Blegen’s notebooks from Korakou

This is the first post of a blog dedicated to my research interests, which center on the archaeology and scripts of the Aegean Bronze Age. The name of the site, Englianos, is the modern toponym where Carl Blegen excavated the “Palace of Nestor.” This site, which was called Pylos in the Late Bronze Age, is the source for some 1000 inscribed clay documents whose study formed the basis for my doctoral dissertation.

Prior to excavating LBA Pylos, Blegen excavated at a number of other prehistoric sites in the Peloponnese, one of which is Korakou. This site, located on the bluffs overlooking the Corinthian Gulf at the outskirts of modern Corinth, was excavated in 1915 and 1916, and formed the basis for Blegen and Wace’s ceramic chronology of the Greek mainland for the Greek Bronze Age.

Blegen’s excavation notebooks have been scanned and made publicly available by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Corinth Excavations (among other things). As my colleague Bill Caraher pointed out in his blog (about two years ago!), these are a fantastic resource, but they are static. There is no opportunity for scholars to add metadata to the digital scans. As Bill put it,

as I thought about this I began to imagine a parallel site where scholars could upload their transcriptions of notebook pages. These would be keyed to the stable urls provided by the American School and presented in a wiki which would allow for and track revisions. I am sure that some notebooks are useful enough and commonly investigated enough to warrant this.

I think that Bill is right, and I wanted to provide here a small example of the kind of thing that he envisioned, using Blegen’s Korakou notebooks as an example. As Bill noted, Blegen’s handwriting can be difficult to read. Transcriptions of all the Korakou notebooks were made in 2005 by myself and Sarah James, and could provide a valuable resource to scholars working on Korakou. We are not the only scholars who have made transcriptions of the Korakou notebooks, however. Others who have worked with the Korakou material have also transcribed sections for their own work, and in some cases there are discrepancies between their readings and ours. In Notebook 84, p. 81, Blegen writes (on my reading, based on autopsy):

I measure depth from semadi cut in stone on east wall of L above the trench. This mark is .20 below ground level so I add .20 in every case to measurements of depth.

This differs from the reading of Jerry Rutter (also based on autopsy, published in his 1974 dissertation, p. 108):

I measure depth from [?……?] cut in slope in east wall of L above the trench.  This mark is .20 below ground level so I add .20 in every case to measurements of depth.

Below is the image of the passage in question. I’ve increased the contrast so that the writing is more clear, but you can see the original scan here.

NB84_p81

This difference in readings is somewhat significant for how we understand the archaeology of Korakou and indeed Blegen’s methods in the field. Rutter goes on to argue, based on his reading of this passage, that (Rutter 1974: 108-109)

Not too much credence should be given to Blegen’s depth measurements…since the ground level to which these measurements refer no longer existed and had to be estimated at 0.20 above some obscure “cut”. It is quite possible that Blegen began his…sounding at ca 0.40-0.50 below ground level, the level of the earlier floor which he had uncovered on 19 June.  In this case, the uppermost wall in the sounding would have appeared not at 0.60 below ground level, but at 0.80-0.90, roughly the level of the bottom of the LH IIIB 1 fill on which House L was built.

If, on the other hand, we use my reading of Blegen’s notebook, then the measurements were taken from a mark (semadi is a transliteration of the Greek σημάδι) cut into a stone. This stone belongs to a wall of House L, and the tops of these walls are, as Blegen notes, 20-30 cm below ground level (Corinth NB 81, p. 220). Thus his measurements are reliable. And this potentially changes Rutter’s interpretation of this area, as Sarah James and I noted in an unpublished report that we submitted to Corinth Excavations in the summer of 2005:

Rutter suggests that Blegen’s enlargement of [Trench] L began at ca. 0.40 m below ground level, where he exposed an earlier floor. However, Blegen only exposed this floor “in the southern part of the Megaron,” and his enlargement of the pit in L is “to the east and south.”  It is likely that the southern part of the Megaron is roughly equal to the area south of the pit in L, which cuts diagonally across the northern half of the main room of House L (the Megaron).  However, the enlargement of the pit in L extended to the south and east, and to the east of pit L Blegen apparently had not dug down to 0.40.  Thus, L II probably represents an operation taking the enlargement down to 0.40, and then L III included both the eastern and southern parts of the enlargement.  As the eastern part of the enlargement is directly west of the eastern wall of House L, it makes good sense for Blegen to use the wall as a benchmark from which to measure depths.

In short, this means that Blegen does reveal a wall (with L III, NB 84, p. 127) whose top is only 0.60 m below ground level.  This is problematic for Rutter’s reconstruction of this area, specifically his argument that the “habitation level” revealed at a depth of 0.80 in the East Alley, and the “floor of hard earth” at a depth of 0.80 in Trench L (NB 81, p. 375), represent a terracing line for a fill of LH IIIB:1 date upon which House L was built.  Perhaps the “habitation level” at 0.80 is actually a floor associated with the construction of a building (represented by a wall whose socle rises 0.20 above its floor), which was then covered by the same LH IIIB:1 fill.

My primary interest here is not the interpretation of the area around House L at Korakou. Rather, it is that while static publications of excavation notebooks are invaluable, they do not (as they might) capture the scholarly arguments that build on these notebooks. What the American School has done — making a vast quantity of scholarly materials publicly available on the web — is laudable, but the next logical step is to turn these static materials into a dynamic scholarly space. A parallel wiki on the Corinth notebooks such as Bill and I are suggesting would allow scholars to add value to the static scans in a way that would benefit students and scholars of Greek archaeology for years to come.

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7 thoughts on “Blegen’s notebooks from Korakou

  1. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits « The New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  2. Vassiliki Pliatsika

    Having worked extensively on transcribing old excavation notebooks myself (G. Mylonas and students from Mycenae), I couldn’t agree more with your approach. Indeed the ASCSA’s initiative of publishing excavation notebooks (and diaries) is a giant step forward in making data available to a wider audience and initiating discussions such as this one. But I feel that transcriptions are more than necessary if we really want to start a good conversation.
    Keep blogging 🙂

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Blegen’s Notebooks at Korakou | Corinthian Matters

  4. Paul Scotton

    I have worked with the Corinth notebooks (and Blegen 1914-1915) in particular for twenty years. There are sections that I still am not sure what is being said. (I find Saul Weinberg’s handwritting to be very difficult.) Although I think it would be good for each scholar to at first read what he/she can directly from the notebooks, an easily accessible and parallel discussion would be very helpful. How do we get this going?

    Reply
    1. nakassis Post author

      Paul, I think it would be best if it were hosted at ascsa.net. If one allowed only those people who are working/have worked with the notebooks to edit the transcription and discussion, that might get around the need for constant moderation. I’m not entirely sure how to proceed, however. Perhaps this is something that could be brought to the attention of the School’s IT committee?

      Reply
  5. Guy Sanders

    I am all for transcribed notebooks. It makes them searchable, makes the information widely available to several people simultaneously working in different rooms and countries and it protects the originals some of which are pretty tatty. I played with Dragon Naturally Speaking a couple of years ago. It was pretty good but then I had computer glitches and it tried to take over everything I did. Once it got used to my pommie accent the transcription was relatively accurate and could be corrected. It was going to be a way to read pottery directly and I was training it to recognize words like Niederbieber 77.

    Please not the IT Committee. Talk to James and Bruce first. If you transcribe a notebook, send it to James who can deal with it. He and Bruce can discuss an appropriate way for adding comments and notes.

    ascsa.net has a lot on its plate right now. It is administered by Bruce Hartzler who has been overseeing the new digital data created for the Athenian Agora and is now putting up the Corinth digital data that accumulated while he was busy. This should add the new images we have been creating and the complete coin comparative collection. A lot of the metadata we have up is pretty dirty and in some cases inaccurate. It needs cleaning up. One of my priorities is retro-conversion, especially of written and typed inventories. I have been tasking this kind of work to volunteers but they can only take so much of it before they need a new task.

    We are going to be pretty busy this winter. We are moving the sculpture out of the room in the museum so that can be opened as a gallery for the new finds made by the service. We are also making conservation proposals, a new Guide Book ktl.

    Reply
    1. nakassis Post author

      Guy: absolutely, you’re right of course. I was thinking that they’ve got about a million other things to do, all more important than this, and that what they need is more support and not more work to do. It is all fine for people like me to say “this would be nice” but the work that James and Bruce do is really where rubber meets the road.

      Reply

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