New Work at Isthmia: Old Excavations, Traces, and Memory

I was thrilled to see Jon Frey and Tim Gregory publish a lengthy article on their ongoing research at the site of Isthmia in Greece. In “Old Excavations, New Interpretations: The 2008–2013 Seasons of The Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia” (Hesperia 85 (2016) 437-490), Frey and Gregory re-examine decades old excavations around the Roman Bath and the Hexamilion wall at the Panhellenic sanctuary of Isthmia in the eastern Corinthia.

The article is remarkably rich and detailed (in the way that Hesperia articles can be) so there’s not much point for me to try to summarize it. Frey and Gregory identify some new buildings, they add to our scant knowledge about the earliest Roman phases of the re-established sanctuary, and, in general, offer evidence that makes Isthmia look more like a Panhellenic sanctuary. What is more interesting to me, is the big picture value of their work as a model for approaching older excavations without conducting massive new field work campaigns. Since I’ve started working at the site of Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus where we have worked to publish 30-year old excavations, I’ve become convinced that the future of Mediterranean archaeology is in returning to old sites with new perspectives, questions, and technology.

So here are a few observations.

1. Notebooks. Excavation produce so much information ranging from physical evidence (architecture, ceramics, scarps) to illustrations and plans and notebooks. It is hardly surprising that these artifacts can support multiple interpretations of the history and archeology of a site. This kind of work reminds us that there is not a linear relationship between excavation “data” and archaeological knowledge production. Archaeological documentation is messy, copious, and complex making old excavations not “done deals,” but abundant sources for new interpretations and new analysis. 

2. Trenches. Frey and Gregory returned to trenches that had been excavated and neglected for decades. I visited Frey a few times while he was removing weeds and straightening scarps in a trench that I had walked by dozens of times without thinking much of it. His work in these trenches, however, revealed features that the original excavators overlooked allowed for new measurements, and recognized details that had received only inconsistent reporting. For example, he recognized evidence for looter pits that the original excavators had missed, connected architectural features across multiple trenches at the site to reveal an massive porticoed gymnasium building, and identified new evidence for early Roman work at the site that previous excavators had no reason to even note in their work.

When I first started working on the notebooks at Polis-Chrysochous, I had this naive idea that I could largely reconstruct the excavation of the site from the notebooks and various plans. As archaeologists, we imagine that our documentation preserves the site even as we “destroy” physical evidence through excavation. In fact, “preservation by record” policies reflect this basic assumption about how archaeology works. A recent article, for example, celebrates this very idea and suggests that digitization will help us overcome the reality with the title: “Excavation is Destruction Digitization.” Most archaeologists know, however, that archaeological excavation is not really destruction, but the production of archaeological knowledge. While field work will always will come at a cost (both literally and figuratively in the reorganization and physical displacement of material), it seems to me that the disciplinary arguments for excavation as destruction do more to occlude alternate interpretation grounded (literally!) in the same space and documentation than to discourage careless digging. After all, the irregularities in the excavation methods used even 30 years ago at Polis are as much a source for the sites interpretation potential and vitality as carefully excavated sites present their interpretations as the natural outgrowth of rigorous methods. There’s a certain irony that sites excavated in less rigorous ways then have the potential to create more archaeological foment than those produced through the hyper-confidence of methodological rigor. Isthmia would seem to be a good example of this.

3. Memory and Architecture. Jon Frey has done significant work on the study of spolia and construction practice in Late Antiquity (we talked to him about his book on the Caraheard podcast here). Lurking in the background of this article on Isthmia is the ghostly outline of a massive porticoed gymnasium associated with athletic events at the Panhellenic sanctuary. Frey argues that the Hexamilion wall, the massive 5th-century AD fortification wall that bisected the Isthmus of Corinth, followed the outline of the gymnasium and incorporated not only spolia from this building, but also part of its foundations and walls. The reasons for this would appear to be profoundly practical. The Hexamilion was a massive building project and any opportunities to take advantage of existing structures offered significant labor savings. The use of part of the gymnasium, then, reflected the practical realities of such a massive construction project, but at the same time, it the course of the wall preserved the imprint of the gymnasium through spolia and its shape.

I have tended to think of memory in antiquity as a conscious act to commemorate an earlier monument, ritual, event, or person. In the context of Isthmia, it may be that memory of the earlier monument is less a conscious act and more like the muscle memories that we develop as we type, ride a bike, or even go about our daily lives. We remember how to hit the brake pedal at a stoplight, but we don’t consciously think “I remember last time I was hear I moved my right foot juuuuust so to slow down the car.” Instead, we just act and move in a way that consistently produces certain results. The practical element of memory preserve the outline of an earlier building in the same way that a palimpsest preserved the record of an earlier text. This commemorative practice was not bound up in a series of conscious efforts to preserve the past, but in a kind of muscle memory embodied in the practice and contingencies of construction.

Just as excavations and their documentation produce evidence for past practices that do not necessarily lead inevitably to certain conclusions, construction practices in antiquity preserve the traces of past landscapes in unexpected and perhaps even unintentional ways. Frey and Gregory weave together these two kinds of practices – one modern and one ancient – in a paper that should serve as a model for archaeological work at old sites in the present.

Act Like You’ve Done It Before! My First Review

I know I should act like I’ve done this before, but I am extraordinarily (and maybe inappropriately) excited to report that a book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota got its first review. Karl Jacob Skarstein’s The War with the Sioux was reviewed in North Dakota History.

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Ironically, the review appears in a paper only journal, but I, nevertheless, appreciate the attention for the book. The reviewer had particularly nice things to say about the contributions from Richard Rothaus, Dakota Goodhouse, and our translators who worked hard to situation the book historiographically and culturally. 

So go and download a free digital copy and see for yourself. Or buy one on Amazon!

(We’re so close to 1000 copies in circulation!)

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

As the Frog Days of summer are upon us and the semester looms, it feels like the calm before the storm. The days and nights are warm here in North Dakotaland even if the mosquitos are fierce and the days are growing shorter. Campus is just starting to come back to life and the community feels like its bracing for the arrival of students and the new tradition of budget cuts and aggrieved letters in the local papers. There’s some talk about elections, the Olympics, and baseball, but even that seems to lack urgency in the dying days of summer. That might be a good thing.

So join me in relaxing and doing nothing in particular, with a little gaggle of quick hits are varia: 

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Maps and Space in an Untextbook

Over the past month or so, I’ve been putting together some material – partly a proposal and partly some content – for a guide to producing an untextbook. I’ve struggled a bit with how I should voice it. My section on sources for the textbook, for example, spoke to students directly. My section on time, however, spoke to the issues of time in teaching survey-level history courses more broadly. The book would be designed for active learning and scale-up style classrooms like where I teach my Western Civilization I class at the University of North Dakota.

Last week, I suggested that time is a challenge for students who retain a century-old phobia about names and dates and for whom periodization schemes too often appear to be self-evident and lack clear connection to historical arguments. Space and maps are also vexing for students who are not always as familiar with European geography as we could hope. Traditional textbooks offer maps usually with each chapter, and these maps are useful guides to events and places from a particular period, but are less successful in conveying change through time or connecting ancient places to the modern geography. The goal for this exercise is for students to build maps rather than to simply memorize or study them. The process of building maps also allow students to think actively about how to present spatial relationships through time.  

Fortunately, we have a number of new tools that make producing, sharing, and using maps easier for students. First, Wikipedia provides a massive quantity of geographic data that can be used in any number of free mapping programs. Here’s the coordinates in various mapping formats for Ancient Corinth in Greece. For ancient sites, like Pompeii or Olynthus, the plans of the cities are clearly visible. Major sites, like the Colosseum in Rome or the Athenian Agora, are visible and loosely understandable on Google Earth as well. The key for students, however, is not just to locate famous places but to recognize that the map serves as evidence for making historical arguments.

Google Earth

The easiest and perhaps most familiar mapping application to students is Google Earth. It is easy to create maps of ancient and Medieval places in Google Earth, and because Google Earth is a composite of contemporary satellite images and includes a significant amount of modern geographical data (i.e. national borders, cities, modern roads, et c.), these ancient places are set in relation to the modern world. Students can easily build maps of places, regions, and even individual monuments in Google Earth and share them as super portable KML files with their peers. Each chapter, then, in the untextbook would have a KML file that contains places and spaces for each chapter. These files can be loaded into Google Earth and made visible or invisible to create new maps and new relationships.

None of this technology is new and that should make the practice of constructing maps and marking places and regions easy for students. The practice of creating maps pushes students to think about how they represent spatial relationships and how these spatial relationships and locations support historical arguments.

Pyla-Koustopetria Archaeology Project: Churning On

This blog began – back in 2005 or whenever – to share news from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project with our various friends, supporters, and colleagues. Since that time, I’ve written well over 100 posts on various PKAP related topics both on this blog and in the archive. It’s a bit sobering to realize that I haven’t posted about PKAP for so long, but since David Pettegrew, Scott Moore, and I have spent the last few weeks working on PKAP related materials, it seems like a fine time for an update.

J74701 Pyla Koutsopetria 1993 Ar I

We are working to prepare a complete draft of the excavations at the site. The PKAP team conducted three seasons of targeted excavation at the sites of Pyla-Vigla, Pyla-Koutsopetria, and (in a rather strange situation) at Pyla-Kokkinokremos. We are working to publish the results of our work at Pyla-Vigla and Pyla-Koutsopetria and the description of the stratigraphy and phases associated with our work is largely done. Pyla-Vigla is a Hellenistic fortified site with three very clear phases. Koutsopetria is an Early Christian basilica. 

We are also working to publish the results from two earlier campaigns of excavation at the site of Koutsopetria by Maria Hadjicosti and the Department of Antiquities in 1993 and 1999. During these campaigns an annex room (Room 1) and part of the apse of the basilica were exposed. This is a more complicated project since we do not have the excavation notebooks (if they ever existed) for the project, but have a record of inventoried finds and the context pottery from the various excavated context. Ordinarily this would be a massive challenge for anyone trying to reconstruct the stratigraphy and phases of the building, but we had two advantages. First, we had David Pettegrew’s meticulous patience and willingness to solve archaeological problems. He went through the all of the records that we do have – mainly elevations and horizontal grid coordinates. – and created a series of plausible levels and passes. The other advantage was that the excavations mostly removed collapse and encountered only very small lenses that can be associated with the site’s pre-collapse abandonment. Complementing David’s work is analysis of ceramic artifacts by R. Scott Moore and the analysis of the painted plaster, molded gypsum, and various architectural fragments by Sarah Lepinski. 

For my part, I’ve taken David’s careful analysis and combined it with the Scott Moore and Sarah Lepinski’s work to produce a narrative of the building excavated over 20 years ago. The results so far have been intriguing. Here are a few little things:

1. Abandonment. It seems almost certain that Room 1 was largely abandoned at the time of collapse, but the absence of material later than the first half of the 7th-century suggests that it wasn’t abandoned for very long. The presence of several almost complete artifacts – including an African Red Slip 105 plate – on the floor of Room 1 hint that some material remained scattered about the space. Graffiti incised on architectural features perhaps indicates that the room had acquired a more casual function toward the end of its life.

2. Collapse. Room 1 appears to have collapsed to the south. Roof tiles appear immediately above the floor on the southern third of the room suggesting that the roof and the second story slid fell onto the floor perhaps as the south wall of the room fell to the south. The northern part of the room has more debris above the floor and fewer tiles made it to the floor level, likewise suggesting that the north wall collapsed into the room toward the south pushing the roof into the southern part of the room.

3. Residual Sherds. One of the coolest things about the levels excavated in 1993 is that they produced not only some relatively well-preserved Late Roman artifacts, but also a significant quantity of earlier material. Most of this earlier material – including easily identifiable Early Roman and Hellenistic fine wares – appears only as tiny sherds, typically smaller than 10 grams in weight. It would appear that most of this earlier material came from the coarse mortar used in the walls of Room 1 and in the packing associated with the floor of the second story. As we appreciated this residual assemblage of pottery deriving from various construction contexts in the building, we got to wonder about the scatter of Early Roman and Hellenistic pottery identified in the survey of the region and how much of that material might come from similarly residual contexts.

There is obviously much more that we can say about the excavations and as we pull together the finds, the phases, and the architecture. So stay tuned!

Breaking the Book

Richard Rothaus recommended that I check out Laura Mandell’s Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age (2015) and his suggestion was a good one. Mandell’s short book is fashioned a manifesto, but it explores the impact that book culture has had on the humanities from the 18th to the 21st century. For Mandell, book culture exists at the intersection of the physical character of the book, and the various practices that grew up around the production and consumption of books. 

Her arguments are intricate and I probably can’t do them justice in a relatively short post, but she argues that the practices and conventions that emerged over the 19th century created a print culture that transformed how books appeared and how they produced meaning. By the 20th century, the consistent appearance of the book contributed to the authority of the printed word and the perceived value of the academic monograph (or even the academic article) as a marker of intellectual and scholarly achievement in the humanities. The physical appearance of the printed book and the emergence of mass-printed books and journals shaped the way that the words and arguments on their pages worked.

Mandell argued convincingly that books contributed to a kind of elite culture that distinguished itself from the spoken language. Over the course of the 18th century, printed books became more stable entities with authors making fewer changes to their texts between printings and readers no longer being an intimate circle who had the responsibility to comment upon, revise, and improve the printed texts for the authors. As print runs increased, the number of readers increased, and the familiarity between the author and his or her audience decreased, texts became more and more stable and acquired greater authority. The separation of the author from the audience contributed to a sense of distant, impartial, and dispassionate associated with the text. 

Our current preoccupations with the persistence and permanence of the books and texts is not somehow intrinsic in their form, but developed alongside practices of reading and printing. Any argument for the persistence and stability of print culture runs counter to the prevailing attitudes toward texts in our post modern era. We tend to see texts and sentences and words deriving meaning from their relationship with other texts, sentences, and words within similar discursive formations. In other words, while books convey as sense of permanence and immutability, the texts within them are anything but. Printed books, however, confuse this permeability of texts with the permanence of form, and this contributes to the myth that the humanities are set apart from everyday knowledge. That a book is somehow worth more than a conversation, a lecture, or any number of more ephemeral forms of communication. Mandell does a nice job demonstrating how the ossification of book culture over the course of the 19th century drove a wedge between popular attitudes toward the humanities and the emerging culture of professional academia. Academics used books to create enduring monuments to learning whereas popular culture was ephemeral and disposable. 

In the end, Mandell argues that digital practices and tools have already started to transform the nature of book culture and print humanities, but this book does not advocate for a kind of technological solutionism or celebrate a digital revolution. Instead, by establishing the context for the development of print culture,  Mandell undermines any notion that the print humanities needs book or even that books – as constituted by their development in the 18th and 19th centuries – have any singular claim to authority. In fact, digital reading practices that allow texts to be broken open, recombined, undermined, piled upon, distributed and disturbed, is one salutary step toward breaking the book and making the humanities more accessible. 

A Little Secret Hemingway (and some Tom McGrath too).

Last week, the managing editor at North Dakota Quarterly mentioned that a few folks were inquiring about whether they could pull together all of the articles and special editions on Hemingway published by NDQ over the past 30 years. It so happens that Robert W. Lewis, the long-time editor of the Quarterly, was Hemingway expert and under his leadership, NDQ became an leading outlet for scholars of Hemingway. These folks wanted to publish an edited volume that made the most significant contributions to NDQ available to a wider audience and to add a new introduction and some editorial comments.

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Fortunately, by releasing most of the NDQ to the world under an open license, folks are free to do with it what they please. At the same time, we’re happy enough to lend a hand and to make the more significant contributions to the journal accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

So go and check out North Dakota Quarterly’s contributions to our reading of Ernest Hemingway. I haven’t made the NDQ page live yet on their website, but I likely will this week. 

And while you’re at it, check out the publications of poet and essayist Tom McGrath as well. This year is the centennial of his birth and NDQ will celebrate him with a volume dedicated to his legacy. 

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Friday Varia and Quick Hits

After a muggy week here in North Dakotaland, this weekend looks to be beautiful and dry. The hum of the mosquito spraying truck last night even suggests that we might have a night or two free of those biting pests.

With the F1 guys on their summer break, the intriguing Phillies on the west coast, and the Australian cricket team refusing to play in a normal way, we’ll settle for watching NASCAR at the ‘Glen this weekend. I’ve heard there are other events this weekend too.  

Hope your weekend has as much promise as ours!

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Time and the UnTextbook

The semester is looming and as per usual, I have discovered that I forgot to order textbook for my History 101: Western Civilization course. Fortunately, textbooks are not a vital cog in this course and the texts that I tend to use are fairly common.  Because I teach the course in the university’s large Scale-Up style, active learning classroom, students have ample opportunities to share books, can find search the web for key content, and spend as much time producing text than reading it. 

As readers of this blog know, I have been puttering around on two textbook projects for the last few years. One is a fairly conventional history textbook and the other is taking shape as an untextbook that leads students through the process of pulling apart conventional history texts and writing their own. I’ve been blogging my effort to pull together my various notes on this second textbook project. Two weeks ago, I wrote up a short section on sources for history. This week I deal with time, chronology, and periodization.

I haven’t quite decided whether this project will work alongside a conventional textbook or whether this untextbook will replace it entirely. Since I use an assortment of textbooks in my course, this part of the untextbook project asks students to not only critique their textbook, but also to begin to uses dates to frame their own arguments.

It’s rough, but it’s something:

Time is the medium in which history happens, but chronology represents a unique challenge to students. Some of this stems from the long-standing fear of having to memorize names and dates. Historically, survey courses courses have managed chronology in various ways. In many cases, particularly for World History and Western Civilization, topical approaches have trumped chronology as an organizing element in textbook and classroom narratives. For example, despite the contemporaneity of the Hellenistic period and the Roman Republic, they often appear in different chapters. As the goal of this class is for students to create a textbook, one of the priorities for this work is to understand how chronological conventions and periodization schemes shapes the way in which we understand the past.

At the highest level, this section unpacks the assumptions (and historical circumstances) that created the BC/AD (or BCE/CE) convention in annual dating. Some of this involves the simple recognition that BC/AD dating was not used by most of the societies that we study in the course. Then, in a slightly complex register, we can discuss how Christian dating conventions and reflect our own distinctly Western approach to organizing historical time. As a start, we can, then, demonstrate that even our most basic chronological conventions depend on historical and cultural circumstances.

Approaching chronology at a slightly more complex level involves introducing students to the basic periodizing conventions common in the student of the premodern West. For example, students should understand that the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean depend in large part on material culture difference. Whereas scholars have defined the the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods in Greek history on the basis of historical events. Likewise, historians divide the Roman world into the Roman Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, but, much to students’ consternation the Roman Republic controlled an empire. In each case, divisions between the early, middle, and late carry judgements that speak to traditional views of the birth, life, and death of particular social, political, and cultural practices. Understanding the distinction between the Early Medieval, High Medieval, and Late Medieval period requires an understanding of both political and larger cultural contexts further complicating the superficially simple tripartite periodization schemes that tend to dominate high-level historical periodization.

Unpacking the scholarly and political conventions behind these periodization schemes allows students to recognize some of the decisions that textbook authors make when organizing their content. This forms the basis for a timeline exercise that starts with students preparing a timeline on the basis of the information in their textbook(s). For a single chapter, students should make a timeline of the important events, dates, and periods from their textbook? What do these names and dates tell us about the priorities of the textbook authors?

Alternately, students could be asked to make a timeline on the basis of a traditional historical question. I’ve used two:

1. How did the Athenian democracy accommodate the challenges of the Athenian Empire?
2. What caused the fall of the Roman Republic?

The first question required students to pull apart Thucydides narrative of the Peloponnesian War (usually on the basis of the Funeral Oration of Pericles, the Melian Dialogue, and the the Mytilenean Debate) and interleave it with historical events from their textbooks or another source. The second question has a greater emphasis on historical causality and pushes students to sort through the complex series of events that led to fall of the Roman Republic as well as traditional sources that critique the Republic’s decline (involving brief excerpts from Sallust and Tacitus and Augustus’s Res Gestae). Both exercises push students to understand to connect chronology with arguments and this contributes to a more general appreciation of the how periodization schemes reflect the arguments that scholars have made about the past.

Introducing Graduate Students to Graduate School

Last year I became the director of graduate studies for the history department at the University of North Dakota. This was not a natural fit as I have had relatively few graduate students during my 10+ years at UND and few of them earned their M.A. without some kind of drama. That being said, we’re a small department and everyone has to take their turn doing departmental service.

As part of my responsibilities as graduate director, I both introduce the students the administrative and bureaucratic side of graduate school through a one-hour meeting, but also run our required graduate methods course which introduces students to historical methods and some advanced research and writing skills. For the latter course, about a third of it is occupied by guest lectures from my colleagues. The rest of the course – say 10 sessions – focuses on big picture issues that face all graduate students.

Here are my topics and some of my readings. I’m open to additions and suggestions particularly for the section on the public humanities and history in the public sphere. I’m looking for something general and sophisticated (and not just “we need to talk to the public more…). Thoughts?

1. Perspectives on Graduate Education in the 21st Century:

Reading:
L. Cassuto, The Graduate School Mess. 2015. (I have mixed feelings about this book.)

2. Perspectives on History and the Humanities in the 21st Century

Reading:
G. Gordon and F. Mohamed, A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Higher Education. 2015. 
Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto. 2015. (My thought here.)

3. Advanced Library Research

4. Reading and Writing I: The Article Review

5. Developing a Digital Workflow

Reading: 
Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, Writing History in the Digital Age. 2013.

6. Reading and Writing II: The Book Review

7. Public Humanities and History in the Public Sphere

Reading: TBA 

8. Reading and Writing III: The Prospectus

9. Alt-Ac Careers and Professional Development

Reading: A. Grafton and J. Grossman, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History,” Perspectives (October 2011).

10. Time Management and Work/Life Balance

Reading: M. Berg and B. Seeber, The Slow Professor. 2016. (My ambivalent thoughts here and here.)