Category Archives: Bronze Age

Tools of the Mycenological Trade, 2017

When I started working on Linear B in graduate school (late 90s), there were a handful of books (beyond corpora of texts) that I always kept on my desk for consultation:

What a difference in 2017. I’m working on a paper about Mycenaean “taxation” (really more like extractive regimes) and although I do have my Aura Jorro handy, as well as Docs2, I am leaning on a new set of super useful texts:

  1. Maurizio del Freo’s and Massimo Perna’s Manuale di epigrafia micenea. The only downside to this volume is that it’s in Italian, which is not my strongest language. (Yes, I realize that this is my fault entirely). But it’s very recent (December 2016), authoritative, useful, and cheap: 41.56 euros for 784 pages! It’s got a glossary of Mycenaean words, and although it doesn’t have an index verborum, it does have an index locorum. It’s great to be able to consult Nosch on textiles, Zurbach on the economy, Perna on fiscality, and Garcia Ramon on Mycenaean Greek all in one handy (two-volume) book.
  2. John Killen’s collected papers in three volumes, formally entitled Economy and Administration in Mycenaean Greece, and edited by Maurizio del Freo (2015). Oh man, this thing is the greatest. To be honest, I never really understood the point of collected papers. I had photocopies of pretty much all of these papers, now they live as PDF scans on my hard drive. So what’s to be gained from having all of the papers together physically? Answer: the index. Killen is so productive, so important, and his work so varied, that sometimes it’s hard to remember where any particular discussion is. The great thing about having all of Killen’s papers to hand and indices (verborum and locorum) attached is that you can immediately zoom to the page that you need. It’s really amazing, especially if you’re working on economic or administrative matters in the Linear B texts.

P.S. What do you listen to when you’re working on Mycenaean taxation? If you’re me, it’s Bob Marley and the Wailers pretty much all the time. For some reason I’m especially into the live version of “Punky Reggae Party” on Babylon by Bus.

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…

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.



Arthur Evans on “The Eastern Question in Anthropology”

“Mycenaean culture was permeated by Oriental elements, but never subdued by them. This independent quality would alone be sufficient to fix its original birthplace in an area removed from immediate continguity with that of the older civilisations of Egypt and Babylonia. The Aegean island world answers admirable to the conditions of the case. It is near, yet sufficiently removed, combining maritime access with insular security. We see the difference if we compare the civilization of the Hittites of Anatolia and Northern Syria, in some respects so closely parallel with that of Mycenae. The native elements were there cramped and trammelled from the beginning by the Oriental contact. No real life and freedom of expression was ever reached; the art is stiff, conventional, becoming more and more Asiatic, till finally crushed out by Assyrian conquest. It is the same with the Phoenicians. But in prehistoric Greece the indigenous element was able to hold its own, and to recast what it took from others in an original mould. Throughout its handiwork there breathes the European spirit of individuality and freedom. Professor Petrie’s discoveries at Tell-el-Amarna show the contact of this Aegean element for a moment infusing naturalism and life into the time-honoured conventionalities of Egypt itself.”

page 919 of Evans, A. J. 1896. “‘The Eastern Question’ in Anthropology,” Report of the
Sixty-Sixth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Held at Liverpool in September 1896, London, pp. 906–922.

Carl Blegen: Personal and archaeological narratives

A series of flights across North America (Denver to LaGuardia to Toronto) gave me the opportunity to finally read a volume I picked up in New Orleans edited by Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, Jack Davis, and Vasiliki Florou about the life and work of Carl Blegen, the excavator of the site for which this blog is named.

My friend Bill Caraher already wrote some thoughts about the volume, and, like Bill, rather than write a review of the book, I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts that the various papers elicited.

Archaeological teamwork

Davis and Vogeikoff-Brogan emphasize that Blegen thought of archaeology as a “team enterprise” (11), and Blegen also came up with my new favorite quote about a successful excavation (192):

On a dig, you have to live as a family lives… and if you have to live as a family, it’s better to be a happy family.

But if the excavation team was a family, it seems that Blegen was very much the paterfamiliasJohn Camp is quoted in the volume as commenting that

Among those who didn’t know him, Mr. Blegen was thought to be gentle; and he was. But among those who worked with him, he had a fuller reputation as a man who was somewhat hard to work for. Once he had stated an opinion, it was to be regarded as fact; one did not argue with Mr. Blegen, his word was law. … In short, his gentle manner was real, but it hid a forceful stubborn personality.

That’s interesting, especially because that the model of excavation when Blegen began his research emphasized not the archaeological team, but the singular excavator, a model that Bill Caraher has described as “heroic archaeology.” Blegen’s way of thinking seems to have departed somewhat from the “heroic archaeology” model: it is the model of a family-like or patrimonial structure, with the director playing the role of the traditional strict father, whose opinion is fact and whose word is law. Nevertheless Blegen was, if I understand things correctly, progressive for his day. By contrast, the projects that I were trained on didn’t resemble this patrimonial model. Instead they rather resembled a modern graduate seminar, with “skeptical graduate students” (SGSs) — people like me — engaging in a lively debate with the project directors, the “real Mesoamerican Mediterranean archaeologists” (RMAs) and the “great synthesizers” (GSs). In fact, I felt so comfortable working in this environment that as an SGS I felt comfortable working with and publishing project data, without feeling the need to worry too much about whether the RMAs and GSs would disagree with my interpretations and get angry. Thinking about it a little bit, that’s actually quite remarkable. In any case, this model seems to have emerged in the post-war period, after Blegen’s training was already complete. But it was embraced by those students he trained. In this sense, Blegen’s model of a successful excavation straddles the true “heroic archaeology” of the early 20th century and the more team-oriented model that characterizes late 20th century and early 21st century American archaeology.

I should emphasize that this is not a hidden criticism of Blegen, who by all account was extremely generous and kind, but a comment on the changing nature of archaeological knowledge production. If anything, Blegen was far ahead of his time, both with respect to the way he treated his archaeological family and in the way that he worked together with his colleagues in the Greek archaeological service (the latter point is emphasized especially by Davis’s chapter in the Blegen volume).

16 Jul 1961, Pylos, Greece --- American archaeologist Carl Blegen discovered the palace of Nestor, King of Pylos, in Greece. --- Image by © Manuel Litran/Corbis

16 Jul 1961, Pylos, Greece — American archaeologist Carl Blegen discovered the palace of Nestor, King of Pylos, in Greece. — Image by © Manuel Litran/Corbis

Insiders and outsiders

Blegen was sometimes an insider, sometimes an outsider. He was director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, but only after he had first been (somewhat voluntarily) banished from it by Edward Capps, then the chair of the American School’s managing committee. In “the most dramatic episode” in the School’s history (5), Bert Hodge Hill was forced out of the directorship of the School by Capps, and with Blegen he retreated from the School to found a salon at 9 Ploutarchou.

I’m not particularly interested in assigning blame for this episode (I don’t know nearly enough about it, although I am inclined to favor Hill and Blegen over Capps), but it is astonishing to think that Blegen — probably the most important American archaeologist in Greece over the last 100 years — was ever on the outs at the American School, an institution at which he is now revered. It’s a vivid illustration not only of the vicissitudes of archaeological fortune (i.e., today’s outsider is tomorrow’s superstar and eventual legend) but also of the wastefulness (that’s not quite the right word) of the political wrangling of archaeological heavyweights. Capps seems to have blocked Blegen from working at Pylos using “political pressure, bribery, and blackmail” (214). One of the things that I like least about archaeology is the way in which established scholars can use their influence to block access to others, and the way that research material becomes territory to be defended at all costs. I was drawn to archaeology because I had the real sense that we archaeologists are all in this together, that our data and interpretations, when combined and recontextualized and reinterpreted, are moving us closer to a better understanding of the past. That’s naive, admittedly, but I still believe it. We all benefit the more transparent and open we are with our evidence and our interpretations, and we all suffer when those doors are closed. Here too, Blegen was ahead of his time, a scholar who seems to have encouraged and enabled others. He was, after all, a man who held an open hour at his home in his retirement for anyone who wanted to talk to him (133-134). Perhaps it was the experience of having the door shut to him by Capps that encouraged him to be so open and welcoming to others.

Why I like archaeological survey

Over the past several months, a couple of different people have asked me why I like survey. My initial response is always intellectual. I talk about the importance of understand the countryside, about the urban bias of our texts and excavations, the approach of books like The Corrupting Seaand so on. In both cases, that wasn’t the answer that the questioner wanted. What they wanted to know was, why did I like getting up before dawn to wander around the Greek countryside for six hours or more over six+ weeks?

Strangely, that’s a more complicated answer. As a student, I wasn’t immediately drawn to archaeological survey, although I was of course exposed to it as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, especially in the classes that I took from Sue Alcock and John Cherry. I first got seriously interested in survey because of the senior thesis that I wrote on settlement and state formation in Minoan Crete. I knew that I was interested in state formation (thanks to classes with John Cherry and Kent Flannery) and I knew that it was too big a topic for an undergraduate thesis. So I had spent the summer reading Colin Renfrew’s The Emergence of Civlisation (1972) — a book, incidentally, that convinced me that I wanted to be an Aegean prehistorian — and went into John Cherry’s office with a list of areas that interested me. One of them was settlement, and that sealed my fate: I ended up writing my thesis on published survey data from Crete from the Bronze Age, with a focus on the relationship between settlement data and state formation.

So my initial interest in survey was based on thinking, not doing. I had done survey for two weeks in Tunisia on the Leptiminus project back in 1995, and I liked it, but it wasn’t immediately my passion. But my intellectual interest in landscape and settlement led to me working on survey projects as I entered graduate school, both on the Iklaina Archaeological Project and especially the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey.

So that’s part of the story… but the way that I’ve told it might suggest that I like survey as an intellectual and analytical activity but not in practice. That’s not the case. So when I’ve been asked why I like to get up before dawn and wander around the Greek countryside, I tend to talk about a couple of different things:

(1) The Greek landscape is really beautiful. I won’t ever get tired of looking at this:


And this isn’t even the most iconic form of the Greek landscape (the deep blue Aegean up against the painted white houses of the Cyclades), but it’s still wonderful and variegated. Some of my favorite moments in Greece have been driving around a corner to be greeted to a wide and beautiful vista (the road to Kato Zakros in Crete is one of the best).

(2) The Greek landscape is endlessly surprising. This is true both generally — there are so many beautiful little valleys and harbors in Greece that you could spend your whole life visiting them — and in particular — walking through a familiar landscape will yield all kinds of little surprises.

(3) I love to explore and to hike. Loving survey is about embracing that spirit of exploration: of wanting to hike the trail that you haven’t yet hiked, not knowing where it goes. It sounds cheesy, and it is, but to love survey I do think you need to want to hike up to that hill in the distance to see what’s there.

This will sound familiar to veterans of the American School’s regular program, which involves a lot of hiking up to hills to see what’s there. When I went to Priene on the Ionia trip led by John Camp, my first thought and first question to John was, “Can I hike up to the acropolis?”

After being asked why I liked survey and giving these three responses, I started to wonder where (3) came from. Why do I have this strange desire to hike up to hills and mountains to see what’s up there? Was it drilled into me at the American School? Or does it come from somewhere else?

Thinking back on it, I spent an awful lot of my childhood hiking up hills in Greece. Most of my father’s family never left Greece, and so my summer vacations as a child involved going to Greece to visit my uncle, my cousin, and my grandparents. And Nakassis family vacations basically involved eating, swimming, and wandering up to hills.

1982_dimitri_mykines (2) sm levels

Me at Mycenae, in 1982 (I think; it might be 1981)

Doesn’t it look like I’m having a great time? We wandered up hills like this one, with world-famous, UNESCO World Heritage archaeological sites on them, but we also hiked up to castles (like the Frankish castle above Voidokoilia beach, which we did without bringing any water with us!) and also up mountains with nothing on them at all, like when we were on vacation on Kos and Lesvos.

I do think that there’s something to this idea, that I like survey not only for intellectual reasons that emerged from my undergraduate education and my exposure to professors who were and are passionate about the ability of survey to shed light on the ancient world, but also because it involves a bodily practice and a bodily engagement with the Greek landscape that is almost literally hard wired in me from years of childhood vacations with my family. I managed to turn vacation activities into serious research. I’m not too upset about that.

Knossos, elite strategies, and the invention of Linear B

I just re-read an excellent article by John Bennet, “Now You See It; Now You Don’t! The Disappearance of the Linear A Script on Crete” in a collection of essays about the disappearance of writing systems. Bennet argues that Linear A didn’t disappear, but that it was “killed” in order to create a new script, Linear B, used to write a new language, Greek. He suggests that this was

part of a major cultural realignment among the Knossian ruling elite (including those who used writing), no doubt bilingual, who chose to differentiate themselves through a range of cultural materials and practices drawing on both local and mainland traditions. This realignment included the adaptation of a script that was already at least 300 years old (and
so perhaps distanced from spoken forms of its language) to a new written language.

Some background is probably in order here. Linear A was the script that dominated Crete for the first 200 or 300 years (depending on your views on the absolute chronology) of the Late Bronze Age. It disappears somewhat abruptly at the end of the LM IB ceramic phase, ca. 1450 BC. Linear B appears at Knossos in central Crete shortly thereafter, ca. 1400 BC, and clearly owes much to Linear A: some 75-85% of the syllabic Linear B signs have formal parallels in Linear A. But whereas Linear B was used to write an early form of Greek, Linear A is undeciphered. It nevertheless seems clear that Linear A wasn’t used to write an early form of Greek. Among other things, if that were true, we should have deciphered Linear A already.

The traditional interpretation of these facts is cultural-historical: invading Mycenaeans seized Knossos ca. 1450 BC and, establishing themselves as the rulers of Knossos and much of its hinterland, adapted the older administrative system and script to serve their own purposes, which included modifying the script so that it could be used to write their native language of Greek. Another piece of evidence used in service of this argument is mortuary, especially burials that emphasize military status in and around Knossos at the same time.

In the past 15 years or so, however, a new interpretation has emerged: the changes are essentially internal to Crete and especially to the Knossian elite, who constructed a new identity that borrowed some mainland elements. The shift from Linear A to Linear B has been explained in political terms as a strategy for Knossian elite to consolidate political control. As Driessen and Langohr write in Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces II,

Language was the means, not the end. Whoever took control of Knossos may well have deliberately changed the language as part of a political strategy, so that administrative reforms could be made that allowed tighter control.

I’m hesitant to conflate result with intent — in part because I’ve read too many practice theorists who emphasize the unintended consequences of human action — but let’s leave that to the side for the moment. The new, endogenous, model, has a number of strengths. It eschews the cultural-historical explanation in favor of one that explains internal politics on Crete and, importantly, identity politics. The tombs around Knossos, for instance, aren’t easily explained as the tombs of Mycenaean conquerors, but make use of a variety of local Cretan forms and materials.

One thing that has always bothered me about this new model are the names. Some 70% of the personal names in the earliest tablets from Knossos can be understood as Greek. Names, of course, are given for all kinds of reasons, and needn’t be a good indicator of ethnicity or identity (I immediately think of late 18th century Hawaiian chiefs naming their children “King George”). But personal names are almost never mentioned by advocates of the new model. Indeed, if the invention of Linear B was a cynical tool of a broader “power grab” by the Knossian ruling elite to make administration easier to control and centralize, why then did they give their children names like Lawosthios, probably a hypocoristic for Lawosthenes vel sim., which we could somewhat anachronistically translate as “the strength of the people” and Akhilleus, “he who brings pain to the people”? Clearly we must be dealing — no matter which model we use — with issues of identity. Here it’s fairly straightforward. These are martial names for an elite that uses martial themes (or actual martial achievements) as symbols of status. But what about a name like Opilimnios, a compound that should mean “On-the-lake”, or Simos/Simon, “Flat-nose”, or Psakhomenos, “Rubbed down”? These are, I think, somewhat more difficult to explain in the same terms.

I haven’t done a systematic study of the names, at least not yet, but those in the earliest Knossian tablets (from the “Room of the Chariot Tablets”) look to me like regular Greek names, the kind that you see in other Linear B tablets and in later alphabetic Greek. This doesn’t mean that we need to accept the cultural-historical model in which intrusive Greek-speakers from the mainland entered and took control of Knossos. I do think that it suggests, however, that the linguistic changes at Knossos weren’t just a cynical political ploy that only affected writing or administrative practices. The implication (in the Driessen and Langohr article) that the changes at LBA Knossos were (only) power elite strategies seems to me not only overly voluntarist (that is, society and identity as creations of calculating individuals) but also to underestimate the importance and the depth of the historical processes at work.

Bringing Linear B to the masses

Detail from a Linear B tablet from Knossos recording women textile workers and their children (Ashmolean Museum)

My sub-sub-specialty is Linear B, the script of the Greek mainland and Crete during the second half of the Late Bronze Age, roughly 1400-1200 BC. It’s an important little area for a couple of reasons. It’s the earliest evidence we have for the Greek language and some of the best evidence we have about the states that used the script. Among other things, it informs us about the prehistory of Greek language, religion, administration, economy, and society. It therefore has some broad appeal. But the community of scholars who work on Linear B is small and specialized, and most Classicists and archaeologists aren’t taught much of anything about the script.

So, as you might imagine, it’s a bit of a problem when scholars without specialized training want to dip their toes into the textual evidence. This is of course not a problem that’s unique to Linear B — the same problems present themselves when any scholar moves outside of his or her comfort zone and into a discipline or sub-discipline with which s/he is less familiar. But it’s especially true of Linear B because the number of specialized practitioners is few. And it’s exacerbated by the fact that the “bible” of Linear B studies, Documents in Mycenaean Greek (commonly abbreviated Docs), was published in 1956 — only four years after the script was deciphered! — with a second edition in 1973 (Docs2). This second edition, however, isn’t really a second edition. It’s a reprint of the 1st edition with ca. 140 pages of additional commentary written by Chadwick alone (Ventris died in 1956) appended to the end of the text of the 1st edition.

For whatever reason, many scholars outside the sub-field continue to rely more or less exclusively on Docs2. A new third edition is in the works but it’s unclear when it will be published — it’s been “in the making” for at least six years. The main dictionary of Linear B is written in Spanish as part of the Diccionario Griego-Español and isn’t commonly used (unfortunately; it is a scholarly masterpiece) and the authoritative Companion to Linear Bnow running to three volumes, is also seldom used by non-specialists. Many of my non-specialist friends confess that they find the scholarly literature impenetrable, and that’s confirmed by the many mistakes contained in virtually every book that includes some discussion of Linear B written by a non-specialist.

For someone like me, this is a depressing situation. I don’t want to spend all my time complaining in book reviews about little mistakes, and I want to see the material I work on get the (positive) attention that it deserves. The field of Linear B studies, like so many academic sub-specializations, is largely turned in on itself and is focused on internal concerns. The first circular of the 14th Mycenological Colloquium (the main conference for specialists in Linear B and other Aegean scripts, held every 5 years or so in a different location) states that “priority will be given to papers that present new inscriptions or new editions” of texts: not exactly a central concern to the average Aegean prehistorian or Greek historian that constitutes the broader audience for our scholarly output.

What’s the solution? Honestly I’m not sure. This post has been more a venting of frustration than anything else. Maybe this isn’t a problem but something that is just endemic to modern scholarly and disciplinary boundaries. I can’t help but feel that scholars of the Aegean scripts haven’t done a good job of communicating what’s interesting and important about their research to a broader audience. Nobody’s written a book like John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World — a Linear B-focused account of the Late Bronze Age aimed at a general audience — since it was written in 1976. That, more than anything else, is limiting the appeal and interest of our sub-discipline.

Homer, the Iron Age, and Materiality

The new issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal contains an article by James Whitley, entitled “Homer’s Entangled Objects: Narrative, Agency and Personhood In and Out of Iron Age Texts.” Its abstract reads as follows:

In recent years, material culture studies have come to embrace contemporary Melanesia and European prehistory, but not classical archaeology and art. Prehistory is still thought, in many quarters, to be intrinsically more ‘ethnographic’ than historical periods; in this discourse, the Greeks (by default) become proto-modern individuals, necessarily opposed to Melanesian ‘dividuals’. Developments in the study of the Iron Age Mediterranean and the world of Homer should undermine such stark polarities. Historic and proto-historic archaeologies have rich potential for refining our notions both of agency and of personhood. This article argues that the forms of material entanglements we find in the Homeric poems, and the forms of agency (sensu Gell 1998) that we can observe in the archaeological record for the Early Iron Age of Greece (broadly 1000–500 bc) are of the same kind. The agency of objects structures Homeric narrative, and Homeric descriptions allow us precisely to define Homeric ‘human–thing entanglement’. This form of ‘material entanglement’ does not appear in the Aegean world before 1100 BC.

If Whitley is right, of course, this is an important discovery that cuts to the heart of how we understand the Greek world, the history of the Western notion of personhood, and so on. Obviously it’s not possible in a short blog post to touch on every aspect of Whitley’s argument, so I’m just going to concentrate on a series of claims that Whitley makes about the Homeric poems. Whitley argues (397)  that “it is the particular entanglements of people, narratives and things… that form much of the matter of both Homeric poems.” This argument pins down a key claim of Whitley’s, namely that (398)

the ‘entanglement’ of objects within peoples’ lives, and the agency attributed to objects in many kinds of narrative in many genres undermines the stark dichotomy between a morally autonomous ‘Western’ individual and a socially-entangled Melanesian ‘dividual’. It should no longer be taken as self-evident then that those proto-Westerners, ‘the Greeks’, whose ‘individualism’ many authors have taken as rising in Archaic times, were ‘individuals’ in the modern sense at all.

Whitley’s discussion of Homer focuses on two types of objects in Homer: those with extensive biographies, and those which are described at great length (these descriptions are known as ekphrasis). Whitley claims (399) that subjects of ekphrasis provide occasions for brilliant poetic performance, but have little narrative force, whereas biographical objects, while rarely described in detail, are often agents that drive the narrative forward. An example of an ekphrasis for Whitley is the gold brooch described by Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, to Penelope. But Whitley says that in ekphrasis “images act as a prompt to oral narrative” (399). But in this case, the brooch is entirely absent: the whole point is that Odysseus/the beggar is describing the brooch totally from memory. So it seems odd to focus on the materiality of an immaterial thing. And the fundamental immateriality of this exchange is confirmed by the fact that the brooch is just the introduction to the beggar’s overall description of Odysseus that causes Penelope to weep: the brooch is described in 6 lines (19.226-31), but the beggar’s description of Odysseus takes up a full 24 lines (19.225-248).

In fact, Whitley’s focus on material objects is a problem to begin with. Whitley focuses on artifacts (Agamemnon’s scepter, Achilles’s arms, Odysseus’s helmet) that are potentially recognizable archaeologically, because he’s an archaeologist. But this is surely far too limiting: after all, as much as archaeologists might wish it to be true, it’s not the case that the world is just made up on individuals, dividuals, and artifacts. It’s not. There are animals, plants, actions, features of persons, and divine signs, among many, many other things.

I didn’t pick these examples at random. When I think about those marks that are most entangled with personhood in Homer, I think about these, not artifacts. Odysseus’s identity, after all, is not revealed mainly by artifacts. It is instead revealed by an animal, Odysseus’s dog Argos, who dies when at last his master returns home after 20 years (Od. 17.290-310), by his amazing knock-out of Iros with a single punch (Od. 18.88-117), by a scar on his leg that he got while hunting in the mountains with his grandfather Autolykos (Od. 19.386-502), by divine portents seen by Theoklymenos (Od. 20.350-357), by his ability to string his bow — notice that it is his ability to manipulate this ‘biographical’ artifact and not the artifact itself which is decisive here — and his use of it to slaughter the suitors in his heroic persona, with divine assistance (Od. 21.404-22.41), and finally, and most decisively, by his clear and detailed recollection of a fixed bed which he built with his own hands from a living olive tree (Od. 23.181-204).

It’s very odd to read an article about non-human things and personhood in Homer that doesn’t refer to any of these things. It might be possible to describe Homeric poems as “narratives of people and things” (411), but only if we radically cut down our full range of vision to a tiny subset of interactions in order to suit one particular argument.

Our AIA talk on the digital imaging of Linear B

RTI with Jami Baxley

RTI with Jami Baxley

Kevin Pluta and I submitted an abstract to present a 20-minute paper at the upcoming annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Chicago (January 2-5, 2013) and we’ve just been notified that it’s been accepted. Here’s the abstract we submitted:

Digital imaging of the Linear B tablets from the “Palace of Nestor”

This paper presents a new project, whose goal is to create a print and digital edition of the administrative texts from the “Palace of Nestor” using advanced imaging techniques. Initiated in the summer of 2013, it is part of the official publication of the “Palace of Nestor” at Pylos excavated by the University of Cincinnati under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. We argue that digital editions such as ours have the potential to transform the study of the Aegean Bronze Age by allowing researchers to interact with artifacts at a level of detail and verisimilitude that approaches that of autopsy.

We employ two imaging techniques. The first of these is Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a method that involves taking multiple photographs of the same artifact under variable lighting conditions. These photographs are stitched together into an image file that stores the color of each pixel in addition to how it reacts to light, allowing the user to re-light the artifact in an interactive virtual environment. RTI therefore affords the opportunity to select the best lighting angle or angles for clearest presentation of the inscriptions. Our second imaging technique is structured light three-dimensional scanning, which has the ability to record accurate, low-interference surface data with minimal clean up. The technique is particularly useful as it collects color data that permit realistic renditions of the artifacts being recorded. In combination, these two techniques will provide the user with highly accurate renditions of the color, shape, topography, and texture of each and every administrative document from Pylos.

There are two closely-related advantages that we see to this digital imaging. First, we anticipate an improvement in the conservation and archiving of the physical artifacts, since the availability of high-resolution images in two and three dimensions will reduce the need for their study and handling. Second, a digital edition provides users with the ability to work interactively with the administrative documents in a digital environment. The resolution of the imaging is such that it even permits users to propose new readings and joins. This allocation of high-quality primary data to scholarly experts represents an exciting development. Far from being merely an enhancement of standard methods of illustration, these imaging techniques have the potential to transform the field by distributing control of the primary data to all qualified experts.

Also accepted was a submission for a poster, entitled “The use of structured light scanning for the study of the Linear B deposits from Pylos, Messenia, Greece,” and co-authored by the 2013 team: Ben Rennison, Jami Baxley, James Newhard, Kevin Pluta, and myself.