Category Archives: Classics

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.