pretty miserable task because the best case scenario is that we’re wasting time checking things that don’t need to be checked and worst case scenario triggers frantic work of revision and reassessment. So far, things have been balanced enough not to trigger panic, but also to feel productive. I’m looking forward to sharing some of our work with you next week!

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. 

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Writing, and Hope

Next week is spring break and this means that the semester has only six weeks or so left. It also means that spring deadlines are barreling at me with alarming speed. This is both invigorating and challenging, of course, but I suppose the on-rush of deadlines, overlapping obligations, and complicated priorities is part of what makes academic life is so intoxicating to so many people.

This week’s Three Thing Thursday will focus on spring time and spring semester hope.

Thing the First

I’ve made no secret of my attitude toward hybrid and hyflex teaching this semester. I’ve come to dislike the grid of black boxes that constitute most of my Zoom meetings with students and dividing my attention between faceless and largely unresponsive students on Zoom and face-full and rather more responsive students in the classroom. 

That being said, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the work done by students in my History 101 class. As the number suggests, this class is an introductory level history class with a range of students from freshmen to graduating seniors. They mostly work in groups and do weekly assignments that involve both short form writing (500-1000 word essays) and both the synthesis of secondary source material and the analysis of primary source material.

Because of room capacity restrictions, I meet with each group for only about 40 minutes per week, and during this time, I lay out in detail the weekly work and give detailed feedback on previous assignments. The groups have time to ask questions, get comments clarified, and indulge their curiosity about the weekly subjects. As one might expect, the students are not particularly eager to engage with me during the class sessions, but the work that they’re producing in their groups is among the best that I’ve every encountered in my five or so years of running a class on this basic model. 

In other words, despite the hybrid Zoom situation, despite COVID, and despite all the other challenges of this strange academic year, my students are generally outperforming my classes during more typical semesters. I don’t think this is because I’m doing better as an instructor. I think it’s because the students have started to not only adapt, but also figured out how thrive in this strange learning environment.

Thing the Second 

I’m having fun writing this semester. While I don’t have a tremendous amount of time to commit to sustained writing projects, I’m finding little windows to write and savoring those moments. Right now, I’m trying to finish up the conclusion of my book project. This is a strange thing to write as I don’t want to be so arrogant to suggest that my book resolves in some kind of structured way. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that any kind of resolution offed in the conclusion somehow reflects reality. In other words, I don’t want to ever imply that my book could represent a plausible or totalizing reflection of the world. So, I’m trying to wrap up what I’ve said in my various chapters and then open the book up again to the complexities of the real world. This has turned out to be a challenge!

I’m also starting to work with David Pettegrew on a short piece about the Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. It’s wonderful to dip my toes back into the world of Early Christian archaeology and architecture and familiarize myself with some recent work and some older works that I haven’t looked at since the early 21st century! I’m enjoying thinking about the archaeology and architecture of these buildings with eyes refined by 15 years of more detailed study Early Christian buildings and their contexts. 

Finally, I have lots of bits and bobs projects to finish that involve filling in a little gap here and editing a little thing there. I really have come to enjoy these opportunities to think more carefully about my writing in a narrowly defined context. For so long I’ve struggled to put words on the page in a consistent way and worked to find ways to get over my writers’ block. Now, I feel like I can start to build some habits that allow me to not only write, but even to write reflectively and reflexively.

Thing the Third   

I can’t help feel a certain amount of hope the kind of year. Over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog I posted a couple poems from our forthcoming issue (88.1/2 for those keeping track at home!). The poems speak of the promise of spring (no matter how fragile and fleeting) as well the possibility for hope in a world full of potential. 

At the risk of being maudlin, do go and enjoy some poetry! 

Three Thing Thursday: A Story, an Interview, and a Map

My grades were submitted on Monday, and I made the mistake of thinking that summer would begin now. Alas, the world had other plans with zoom meetings, deadlines, and an endless stream of emails from various administrative accounts across my university.

The good news is that despite the noise, there are plenty of fun things to keep my occupied this summer, and I thought that I’d share a few on an mid-May “Three Things Thursday”:

Thing the First

If you’re like me, you’ve already started to think about how to adapt your classes to another COVID-inflected semester in the fall. It seem highly likely that digital media are going to play a larger role in what you do in the classroom. 

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota chatted a bit with Sebastian Heath about his recent edited volume DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient MediterraneanYou can read the interview with Sebastian here. And you can download the a digital copy of the book, purchase it via Amazon, or from an independent bookstore

Another book that might help you think more broadly about teaching using digital approaches is Shawn Graham’s recently published Failing Gloriously and Other Essays. At a time when it is becoming more and more important that we act in a humane and understanding way toward our students and colleagues, Shawn’s book shines light on failure not as the prelude to triumph, but as a fundamental part of learning and empathy. We also had a long conversation with him that you can read here. You can download it for free here, buy it on Amazon here, or get a copy from an independent bookseller here.

Thing the Second

I’m pretty excited to have posted Shane Castle’s short story “Ursa” at the North Dakota Quarterly blog this morning. During my time as editor, it is one of my favorite stories. 

The thing that makes is so appealing is the ambiguity of it all. Is the story meant to be touching and heartfelt? Is it just an exercise in the absurd? Is it meant to be funny? All these things? 

There’s also something about the story that makes it feel appropriate for our current situation. The story reckons with the experience of coming out of hibernation, memories of our past, pre-COVID life, our efforts to stay connected over distance, and the awkwardness in how we engaged with others. In short, the story is so much of what unusual, non-commercial, and (broadly) experimental fiction can be. 

If you have a few minutes over lunch or while sipping an evening cocktail, give it a read.  

Thing the Third

The final thing this Thursday is a map prepared by a team led by my old buddy David Pettegrew. As I’ve mentioned on a previous Three Thing Thursday, he’s been leading an ambitious project, Digital Harrisburg, designed to create rich historical maps of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This past week, we released yet another update to the maps of Harrisburg’s “Old Eighth Ward” which was an African American neighborhood destroyed to produce the state capital area. Check out the interactive maps here

Needless to say, this project has inspired me to think more critically and dynamically about my own community and how constructing data-rich maps can help us understand our community in the past, but as importantly, in the present. 

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!

Periods and Peasants

David Pettegrew and I are working on a paper (very slowly, I might add) about peasants for a conference next winter. Our current plans are to look at three contexts for peasants: the Isthmia corridor outside of the ancient city of Corinth, a fortified area around a small harbor southeastern coastal of the Corinthia, and a rather more isolated inland valley called Lakka Skoutara in the far southeastern Corinthia.  We plan to approach these three areas through the lens of methodology.  In each area, we conducted intensive pedestrian survey and produced different assemblages. The rural nature of these assemblages qualified the inhabitants of these areas as “peasants” (using an incredible broad definition of this term).

My recent reading of Kathleen Davis’ Periodization and Sovereignty has made me reconsider my ease with such seemingly transhistorical categories like “peasants”.  While I am neither qualified to speak with any authority on ancient, medieval, or even modern peasants, I do recognize that the identification of an individual or group of individuals as peasants is not unproblematic. This is a category rooted, at least in part, in assumptions of pre-modern modes of production, like subsistence agriculture, and various kinds of economic and political relationships associated with these practices.  Peasants play a key role in our definition of the pre-modern and consequently undeveloped world.

The transhistorical category of the peasant, in fact, made it easy for early ethnographers and archaeologists to find parallels between modern Greek “peasant” farmers and their ancient predecessors. This not only provided the foundations for at least some of our understanding how ancient Greeks worked the land, but also (in a circular way) provided a justification for the persistence of ancient Greek culture and practices in the attitudes, practices, and beliefs of 19th and 20th century rural denizens.  In short, the peasant became one of the crucial points of contact between ancient and modern and represented both the stability of the Greek culture and its backwardness.

The question is, of course, what do we as archaeologists do when studying such transhistorical figures as peasants in the ancient landscape? Archaeological approaches traditionally embrace the kind of generalizations that create typologies (and ultimate feeds into periodization schemes both informed by the material culture and also informing our interpretation of objects).  While Davis’ book does not reject the need for periodization schemes, she does insist that we locate these themes historically and understand how they serve to structure power relations in the present.  Our paper leans toward a diachronic reading of peasant landscapes rooted in a particular set of methods which insist on the similarities in material culture among groups living in (demonstrably?) different historical circumstances.

An additional challenge comes from the spatial and material definitions of peasants in the landscape and asks that we mingle the spatial with the chronological in ways that reveal another layer of how we understand the the relationship between the pre-modern and modern worlds.  By writing the rural/urban dichotomy into ancient landscapes and locating the peasant in the rural sphere, we run the risk of isolating rural areas as spaces of historical stability (or even spaces “without history“) and set them against the dynamic culture of the urban.  Thus the rural/urban dichotomy reinforces the division between the developed and the undeveloped while locating the impetus for historical change within the confines of a dynamic urban space capable of modernization.

A Good New Blog for the New Year

I think that there are some important things afoot in the Late Antique and Byzantine blogging community.  Not only is the Byzantine Studies Association of North America looking to enhance its web presence, but the venerable David Pettegrew appears to have made a serious commitment to blogging his ongoing research on all things Corinthian.  Check out his blog here.

Most recently, his blog has featured translations of Niketas Ooryphas dragging his fleet over the Isthmus in the 9th century. Apparently he was an admiral in the Byzantine navy who was tasked with the suppressing the Arab navy that had held Crete since the 820s.  David took the time to translate the text from Theophanes Continuatus that describes the dragging of Niketas’ navy over the Isthmus and, few days later, supplemented this translation with translations of related texts from Kedrenos and Skylitzes.

I’ll offer three random observations on these texts:

1. Baptism and the Flesh.  At the conclusion of all three texts Niketas tortures apostate Christians captured from the Cretan fleet by flaying them alive or by dipping them in kettles of boiling pitch.  Niketas explained the former punished by “saying that this skin that was separated from them was not their own.” The latter had obvious parallels with Christian practices of immersion.  In both cases the spiritual rite of baptism was completely inverted and positioned as a physical ritual.

2. Nostaligia in 9th century in Greece. Niketas actions fit into a larger pattern of nostalgic behavior in 9th century Greece.  By dragging his fleet across the Isthmus, Niketas re-enacted the heroic deeds of earlier admirals.  In this way, they remind me, broadly, of the work of Paul of Monemvasia which looked back to traditions of the desert fathers to edify residents of his Peloponnesian city.  They also remind me of the deeds of another Niketas who wrote the Life of Theoktiste of Lesbos blending the Early Christian story of Mary of Egypt with references to Homer, Thucydides, as well as the Early Christian Church Fathers.

3. Blogged Translations. David and I have talked a bunch about blogging lately, and our conversations have focused on the idea that our jobs as academic is to create and disseminating knowledge. Blogs (as short hand for any online, self-published, environment) make it easy to distribute texts that fall awkwardly at the margins of traditional academic correspondence.  Translations are a perfect example of these kinds of texts that are not substantial or analytical enough to fit into a peer review publication, but nevertheless play a key role in the study of Ancient and Medieval society. David’s blog is a great example of how a scholar can disseminate knowledge that might otherwise be lost in a peer-reviewed, final publication.