Category Archives: Classics

On “the classical debt”

I was once describing to a non-archaeologist Hellenist colleague and friend how archaeology works in Greece. In the course of that discussion I mentioned in passing that the directors of regional archaeological offices are called “ephors” (Greek έφορος). “Really?” she asked, before exclaiming, “How cute!” I didn’t say anything, but privately I was annoyed at the remark. I guess that it is kind of neat for a Classicist, who naturally associates ephors with ancient Sparta… but is it really so remarkable that the word for “supervisor” in Greek (ancient) is also the word for “supervisor” in Greek (modern)?

There are two ways that I think about this little anecdote. They’re interconnected, and both have been stimulated by recent work by Johanna Hanink, an associate professor of Classics at Brown University. The first part is from an article in the journal Eidolon entitled “On not knowing (modern) Greek“, where she argues (in short) that “our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek” and that “classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language.”

She’s absolutely right, of course. One little example: I almost lost my mind when, just two years ago, a new Journal of Greek Archaeology was announced with the following statement:

Announcing an international journal printing contributions in English, French, German, and Italian…. Work from Greek scholars is particularly welcome, but should be either translated into English or sent to us for English translation or assistance.

Yeesh. I saw that statement on July 22nd, 2015. On social media there was palpable anger about the policy’s neo-colonial implication (and much gallows humor too, of course). Through direct intervention on the part of more established scholars, with cooler heads than mine, the policy was changed (to English only! Huzzah?). Part of my irritation at my colleague’s off-hand comment was, to be sure, the implication that modern Greek was cute: just cute. It didn’t really count, as demonstrated by the fact that she, a specialist in ancient Greek, didn’t really have any acquaintance with the modern language.

But this blog post was supposed to be about the second part of this: a book, The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity (Harvard University Press 2017), which I just finished last night. (There’s also a nice review in the WSJ by Alicia Stallings). This book pulls on a thread and traces it through time, that thread being the idea of the debt owed to Greece by the West because of the achievements of the Classical (senso latu) age – democracy, philosophy, and that – and especially how that idea has manifested itself and been reacted to since the economic crisis. In pulling on this thread, she deals with many interrelated issues, all dealing with the productive and strained relationships between Classical antiquity and modern Greece and the West. In the end, Hanink suggests that the debt ought to be understood as “a debt owed for the centuries of destruction that other people’s dreams of the ancient past have wrought.” It’s a really thoughtful, accessible, well-written book, and one that I’ve been recommending to anyone who will listen.

It’s also helped me to think about why the “cute” comment so rankled. As so many commentators have noted – including Hanink, who is very good on this – Greece is caught in a bind. Here’s how Michael Herzfeld describes it in Anthropology through the Looking-Glass (1987: 19):

the West supported the Greeks on the implicit understanding that the Greeks would reciprocally accept the role of living ancestors of European civilization – the standard, for most romantic writers, of civilization in the most general and absolute sense.

And yet the terms of this tacit agreement were unequal in the extreme. Whereas the Greeks sought genetic confirmation of their cultural destiny in the link with the ancient past, western observers, operating on the basis of a self-fulfilling prophecy, more often saw in it the evidence of Greek backwardness and “obsession.” The Greeks of today are still living out the consequences of that imbalance…

Or, maybe better, here’s Nikos Dimou (translation mine; cf. Hanink, p. 206):

Η σχέση μας με τους αρχαίους είναι μία πηγή του εθνικού πλέγματος κατωτερότητας. Η άλλη είναι η σύγκριση στο χώρο και όχι στο χρόνο. Με τους σύγχρονους «ανεπτυγμένους». Με την «Ευρώπη.»

Our relationship with the ancients is one source of the national inferiority complex. The other source is a comparison of space, rather than of time. With contemporary “developed” people. With “Europe.”

I’m sure that the title of έφορος for the head of a regional archaeological department was motivated by the word’s antiquity. It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t, and that corresponds to the desire to forge the “link with the ancient past” that Herzfeld refers to. Indeed, early in the history of the Greek state, the creation of a purified Greek language (Katharevousa) was extremely important (this too is well-covered by Hanink). But this purified Greek wasn’t the same as ancient Greek; it was equally built up from modern European languages, especially French. And it was crucially important to the image of Greece, internally and externally. As Herzfeld writes (1987: 52):

Katharevousa would be the means of liberating the Greeks, not only from the cultural corruption that was the legacy of the Turkocracy, but also from the shackles of their humiliatingly dependent status in the European community.

This linguistic link to antiquity, then, well illustrates the bind of being Greek. “Cute,” then, for me at least, was rubbing salt in the wound. It pointed to the inevitable failure of the attempt at Greek linguistic liberation and to both sources of the Greek inferiority complex.

I hope that this too-personal post doesn’t divert attention from my intention, which was to reflect on what I think is a remarkable book. Hanink richly traces the contours of the issues I’ve mentioned here (and many more), sensitively and perceptively, and shows the reader how they played out through much of Greek history, from the 5th century to the present day. It really should be required reading for anyone who’s interested in Greece, past, present or future.



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.

My summer “vacation”

This blog post is an expansion of an article by Mary Beard in the TLS, where she is responding to Andrew Adonis’ accusation that academics have 3 months of holiday in the summer, basically for no good reason. Not that it’s necessary, but perhaps I can add to the discussion a little bit by piling on. So what am I doing with my “3 mth summer holiday“?

(1) Six weeks in Greece working on two projects, one in the field and one in the museum, during which time I had not one day off. I literally went to the beach zero times, even though that is one of my favorite things to do and we were living less than 200 meters from said beach.

(2) Another six weeks at home, during which time I am taking not one day off. I’m working on two articles, reading a dissertation, correcting proofs, doing administrative work associated with my duties as associate chair of graduate studies from the 2016-17 academic year, evaluating manuscripts for journals, and so on. I also really need to write a series of reports for the six weeks of fieldwork that we just finished. (That’s usually the first thing that I do at the end of a summer of fieldwork, but I’m late on the articles, so I’m putting that work off).

(3) That leaves me one week to prepare for the start of the semester, although I’m already doing a little bit of that so I’m sure that will bleed into my “summer holiday.”

I will admit, however, that I have a bit more spare time over the summer (when I’m not in the field, that is). I’m spending that extra time with my family, listening to a lot of music while I work (especially the new Kendrick Lamar), reading the occasional book (I’m still chipping away at Johanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt), and taking the dog to a park with a pond so that she, at least, can have a swim this summer:


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.