On Greek being Greek

My grandfather wrote this out for me from memory in the summer of 1990, the summer before I turned 15. (He would have said before I turned 16; we had endless arguments about inclusive counting). He must have written it in the village of Καλό Νερό in Messenia, where I, my cousin Angelos and my grandparents were vacationing. He had written it out for me because we had taken the old train to Κακόβατος for the day to go for a swim and a bite to eat (neither of my Greek grandparents knew how to drive). As we were waiting for the train to come, my grandfather started to teach me the opening lines of the Odyssey, to bide the time, I guess. The words were strange to me. They didn’t make sense, even though of course I recognized familiar words. My cousin laughed at me as I tried and failed to reproduce the strange sequence of sounds that my grandfather was patiently reciting.

I remember the scene vividly, and so does my cousin. It stuck with me. I was always aware of the fact that my father had learned ancient Greek in high school and wrote his papers in καθαρεύουσα, the formal language of the Greek state until 1976. But I didn’t grow up learning Greek formally: I learned orally, largely from my father and from my grandparents, who never left Greece and who never really learned any language other than Greek. And I learned largely in Greece, and especially in Athens, in Exarcheia and Glyfada.

I didn’t grow up yearning to know ancient Greek, but in my first year at college at the University of Michigan, I briefly entertained the idea. I flipped to where “Greek” should have been in the course catalog – this was the 90s, we had paper course catalogs – and it read simply, “See Classical Studies.” The first course codes under “Classical Studies,” listed alphabetically, were “Classical Archaeology.” I was planning to double-major in history and economics, and I was vaguely interested in ancient history, so the idea of archaeology intrigued me. I took an introduction to Greek Art & Archaeology taught by John Pedley and an introduction to Field Archaeology taught by Sue Alcock, and that was it: I was hooked.

But I also took Greek that year, the ancient variety, and while I don’t remember being hooked, I did like it. It was different from the Greek I knew. My classmates kept insisting that my knowledge of modern Greek must have been a huge advantage, but I remember thinking that wasn’t so. More than anything else, modern Greek helped me remember certain words, but the language had changed enough that it wasn’t a one-to-one connection. My favorite example is the adjective ποικίλος, which the LSJ renders as “many-coloured, spotted, pied, dappled; wrought in various colours; cunningly wrought; changeful, diversified, manifold; intricate, complex” etc. In Greece now, a ποικιλία (the noun) is a variety plate of appetizers (sort of) served at restaurants, normally for a  bite to eat while you’re drinking (called meze in Greek).

These kinds of connections and interconnections were fascinating to me. They enriched my understanding of my Greek – in wonder, I realized that the Greek word for newspaper, εφημερίδα, was actually a “daily,” literally (φ’ μέρα > ἐφήμερος, cf. English ephemeral). And I understood now that Greek used to have an aspirate, which is why it was an ephimerida and not an epimerida. These are dumb things in retrospect, but it was a revelation to feel that you understood a language and its history rather than simply using it to order souvlakia (still the best thing you can do in any language is order meat on a stick).

I wanted to take ancient Greek because in my addled teen brain I thought it was a kind of family tradition. My father learned ancient Greek in school, my grandfather had taught me my first words of Homer. So it was with some surprise and interest that I read James Nikopoulos’ thoughtful article “On not wanting to know ancient Greek.” In some ways, it sounds like we have a lot in common: we both spent our summers in Exarcheia, we were both raised and educated in the US. But my family saw the language of ancient Greece as something relevant to us. And while my family’s vacations were largely vacation-y, we spent a lot of time surrounded by antiquity: going to archaeological sites and museums, visiting my uncle, who worked as an architect on archaeological projects. I’m not sure that we talked about it much, but it was there, all the time.

And it’s still with me. I’m a professional Classicist – sorry, James – that works on the earliest Greek we have, in the Late Bronze Age. I really derive pleasure from showing students the connections between the Greek words they know and the ones they see in radically different forms in Linear B; that they actually know this word from 14th c. BC Knossos:


(It’s to-sa, as in τόσα, “so many,” as in τόσα σουβλάκια [but sadly in this case it’s actually feminine plural, τόσαι]).

On the other hand, I share James’ worry that the Greek language “shouldn’t have to pretend it ever stopped being itself,” and the same goes for Greece. I do find its antiquity endlessly interesting, but if I’m being honest the reason I have gone back every summer since I can remember is the place as it is now and as it has been. I can’t imagine living without it.

And I share James’ regret that I don’t know Greek better, in all its forms. But I’m working on it.

Carl W. Blegen, seated, with a pipe in his mouth

Looking back with Blegen

I’m currently reading Carl Blegen’s “Preclassical Greece,” published in 1941 in Studies in the Arts and Architecturebased on a lecture given at the bicentennial conference of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a really interesting read.

Looking backward

Some of Blegen’s lecture is – and we shouldn’t be surprised here – dated. For instance, he writes that “the peculiar Hellenic alloy is a complex blend of metal fused together from many elements” (7), meaning peoples: “there is reason to believe that on each occasion when a fresh culture prevailed a considerable body of the earlier racial element survived…” (7). Blegen conflates language, technology and race in a way that nobody would now, and is fond of cultural-historical explanations (e.g., progress on the mainland in the Early Bronze Age is interrupted by an invasion of horse-riding Greek-speakers). In this Blegen was following the lead of archaeologists like V. Gordon Childe, whose cultural-historical syntheses of European prehistory were standard texts in the field. It is nevertheless striking to read that the “fresh advance in the realm of culture” in the Iron Age “worked itself out more expeditiously than in the Early and Middle stages of the Bronze Age, presumably because the Dorian stock, if our conclusions are correct, was racially akin to the Mycenaean strain it conquered” (10). Blegen further wonders if the “cruelty” of historical Greeks were “not perhaps heritages from those remote ancestors who occupied the land in the Late Stone Age” whereas the “delicacy of feeling, freedom of imagination, sobriety of judgment, and love of beauty” might derive from the “progenitors of the Early Bronze Age whose great achievement was the creation of Minoan Civilization” (11). And “To the third racial stock, of Aryan lineage, one might then attribute the antecedents of that physical and mental vigor, directness of view, and that epic spirit of adventure in games, in the chase, and in war, which so deeply permeate Hellenic life” (11). In 2017 this is an uncomfortable thing to read.

Looking forward

Much of Blegen’s paper looks forward, however. He advocates for a total survey of all of Greece. He points out that surface artifacts are useful evidence for subsurface deposits, and suggests that the whole country be “methodically and thoroughly explored” (12) and then 2-3 sites per understudied district be excavated (13). No doubt he would be somewhat surprised at the patchwork of high-intensity surveys that have been conducted in the past 30 years – I imagine that MME is much closer to what he had in mind – but certainly he put his finger on an important development in Greek archaeology, and one that has had an especially important influence on my career.

Blegen also emphasizes that prehistorians are more interested in evidence than treasure. He actually credits Schliemann for being the first to do this, and for making archaeologists more “stratification-conscious”: this is fairly shocking from our 21st century perspective, from which Schliemann is barely more than a treasure-hunter who blasted through the center of the Trojan mound. Blegen emphasizes again and again that most of the most interesting evidence is unpretentious but intellectually rewarding. For instance: “The potent spell exercised by investigation of the preclassical era in Greece on its disciples is not due merely to a desire to recover objects of intrinsic value or to find something novel. It is really a manifestation of that deep impulse by which the inquiring human mind is obsessed to probe into origins and causes” (6). This is exactly the spell that drew me into Greek prehistory (although for me the seminal text was Colin Renfrew’s Emergence of Civilisation [1972]).

Alongside this, Blegen highlights the importance of scientific approaches, declaring that “In the future I believe we shall come more and more to rely on pure science for help in solving many of the problems that face us” (13). He then describes ceramic petrology, a technique that was only then being applied to archaeological ceramics in the New and Old Worlds, as something that would be really useful. (Blegen’s colleague at Cincinnati, Wayne M. Felts, was about to publish an article in the American Journal of Archaeology entitled “A Petrographic Examination of Potsherds from Ancient Troy”).

Both backward and forward

This is how Blegen ends his essay:

By combined effort [i.e., among archaeologists and scientists] we shall ultimately ascertain far more than we yet know regarding the formative period in the history of the Greek people; which, if I may be permitted to repeat what has already been intimated, constitutes at the same time an early stage in the evolution of the culture from which our western civilization is directly descended.

It’s an appropriate ending from our vantage point here in 2017: Blegen is prescient in his intuition that scientific approaches will become more important in archaeological practice, but also looks somewhat awkwardly and optimistically towards a “western civilization” that, we now know, was about to be ripped to shreds by the horrors of WW II.

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to start a genealogy of Aegean prehistory. It’s an interesting project, I think. One side benefit would be that I could give hard deterministic papers that erase agency and emphasize the structural constraints of academic training. If dissertations and dissertation advisors count the most, then I fall squarely in the Blegen line: my supervisor was Tom Palaima, who was supervised by Emmett Bennett Jr., who was supervised by Blegen. And I wrote a dissertation on the Linear B tablets of Pylos (which were, of course excavated by Blegen), and I now co-direct an archaeological survey in a poorly-studied area. Pretty Blegen-esque. But about this “western civilization” thing…

A final archaeological future

I just got back from a long trip to Northampton, Williamstown, Oberlin, and Cleveland. The trip began with a talk entitled “Doing archaeology in a digital age: challenges and opportunities” at Smith College’s The Futures of Classical Antiquity. I gained a lot from my interactions with colleagues on social media and from the blog posts that friends wrote in response to my blogging on the topic (see, e.g., Bill Caraher’s post on professionalization). Here’s the talk as I gave it, with some minor annotations and some links to references:


“Archaeology is at an exciting juncture” (Atalay 2012: 1). This is true for the discipline of archaeology as a whole, and for Classical archaeology. There are a million ways I could proceed. There is the issue of how archaeologists engage with the public generally, and local communities specifically. There is the issue of ethical practices, both with respect to the profession and with respect to the outside world. Archaeologists are struggling with issues of preservation, against the rising tides of looting and development, and against ourselves: how do we work sustainably so that existing sites are adequately maintained once they’ve been excavated and so that materials are effectively stored and made available for study? How do we deal with the “data avalanche” that we’ve unleashed so that our work is carefully archived, and how good are existing structures for dissemination, academic and popular? Are our curricula working for our students? These are all interesting questions that most practitioners, I suspect, are worried about, and I am certain that there are many more questions that I could pose. But because this is a symposium about the futures of Classical antiquity, Ι want to focus on the relationship between Classical archaeology and the discipline of Classics.

I want to preface my remarks with two brief comments: “Classical archaeology” is a problematic term that I’ll use here as a shorthand for “the archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean.” And in this talk I’ll be focusing almost exclusively on field archaeology rather than the many other things that Classical archaeology could refer to: art history, topography, and so on; in part because field archaeology is what I know best and where I think there is the most potential for transformative change.

Let me start with what’s good about Classical archaeology. Even bad Classical archaeology for 2017 is pretty good Classical archaeology in the grand sweep of its history (I owe this point to Donald Haggis). I think this mostly has to do with increasing professionalization: Classical archaeologists see themselves as professionals that need to uphold basic standards that correspond to the field’s expectations. That wasn’t always so: Classical archaeology has traditionally been a rich white man’s game. As I entered the field in the mid-1990s, the last of the great self-funded excavations were coming to an end. These kinds of projects have a long history stretching back to the very origin of the discipline: Schliemann’s excavations at Troy and Mycenae, paid for from his own pocket. The current crop of archaeologists, although they largely come (I suspect) from affluent backgrounds, do not have the financial wherewithal to pay for their own field projects, and so typically they fund them through a mix of external grants (public and private), university research funds, and private donations. It is worth noting at this point that Classical archaeology is still a rich man’s game, in that the institutions of Classical archaeology are relatively wealthy and rich private donors continue to exercise influence. But individual practitioners in the Mediterranean are now part of a broader professionalized academic archaeological community and see themselves as such. This opens the field to those with the requisite abilities and skills, rather than those with the economic and symbolic capital. This is not to say that problems don’t remain. Representation of women in directorial ranks remains a serious problem, and one that is especially prominent considering how many female students and scholars there are in Classical archaeology. A quick count of American projects in Greece shows that male directors outnumber female directors 18 to 4 (cf. the Canadian Institute: 14 men, 8 women).

The second part of the improvement is that the archaeological tools and methods at our disposal have increased infinitely in sophistication since the time when I entered the field in the mid-1990s. For those of us who entered the discipline then, it wasn’t uncommon to be trained to use a dumpy level and a stadia rod, a 19th century technology for measuring elevation. Excavation was essentially just stratigraphic digging, using traditional tools: big picks, hand picks, and trowels. We recorded our work in notebooks, at various levels of standardization and consistency. We measured using tapes and plumb-bobs, we drew by hand on graph paper. The only real technological innovation in the previous 100 years had been film photography (Rabinowitz 2016). The lack of technical innovations at that time reflected not so much the availability of technologies but rather the research questions that Classical archaeology sought to address. In what is, I think, an apocryphal story, when a Greek prehistorian asked the director of a major American excavation why he didn’t use a water sieve, the (joking) response was “Because inscriptions don’t float” (cf. Whitley 2001: 57).

That joke reflects the old orientation of the discipline, which was to illustrate the world of the texts. For instance, the 1996 excavation summary of the Athenian Agora begins with the claim that the excavations for that year shed light on (1) the city’s destruction at the hands of the Persians in 479 BC and (2) the form of the great statue of Athena Parthenos. This approach was, of course, logical. Classics is a discipline defined by a narrow canon of texts and the philological skills required to read them in the original languages. The canon focuses, of course, on particular times and places, like 5th century Athens, and so why not devote enormous resources to understanding the greatest moment of Athens’ history and her greatest artistic productions? Training archaeologists at a high level in the ancient languages also followed logically from this orientation: if the telos of archaeology was to follow a trail left by texts, then what could be more important than being able to read and understand them? The other part of this is that the ancient world began with the text such that the material remains were understood as epiphenomenal. It was thus natural for Coldstream in 1976 to understand tomb cult (attested archaeologically) as the product of a text, namely Homer.

No doubt this is a too-simple characterization of a complex situation, and sub-fields like Greek prehistory have always had different priorities and therefore made use of a broader range of methodologies. (For instance, the water sieve was introduced to Greece in 1969 by the excavations at Franchthi Cave). But we can see that the traditional orientation of Classical archaeology towards texts is preserved in the way that graduate programs and other institutions train and evaluate their students.

Today archaeological excavations are much more sophisticated with respect to analytical techniques. Virtually all projects now have a systematic strategy for flotation, and some analyze phytoliths. The use of soil micromorphology, especially on excavation, has become increasingly common in the last ten years. Remote sensing, which was essentially limited to analysis of aerial photographs in the 1950s, now includes multispectral satellite images as well as archaeological geophysics. Palaeoenvironmental studies have helped us to reconstruct ancient coastline and climate, as well as anthropogenic episodes of landscape change. Scientific methods for the study of archaeological materials has also flourished.  Technical analyses of human bone make use of macroscopic forensic analysis as well as scientific analyses of various isotopes and DNA; so too does analysis of animal bones make use of a combination of macroscopic and scientific analysis. Ceramics are being studied in a wide variety of ways, including petrology and chemical analyses, and their residues are increasingly being tested. I could go on and on: scientific and microscopic analyses are now de rigeur for stone tools, metals, and indeed every type of archaeological material. Scientific methods used for absolute dating are still rare outside of prehistory, however.

These analytical techniques are increasingly central to the shape of the discipline. That is, the research being produced by archaeological scientists is increasingly central to the research questions of the field, and that’s reflected in archaeological literature, field practices, and institutional structures. Not only are journals of archaeological science flourishing, but central issues are increasingly tied to scientific research. Whereas these methods were once especially associated with prehistoric archaeology, they are increasingly being used on field projects of all types, from long-standing urban excavations to newer projects like the excavations at Gabii or the Roman Peasant Project. Specialists aren’t just coming in at the end of the field season to examine their materials, but are increasingly part of the daily practice of field archaeology: the lab is coming to the field. And archaeological sciences increasingly appear in our teaching, too: a course in the archaeology of the Aegean Bronze Age taught today includes a lot more discussion of scientific techniques than one taught twenty years ago.

This shift in archaeological practice comes both from a surge in technological innovation in the aftermath of the Second World War, but also from important shifts in research priorities away from culture history and towards paradigms that emphasized the historical processes at the root of cultural change. The influence of the “New Archaeology” that dominated North America in the 1960s and 1970s certainly encouraged interest in the “interaction between humans and the natural environment,” (McDonald 1972: 3) the application of scientific approaches in archaeology, and the kind of interdisciplinary scientific collaboration that is now common in the Mediterranean. In Greece, at least, the standard-bearer was the Minnesota Messenia Expedition (MME), a project that combined regional survey and excavation with historical studies, materials analysis, ethnography, geomorphology, soil science, physical anthropology, geochemistry, geophysics, and so on, all with the goal of “reconstructing a Bronze Age regional environment” (McDonald and Rapp 1972). The penetration of ideas from the New Archaeology entered the Mediterranean largely via prehistorians like Bill McDonald, the co-director of MME, in part because these ideas had already circulated in nuce among them (Blegen 1941). Already in the interwar period, prehistorians were advocating for research projects that focused on long-term change and “the conditions of life of the humble commoner” (Blegen 1921: 125-126). The focus on the everyday is still visible nearly a century later in recent work in social and economic history and regionally-oriented archaeology. I’m thinking here of Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea, Paul Halstead’s ethnographic magnum opus, Two Oxen Ahead, and the Roman Peasant Project, a collaboration between Penn, Cambridge, and Siena that seeks to identify and excavate the dwellings of the Roman rural poor between the 2nd c BC and the 6th c AD in western Tuscany through a combination of archaeological field survey, geophysical survey, and excavation; archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, organic residue analysis, and microtopographical soil reconstructions.

The mention of The Corrupting Sea points at a significant convergence between archaeology and Classics over the past two generations. When Classical archaeology’s purpose was to illustrate texts, it didn’t really have much to offer Classics. Excavations in Athens might illustrate some aspect of the Persian sack in 479 BC, but ultimately the literary narrative remained primary and the archaeological evidence secondary. The Corrupting Sea, on the other hand, is a work of ancient history that is built up from the concerns and evidence of archaeology, regional or landscape archaeology in particular, especially the micro-region, the emphasis on environment, the infinite complexity of economic strategies, the element of risk, the constant movement of people and goods. Even their micro-regional case studies are drawn from those covered by survey projects (e.g., Melos). Here and elsewhere in the past 30 years we can see a real engagement with archaeological evidence by ancient historians, and a willingness on the part of archaeologists and historians to use archaeological evidence to contravene well-established, textually-derived truths.

Similarly, shifts in the study of Greek literature under the influence of a variety of approaches have allowed for a convergence between Classics and archaeology (broadly construed). As Classicists have increasingly understood texts as the products of various historical forces, social, economic, and political, and the more interest is paid to marginalized groups in the ancient Mediterranean, the more of a role archaeological evidence has to play. Three years after Coldstream declared hero cult to be an epiphenomenon of epic, Greg Nagy’s Best of the Achaeans put hero cult and epic poetry on equal footing, such that the elaboration of hero cult and epic poetry were parallel developments that were intimately linked to each other. This trend only accelerated with new historicism. Essentially, once Classics focused on power and politics, it began a kind of historical and archaeological turn.

Yet while archaeology and Classics are converging in such a way that archaeological evidence and analysis has much more to contribute to mainstream discussions in Classics, I also see an accelerating split for two main reasons: (1) the rapid proliferation of archaeological evidence and scholarship and (2) the rapid expansion of the core skills of archaeology, which are becoming increasingly technical. Professionalization has led to a super-specialized mode of knowledge production.

I’ve already discussed the second point above briefly with respect to archaeological sciences, but the other piece is the rapid expansion of digital technologies. A number of projects have gone 100% digital. Even the most committed digital skeptics (I count myself in this group) are functionally digital archaeologists: as a co-director of an archaeological field project I need to use ArcGIS, a spatial database program, and other database applications that interface with ArcGIS. We also use basic drone photography and photogrammetry on our survey. In my capacity as a co-director of the Pylos Tablets Digital Project, I am in charge of RTI, a kind of computational photography and I deal with three-dimensional scans and evidence from X-Ray Fluorescence. Because most all archaeological projects, whether field or museum in orientation, make use of large quantities of data, including specialist data, digital databases are really necessary, not just to keep track of the data, but to integrate it in ways that allow it to be usefully queried and used.

We can get a sense of how complex this operation can be by briefly looking at the Gabii Project. Gabii migrated from a paper project in which forms were entered into a database to a direct-to-digital project, with all data, photographs, etc. entered directly into the database. Spatial data from total stations were directly exported to ArcGIS, which was versioned daily and managed by a dedicated digital data team; multiple users could edit spatial data simultaneously. For almost all contexts, the project also made 3D photogrammetric models. The Gabii Project recently published a mid-republican house in digital form with the University of Michigan Press (for $150!) which makes use of all these data to provide an extremely data-rich and high-tech presentation. When you consider that Gabii is a large project – I counted 37 staff, and there seem to be as many students working on the project in any given season – you can start to imagine how complex their data structures necessarily are and the sheer size of their data avalanche. I am certain that Gabii’s data are enormous compared to what I deal with at the moment. In my small museum-based project digitizing Linear B tablets, we produced nearly one terabyte – one terabyte! – of digital photographs in our first season. Just backing up our data was a significant undertaking. On my field project, we have nearly 7,500 survey units, each of which is mapped in GIS and has a significant quantity of attached data, photographs and descriptions, and we have almost 19,000 records of artifacts that we’ve collected and analyzed from those units. After three field seasons, our data archive is only 346 gigabytes but includes almost 60,000 files in over 1,000 different folders.

As you might expect, dealing with these data requires a certain amount of expertise, like the ability to code, and a lot of patience and time. I don’t expect that this data deluge or the need to manage it will decrease anytime soon. If the past ten years is anything to go by, it will only accelerate. Indeed, as more and more projects publish their raw data, it will become increasingly attractive for ambitious students to embark on “big data” analyses that integrate and organize data generated by multiple projects.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the “digital turn” in archaeology is enormously important. It wouldn’t be impossible to go back to an analog archaeology, but it would be incredibly difficult. One of the best arguments for digitization and born-digital data is (in my opinion) that it gives supervisors more interpretive tools in the field, by allowing them to call up previous years’ work easily on their computers or tablets, not to mention things like digitized reference works and scholarly literature (Poehler 2016). This is a way to bring as much information as possible to bear on solving interpretive problems in the field. I stress this point because if field archaeology is anything, it is that: thinking through problems in the field, at the trowel’s edge. Excavators are not just collecting data – they are interpreting as they go, and their interpretations shape their data. To do better archaeology, we need better interpretations more than anything else, and digital tools have allowed us to stretch our capabilities to pull up information of various kinds, especially outside of the library. So the science lab and the computer lab have both arrived in the field.

The digital turn does present some challenges that I want to briefly discuss. (Although I’ve discussed them at some length on my blog, so I will try to be brief). First, it seems to me that there is almost a fetishism of new digital technologies, a misplaced technological solutionism. This faith leads to the denunciation of old technologies as if they were false idols. For example, a number of publications in the past 30 years have denounced GIS as “reductionist, positivistic, and lacking engagement with cultural and social factors” (Sullivan 2016) because it represents the world as a flat Cartesian space that ignores the realities of ancient lives and experience. I never understood this critique. Human beings don’t live on two-dimensional maps, sure, but none of the tools at our disposal really capture the lived lives of ancient people anyway. (In fact, GIS doesn’t even represent the “natural” surface of the earth accurately!) If we get a sense of false objectivity from GIS or any other digital tool, it is because we are not doing enough thinking. Digital tools are research tools for organizing and presenting evidence, not models that produce answers.

There is on the other hand a tendency among digital archaeologists to obsess about data. Digital practitioners celebrate their ability to produce “high-quality data with manifold improvements in accuracy and efficiency” (Roosevelt et al. 2015). This move creates an artificial separation between data collection and interpretation. The old analog practices displaced by digital photography and photogrammetry were both “data collection” and interpretation at once: I’m thinking here primarily of drawn top plans and sections and illustrations of all kinds, as well as text descriptions of drawn features. Drawing is a “slow” process in which the act of recording is also an act of careful attention and interpretation. This is being replaced by a much more accurate and efficient mode of documentation, but it can be an unthinking one. When I do photogrammetry or other kinds of photography that will be computationally manipulated, I am thinking about making an accurate computational model, and not about the artifact or feature that I am photographing. The benefit, I tell myself, will be that I will have a beautiful model to interpret at a later date, and one that I can publish and share with my colleagues. There is a real power to that sharing. For example, in the Pylos Tablets Digital Project, we will be able to publish and share high-quality dynamic digital models of each and every administrative document from the Mycenaean “Palace of Nestor.” This will, we hope, have the effect of redistributing the editorial authority from a single editor who has examined the texts via autopsy to all qualified users. But this mode of data capture is boring. Anyone who has spent days on end doing photogrammetry or RTI will tell you: it is mind-numbing. We are told the gains in efficiency that our digital tools afford us provides more time in the field for quiet contemplation, but I am a bit skeptical of that claim. In my experience in digital projects, the impulse is to collect increasing quantities of data. You can’t throw a stick at an archaeology conference without hitting someone who is at that moment nodding and saying, “we just need more data.”

You can see the emphasis on data collection in the publications of digital recording systems, which constantly harp on efficiency and accuracy to the virtual exclusion of any discussion of interpretation or theory. This is not to say that digital archaeologists are robots: surely not. But there is at the very least a rhetorical problem and a reluctance to deal squarely with the fact that the proof of archaeological pudding is in the interpreting. More data and more accurate data do not automatically produce better interpretations. We cannot regard data and methodological sophistication as ends in themselves: our goal must be better interpretation. That means that we need to discuss improvements in actual field methods as much as we discuss improvements in documentation – after all, excavation is itself an interpretive process, and if you dig the site wrong, all the 3D models in the world won’t save you – and there needs to be much more explicit and informed discussion about the relationship between methods and theory.

But, as I asserted before, we are all digital archaeologists now, and for good reasons. Steve Ellis (2016) elegantly summarizes some of the benefits: better data (cleaner, more accurate, and more efficiently gathered), more dynamic data, more secure data, and more easily accessed data. But there are also significant intellectual benefits. For example, archaeological field survey in Greece tends to produce highly complex patterns of artifactual distributions; they have been described as a “continuous carpet” of artifacts of different types and as “palimpsests” of activities of different periods. Early surveys would define archaeological sites in the field and immediately map them out and document them, but my experiences in the Peloponnese made me skeptical of the claims that sites were so easy to define. I (and others) have argued for the past 20 years or so that the best way to define sites was actually in the computer lab, once all of the relevant data had been collected and digitized. That’s because the in-the-field way of doing things is data-poor and not very sophisticated in terms of its interpretation; the computational way of doing it is data-rich and involves more thinking. The value of the digital way of doing it is that you can display and comprehend more evidence than is comprehensible than when you’re in the field. So although this way of defining sites separates data collection from analysis, this separation has definite interpretive benefits: more information and more space to think. In fact, one of the things that I’ve noticed about bad digital humanities is that it treats the interpretive process as something that is eased by big data and quantitative approaches. That is to say, once the digital model is produced, it’s felt that the hard work is somehow over, that the model gives us some clear insight into meaning. In fact, I think the value of digital approaches is precisely that they make interpretation more difficult by flooding us with evidence, including contradictory evidence. And that’s appropriate, because good interpretations take time and effort.


It’s time for me to start moving towards a conclusion. The future prospects for Classical archaeology are, despite the problems that I’ve highlighted, very bright. We have an explosion of exciting new methodologies that bring in new evidence, expose the discipline to new perspectives, and give our work new power. Projects like the Roman Peasant Project are asking important questions and answering them with a well-designed mix of modern methodologies. Our projects are becoming more professional and less hierarchical, due to gradual changes to the composition of practitioners, the increasing importance of specialists, and the explosion of evidence and scholarly literature. It’s now impossible for a single person to control the data produced by modern projects or the many approaches being used in the field. That makes the discipline necessarily more collaborative, and that is in my view a good thing.

Challenges remain, however. As Classical archaeology becomes more archaeological in approach, it also becomes less Classical. When I was applying to graduate school, I was told by my advisor that if I wanted to do archaeology in Greece, I should go to a graduate program that required significant training in both ancient languages. I took his advice, perhaps too literally, and consequently spent most of my time in graduate school working on languages and literatures. It turned out that I wrote a dissertation on a subject, Linear B, that required precisely those linguistic skills (at least the Greek), but my interests were always broader than Mycenaean epigraphy. This put me in an awkward position when I got to the job market: as a prehistorian, I couldn’t get jobs as a historian; as a person whose dissertation was about texts, I didn’t look like much of an archaeologist. I had to pick up most of my archaeological skills in my spare time and over the summer, when I spent as much time as I could in the field. As these skills multiply, even the most diligent and best trained students will find it difficult to keep up.

The on-the-fly, in-the-field instruction that characterized much of my training is often accepted as a necessity in Classical archaeology, but in fact it is a serious problem. Like all scholars, archaeologists need time to learn their materials in such a way that they can work creatively with them to solve problems. There are no short cuts here. To write her dissertation, my partner analyzed 4.5 metric tons of pottery from Corinth, which, she estimates, took her about 10,000 hours to study. That works out to about three years of working ten hours every day. I don’t really believe in the “10,000 hour rule” as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell – that 10,000 hours is some kind of magical threshold after which one is an expert – but I do think it points at something important, which is that good work requires time: time to become expert, time to be creative, time to make mistakes, and time to think. The consequence is that we cannot train well-rounded Classicists and expect them to become expert archaeologists.

My big worry is that there is a growing chasm between what makes good Classical archaeology and how an archaeologist gets a job in Classics. This mismatch between professional incentives and how archaeology will move forward is clearly unsatisfactory. I’m worried about brilliant students who do brilliant work that sheds important light on the ancient Mediterranean, but who can’t get jobs because their research is based on archaeological science. This problem is hardly new: it has been with us for the past thirty years at least (McDonald 1991), but I suspect that it is getting worse. Unfortunately, we are already behind our colleagues in anthropology and archaeology departments, and we will fall still further behind as our tools and approaches continue to expand. Classical archaeologists are archaeologists, and they need similar training to archaeologists in other departments (Newhard 2017).

We might imagine, then, Classical archaeology ripped out of Classics departments and redeposited in newly-minted archaeology departments. But perhaps that is a feeling that comes out of a misplaced longing for disciplinary coherence along formal lines. That is to say, that there should be archaeology departments as there are economics departments, organized around a more or less coherent set of methods (rather than subject matter). Compared to most academic departments, Classics is extremely compact and coherent. Whereas a cultural anthropologist might ask “when was the last time that research on hominid evolution or primates was helpful to you in thinking about your ethnographic data?” and expect the answer “never” (Segal and Tanagisako 2015), I suspect that the equivalent question in Classics would provoke the opposite reaction. That is, “when was the last time that Classical archaeology was helpful to your thinking about literature?” or “when was the last time that literary studies were helpful to your thinking about archaeology?”).

I don’t think that separation from Classics would be good for Classical archaeology. Many of its strengths come precisely from its close association with the Classics: a long tradition of fieldwork, robust data sets (archaeological, epigraphical, artistic, and literary), broad recognition and appeal, and strong institutions. Classical archaeology also has within it an enormous amount of expertise, and we have natural allies within our Classics departments. The success of historicizing approaches in particular has created a better environment than ever before for integration and cooperation in a sophisticated way.

Indeed, for me the interest and power of a discipline like Classics is in the application of different approaches that are focused on a relatively limited chronological and geographical expanse. When Classicists define the field in narrow and totalizing ways, I find it boring and small-minded. I’m not particularly interested in a Classics that defines itself, as a colleague once did, as a discipline knit exclusively around linguistic competence in Greek and Latin, control of essential textual skills, and familiarity with all ancient genres. As James Clifford (2005: 27) points out, “knowledge does not…naturally sort itself out in professional segments, and institutionalized domains of academic practice are necessarily dynamic and relational.” Clifford also observes that “a discipline does not actually need consensus on core assumptions. Rather like a hegemonic alliance…it requires consent, some significant overlapping interests, and a spirit of live-and-let-live across the differences.”

I think that Classics can do better than that, however. We can retain coherence and the flexibility for new directions within the discipline. If Classics will be a narrow discipline, then so too will Classical archaeology. But if Classics can accommodate methodological diversity, then Classical archaeology can be a strength and a source of energy and new ideas. It will be most successful if it can forge cooperative and collaborative bonds within Classics and between Classics and other disciplines, especially those in the social sciences and the natural sciences (and fields like “Digital Humanities”). I don’t want to imply that we can snap our fingers and achieve this: cooperation isn’t something that just happens; it is something that is “learned, practiced, and honed” (Perry 2017). It requires effort and experience, and it will necessarily entail different models of teaching and learning, publication and promotion, from the norms of the discipline. It is a radical change from the old models of knowledge production, but it would be a natural development from the current collaborative models of knowledge production emerging from modern archaeological field projects. If this becomes a reality, then Classical archaeology will also have contributed a great deal to Classics as a whole. I hope that none of us thinks that a smaller umbrella and a less expansive view of the discipline and its position within the Academy is any way forward.

Archaeological futures III

[This post is a continuation of two other blog posts: part one and part two.]

I think that a basic structure of the talk I’m giving at Smith College is coming into shape. I’ll start with a brief description of the accelerating sophistication of archaeological methods since I began as a student in the mid-1990s, focusing first on the proliferation of archaeological sciences and their integration into Mediterranean archaeology and the proliferation of data produced by archaeological projects. (I’ll hopefully use data from Corinth Excavations to get a quantitative sense of the increase in data produced).

This leads to the issue of data and digitization. One of my big take-aways from the Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future book was a more clear sense of how this proliferation of data has encouraged archaeologists to go digital, for a couple of different reasons, two of which I’ll highlight here: (1) The quantities of data are so immense that digitizing them (or better, creating them digitally to begin with) is an elegant solution to basic storage and dissemination needs, and (2) the types of data are so divergent, largely because of the increase in specialist and scientific studies in archaeological projects, that integrating these data are a significant hurdle, and digital integration is again a good solution.

A couple of personal anecdotes come to mind here. The archaeological survey that I was trained on, EKAS, started fieldwork with a “fully functional GIS” – that was exciting in 1999. When I was planning a survey in 2011 (WARP), one of the first things that I did was to think about the GIS and how we could integrate all of our data within it. Although I haven’t exactly been successful at pulling in non-archaeological data to the GIS framework, it still remains the basis for much of our analysis. When I write papers about WARP – as I was this week for a paper I’m giving tonight – I usually write on my desktop and keep my laptop reserved for ArcGIS (I run GIS on my laptop because it’s that indispensable to me). When I started excavating at Corinth in 2004, on the other hand, Corinth Excavations still used hard-bound notebooks, although they had become increasingly form-driven (we used a stamp). To figure out what had been excavated in my area prior to 2004, I had to flip through two or three different hard-bound notebooks. They proved to be not very well-written or illustrated, and I found myself increasingly frustrated by the fact that I was “digging blind.” (Actually that is why I was put there, to figure out what was going on and to “clean up” the interpretive knots created by past supervisors who hadn’t done such a good job).

One of the best arguments for digitization and born-digital data is (in my opinion) to give supervisors more interpretive tools in the field, by allowing them to call up previous years’ work easily on their computers or tablets in the field (additionally reference works and scholarly literature in the field can be extremely useful). This is a way to bring everything that we can to bear on solving interpretive problems in the field. I stress this point because if archaeology is anything, it is that: thinking through problems in the field, at the trowel’s edge (to use the excavation metaphor). Excavators are not just collecting data – they are interpreting as they go, and their interpretations shape their data. To do better archaeology, we need better interpretations more than anything else, and digital tools have allowed us to stretch our capabilities to pull up information of various kinds, especially outside of the library.

In that respect, digital technologies have the ability to help us bridge the field/library divide that is such an important structuring device of archaeological discourse, so much so that it even made it into an Indiana Jones movie (note: Vere Gordon Childe didn’t spend most of his time in the field). On the other hand, there can be a tendency, at least in some writing on “digital archaeology,” to emphasize the importance of data collection in a way that seems to separate it from interpretation. The word “data” appears 1619 times in the Mobilizing the Past book, “interpret*” only 164 times, and the general tone of much of the discussion focuses on interpreting data that have already been collected, thus reifying the field/library divide as it is being transformed into a field/computer lab divide. The section entitled “Interpretation” in the introduction to the Mobilizing the Past book is less than two pages long and focuses on a discussion of Bill Caraher’s “slow archaeology” work – in the same chapter, we get more words devoted to Apple’s famous “1984” commercial. Likewise Roosevelt and his colleagues briefly discuss the importance of interpretation trench-side in their introduction, but at no point is their born-digital system described as improving interpretation, nor do they talk about interpretation very much at all. In fact, I only see one contribution to interpretation in the entire article: an assertion that technologies that model space in three dimensions would aid in interpretation. This is how they describe their system (emphasis mine):

Conceived and designed before excavation commenced, the system was ‘‘born digital’’ (Austin 2014: 14), operating with integrated databases and aiming for the production of high-quality data with manifold improvements in accuracy and efficiency.

I don’t want to linger too long here, since I’ve already made my feelings clear. This is not a criticism of the tools or practices of digital archaeology, but rather of its discourses. But discourses are important: they reveal what we value and what we don’t.

What I want to say, then, is that we’re barely realizing the potential of our new digital tools, but that to make them work for us, we need to avoid this obsession with high-quality data, efficiency and accuracy. All those things are wonderful, but they are all a means to an end: productive interpretations and analyses of research questions. It’s true that high-quality data aren’t just produced for us but for future generations of archaeologists, but I think it’s a mistake to think that if we just produce the highest-quality data then one day someone might make interpretive hay of them. Our primary goal has to be productive interpretations in the here and now.

“Digital archaeology,” if that is even a thing, then, is at once an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunities are obvious, and they’ve encouraged even the most skeptical of us to become digital archaeologists in a very meaningful way. The opportunities are made very clear in the Mobilizing the Past book and in the article of Roosevelt et alii. The challenge is to unthink data and methodological sophistication as ends in themselves.

Let me end with another personal anecdote, which reveals that I am as guilty of this as anyone. When I started working on EKAS, I was extremely suspicious of defining “sites” in the field. I still am. What I wanted to do was to plug all of the artifactual evidence into the GIS and produce maps that would help us to understand artifactual distributions better and to define “sites” (if that’s we wanted to do) in the computer lab. I still think that’s a better way of doing things than declaring “ooh, there’s lots of stuff here” and defining a site on the fly. The on-the-fly way of doing things is data-poor and isn’t meant to require a lot of thought. You might feel rushed to make a decision as you pace back and forth trying to decide if it’s “really” a site while your undergraduate field walkers look at you impatiently, waiting to get on with it. The GIS-y way of doing it is data-rich and involves more thinking. In fact, that’s the value of the digital way of doing it: you can display and comprehend more evidence than is easily comprehensible when you’re in the field. So on the one hand, there is a separation made between fieldwork and analysis, which is something I’ve argued against. On the other, that separation gives you more information and more time to contemplate your decision-making. It gives you a little more information, and a bit of space to think.

Archaeological futures, part II

At the end of my last blog post, I worried that my take had been too pessimistic and negative. The point of the symposium I’m speaking at isn’t only, I hope, to spread gloom and doom but to talk about the future of our discipline(s). To do that, I think some historical context is necessary. (I should note that I’ve been helped in my thinking by many friends on Facebook especially, including two friends who blogged about this: Bill Caraher and Jim Newhard. You should read their posts).

I don’t think that anyone can deny that the sophistication of archaeological methods has exploded in the past generation. As Adam Rabinowitz writes:

Two hundred and fifty years have passed since the excavations of the Quadriporticus at Pompeii (Poehler, Ch. 1.7). For 230 of those years, field documentation practices remained largely unchanged: archaeologists took notes using pen or pencil and paper, measured features with tapes and plumb-bobs, surveyed with transits and optical theodolites, and drew plans and sections by hand. Only one major technological advance took place during that time: the introduction of photography 60 years after the Quadriporticus excavations began, 190 years before the present. The dumpy level described in John Droop’s 1915 excavation manual (Droop 1915, 11–12) was still in use when I dug at Cosa in 1995, 80 years later.

That tallies with my experience. To run an excavation in the Mediterranean when I began, you basically just needed excavation tools, a total station, paper, screens, and a (film) camera. That’s oversimplifying somewhat, but none of the excavation projects that I was initially trained on in the mid-1990s had (if I remember correctly) a systematic program for water sieving or scientific methods like radiocarbon dating. In my area of Greek prehistory, at least, a whole set of methods have been introduced that have radically transformed the data that are collected as part of systematic excavation. Here are some of the ones that come immediately to mind, in no particular order: ceramic petrography/petrology, archaeobotany (via water sieving and phytoliths), various scientific dating methods (from dendrochronology to OSL), pollen coring, soil micromorphology, bioarchaeology, DNA studies, isotopic analysis of tooth enamel and bones, analysis of bone collagen, zooarchaeology, organic residue analysis, microwear analysis, trace element analyses (ICPS, ICP-MS, MC-ICP-MS, XRF, etc.) and isotopic analyses. (I’m sure that I’m missing a bunch, don’t yell at me). Of course, regional approaches to the archaeological record have also been radically affected by the developments in geophysics, geology, geomorphology, and soil science, remote sensing using aerial photography and satellite imagery, etc.

Some might object at this point that many of these techniques are more relevant to prehistory than to other kinds of archaeology, especially the archaeology of historical periods, but in fact many of them are being used by the Roman Peasant Project, which makes use of a variety of methods to get at the archaeology of Roman non-elites living in the countryside. This is really wonderful.

All these data are great, and they’re indispensable. Without them, I couldn’t teach the prehistory of the Aegean. This is a class that I taught just last year to a mix of undergraduates and graduates, and while all of the above didn’t make it into the lectures, readings, and class discussions, scientific and methodological advances take center stage at a number of the most important debates going on right now in Aegean prehistory. Archaeological science is not something “extra” to throw into the mix to make your project seem cutting edge; it’s absolutely central to modern archaeological practice.

There are a couple of important developments from this explosion in new methodologies, however.

First, it takes a village. Collaboration is more important than ever, because nobody has all the skills or knowledge to deal with all this material. This is great: it democratizes, one hopes, archaeological fieldwork, as the structural model of the archaeological project transitions away from a top-down “heroic” model in which the archaeological director closely controls the material and its interpretation to something akin to a seminar, populated not just with skeptical graduate students and real Mediterranean archaeologists but also a series of specialists. Old projects had architects, ceramicists, and maybe a numismatist; new projects have many more specialists than this. Because these specialists have rare skills and knowledge, they often are needed by the projects more than they need the projects: they are in constant demand.

Second, this stuff ain’t cheap. As Bill Caraher pointed out, there is a real danger that elite universities will be the only ones that can point their cash cannon at these projects, especially as public funding sources like the NSF are being eroded. Archaeological labs with high-tech equipment aren’t really a thing in Classics departments, in large part because Mediterranean nations don’t generally allow for the legal export of most archaeological materials (and for good reason!). But without them, training is made difficult. Again, the elite universities are well-placed to purchase the expensive equipment needed and often have historical collections of materials from the Mediterranean when export was allowed.

Third, this growth in increasingly indispensable technical and laboratory-based studies creates, as I wrote in my last blog post, “a growing chasm…between what makes good archaeology in the Mediterranean and how one gets a job in a Classics department.” New data, and new kinds of data, help us to answer research questions, old and new. But this interpretive firepower comes at a cost: training in the canonical skills of the discipline (i.e., philology, ancient history, art-historical analysis of material culture). If these specialists cannot get jobs in the academy, then Mediterranean archaeology risks falling further behind other archaeologies in its methodological, technical, and thereby interpretive, sophistication. As I mentioned last time, archaeologists need time to make their materials sing, so if Mediterranean projects just bring in specialists whose real interests lie elsewhere to do scientific analyses, interpretive sophistication will most certainly suffer.

I think that we can say that archaeology in the Mediterranean has come an awfully long way since the 1950s, from dumpy levels to phytoliths. Archaeology done now is vastly superior to what we were doing before, as a friend of mine always points out. That’s wonderful. But there is a real danger that we won’t follow up on these advances with changes to the structures of our disciplines, that folks with the languages peddling synthetic accounts that are more easily digestible to ancient historians and literary folks (that’s me I’m describing) will get jobs while the folks doing cutting-edge work will struggle, especially in a job market that’s been battered by the financial crisis and a shift away from humanistic disciplines. That’s not so wonderful.



Thinking archaeological futures

In just over three weeks, I’m giving a paper at a one-day symposium at Smith College entitled “The Futures of Classical Antiquity” (link). I’m the lone archaeologist: the other speakers are dealing with digital approaches to texts, public humanities, reception studies, and race & ethnicity. I’ve thought very informally about the kinds of things that I want to say but I need to start disciplining my unconnected thoughts into something more coherent, especially since I only have 40 minutes. This is all still very rough indeed, and more of a rant than a talk, but here are some things that I’ve been worried about:

(1) In some ways, archaeology and classics are closer now than they have been in recent years. When Classics focused on the individual genius of individuals like Euripides and Horace, then the contribution of archaeology was pretty marginal. Archaeologists and art historians could, of course, come up with their own geniuses like the Berlin Painter, but whether or not there was a Berlin Painter had very little bearing on the study of Euripides. The other move was to use archaeology to illustrate the world of the texts. But now most literary scholars would be much happier to understand the texts that we have as the complex products of various socioeconomic forces. The example I often use is Homer and hero cult. It was natural for Coldstream in 1976 (link) to understand tomb cult as the product of Homeric epic. As he put it (1976, 14), for 8th century Greeks “the great size of a Mycenaean tomb, and the richness of the offerings, would fill him with superstitious awe; so he would leave some offerings as a mark of respect, after his imagination had been stirred by the first Panhellenic circulation of Homeric epic.” Now virtually nobody would make such a claim, that Homeric epic engendered hero cult, but rather the opposite: that hero cult engendered Homeric epic, or rather that both are reflexes of deep currents running through Archaic Greece. This means that in one way archaeology is more relevant to literary and historical research than ever.

(2) In other ways, archaeology and classics are miles apart, for a variety of reasons, but chiefly, it seems to me, the very rapid proliferation of evidence, scholarship, and methods. This avalanche gives archaeology extraordinary power – it means, among other things, that archaeological research is rapidly expanding our understanding of the ancient world on an incredible number of fronts – but it also presents a series of challenges to the 21st century archaeologist. It is simply no longer possible, if it ever was, for archaeologists now to control the vast quantities of materials being published every year. Even an Aegean prehistorian can’t keep up with the incredible quantities being produced in her sub-subfield. And, although the scholarship is naturally of variable quality, it can’t be said that diminishing results are reached very quickly. In ancient history, as Robin Osborne has put it (link):

“X” years ago, the bibliography on any sort of ancient historical subject was perfectly cope-able with, and although the law of declining returns set in, it set in quite far down the (as it were) percentage of literature on the subject, so you read 50% of the literature on the subject and after that you discovered that… there was very little in the rest. Now, on most mainstream subjects the literature on the subject published last year is hard enough to get through, let alone the total body of literature, and the law of declining returns sets in after about, you know, 3% of the items… [laughter in the audience]

In archaeology, on the other hand, most publications aren’t dealing with the same evidence, but rather with new evidence applied to new problems. Archaeological projects now produce an enormous quantity of data, and they produce data of widely varying kinds. One of the great changes in archaeological practice in the past 50 years is the emergence of specialist and scientific analyses of material. If radiocarbon engendered a revolution (link), that was only the first of many that swept through archaeological practice. Most recently, what we might call “digital methods” have become increasingly important, from photogrammetry and remote sensing to things like GIS and databases. I’ve been critical of what seems to me to be a kind of naive faith among some archaeologists in how these technologies operate and help us, but there is absolutely no doubt that virtually all of us are now “digital archaeologists.” These are not skills that are marginal to archaeological practice: they are absolutely central to them. The data avalanche is not cope-able with without digital technologies.

(3) Like all scholars, however, archaeologists need time to learn their materials in such a way that they can work creatively with them to solve problems. My spouse looked 4.5 metric tons of Hellenistic pottery for her dissertation, for example. I spent an awful lot of time puzzling over each and every single personal name from the Linear B tablets from Pylos and all of the texts that the names appeared on (which is pretty much all of them). That work takes time; all of the databases and statistical packages and data visualization programs in the world, assuming that we’ve sufficiently mastered them (in all our free time?!?), they don’t give us any real shortcuts when it comes to interpretation. The proliferation of evidence coupled with this need to master it to achieve real interpretive results means that archaeological interpretation has become increasingly independent from “the Classics” as traditionally understood.

(4) Our graduate programs, undergraduate programs, and hiring practices largely do not acknowledge this reality. What counts most in Classics is knowing ancient Greek and Latin. What this means, in practice, and what I have told students, is: you need to be as good as the rest in the languages, and do whatever else you need on top of that, in the summer and in your spare time. I “learned” GIS not in any classroom – I’ve never taken a single class in GIS, although I’ve taught them – but in the field, on EKAS (the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey [link]). I read a lot of archaeological theory on weekends in graduate school, in anthropology courses that I audited, and in the field; for example, I read Ed Soja’s Postmodern geographies (link) on EKAS in the summer of 2001 (don’t ask me how). There is thus a growing chasm, it seems to me, between what makes good archaeology in the Mediterranean and how one gets a job in a Classics department. A good friend of mine even admitted that they included a chapter in their dissertation about a literary text not because it was intellectually necessary but so that they could get a job. They did. (Yes, I used singular they: deal with it). This is clearly unsatisfactory, since it means that there is a mismatch between how archaeology moves forward and professional incentives.

This has been a pessimistic take on archaeological futures, and that’s not the message I want to take to this symposium, so I’ll have to think of ways to incorporate this material into a more optimistic message about where archaeology in the Mediterranean is headed.

“Data” and interpretation in the humanities

Last night Miriam Posner gave an interesting talk in the “Exploring Digital Humanities” series at the University of Colorado Boulder that explored the unease that humanists often feel when their materials are described and treated as “data.” The creation of data requires careful categorization so that the materials in question can be counted and queried, but really good scholarship in the humanities, she pointed out, seeks to break received categories. Certainly this has been how I’ve understood my own work – as a sustained attack on the binaries that structure the study of the Bronze Age – but I nevertheless found that I didn’t have as much of a problem with understanding my materials as “data” than many in the audience seemed to.

Maybe this is because I’m not much of a humanist – my theoretical inclinations have always tilted towards the social sciences -, maybe it’s because I’m an archaeologist and archaeologists seem to be more comfortable with the notion of “data,” especially as field teams have grown in size and the number of specialists required to run an archaeological project has increased. These specialists and team members produce interpretations and materials that need to speak to one another, and here digital tools are invaluable (as many of the contributions to the excellent Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future emphasize).

Prof. Posner’s talk began (sort of, I was late since I came straight from class) with the Culturomics paper in Science, published in 2011 (which, I am embarrassed to admit, I had never heard of), and she focused on what I might call the “front end” of a digital humanities project: taking the mass of cultural materials and making them amenable to the structure of a database. What I found more objectionable about Culturomics, on the other hand, was the “back end”: the interpretations produced by Culturomics’ quantitative analysis. That is to say, once the data have been carefully cooked (since we all know that raw data do not exist) and analyzed, there is a tendency for the interpretation to follow simply and directly from whatever numbers are spit out. For instance, the conclusion drawn from these data


is that “in the battle of the sexes, the ‘women’ are gaining ground on the ‘men’.” Is this meant to be serious? It’s certainly presented as such but it’s hard to believe that anyone would say this with a straight face about “a new type of evidence in the humanities.”

For me, this is a good illustration of the worst kind of research (in the humanities or not). Good research requires time, careful thought, and most of all, a real and sustained passion for materials (or data, or evidence, or whatever you want to call them). We need to spend thousands of hours with our materials before we can make them sing, just like a musician or an athlete needs to practice and practice and practice. In that way academic work is like a craft: ideas are well and good, but we need to work with materials and follow many dead ends before we can make our ideas do work. Any research that involves taking 5 to 50 seconds to come up with an interpretation is (usually? always?) bad research. (Also, where’s the fun in coming up with a dumb interpretation that didn’t take you any hard work?)

For reasons that I don’t really understand, it seems to me that there is a market for this kind of work (regardless of whether it’s digital or analog). In Greek archaeology, my field, the equivalent seems to be something like, “Look, I excavated this temple, and I think it’s this temple mentioned in this Classical text. The end.” That’s fine as far as it goes – it’s not the worst thing to try to connect material culture to texts – but it’s not really a conclusion as much as it is a banal observation. And it seems odd to me that so many people seem to want to take shortcuts, to make interpretation easier, when in fact it should be hard. Digital tools give us the opportunity to make sense of more and diverse materials, to integrate them and to let them communicate – but none of that makes interpretation any easier. In fact, it can make it harder: harder, for example, to ignore evidence that doesn’t agree with our interpretation. And that’s good. It’s supposed to be hard.