Tag Archives: Blegen

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!


Blegen’s notebooks from Korakou

This is the first post of a blog dedicated to my research interests, which center on the archaeology and scripts of the Aegean Bronze Age. The name of the site, Englianos, is the modern toponym where Carl Blegen excavated the “Palace of Nestor.” This site, which was called Pylos in the Late Bronze Age, is the source for some 1000 inscribed clay documents whose study formed the basis for my doctoral dissertation.

Prior to excavating LBA Pylos, Blegen excavated at a number of other prehistoric sites in the Peloponnese, one of which is Korakou. This site, located on the bluffs overlooking the Corinthian Gulf at the outskirts of modern Corinth, was excavated in 1915 and 1916, and formed the basis for Blegen and Wace’s ceramic chronology of the Greek mainland for the Greek Bronze Age.

Blegen’s excavation notebooks have been scanned and made publicly available by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Corinth Excavations (among other things). As my colleague Bill Caraher pointed out in his blog (about two years ago!), these are a fantastic resource, but they are static. There is no opportunity for scholars to add metadata to the digital scans. As Bill put it,

as I thought about this I began to imagine a parallel site where scholars could upload their transcriptions of notebook pages. These would be keyed to the stable urls provided by the American School and presented in a wiki which would allow for and track revisions. I am sure that some notebooks are useful enough and commonly investigated enough to warrant this.

I think that Bill is right, and I wanted to provide here a small example of the kind of thing that he envisioned, using Blegen’s Korakou notebooks as an example. As Bill noted, Blegen’s handwriting can be difficult to read. Transcriptions of all the Korakou notebooks were made in 2005 by myself and Sarah James, and could provide a valuable resource to scholars working on Korakou. We are not the only scholars who have made transcriptions of the Korakou notebooks, however. Others who have worked with the Korakou material have also transcribed sections for their own work, and in some cases there are discrepancies between their readings and ours. In Notebook 84, p. 81, Blegen writes (on my reading, based on autopsy):

I measure depth from semadi cut in stone on east wall of L above the trench. This mark is .20 below ground level so I add .20 in every case to measurements of depth.

This differs from the reading of Jerry Rutter (also based on autopsy, published in his 1974 dissertation, p. 108):

I measure depth from [?……?] cut in slope in east wall of L above the trench.  This mark is .20 below ground level so I add .20 in every case to measurements of depth.

Below is the image of the passage in question. I’ve increased the contrast so that the writing is more clear, but you can see the original scan here.


This difference in readings is somewhat significant for how we understand the archaeology of Korakou and indeed Blegen’s methods in the field. Rutter goes on to argue, based on his reading of this passage, that (Rutter 1974: 108-109)

Not too much credence should be given to Blegen’s depth measurements…since the ground level to which these measurements refer no longer existed and had to be estimated at 0.20 above some obscure “cut”. It is quite possible that Blegen began his…sounding at ca 0.40-0.50 below ground level, the level of the earlier floor which he had uncovered on 19 June.  In this case, the uppermost wall in the sounding would have appeared not at 0.60 below ground level, but at 0.80-0.90, roughly the level of the bottom of the LH IIIB 1 fill on which House L was built.

If, on the other hand, we use my reading of Blegen’s notebook, then the measurements were taken from a mark (semadi is a transliteration of the Greek σημάδι) cut into a stone. This stone belongs to a wall of House L, and the tops of these walls are, as Blegen notes, 20-30 cm below ground level (Corinth NB 81, p. 220). Thus his measurements are reliable. And this potentially changes Rutter’s interpretation of this area, as Sarah James and I noted in an unpublished report that we submitted to Corinth Excavations in the summer of 2005:

Rutter suggests that Blegen’s enlargement of [Trench] L began at ca. 0.40 m below ground level, where he exposed an earlier floor. However, Blegen only exposed this floor “in the southern part of the Megaron,” and his enlargement of the pit in L is “to the east and south.”  It is likely that the southern part of the Megaron is roughly equal to the area south of the pit in L, which cuts diagonally across the northern half of the main room of House L (the Megaron).  However, the enlargement of the pit in L extended to the south and east, and to the east of pit L Blegen apparently had not dug down to 0.40.  Thus, L II probably represents an operation taking the enlargement down to 0.40, and then L III included both the eastern and southern parts of the enlargement.  As the eastern part of the enlargement is directly west of the eastern wall of House L, it makes good sense for Blegen to use the wall as a benchmark from which to measure depths.

In short, this means that Blegen does reveal a wall (with L III, NB 84, p. 127) whose top is only 0.60 m below ground level.  This is problematic for Rutter’s reconstruction of this area, specifically his argument that the “habitation level” revealed at a depth of 0.80 in the East Alley, and the “floor of hard earth” at a depth of 0.80 in Trench L (NB 81, p. 375), represent a terracing line for a fill of LH IIIB:1 date upon which House L was built.  Perhaps the “habitation level” at 0.80 is actually a floor associated with the construction of a building (represented by a wall whose socle rises 0.20 above its floor), which was then covered by the same LH IIIB:1 fill.

My primary interest here is not the interpretation of the area around House L at Korakou. Rather, it is that while static publications of excavation notebooks are invaluable, they do not (as they might) capture the scholarly arguments that build on these notebooks. What the American School has done — making a vast quantity of scholarly materials publicly available on the web — is laudable, but the next logical step is to turn these static materials into a dynamic scholarly space. A parallel wiki on the Corinth notebooks such as Bill and I are suggesting would allow scholars to add value to the static scans in a way that would benefit students and scholars of Greek archaeology for years to come.