Category Archives: History of archaeology

How Aegean is Aegean prehistory?

To those of us in the field, the argument of this blog post won’t be a surprise: Aegean prehistory isn’t very Aegean. In fact, this came up at a conference at the University of Michigan published as Prehistorians Round the Pond in 2005. The editors (Despina Margomenou, John Cherry and Lauren Talalay) wrote in their introduction that “what Aegean prehistory comprises is perhaps largely unproblematic: the prehistoric archaeology of the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete.” (2) They continue to discuss the common definition, and flag this usage of Aegean as peculiar. In his contribution to the publication, Colin Renfrew pointed out how absurd the situation was. As he put it: “No Ancient Greek would for a moment have ignored the great cities of the Ionian Coast, no Byzantinist [sic] would omit Ephesos, let alone Constantinople, and since we are prehistorians together, what about Troy, or Iasos, or Miletos, or even Kum Tepe?” (154)

In writing a book chapter about the Aegean for an edited volume, I’ve come to realize more clearly how un-Aegean my sub-discipline is. It’s really not about the Aegean, but about (modern) Greece: the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Crete are all part of what is now (and has been, for some time) the modern Greek state. The editors of Prehistorians Round the Pond aren’t wrong: those areas are the traditional focus of the discipline.

For example, in the Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (2010), western Anatolia gets 13 pages in a book of 930 pages; that’s not much, especially compared to 36 pages for the Greek mainland, 41 pages for Crete, and 35 pages for the Cyclades. Specific sites in the eastern Aegean account for 67 pages of discussion, compared to 101 pages dedicated to specific Cretan sites, 136 pages to mainland sites, and 10 pages to a single Cycladic site (Akrotiri). In Aegean Prehistory: A Review (2001), not a single chapter deals primarily or exclusively with the Anatolian mainland, and Anatolia is indexed on only 49 pages of 473 total in the book (10.3%). In the Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (2008), Anatolia is indexed on 36 of 431 pages (8.3%); of the 15 chapters, two chapters include sections on the Dodecanese (2 pages), northern Aegean, Troy and the Black Sea (3 pages), Anatolia (2.5 pages), Trianda on Rhodes (1 page), and coastal Asia Minor (1 pages).

To those of us who have taken and taught classes called “Aegean prehistory,” this isn’t surprising — “Minoans and Mycenaeans” takes up a huge percentage of the real estate of the discipline — but it’s shocking when you think how little the discipline actually conforms to the Aegean, understood as a geographic descriptor. It’s bizarre that a discipline that effectively began with Schliemann’s excavations at Troy (but see Fotiadis 2016) pays so little attention to the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea.

It’s hard not to see this as a reflection of modern politics, even if we concede that there are other factors at play, like the archaeological obsession with wealthy tombs and palaces, which in the Aegean appear at particular places (like the southern Greek mainland and Crete). As I mentioned above, “Aegean prehistory” took off with Schliemann’s excavations first at Troy, then at Mycenae, sites that Schliemann associated with the myth of the Trojan War. The connection between the Trojan mythic cycle – and especially the Homeric epics – with this prehistoric archaeology is what captured the imagination of the public and scholars. As Moses Finley put it in the New York Review of Books: “without Homer and the Greek Tragedians, without the Greeks and what they have meant to western civilization, the Bronze Age palaces would rank in intensity of interest with, say, the Aztec or Maya ruins.” Greek prehistorians, many of them, were convinced of the essential connection between Classical Greece and the prehistoric past. As Alan Wace wrote in the forward to Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956): “In culture, in history and in language we must regard prehistoric and historic Greece as one indivisible whole.”

Prehistoric and historic Greeks, and what they mean to western civilization. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why the field chooses to focus so obsessively on the Greek mainland – and especially the southern Greek mainland, the geographical home of the Greek city-state (the polis) – the Cyclades, and Crete, and why it has so little time for the eastern edge of the Aegean.


Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center


Academic family trees

One of the side projects that I’m never going to do anything with, probably, is a social network of Aegean prehistory. One of the first things I became aware of when I got serious about archaeology were academic family trees. In archaeology these connections can be very important, and talked about a lot, but the orientation of the discipline to research in the field, and especially to large field projects, means that doctoral supervisors may not be as important as in disciplines where research primarily takes place in the library.

One of the side benefits of doing this project would be to interpret the data in pretty deterministic ways. I say this with a wink: it would actually be really annoying to most people, and part of me thinks that would be fun (and funny). The reason that I think hard determinism would work as an analytic mode is my own background. I’m in the Blegen doctoral tree: my dissertation supervisor, Tom Palaima, was supervised by Emmett Bennett Jr., who was supervised by Blegen. Blegen didn’t have many students by modern standards, which surprised me a bit, but pre-WW II universities in the US weren’t quite the PhD factories they became; Blegen did, however, supervise Bennett, who went on to a long career at Wisconsin, and Jack Caskey, who supervised a great number of doctoral dissertations at the University of Cincinnati. (Thanks are due here to Jack Davis for helping me understand Blegen’s role as dissertation director at Cincinnati).

Blegen’s approach to the field probably explains something like 99% of my career to date. I work primarily on the Linear B tablets from Pylos, the very tablets that were excavated by Blegen himself (ok, not with his actual hands, but in the “heroic archaeology” sense). I’m working on volume IV of the Palace of Nestor series, inaugurated by Blegen himself. The other major area of my career has been archaeological fieldwork, especially survey, in the Peloponnese, and again, Blegen is central. His prescription for fieldwork in Greek prehistory (parts of it, at least) could almost be a stand-in for the way that I currently think about the field, over 75 years later. Blegen was in fact instrumental in the development of archaeological field (or pedestrian) survey in Greece through his support of the Minnesota Messenia Expedition, or MME, the granddaddy of ’em all. Blegen was a devoted excavator not just of palatial sites, but of towns and villages across the Peloponnese: Korakou, Tsoungiza, Zygouries. These are the types of sites that I think we need to keep excavating, albeit with a much more modern and scientific toolkit than Blegen had at his disposal; but his own scholarly writing makes it clear that he would have made full and enthusiastic use of these methods if they had been available to him.

I remember reading somewhere an argument that scientific research labs should be shuttered and buried when the lead researcher retired – I think there was even an archaeological analogy to burying dead pharaohs under tons of rock – on the grounds that these labs tended to self-perpetuate approaches and results, leading to a bit of a rut. I don’t think that this was the case with Blegen. His view of the field was so expansive that he could set the agenda for multiple generations, way beyond his own lifetime. There have been revolutionary changes to method and theory since Blegen’s retirement, but his fundamental view of the field remains valid.

See what I mean? Hard determinism works!


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.

Against the universal museum

For some time now, I’ve been fairly suspicious of arguments for the universal museum (the museums themselves I have no problems with). There has been some momentum in this area: James Cuno has been banging the drum for some time now, and he’s been joined recently by Tiffany Jenkins. The latter author’s work has been especially visible lately, both in articles written for the popular press and in reviews of her published book, most recently in the Wall Street Journal.

The argument, distilled down, goes something like this (this is taken from the summary of Cuno’s book linked above):

“Antiquities,” James Cuno argues, “are the cultural property of all humankind,” “evidence of the world’s ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation. They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders.”

Cuno argues that nationalistic retention and reclamation policies impede common access to this common heritage and encourage a dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities–and of culture itself. Antiquities need to be protected from looting but also from nationalistic identity politics.

The universal museum thus saves antiquities from nationalism by putting them into a global context.

My suspicion with this argument is simply that while it is happy to criticize others, it does not engage in a self-critique. That is to say, the politics of the universal museum are not something that is interesting to those who make these arguments. Indeed, the politics and the history are actively white-washed.

Take, for the example, the review of Jenkins’ book in the WSJ, written by Henrik Bering. He tells us that “From the early days of private curio cabinets and onward, the underlying idea of a museum was a desire to understand the world, an ambition to tell a common story.” Perhaps. But he tells us this immediately after reporting that “when things started to show up in British museums a decade later [after the 2nd opium war, 1857-1860], curators chose to display them as loot rather than art in order to underscore the military might of Britain.” (Chris Lovell brought this contradiction to my attention).

Indeed, it seems odd to argue that universal museums like the British Museum are somehow immune from the charge of nationalism. After all, Croker argued in parliament that the Elgin Marbles should be purchased

for the benefit of the public, for the honour of the nation, for the promotion of national arts, for the use of the national artists, and even for the advantage of our manufactures, the excellence of which dependent on the progress of the arts in the country.

whereas Grant argued “that that would be a mistaken economy, as well as bad taste, which would deprive this country of such valuable works of art as lord Elgin had collected” (emphasis mine throughout). It’s not like the British government is immune from the nationalistic desire to keep cherished artifacts from leaving the country – as this government ban from the sale of the dagger and robes of T.E. Lawrence abroad shows. Or see this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Where is the criticism of the petty nationalism that seeks to deny Kelly Clarkson ownership of a ring owned by Jane Austen? The UK’s Culture minister Ed Vaizey said of the export ban that it “provides us with a ‘last chance’ to save treasures like these for the nation so they can be enjoyed by all of us.” (Emphasis mine).

It’s worth noting that British nationalism, or American nationalism, is never flagged as a problem by those discussing repatriation and the proper home for material culture. Instead, the nationalism problem is always framed as Us against Them. Consider the opening of Bering’s review, which begins as follows:

Pity the plight of today’s museum director: What used to be a quiet kingdom with creaky floorboards and sleepy custodians has become a raging battlefield where scarcely a day passes without a demand for the return of some of his treasures.

The Greeks have forever been clamoring for the Elgin Marbles,which have resided in the British Museum for two centuries. The Turks have their own list, including an ancient marble carving of a child’s head in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Egyptians want the Nefertiti bust from Berlin, and from Boston, the Nigerians want the Benin bronzes, sacrificial idols still “caked over with human blood” when taken by a British punitive expedition against the king of Benin in 1897.

The Greeks. The Turks. The Egyptians. The Nigerians. These are homogeneous national groups. But the other protagonists in this drama have names, identities, carefully thought out opinions. Thus the discussion is structured to oppose the museum curators with academic credentials and carefully thought-out opinions to anonymous groups who apparently all think alike along narrow nationalistic lines.

Finally, we are told that these parochial, nationalistic museums that want their treasures back reproduce an ethos that “resurrects racial ways of thinking” (Jenkins). Indeed, we are told that “far from tearing down walls between people, these institutions erect new ones.” This is the ultimate twist of the knife: the victims of imperialism and colonialism are now accused of “racial ways of thinking” whereas the poor, downtrodden curators of the noble universal museum (the real victims in all of this!) don’t see race. In this they are not unlike Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Instead, these brave men and women only see the grand sweep of the history of humankind. Yet neither do they see, for they choose not to see, their own past or for that matter their own present.

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.