Tag Archives: archaeology

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…

Time to degree and the 10,000 hour “rule”

This morning over coffee I was describing the enormous amount of work that went into a mutual friend’s dissertation that I happened to be reading for professional reasons, and it reminded me of the 10,000 hour “rule” that originates from research written by Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell summarizes the rule as follows:

…  excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice … In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.

Of course, Gladwell’s summary is simply not true. Ericsson made a much more limited claim:

Our research on expert music performance focused on objectively measurable performance and claimed that this type [of] performance is improved gradually by deliberate practice (defined as the engagement with full concentration in a training activity designed to improve a particular aspect of performance with immediate feedback, opportunities for gradual refinement by repetition and problem solving) and by maturation (responsible for increases in height and body size). …

Our main point was that the best group of violinists had spent significantly more hours practising than the two groups of less accomplished groups of expert violinists, and vastly more time than amateur musicians. There is nothing magical about exactly 10 000 h.

It occurred to me that in my little corner of the Academy, 10k hours is indeed often necessary to research and write a really good dissertation. My wife’s dissertation is based on 4.5 metric tons of pottery from ancient Corinth, which, she estimated for me, probably took her about 10,000 hours to study.

This means that if you work 10 hours a day, every day (and she worked much harder than that!), it will take you 2.74 years to write your dissertation. That seems about right; the PhD in Archaeology at UCL, for example, is a three-year degree. But this is a research degree. In North America, we require more than just a Ph.D. from our Mediterranean archaeologists and historians in Ph.D. programs: we require them to be expert at both Greek and Latin language (or at least one of the two), literature, history, and culture.

How long does it take to become an expert in the ancient languages? (We’ll set aside all the other material we require students to master, like history and literary analysis). A long time. The average undergraduate course in Greek/Latin will consume at least 180 hours of “deliberate practice” (15 week semester * (3 hours of class per week + 9 hours of work outside of class per week)) and it is wonderful if students applying to Ph.D. programs in Classics have four years of each language. So, by the time a student gets to graduate school, s/he will have logged about 1500 hours in Greek and another 1500 hours in Latin. Once in graduate school, s/he’ll need to refine her skills and increase her reading speed to get through the reading lists that are required for all Ph.D. programs. I’d guess that a good graduate student spends about 1000 hours per year on each language (25 hours per language a week * 40 weeks per year), normally for 3 years. That means that after three years of graduate school, our hypothetical student will have 4,500 hours of practice in each ancient language.

Adding those together gets us pretty close to our (wholly arbitrary) 10,000 hours, and we’re working graduate students at the languages alone 50 hours a week! Then, once they’ve passed their exams proving that they’ve read, understood, read about, and thought about these texts, we ask them to write a brilliant dissertation, which may (depending on the project, of course) require another 10,000 hours of work to become expert. (Reading Homer doesn’t help you to identify pottery, after all!)

This is why I am skeptical when I read about proposals to shorten time to degree at humanities Ph.D. programs. The “time to degree” issue has gotten a lot of press, including this 2007 piece in the New York Times (featuring, I’d add, a Classicist who planned to finish his Ph.D. at Princeton in 2008, which would have been a time-to-degree of 5 years; he actually finished in 2010, so seven years, and now he’s a lawyer). The MLA released a report in May of last year suggesting that

Departments should design programs that can be completed in five years from entry
into a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree as the highest degree attained.  If
departments change the structure of the curriculum and examinations, articulate
and monitor a reasonable scope and time frame for the dissertation project, design a
careful mentoring process, and provide sufficient financial support to allow students
to progress appropriately, a five-year doctorate ought to be achievable.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) they didn’t tell anyone how to achieve this goal.

I have a hard time seeing many departments in my area improving this situation, since I don’t see the number of expertises we expect from our students decreasing over time. Archaeology is increasingly requiring less and less of the languages in research (but graduate students need to be able to teach the languages if they want to have access to the widest pool of jobs once they graduate). On the other hand, archaeology requires more from graduate students in respect to non-Classics skills: GIS, database management, working with techniques for digital imaging, understanding (and/or making use of) archaeological science, and so on.

It took me eight years to get the Ph.D.: two years doing the M.A. and another six doing the Ph.D. One of those Ph.D. years was spent doing the regular program at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. My year in Athens was formative, personally, professionally, and intellectually, but it slowed down my time to degree. I took a long time to actually write the Ph.D.: about three years. Again, that time was well-spent, I suspect. It meant, among other things, that I could publish articles out of the dissertation while I was swamped with the work of teaching full-time for the first time at a series of one-year positions (an increasingly common experience for most Ph.D.s) while applying for tenure-track jobs.

The 10,000 hour “rule” isn’t a rule, of course. But it does point at something meaningful. How can we expect to reduce time to degree without reducing the expertise of the students who graduate on the other end? I see no substitute for spending lots and lots of time reading Greek and Latin, learning GIS and other software programs that are increasingly necessary for graduate students to learn, and sorting through 4.5 metric tons of pottery. Not if we plan to produce students that are well-trained Classicists and have done the requisite work to make an original contribution to knowledge about the ancient world.

Gender disparities in archaeology

The blog Doug’s Archaeology recently had a great post about the disparities in NSF archaeology grants between men and women. Briefly, he showed that about 70% of all applications for NSF grants in archaeology are held by men. But this figure is even less than the proportion of all applications for NSF grants in archaeology that are made by men (75%). So there is a gender disparity between the proportion of applicants, but not in acceptance rates.

A separate issue is the composition of panels at conferences. One study of the annual meetings of the American Society for Microbiology found that the number of women invited to speak at organized panels correlated with the number of women involved in the organization of those panels. Thus, panels organized by men invited mostly male speakers (75%), whereas the representation of women increased (from 25% to 43%) on panels whose organizers included at least one woman.

Curious, I ran a quick analysis of the last annual meetings of my professional association, the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). I found that in panels organized by one or more men (and no women), 66% of the speakers were male; in panels organized by one man and one woman, the speakers were 50% male; and in panels organized by one or more women, 47% of the speakers were male. [Disclosure: I organized a panel at the 2014 annual meeting of the AIA with two other men; we invited two women and three men to present papers.]

Most panel organizers were men (24, compared to 14 women) and most invited speakers were men (69, compared to 53) women, so that in sum, 57% of all invited speakers at the AIA were men. (Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to run the numbers on the open panels, to see what proportion of speakers are male and female.)

Of course, my “study” hardly qualifies as such, since it only included one annual meeting and I didn’t control for anything at all. Even so, it seems plausible that we have a problem similar to the NSF: more organizers are male, resulting in gender disparities among speakers. Likewise, in the NSF study, it seems that more men are PIs of projects, resulting in many more applications by men. I have no solutions to this problem, although I can think of at least one potential solution that I’m entirely opposed to.