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.