Some reflections on ‘the state of the field’ in 2023

I just got back from an exhilarating two days at the Joukowsky Institute’s “State of the Field” of Mediterranean archaeology workshop, which was entitled “Archaeologies of the Mediterranean.” I served as the discussant, which I was a little worried about, because (a) my work is pretty strongly centered on Greece and I don’t have much expertise when it comes to big parts of Mediterranean archaeology and (b) I’ve never considered myself especially good at coming up with intelligent things in the moment; I’m the person who thinks of smart things that I could have said after the seminar’s over. Nevertheless, I did come up with some observations in the moment that I think were useful to the other participants in the workshop that reflected some of the common critical concerns of the talks; I tried especially to tie together the main points of the keynote lectures by Lin Foxhall and Lisa Fentress on the afternoon of the first day with the other lectures on the second day.

  1. Language: Fentress emphasized the importance of knowing (modern) languages and what it means for scholarly exchange and collaboration and (especially) friendship. If we don’t speak each other languages, then we have a kind of disconnectivity of the archaeologies of the Mediterranean, and the continuation of colonial practices, where foreign projects are unintegrated into the archaeological discourses and traditions of the host country. I was reminded of the fact that when the Journal of Greek Archaeology was founded in 2015, it announced that it would allow articles in English, French, German and Italian, but not in Greek. Many of us got extremely angry, and the policy was changed: to English-language only! One major topic of conversation was the problem of the domineering position of English in the field, especially among English speakers.
  2. Representation: One recurring issue was that of representation. I discussed briefly the results of a study (which I co-authored with Laura Heath-Stout and Grace Erny) about the demographics of publication in the American Journal of Archaeology, which showed that our field was not only extremely white, but also educationally (and thus probably socioeconomically) elite. Several authors had discussed the role of journals in encouraging a more diverse set of viewpoints, and those programs are wonderful, but they cannot address the leaky pipeline that drives people out of the field before they are in a position to submit their work to journals. Here I should have also mentioned continuing issues of gender equity in the field; in some ways archaeology hasn’t changed much since Joan Gero began writing about these issues in the 1980s.
  3. Practices: Foxhall rightly emphasized the transformational impact that archaeological survey (and associated approaches and practices) had on the field of Mediterranean archaeology: it fundamentally changed the way that we think about place and time, and opened up study to periods that had been terribly ignored in the old-school Classical archaeology that dominated the field when Foxhall was educated. That got me thinking about what kinds of practices and approaches had similar impacts in the present (or could have in the future). What immediately came to mind was the archaeology of the contemporary world and the way that it has changed the way we define the aims of the field and our ethical engagements with the present.
  4. Categories: Many of the talks emphasized their struggles with basic categories such as periodization and cultural categories. This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, too, and we seem to be on the cusp of overthrowing many of these basic categories that have driven and shaped our work for the entirety of the 20th century.
  5. Narrative and data: Many of the talks seemed frustrated by the lack of major narrative shifts in the face of massive changes in our dataset. Foxhall expressed frustration at the way that the Mediterranean has been synthesized (while also noting that all of the syntheses were written by men); I have long been frustrated by the fact that in Greece we keep jamming our data into the same basic narratives that emerged in the 1950s, when our empirical understanding of so many issues was in its infancy. Many of the talks took critical steps towards new types of narratives and approaches that unlock the massive build-up of evidence that we have unearthed.
  6. Collaboration: I was struck by how many papers were the products of new kinds of collaboration and authorship that are non-hierarchical and collective in orientation. This was especially on my mind because on the way to and from the workshop I was reading the excellent Archaeological Theory in Dialogue (2021), which is a mix of dialogue and edited volume by a small group of scholars. We have long known that archaeology is a collective endeavor, a far cry from the “heroic archaeology” that characterized earlier work, but our publications have often taken the form of traditional single-authored books and articles (even when they are multi-authored, they have the look and feel of a single-authored work). It was inspiring to see new forms of collaboration and publication. As was pointed out to me afterward, however, it is difficult for junior scholars to adopt such innovative methods of publication, since the standard for tenure and promotion remains traditional monographs and articles; this is something that we need to try to address.
  7. Institutions: Fentress observed that “big digs” are a problem in Mediterranean archaeology: they tend to be top-down, hierarchical, text-based, urban, and they are often intellectual prisons: ideas do not go out and do not come in. I added that the same is true of other big institutions in Mediterranean archaeology: like the big digs, they are the product of colonial dynamics and often continue to operate as such. As Yannis Hamilakis has noted, they are often the most conservative organizations in the field. Since we all agreed that what we need are not just more conferences talking about the state of the field but transformative actions, I asked the group what we should do about these institutions. How do we change them so that they respond to 21st-century realities? The obvious answer is to make small changes from the inside, small tweaks in the short term that produce long-term improvements to their operation — what I called the “It’s getting better all the time” model. Or do we burn it all down and start all over again?
Mycenae, Argos and the Argive plain as seen from Profitis Ilias


Double tap

[Authorial note: I edited this post on 15 October 2021 to remove some discussions that were misleading or uncollegial; they were not critical to the argument.]

I’ve been thinking about ways to structure a paper that I’m giving in May 2022, and one thing that keeps swirling around my head is the “double tap” rule from the movie Zombieland. Basically, the rule is to make sure that the zombie is really truly dead by following the first strike with a second, preferably at point blank range.

The idea of the double tap is interesting to me because of the way that a lot of academic discourse works: categories are constructed and periodizations are built in an early period of scholarly work. These classificatory systems may be built on a foundation of scientific racism. Later work rejects the explicit racism, but retains the classifications, which allow new racisms to thrive. That’s why we need an academic double tap.

The best example of this in archaeology has to do with the culture concept, the idea that an archaeological culture was “a bounded, homogeneous entity which ‘more or less’ corresponded with a comparable social unit – a people, an ethnic group and, in some cases, a race” (so Gavin Lucas in his 2001 book Critical Approaches to Fieldwork, p. 121). This notion of culture, common before the 1960s, was subjected to the withering critiques of the New Archaeology in the 1960s. But, because such ‘cultures’ remained in common use as ways to organize archaeological work, the concepts survived. As Lucas (123) puts it, “in many ways the use of culture classifications… continued – and continues in practice with little thought for what this might mean.” The casual and uncritical use of such culture concepts has allowed for new kinds of racisms. I imagine that my paper in May will make some such argument.

This train of thought was brought to my attention while I was reading an article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly entitled “The Color of Classics,” specifically this passage:

To some, these changes [to Classics scholarship since the 1970s] suggest that the current critique is overblown, a response to contemporary racial concerns rather than to anything happening now in the discipline itself. Although much criticism of the field’s history is valid, “they’re points that have been made for decades, and, for the most part, dealt with for decades,” says a U.K.-based scholar who requested anonymity to avoid online vitriol. “No serious classicist thinks that you should draw a line around the Greeks and Romans.”

No serious classicist thinks that you should draw a line around the Greeks and Romans. I mean, sure, I guess. If you went around asking Classicists (the serious ones only of course) “Should we draw a line around the Greeks and the Romans?” then most would presumably say “No.” But that doesn’t change the fact that a huge proportion of our scholarly tools, our institutional structures, what we read, what we cite, do draw a line around the Greeks and Romans. We have departments of Classics and Greek & Latin. Our reading lists for graduate students are composed of texts written in Greek and Latin. Most Classics departments don’t go beyond the Greeks and the Romans in any meaningful way; hiring practices remain focused on hiring faculty who work on the ancient world and Greeks and/or Romans.

One could argue that although we don’t want to draw lines, we do need to have professional competencies. In Classics those generally take the form of a mastery over a canon of ancient texts, which students are meant to have read in the original languages (hence the reading lists), and a general understanding of the historical development of the literary cultures that produced the canon. This is why even prehistoric archaeologists are routinely required to achieve mastery over both Greek and Latin; to be a Classicist is to know the canon. The reason for this is primarily teaching: to get hired in a Classics department, one needs to be able to teach the languages and literatures. But why should that be true? Could it be because we’ve drawn a line around the Greeks and the Romans, and put a literary canon at the center of that enterprise?

I once commented to my brother, a linguistic anthropologist, that it was strange that Classics wasn’t more interested in literary theory. After all, I reasoned, if you’re working on the same text as hundreds of others of scholars over centuries, you might want to find new questions to differentiate yourself from everyone else. He replied that the focus on theory in anthropology had to do with what anthropologists have in common; if he gives a talk about Tamil cinema and youth culture, he can probably assume that very few people in the room have been to Tamil Nadu or seen a Tamil film, but most everyone in the room will have read Michael Silverstein’s stuff. In Classics, what we have in common is that we’ve all (supposed to have) read the canon in the original ancient languages, so we end up talking about those texts ad infinitum. The Classics joke that there’s nothing new under the sun because any argument has probably already been made in a 19th century German dissertation… there’s a reason that it’s a joke in Classics and in no other discipline.

My point is simply that the anonymous UK-based scholar who said that “No serious classicist thinks that you should draw a line around the Greeks and Romans” is missing the point. We have already drawn lines around the Greeks and the Romans. The evidence is everywhere, from the way that the ancient Mediterranean world is defined (Greco-Roman) to the types of training we require of our students. We can try to incorporate other approaches, to look to non-Greek and non-Roman communities to study, but so long as the structures remain the same, our gains will be at best marginal, for a whole host of reasons. In fact, I’d argue that our problems run even deeper. Consider how many American archaeologists work in Greece compared to other modern nations that have Greek stuff, how often work in Turkey or Cyprus is considered marginal to the project of Greek archaeology. We can’t even study the Greco-Roman world in a normal way, so great is the lure of Athens and Rome, of the Greek and Italian peninsulas, of the desire to connect stuff to canonical texts.

This is all to say that I think that Dan-el Padilla Peralta is right to want to “explode the canon.” As long as we draw lines around the Greeks and Romans in the ways that we have, our attempts to escape from our own self-made prison will ultimately be failures. I don’t think that it necessarily follows, however, that Classics is a doomed enterprise and that our departments should be eliminated and their faculties redistributed, as Scheidel has suggested. It does follow that we need to find a different way to define what we do, and that’s going to be hard work, because Classics (or whatever we call it) at its best isn’t all about the ancient world (reception!), or the Greco-Roman world (Persia!), or the Mediterranean world (Britain!). These labels are insufficient to contain the discipline. I suspect that we need more presentism to escape from our prison, but that’s another argument altogether.

HD Cameron, 1934-2021

Just over two weeks ago, I learned that HD Cameron, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan, had passed away on July 17th. You can read a wonderful tribute to him written by Professor Ben Forston here.

Professor Cameron was the best teacher I had at the University of Michigan. If you talk to a few Michigan grads, you’ll hear them say the same thing. For decades Cameron taught the Great Books courses that were required for first-year Honors students at Michigan. I’ve run into multiple Michigan grads who, when I told them that I studied Classics, immediately started gushing about Cameron. One told me how vividly she remembered the first lecture that Cameron gave in her first year, in fact the very first lecture of her college career. When I reached out to some friends to tell them the news, one of them (Alex Tullo, my roommate in my freshman year who ended up majoring in physics) responded, “He taught me how to read, or at least, how to engage with literature. I remember a lecture on the death of Hector…” It’s not that unusual to hear that kind of thing about him from former Michigan students.

I wasn’t an Honors student at Michigan in my first year, because I was a very lazy high school student, so I never took Great Books. Cameron taught me Greek: Homer in the 4th semester of the Greek sequence (Winter 1996), and Thucydides (book 1) in my senior year (Winter 1997). He was an incredible Greek teacher; it was only in his classes that I felt that I was really reading and understanding Greek and not just translating it. The only time I have ever understood ἵημι is when Cameron laid it out, on the fly, from its reconstructed proto-Indo-European forms to the Attic. Any time I made a mistake, I immediately knew that Cameron would ask me about it until I ironed it out. I messed up some 3rd person plural aorist passive ending and I remember studying the form that night, knowing that he would ask me what the verb would look like in 3rd person aorist passive.

This might sound harsh, but it wasn’t; he was incredibly kind and patient with all his Greek students. In Homer he’d leave time for us to read Homer at sight, so that we could get better at reading it on the fly. I was reading at sight when I ran into a word that I didn’t recognize. “I don’t know this word,” I said glumly. Cameron said, patiently but insistently, “Yes, you do.” “No I don’t.” “Yes, you do.” “I really don’t, I promise you, if I knew it I would tell you.” Finally, Cameron said, “If you were going to transliterate it into English, how would you do that?” I said, “M – Y – T… oh.” (It was some form of μῦθος). He wasn’t just patient with my Greek, he was patient with me: we argued around in circles about whether the graduate students at Michigan were right to walk out. We went round and round about the proper way to pronounce ancient Greek names. He wanted us to pronounce how to pronounce Νικίας (Nicias) as Nishus. I flatly refused. I remember him saying, “The way that you pronounce Greek names is by transliterating them into Latin and then pronouncing them as if they were English, so the way you say Νικίας is Nishus” and I just kept saying, over and over, “No, that’s the way YOU say it!” (Yes I was a super annoying student).

He was also very formal. I was always addressed as “Mister Nakassis” until I graduated. I ran into him at Espresso Royale on State Street before I left Ann Arbor in the summer of 1997, and was shocked when he called me by my first name. He seemed to me back then very professorial in every way, especially in dress and in manner. In the Thucydides class we used a draft of his commentary, published in 2003, in which had written, “This is a lollapalooza of a sentence“. My friend Jen Harvey objected to his use of the term lollapalooza, and explained to him that it was now universally known as the name of a music festival that was no longer cool. Cameron furrowed his brow and exclaimed, “That’s terrible! They ruined a perfectly good word!” Once he expressed excitement that he got to wear “his tiger suit.” We all looked at each other, eyes whirling, in terror of what his tiger suit was (his Princeton regalia). Another time we tried to convince him to watch the X-Files (which is what three of us in the Thucydides class would do every Sunday night before we turned to reading Greek); he seemed baffled but also extremely pleased by our attempt, which was certainly doomed to fail, to persuade him.

I’m not sure what these stories, these fragments, amount to. I regret that I never knew him well; he had a massive impact on me nevertheless. When I taught Greek for the first time, I thought about how he taught us, how he was around us. I will never pull it off, mostly because I’m not the teacher that he was. But I try.

Summer reading, 2021

Bill Caraher’s blog post on his summer reading list prompted me to do the same. Like Bill, I’m not planning to go to Greece this summer. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been away from Greece for this long… it was sometime before 1998, which was the last time I didn’t go to Greece. So in theory I should have more time to read, and here’s my aspirational and totally unrealistic reading list, in no particular order:

  • Chrysanthi Gallou (2020) Death in Mycenaean Laconia
  • Nicoletta Momigliano (2020) In Search of the Labyrinth
  • Dan Hicks (2020) The Brutish Museums
  • Ester Salgarella (2020) Aegean Linear Script(s)
  • Anna Judson (2020) The Undeciphered Signs of Linear B
  • Dan-El Padilla Peralta (2020) Divine Institutions
  • Guy Middleton, ed. (2020) Collapse and Transformation
  • Tim Ingold (2021) Correspondences
  • L. Vance Watrous (2021) Minoan Crete
  • Ariel Sabar (2020) Veritas
  • Marina Rustow (2020) The Lost Archive
  • Marcel Piérart (2020) Klyton Argos
  • Whitney Battle-Baptiste (2011) Black Feminist Archaeology
  • Roderick A Ferguson (2012) the reorder of things
  • Michael Herzfeld (2020 [1982]) Ours Once More

I’m sure there are some books I’m missing or not thinking of — I largely made this list by frantically looking around my home office — but this is just my starting-point.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

The latest flurry of discussion among Classicists was spurred by a New York Times Magazine article about Professor Dan-El Padilla Peralta written by Rachel Poser entitled “He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” I personally found the discourse about this article deeply depressing. Not only do Classicists seem incapable of engaging with Prof. Padilla Peralta on his own terms, but the article seemed to bring back to the surface discussions that reflected how little the discourse had changed

Many in my social media feeds seemed to be drawn to this comment in the Times feature: “To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would ‘explode the canon’ and ‘overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,’ including doing away with the label ‘classics’ altogether.” One thread on the Facebook group Classics international focused on labels, with various folks advocating for ‘Ancient Studies’, global ancient studies, ‘Ancient Mediterranean Studies’, ‘Classical and Mediterranean Studies’, ‘Greek and Roman studies’, and so on. All these suggestions are well-meaning, of course, but they reminded me of the paper “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” which worries about the superficiality of decolonization in the Academy, and the severing of the decolonial project from practical action. This is presumably why Prof. Padilla Peralta speaks of overhauling Classics “from nuts to bolts”: this project is a practical one.

Many Classics departments already claim to study the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, but the reality is that most of them do not. One department of ‘Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies’, for example, offers no ancient languages other than Greek and Latin, and only one class of any kind that isn’t Greco-Roman-centric. Renaming our departments Ancient Mediterranean Studies while retaining a standard Classics curriculum is window dressing, and a not entirely unproblematic one at that: Michael Herzfeld (1984, 2001, 2005, 2014) has been writing for almost 40 years about the problems of ‘Mediterraneanism.’ 

Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

The Classics department of which I am a member has 14 contract faculty (12 tenure-track/tenured and two full-time instructors). In terms of specialization, we could divide them (somewhat crudely and arbitrarily) as follows: 3 Greek philologists, 5 Latin philologists, 1 Greek historian, 2 Roman historians, 3 archaeologists (1 Greek prehistorian, 1 Greek, 1 Achaemenid; our Roman archaeologist recently retired). We teach classes on Egyptian archaeology and the ancient Near East, but I would not say that we really constitute a department of ancient Mediterranean studies: we cannot offer any training in languages other than Greek and Latin (even if some of our faculty know other languages), and we do not teach upper-level classes about Egypt. We cannot claim to cover much that is west of Rome or south of Sicily. We are remarkably focused on texts and Greece & Rome. 

In contrast, a real ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ department of the same size might look like this: 3 Romanists, 3 Hellenists, 3 Egyptologists, 3 Assyriologists, and 2 additional scholars to cover any major gaps that remained (such as North Africa, Iberia, and southern France). That configuration would mean shrinking the Greco-Roman core of the department from 13 to 6 (or 8). We could suppose that our new ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ departments would be much larger in size than our current Classics departments, but that seems naïve. If we are really committed to studying the ancient Mediterranean, we need to actually reform our disciplinary structures and curricula to do so. But that seems, frankly, unlikely. Much more likely is that such units will retain their Greco-Roman core, add an Egyptologist or Assyriologist, and call it a day. As Ian Morris put it in the NYT piece: “There are some in the field who say: ‘Yes, we agree with your critique. Now let us go back to doing exactly what we’ve been doing.’” An ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ department that remains mostly Greco-Roman is, to put it bluntly, a joke.

That’s why I don’t favor departments of ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’: they do too little. They seem to be an attempt to shed the term ‘Classics’ while retaining Classics. Adding a faculty member or two to the Classical mix would not, after all, entail a radical rethinking of the field, much less a radical change to the practices of the discipline. Classicists would still go to Classically-themed conferences, publish in Classical journals, train students in the same canon of Classical texts, and so on. The title of ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ might also convince (some of) us that we have, in fact, solved the problems of Classics without actually doing any of the work required to do so. In short, the Mediterranean is not a magical solution: actually it solves almost none of our problems while committing us to others. For example, configuring ancient Egypt as Mediterranean separates it — problematically so — from its very important connections to Africa

Ancient Mediterranean Studies is not the radical reconfiguration that Prof. Padilla Peralta calls for. It’s more like Paul Zimmer pretending to be Troy Becker. There are more radical (and thus more interesting) suggestions made by others, but I’ve already written too much and the Super Bowl is about to begin, so I’ll leave those for another blog post…

Publishing in Aegean prehistory

Towards the end of his review of the archaeology of palatial Crete in Archaeological Reports, entitled “Palatial Crete: recent discoveries & research, 2014–2019,” Kostas Christakis writes,

The study of old and new data with a view to examining the political, economic and ideological organization of the various Bronze Age polities and the impact of Minoan culture beyond the shores of the island forms the subject of a series of recent conferences. The most important of these are, in my view, those held at Louvain and published in the Aegis series (Akan and Bárta 2017; Driessen 2018; Schmitt et al. 2018; Caloi and Langohr 2019; Devolder and Kreimerman 2020). The proceedings of these conferences are a source of inspiration, and their themes indicate the broader direction of Minoan archaeology in recent years – which was, in fact, the subject of a special conference in Heidelberg (Cappel et al. 2015). This trend combines theoretical and anthropological patterns and methodological models in the treatment of excavated testimonies. It is worth noting the shift in research interest towards the study of the ‘great unknown’ of the various Minoan communities: the lives of ordinary people, a field hitherto neglected due to the traditional elite-orientated approach to archaeological research. The most recent published example of this is the proceedings of the OIKOS conference (Relaki and Driessen 2020). The desideratum here is for these research efforts as a whole to escape the confines of the narrow regional Cretan context and adopt a broad perspective that connects Crete to the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, in order to answer big questions about the human past.

(Christakis 2020: 160)

I agree with Christakis’ evaluation. For those who don’t know, Aegis is a series of monographs and edited volumes organized by Jan Driessen and published by the Presses universitaires de Louvain. What’s striking is that whereas in many sub-fields of art and archaeology the most important work is published by ‘major’ university presses like Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, etc., this is certainly not the case for the Aegean Bronze Age, and for many subfields of field (or ‘dirt’) archaeology. A glance at the citations in Christakis’ article illustrates the point nicely:

A breakdown of the citations in Christakis’ article

Of the 176 citations in Christakis’ bibliography, most are articles (‘article’ in the pie chart) or publications from conference proceedings (‘conference’ in the pie chart above). The latter are entirely comprised of papers from two conferences: the International Congress of Cretan Studies and the Αρχαιολογικό Έργο Κρήτης. The articles tend to be drawn from journals that focus on the publication of primary data:

JournalNumber of articles
Αρχαιολογικόν Δελτίον16
Archaeological Reports8
Πρακτικά της εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας5
American Journal of Archaeology4
Annual of the British School at Athens4
Studi micenei ed egeo-anatolici3
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology2
Ten other journals (Annuario della Scuola, BCH, BICS, CIG, Hesperia, JMA, KretChron, PloS ONE, Quarternary International, Rivista di archeologia)1 each

The monographs, edited volumes, and chapters from edited volumes display a similar pattern: very little is being published by the “major” Anglophone presses. Of the 14 monographs, half are published by INSTAP Academic Press (Philadelphia); the other are published by the British School at Athens (2), Τα πράγματα (2), the Cycladic Museum (1), The Ministry of Culture (1), and the Scuola Archaeologica di Atene e delle Missioni Italiane in Oriente (1). Of the 10 edited volumes, seven are published by the Presses Universitaires de Louvain (i.e., Aegis), two by the Danish Institute at Athens, and one by Kapon Editions. Individually-cited chapters display the same distribution:

PublisherNumber of chapters
Presses Universitaires de Louvain7
Oxbow Books4
Aegaeum (now published by Peeters Publishers)3
Cycladic Museum2
Kapon Editions1
Oxford University Press1
Philipp von Zabern1
University of Crete 1

One article can hardly be representative of the entirety of publications about Bronze Age Crete or the Aegean Bronze Age, of course, and Christakis’ article is especially focused on new work, which explains the large percentage of papers from conference proceedings. Yet these results are broadly consistent with my experience, which is that the most important new work is not published by the presses that most American and British scholars consider “important” (the Oxbridge presses being the most iconic). When I proposed my book project to one of these presses, I was told in no uncertain terms that they were not interested in publishing a technical volume about Linear B. (Even if we consider more synthetic work to be important, many of the most important and progressive syntheses appear in such publications. A quick perusal of the bibliography of a 24,000 word summary of the Aegean Late Bronze Age that I wrote for the Oxford History of the Ancient Near East [Volume 1 has just come out; my chapter is in volume 3] is dominated by such publications.)

Yet it is precisely in technical volumes that new data and new methods are presented. Most early career scholars have important technical material to present, and these publications will ultimately establish their reputation in the field as excellent practitioners. The big presses, on the other hand, are more likely to send their books out to review, giving them a broader audience. A kind of prestige is also attached to their names that is likely to be important to tenure and promotion committees, and hiring committees. Similar dynamics obtain among journals. This is unfortunate, for it contributes to disconnect between what is rewarded (publication in big journals and big presses) and what is important to the vitality of research in the field (publication of original material and technical methods).

How to be a better ‘senior scholar’

I’ve been meaning to write some version of this post for a couple of months, but the spring semester and then COVID-19 got in the way. I’ve been thinking since January that I need to think more carefully about what it means to be a ‘senior scholar.’ It’s a weird term, because I don’t consider myself ‘senior’ — I’m 45 44 years old — but when I was freaking out about getting a job, it was 2006-2008, which in academic terms is a lifetime ago. It’s sobering, and a bit sad (for me, I mean), to think that the students who are on the job market now (such as it is) were graduating from high school while I was desperately trying and mostly failing to convince search committees to give me a job.

The first time I realized that I was a weird old guy was in 2016, when I was on sabbatical and spent a spring semester in Athens. I was staying with my family in the northern suburbs of Athens and commuted on the Α7 bus down to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, where I’d work in the library all day, eating lunch at Loring Hall. The place, and the pattern, reminded me of when I was a student, and I even felt like a student again. I tried to engage the students at the School over lunch. It was pretty awkward. Then I remembered when I was a student, and when rando old guys would show up in the middle of the academic year. I avoided those guys (i.e., guys like me) like the plague.


Loring Hall; we smoked a lot of cigarettes here in 2003-4

So there’s that kind of delusion, where senior scholars — let’s define them loosely as tenured professors, the scholars who have “made it,” whether they feel that way or not — forget their own position vis-a-vis the students surrounding them, in my case out of a weird and heady mix of nostalgia (I was a student at the School in 2003-2004) and a dumb and totally imagined self-image of myself as ‘young.’

There’s another kind of delusion, though, which is far more pernicious and damaging, in which the senior scholar decides that their position in the field is some kind of mark of merit, that they know best because they have “made it,” and that their job should be to “help” students and junior scholars (or maybe the field as a whole) not only by helping people they think are doing good work, but also by shutting down bad work. I’ve been thinking about this as “gatekeeping,” but I think that’s not quite right, although that’s terrible too. I’m talking about senior scholars who throw their weight around to compel less powerful members of the profession to “get it right,” and if their juniors won’t acquiesce, to shut them down.

I suspect that these senior scholars think that they’re doing the right thing. After all, as teachers, our job is to guide students, and ultimately to judge them with a letter grade.  If they apply to graduate school, we’ll have to write a letter of recommendation and we’ll have to carefully calibrate it to indicate to the readers what we really think of the student. It follows, maybe, that if we see a junior scholar (say, an advanced PhD or a pre-tenure but post-doctoral scholar) doing something that we think is wrong or maybe even misguided, we’re doing the right thing by telling that person that they’re wrong. And if we can’t help them, we can help the field by shutting down their research (which, after all, is wrong and therefore potentially damaging).

This is an insane way to think, although I think that I understand it — after all, we are trained as graduate students to be insanely critical of everything that we read, of poking holes in theories, of dismissing them as reductive or under-theorized. It gets more complicated when you start going to conferences and meeting some of the people whose work you’re reading, and finding out that they’re really interesting and smart… and nice. I took out a lot of mean-spirited critique out of some of the footnotes in my dissertation after a lovely conference in Rome. The earlier drafts of those footnotes were shameful; I’m still ashamed of them.

Anyway, I don’t want to be (or become) one of those senior scholars, and so I’ve been trying to come up with a list of things that I can remind myself of, so that I don’t act like a jerk. Here goes:

  1. Your first impression is often wrong. A famous Linear B scholar once told a group of us as graduate students that he was probably right about 10% of the time. He was okay with this awful batting average — although he’s a scrupulous scholar and probably bats well over the Mendoza line — and that’s a good attitude, I think. I’ve certainly misjudged people and situations and evidence and arguments a lot, and there’s no reason for me to think that I’m getting any better at this thing. In fact, I’m probably getting worse. Related to this:
  2. You often change your mind. There are a lot of ideas that I thought were absolutely stupid the first time I heard them and now I’m convinced that they’re right, or at the very least I’m not convinced that they’re wrong or stupid. I spent years trying to come up with good arguments against articles that I thought were dumb, only to conclude that they were right. (Once this process took me like 7 years). I’d like to think that it’s a good sign that I do change my mind — after all, I’m in a discipline that’s predicated on the practice of fieldwork, and if there were nothing that could change my mind then there’d literally be no point in doing fieldwork. (Incidentally, I think it’s really weird when I meet archaeologists who are committed to the idea that interpretations they came up with in the 1970s are still right. Why would you enter a field where the sands shift under your feet and then insist that the house you built on those sands is structurally sound 50 years later? Those people generally suck).
  3. Who the fuck are you? This, to me, is the main thing that senior scholars (especially men) need to be told, and constantly. I think it’s okay to be critical when that’s literally your job — when you’re teaching, or reviewing something — that’s what you’ve been asked to do. (Even there I need to be a bit more chill, but that’s a separate issue). But it’s a fucking awful thing to do, and a sign of real and inveterate arrogance, when you’re not being asked to do it by anyone. There’s no excuse for it, and it needs to be called out.

Modern Greek, Classics, and archaeology

I just got back from a wonderful weekend in sunny Sacramento, where the Modern Greek Studies Association (MGSA) held its 26th biennial Symposium. Johanna Hanink and I organized a special session entitled “Modern Greek Programs in Classics Departments: Historical Perspectives, Present Challenges, and Future Prospects” featuring papers by Susan H. Allen, Ismini Lamb, Artemis Leontis, and Seth Schein, followed by an all-too-short discussion about the relationship between Classics and Modern Greek. Allen and Lamb focused on historical figures who bridged the gap between the two disciplines – Harriet Boyd Hawes and George Horton, respectively. Leontis focused on the administrative and institutional issues faced by modern Greek programs housed in Classics departments, while Seth Schein reflected on his personal and professional relationship with Ioannis Kakridis.

In preparing for the panel, I ended up writing a short paper that sketched out some of my ideas about the role that archaeology plays in this relationship. Before I get to my paper, here were some initial thoughts:

  1. In some ways, Classics and Modern Greek studies are similar in that language teaching forms an important core to the curriculum. As Artemis Leontis pointed out in her keynote, teaching modern Greek excellently is the sine qua non of a thriving modern Greek program, and Classics as traditionally defined focuses on teaching Greek and Latin literature in the original languages. This makes archaeology something of an outlier to both disciplines.
  2. On the other hand, there is certainly more to Classics and modern Greek studies than just language — they are impoverished disciplines if they don’t reach out to art history, history, archaeology, anthropology, and so on.
  3. Both Classics and modern Greek have the problem of narrative. Both are entangled in a master narrative of linear time and progress, and both have struggled to free themselves of that narrative, with mixed results in both cases. As some of the papers that I heard at the MGSA made clear, modern Greek studies has not yet fully shed itself of the nationalism and Eurocentrism that centers on Classical Greece and that emerged in the 19th century. I wanted to think of ways that archaeology had fallen prey to these same narratives but also had the capability to contribute to a reckoning with them.

So if there had been time, here is the paper that I would have given. Many thanks to Bill Caraher for useful comments on an earlier draft. I’m now thinking of organizing a panel on the archaeology of the contemporary Greek world for the next MGSA in 2021!


Sacramento is very flat

Archaeology, classics, and modern Greek studies
MGSA conference 2019
Dimitri Nakassis

As the only archaeologist on the panel, I thought that it might be useful to reflect briefly on the role of archaeology in the relationship between Classics and Modern Greek studies. I should say from the start that I’m especially focused on the role of archaeologists who work in Greece and are housed in Classics departments in north America – a narrow scope, but for reasons that I hope are clear. My own perspective is that of a Greek prehistorian with a traditional north American training in Classics and classical archaeology, and who has always taught in traditional Classics departments. Like many people in my situation, my work has occasionally involved the archaeology of contemporary Greece, largely through regional studies.

I’m not alone in this. Archaeological surveys in Greece, beginning in the 1950s but accelerating in the 1970s and 1980s, incorporated archaeological ethnography (or ethnoarchaeology) into their field practices and analytical procedures. Field survey and archaeological ethnography were both disproportionately dominated by prehistorians, largely for theoretical reasons. Greek prehistory in the 1970s was being infiltrated by a theoretical school of archaeology then known as the New Archaeology in the United States, now normally called processual archaeology, which (among other things) was heavily influenced by cultural evolutionism and cultural ecology. The ecological givens of “traditional” Greek life, as expressed by modern rural populations, were therefore useful to the ‘new’ archaeologist seeking to understand the ecological givens that were experienced by prehistoric communities, since modern communities could be understood to occupy a similar landscape and environment (sort of), and farm similar crops (again, sort of). One origin point of this approach in Greece was the Minnesota Messenia Expedition, or MME, directed by Bill McDonald from 1959 to 1969. As Michalis Fotiadis pointed out in 1995, MME’s approach to modern Greece employed tactics that effectively marginalized modern communities and placed them in a cyclical “traditional” time and space that effectively removed them from modernity. Or, as Sutton put it, these projects operated on “an implicit assumption that current Greek villages are carriers of an unbroken agricultural tradition only recently transformed by the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and tourism.” (Although MME understood this as the product of ecology and environment rather than the result of some Hellenic essence).

The marginalization of these rural communities is tied to the fact that archaeological surveys in Greece generally focus on areas that are understood as marginal in the present and in the past. For instance, in the Argolid surveys have focused on the southern Argolid (Kranidi), the Berbati-Limnes plains, the valley around ancient Nemea (Iraklio), and my own project in the western Argolid (modern Lyrkeia and Schinochori). The ultimate expression of this is an extremely intensive survey dedicated to the island of Antikythira, an island whose population in the 2011 census was 68. This was also one way that Greek survey archaeology differentiated itself from excavations, which were generally urban and focused on elite material culture: in contrast, survey focused on rurality.

I basically agree with the conclusion of Fotiadis, that although work in the 1990s and afterwards indicated that regional projects were shedding their reliance on tactics of marginalization and subordination, there remained, and there still remains, much “unfinished business.” That is to say, even if survey archaeologists today avoid the mistakes of earlier work, there is a persistent tendency for the archaeology of modern Greece to focus on rural communities and “traditional” economies (like agriculture and ceramic production), because this research is effectively subordinated to work on earlier periods. That is to say, although archaeologists now use the modern period as a way to characterize the dynamism that rural regions experience and their hypersensitivity to changes in broad socioeconomic networks – the “contingent countryside” – archaeologists do so not to understand modern Greece, but as an analogue for some other period or periods of antiquity. Among the many consequences of this attitude is the perception that modernization is a threat (both to the archaeological record and to traditional Greece) and, as Fotiadis points out, effectively a foreign influence on Greece.

As dismal as this sounds, it could be worse: many of the institutions of Classical archaeology ignore modern Greece altogether. One thinks of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and its regular program, whose field trips reluctantly include Byzantine sites but nothing after. Large-scale excavations may be predicated on the eradication of all traces of the modern.

Many of you may be thinking of counter-examples, although I think that in general most of these involve people who are not trained as Classical archaeologists and do not hold positions in Classics departments. Much of the best work has been done by scholars trained in Late Antique and Byzantine archaeology. On my survey project, we were lucky to have graduate students who are interested in working on the modern period, a Late Antique colleague on the research team, and Byzantinist colleagues (Kostis Kourelis and Guy Sanders) familiar with the material culture of modern Greece, as well as an ethnographer-archaeologist, all of whom worked alongside us. This much emphasis on the modern period isn’t typical for foreign survey projects, in my experience.

In sum, the state of problem is that the encounter between Classical archaeology and the archaeology of modern Greece occurs in a very circumscribed intellectual zone that emphasizes the marginal and the rural, and it largely does so as a means to another end. Outside of Greece, the archaeology of the contemporary past is often “the archaeology of us,” in contradistinction to the archaeology of the ancient Other. But in Greece, it’s often not, since every effort is made to “Other” contemporary Greeks.

Our panel’s statement articulated the hope that histories might suggest productive models, and I do think that a radical proposal mooted by Bill McDonald is worth considering. McDonald, the director of the MME, was awarded the AIA’s Gold Medal in 1981, and in his acceptance speech he suggested that in order to capitalize on the new technologies and techniques available to classical archaeology, students would need to be trained in archaeological science. This “new breed” of archaeologist-scientist wouldn’t be employable in traditional science departments, however, and so would need to be hired by Classics departments.

McDonald was clearly being aspirational here. But some 40 years later his plea is just as pressing; there is an increasingly wide gap between what constitutes cutting-edge technical research in Classical archaeology and what gets you a tenure-track job. This is related to my topic, because despite the interest in the archaeology of contemporary Greece it will always necessarily be a marginal side project for any archaeologist who aspires to get a job in Classics. Be this as it may, McDonald’s model of Classics is interesting, since it is constituted not by a set of core competencies (i.e., reading and interpreting canonical literary texts in Greek and Latin), but by a diverse set of methodologies that are brought to bear on a specific set of research questions about the Greco-Roman world. It seems to me that a disciplinary reorientation of Classics, away from a focus on canonical texts and the methods required to explicate them, and towards the methods that constitute work in the field, is needed for an archaeology of modern Greece to flourish in Classics. Another way of putting this is that as currently constituted, graduate programs in classical archaeology teach a tiny percentage of the actual skills needed to do archaeology in Greece, which leads to the dilettantism that I’m in the process of revealing right now (namely, prehistorians trying to do the archaeology of the contemporary).

I’ve been thinking about, and trying to articulate, why the study of the modern period matters to my field project as much as it does. One answer is that we think we can contribute to the study of modern Greece. A second is that it contributes to a critical rethinking of our practices. Especially in comparison with archaeologies elsewhere, Greek archaeology fails to engage seriously with modern communities. Many archaeologists may feel that they would like to communicate their knowledge, but in this interaction “we” give something to “them.” As archaeologists move into the study of the contemporary world, however, these encounters change their character: they become more cooperative, discursive, and even multivocal, and fundamentally different ways of understanding come into contact and even conflict. A third advantage has to do with rethinking our theoretical approaches. As Kostas Vlassopoulos has observed, one of the main contributions of archaeological survey was to suggest new and alternative periodizations for Greek antiquity. A focus on the contemporary might also force Greek archaeology to come to grips with different temporalities, and respond to approaches that reject “the linear, causal and homogeneous conception of time.” (F. Hartog) Such a questioning would be potentially valuable to Classics, a discipline that is struggling  – in fits and starts – to redefine itself and to jettison in the process the ultimate master narrative.

A Minoan seal-stone from Tavşan Adası, near Miletus

Languages in the prehistoric Aegean

I was recently re-reading a chapter written by W-D Niemeier about the “Minoan presence” at the site of Miletus in the Late Bronze Age. Niemeier points out that there are Linear A inscriptions found at Miletus, most of them incised before firing on vessels made of local clay. Linear A, the script of Neopalatial Crete, was thus used locally on the Anatolian coast of the Aegean. “This is of importance,” he writes, “as the language otherwise used (and written) in western Asia Minor was Luwian” (Niemeier in Greeks in the East, p. 7). Although Linear A is undeciphered, and so we don’t know what language (or languages) it was used to write, Niemeier is arguing that its presence in a territory otherwise associated with Luwian suggests the presence of speakers of a foreign language (i.e., the language(s) of Minoan Crete).

A similar argument has been made for Linear B on Crete in the Late Bronze Age. The Linear B script, which we know was used to write the Greek language, was apparently invented at Knossos in the second half of the 15th century BC. Linear B used many of the same signs of Linear A, but adapted the writing system so that it could effectively represent Greek. This involved creating some new signs, especially to represent syllables whose vowel was ‘o’: the signs for do, no, mo, qo, so, wo, and jo are part of the Linear B script, but are unattested in Linear A. Although, as stated above, we don’t know what language(s) Linear A was used to write, it seems unlikely that it was used to write Greek, because in that case we would presumably be able to read Linear A. It might also be hard to explain the changes that led to Linear B. So we must have a linguistic change: Linear A is modified to write Greek. This has led a number of scholars to suggest that Greek was introduced at this time from the Greek mainland by ‘Mycenaeans’. Farnoux and Driessen (p. 3, in La Crète Mycénienne), for example, write “L’administration de la Crète par des étrangers est un fait que le grec des tablettes en linéaire B prouve a lui seul…”

But these arguments are strange, because they rely on ‘facts’ that aren’t really in evidence. Sure, Luwian was spoken in western Anatolia in the Bronze Age, as Niemeier asserts; that seems clear. But how could we possibly be sure that it was the only language that was spoken there, and that the language(s) of Linear A were not? In fact, if the later evidence is anything to judge by, there would have been many languages spoken in western Anatolia. And, given that Linear A isn’t deciphered, how can we use the presence of a script to prove the introduction of a different language? We also have no evidence for the Greek language prior to the Linear B tablets, the earliest of which date to Knossos: Jan Driessen has convincingly (although there are still some critics) shown that the earliest Linear B documents from Knossos come from the Room of the Chariot Tablets, which dates to LM IIIA1 (ca. 1400 BC). Of course, it’s very likely that Greek was being spoken on the mainland, but (a) we don’t have direct evidence of that until LH IIIA2 (ca. 1390/70-1330/15 BC) and (b) we cannot know, nor should we suspect, that Greek was the only language being spoken on the mainland.

I suspect what’s happening here is a kind of model of the Bronze Age that corresponds to a model of a nation-state: one language, one people. Thus, Minoans speak “Minoan” (an often-used place-holder for the unknown language of Linear A), Mycenaeans speak Greek. But as Mike Galaty and Bill Parkinson have asked me more than once: if Linear B was invented on Crete, what makes it a mainland phenomenon? Or, as Tom Palaima has queried:

We have hypothesized that Minoan scribes most likely invented and first taught the art of writing. Who were their pupils? Could we imagine that Minoan scribes were in charge at the beginning of the Mycenaean administration in Crete and that the knowledge and use of the script was transmitted from fathers to sons or nephews within their family lines? … Might this mean that the professional skill of writing always stayed within extended families who were of Minoan ‘ethnicity’ in origin?

I don’t see any need to talk about a Minoan ethnicity that is purely hypothetical, and not useful, in that it’s not really what Tom is talking about here anyway. He’s actually talking about communities of speaking and writing. These “Minoan scribes” are really just writers and readers of Linear A texts, and speakers of some language, and it’s possible, even likely, that many of our Linear B texts, written in Greek, were written by members of this community. Of course there must have been plenty of Greek speakers in places where Linear B was written. But there’s really no good evidence that wherever we find Linear B, those communities were entirely composed of Greek speakers who understood themselves as belonging to a Mycenaean ethnic group, or that wherever we find Linear A, those communities were “Minoans” who all spoke “Minoan.” The material record of the Late Bronze Age clearly shows intense contacts and influence. There’s no reason to put the people who made and used these objects into well-defined boxes of our own invention.

How Aegean is Aegean prehistory?

To those of us in the field, the argument of this blog post won’t be a surprise: Aegean prehistory isn’t very Aegean. In fact, this came up at a conference at the University of Michigan published as Prehistorians Round the Pond in 2005. The editors (Despina Margomenou, John Cherry and Lauren Talalay) wrote in their introduction that “what Aegean prehistory comprises is perhaps largely unproblematic: the prehistoric archaeology of the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete.” (2) They continue to discuss the common definition, and flag this usage of Aegean as peculiar. In his contribution to the publication, Colin Renfrew pointed out how absurd the situation was. As he put it: “No Ancient Greek would for a moment have ignored the great cities of the Ionian Coast, no Byzantinist [sic] would omit Ephesos, let alone Constantinople, and since we are prehistorians together, what about Troy, or Iasos, or Miletos, or even Kum Tepe?” (154)

In writing a book chapter about the Aegean for an edited volume, I’ve come to realize more clearly how un-Aegean my sub-discipline is. It’s really not about the Aegean, but about (modern) Greece: the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete are all part of what is now (and has been, for some time) the modern Greek state. The editors of Prehistorians Round the Pond aren’t wrong: those areas are the traditional focus of the discipline.

For example, in the Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (2010), western Anatolia gets 13 pages in a book of 930 pages; that’s not much, especially compared to 36 pages for the Greek mainland, 41 pages for Crete, and 35 pages for the Cyclades. Specific sites in the eastern Aegean account for 67 pages of discussion, compared to 101 pages dedicated to specific Cretan sites, 136 pages to mainland sites, and 10 pages to a single Cycladic site (Akrotiri). In Aegean Prehistory: A Review (2001), not a single chapter deals primarily or exclusively with the Anatolian mainland, and Anatolia is indexed on only 49 pages of 473 total in the book (10.3%). In the Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (2008), Anatolia is indexed on 36 of 431 pages (8.3%); of the 15 chapters, two chapters include sections on the Dodecanese (2 pages), northern Aegean, Troy and the Black Sea (3 pages), Anatolia (2.5 pages), Trianda on Rhodes (1 page), and coastal Asia Minor (1 pages).

To those of us who have taken and taught classes called “Aegean prehistory,” this isn’t surprising — “Minoans and Mycenaeans” takes up a huge percentage of the real estate of the discipline — but it’s shocking when you think how little the discipline actually conforms to the Aegean, understood as a geographic descriptor. It’s bizarre that a discipline that effectively began with Schliemann’s excavations at Troy (but see Fotiadis 2016) pays so little attention to the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea.

It’s hard not to see this as a reflection of modern politics, even if we concede that there are other factors at play, like the archaeological obsession with wealthy tombs and palaces, which in the Aegean appear at particular places (like the southern Greek mainland and Crete). As I mentioned above, “Aegean prehistory” took off with Schliemann’s excavations first at Troy, then at Mycenae, sites that Schliemann associated with the myth of the Trojan War. The connection between the Trojan mythic cycle – and especially the Homeric epics – with this prehistoric archaeology is what captured the imagination of the public and scholars. As Moses Finley put it in the New York Review of Books: “without Homer and the Greek Tragedians, without the Greeks and what they have meant to western civilization, the Bronze Age palaces would rank in intensity of interest with, say, the Aztec or Maya ruins.” Greek prehistorians, many of them, were convinced of the essential connection between Classical Greece and the prehistoric past. As Alan Wace wrote in the forward to Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956): “In culture, in history and in language we must regard prehistoric and historic Greece as one indivisible whole.”

Prehistoric and historic Greeks, and what they mean to western civilization. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why the field chooses to focus so obsessively on the Greek mainland – and especially the southern Greek mainland, the geographical home of the Greek city-state (the polis) – the Cyclades, and Crete, and why it has so little time for the eastern edge of the Aegean.


Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center