Tag Archives: Bronze Age

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.

Why I like archaeological survey

Over the past several months, a couple of different people have asked me why I like survey. My initial response is always intellectual. I talk about the importance of understand the countryside, about the urban bias of our texts and excavations, the approach of books like The Corrupting Seaand so on. In both cases, that wasn’t the answer that the questioner wanted. What they wanted to know was, why did I like getting up before dawn to wander around the Greek countryside for six hours or more over six+ weeks?

Strangely, that’s a more complicated answer. As a student, I wasn’t immediately drawn to archaeological survey, although I was of course exposed to it as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, especially in the classes that I took from Sue Alcock and John Cherry. I first got seriously interested in survey because of the senior thesis that I wrote on settlement and state formation in Minoan Crete. I knew that I was interested in state formation (thanks to classes with John Cherry and Kent Flannery) and I knew that it was too big a topic for an undergraduate thesis. So I had spent the summer reading Colin Renfrew’s The Emergence of Civlisation (1972) — a book, incidentally, that convinced me that I wanted to be an Aegean prehistorian — and went into John Cherry’s office with a list of areas that interested me. One of them was settlement, and that sealed my fate: I ended up writing my thesis on published survey data from Crete from the Bronze Age, with a focus on the relationship between settlement data and state formation.

So my initial interest in survey was based on thinking, not doing. I had done survey for two weeks in Tunisia on the Leptiminus project back in 1995, and I liked it, but it wasn’t immediately my passion. But my intellectual interest in landscape and settlement led to me working on survey projects as I entered graduate school, both on the Iklaina Archaeological Project and especially the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey.

So that’s part of the story… but the way that I’ve told it might suggest that I like survey as an intellectual and analytical activity but not in practice. That’s not the case. So when I’ve been asked why I like to get up before dawn and wander around the Greek countryside, I tend to talk about a couple of different things:

(1) The Greek landscape is really beautiful. I won’t ever get tired of looking at this:

Kaparelli

And this isn’t even the most iconic form of the Greek landscape (the deep blue Aegean up against the painted white houses of the Cyclades), but it’s still wonderful and variegated. Some of my favorite moments in Greece have been driving around a corner to be greeted to a wide and beautiful vista (the road to Kato Zakros in Crete is one of the best).

(2) The Greek landscape is endlessly surprising. This is true both generally — there are so many beautiful little valleys and harbors in Greece that you could spend your whole life visiting them — and in particular — walking through a familiar landscape will yield all kinds of little surprises.

(3) I love to explore and to hike. Loving survey is about embracing that spirit of exploration: of wanting to hike the trail that you haven’t yet hiked, not knowing where it goes. It sounds cheesy, and it is, but to love survey I do think you need to want to hike up to that hill in the distance to see what’s there.

This will sound familiar to veterans of the American School’s regular program, which involves a lot of hiking up to hills to see what’s there. When I went to Priene on the Ionia trip led by John Camp, my first thought and first question to John was, “Can I hike up to the acropolis?”

After being asked why I liked survey and giving these three responses, I started to wonder where (3) came from. Why do I have this strange desire to hike up to hills and mountains to see what’s up there? Was it drilled into me at the American School? Or does it come from somewhere else?

Thinking back on it, I spent an awful lot of my childhood hiking up hills in Greece. Most of my father’s family never left Greece, and so my summer vacations as a child involved going to Greece to visit my uncle, my cousin, and my grandparents. And Nakassis family vacations basically involved eating, swimming, and wandering up to hills.

1982_dimitri_mykines (2) sm levels

Me at Mycenae, in 1982 (I think; it might be 1981)

Doesn’t it look like I’m having a great time? We wandered up hills like this one, with world-famous, UNESCO World Heritage archaeological sites on them, but we also hiked up to castles (like the Frankish castle above Voidokoilia beach, which we did without bringing any water with us!) and also up mountains with nothing on them at all, like when we were on vacation on Kos and Lesvos.

I do think that there’s something to this idea, that I like survey not only for intellectual reasons that emerged from my undergraduate education and my exposure to professors who were and are passionate about the ability of survey to shed light on the ancient world, but also because it involves a bodily practice and a bodily engagement with the Greek landscape that is almost literally hard wired in me from years of childhood vacations with my family. I managed to turn vacation activities into serious research. I’m not too upset about that.

Political unity in the LBA?

The ever-useful academia.edu (which now keeps asking me if I am interested in Roman Archaeology) brought to my attention an article by Jorrit Kelder entitled “Ahhiyawa and the World of the Great Kings: A Re-evaluation of Mycenaean Political Structures” (Talanta XLIV [2012]). The author argues in this paper that the Mycenaean world was unified into a single state ruled by a single king (the wanax) at Mycenae, while the other Mycenaean palaces were subsidiary administrative centers, each ruled by a local king (the lawagetas).

aegean_smThe spur for this argument, which runs totally against the grain of all Mycenaean scholarship, is the fact that in Hittite diplomatic texts, the region called Ahhiyawa (now located by Hittite scholars in the Aegean) is ruled by a “great king.” It is indeed interesting that our usual understanding of the Mycenaean world, i.e. that it is a patchwork of independent peer polities, is so different from the picture we get from the Hittite texts, and Kelder is right to identify this as an important question that needs resolution. His solution, however, is to accept the historical reality of the Hittite texts and then see whether he can fit the Mycenaean evidence into this picture.

In some ways, of course, that’s what we all do. We work from the evidence we know best to solve problems that they impinge upon, or we temporarily ignore a complex reality so that we can focus our attention on a particular problem (what Giddens calls “methodological bracketing”). The difference is the way that we go about treating the material we don’t know well but which is important to our argument.

In this case, the problem is the way that Kelder treats the Mycenaean material. For instance, we read that

The point that various large-scale infrastructural works (most notably the drainage of the Kopais basin in Boeotia, and the evidence for a well-developed network of roads in, especially, the Argolid) are difficult to reconcile with the modest amounts of resources and manpower that, according to the Linear B texts, would have been available to the individual palaces is usually ignored…

This is all we are told (no citations are given). It is not an unimportant statement, for together with the cultural and administrative homogeneity of the Mycenaean world, it allows that author to conclude in the following paragraph that “The argument for a politically fragmented political landscape during the Late Bronze Age thus seems to be based on assumptions, rather than facts.” It thus shoulders a great deal of argumentative weight.

Passing aside the administrative homogeneity of the Mycenaean world, which seems to me to ignore the context in which writing took place in LBA Greece (on which, see Kevin Pluta’s dissertation), this argument doesn’t hold. The author assumes that what is written on Linear B texts is congruent with (“according to the Linear B texts”), or at least indicative of, the total resources commanded by individual palaces. This is to misunderstand the nature of the Linear B texts and the processes whereby we have received them. The amount of labor recorded on the Linear B texts is indeed not very large, but it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the palace could not command large quantities of labor. As many scholars have pointed out, the Linear B texts heavily bias regular transactions, probably because those texts were less often recycled and reused. Thus we are much more likely to have evidence of annual or monthly transactions than ad hoc transactions. A good example of this is the fact that we have much more evidence for dependent groups of women and children at Pylos who are allocated monthly supplies of foodstuffs for their support than evidence for other short-term allocations of foodstuffs. Second, there is some good evidence that the palaces used multiple systems to recruit labor, including the use of intermediaries who were allocated large quantities of staples to recruit various laborers for palatial projects. So what we have in the Linear B texts are fragments of information about the labor that was certainly available to the palace, but in no way can we use this information to determine that the palaces didn’t have enough labor to, say, drain the Kopais or build a road 100 miles long, especially when neither has been adequately quantified.

Kelder makes the important point, and it is a correct one, I think, that it is a mistake to equate administrative borders with political borders (p. 4, bottom). On the other hand, he misrepresents what we know about the two main officials of the Mycenaean state, the wanax and the lawagetas. Although the contexts in which they are appear are similar, it is not true to say that (p. 5, top):

The numerous (and as far as I can see, unconvincing) attempts to make a clear distinction between the two officials, other than the size of their respective temenoi [sic; the plural of temenos is not temenoi, but temene] (at Pylos, the wanax’s is thrice the size of that of the lawagetas), clearly illustrate that there is no real consensus on the exact position and status of either of them.

Actually, there is a clear distinction between the two, which is demonstrated by a number of the secondary sources cited in this article. The adjective formed from wanax is wanakteros, which makes use of a Greek suffix (-teros) that indicates binary opposition (like Greek ἕτερος, “the other [of two]”), while the adjective formed from lawagetas is lawagesios, a regular adjectival ending. Thus it seems possible that the wanax is an important structural concept in Mycenaean Greek (at least among the administrators). There are other differences. The wanax appoints the damokoros, a regional official who administers one of the two main provinces of Pylos. He is thus directly involved in regional administration.

This much is consistent with Kelder’s argument that the wanax is the real king, whereas the lawagetas is a sub-king. But where is the evidence that the lawagetas is a “ruler-like figure”? This is crucial because the presence of two “ruler-like figures” is what Kelder finds so problematic about traditional interpretations of the Mycenaean political order. The answer is that there is no such evidence. The lawagetas appears in a number of important contexts, as does the wanax, but there is no evidence that he is a ruler-like figure. Why couldn’t he be something like the grand vizier, for example? This possibility is never entertained.

pylos-dejongAlso strange is Kelder’s reference to “two throne-rooms.” Here he elides the important difference between a throne-room and a megaron. The former is an interpretation of the function of a space; the latter is a designation of a particular architectural configuration. It is true that the rooms that we consider throne-rooms are megara, but it hardly follows that all megara are throne-rooms. In fact at Pylos, the lawagetas is not thought to hold court in the smaller megaron (room 23), but in Halls 64-65. It’s not certain what the other megara at Mycenaean palaces are for, but nowhere are the possibilities (except the one favored by the author) entertained.

Kelder’s put his finger on an important question, but although he concludes his article with the statement that “the growing body of circumstantial evidence for a unified Mycenaean state now seems overwhelming,” I am afraid that we are no closer to solving this thorny problem. That will require close, sustained engagement with the Hittite and the Mycenaean evidence.

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.

NB84_p81

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.