Tag Archives: Greece

On Greek being Greek

My grandfather wrote this out for me from memory in the summer of 1990, the summer before I turned 15. (He would have said before I turned 16; we had endless arguments about inclusive counting). He must have written it in the village of Καλό Νερό in Messenia, where I, my cousin Angelos and my grandparents were vacationing. He had written it out for me because we had taken the old train to Κακόβατος for the day to go for a swim and a bite to eat (neither of my Greek grandparents knew how to drive). As we were waiting for the train to come, my grandfather started to teach me the opening lines of the Odyssey, to bide the time, I guess. The words were strange to me. They didn’t make sense, even though of course I recognized familiar words. My cousin laughed at me as I tried and failed to reproduce the strange sequence of sounds that my grandfather was patiently reciting.

I remember the scene vividly, and so does my cousin. It stuck with me. I was always aware of the fact that my father had learned ancient Greek in high school and wrote his papers in καθαρεύουσα, the formal language of the Greek state until 1976. But I didn’t grow up learning Greek formally: I learned orally, largely from my father and from my grandparents, who never left Greece and who never really learned any language other than Greek. And I learned largely in Greece, and especially in Athens, in Exarcheia and Glyfada.

I didn’t grow up yearning to know ancient Greek, but in my first year at college at the University of Michigan, I briefly entertained the idea. I flipped to where “Greek” should have been in the course catalog – this was the 90s, we had paper course catalogs – and it read simply, “See Classical Studies.” The first course codes under “Classical Studies,” listed alphabetically, were “Classical Archaeology.” I was planning to double-major in history and economics, and I was vaguely interested in ancient history, so the idea of archaeology intrigued me. I took an introduction to Greek Art & Archaeology taught by John Pedley and an introduction to Field Archaeology taught by Sue Alcock, and that was it: I was hooked.

But I also took Greek that year, the ancient variety, and while I don’t remember being hooked, I did like it. It was different from the Greek I knew. My classmates kept insisting that my knowledge of modern Greek must have been a huge advantage, but I remember thinking that wasn’t so. More than anything else, modern Greek helped me remember certain words, but the language had changed enough that it wasn’t a one-to-one connection. My favorite example is the adjective ποικίλος, which the LSJ renders as “many-coloured, spotted, pied, dappled; wrought in various colours; cunningly wrought; changeful, diversified, manifold; intricate, complex” etc. In Greece now, a ποικιλία (the noun) is a variety plate of appetizers (sort of) served at restaurants, normally for a  bite to eat while you’re drinking (called meze in Greek).

These kinds of connections and interconnections were fascinating to me. They enriched my understanding of my Greek – in wonder, I realized that the Greek word for newspaper, εφημερίδα, was actually a “daily,” literally (φ’ μέρα > ἐφήμερος, cf. English ephemeral). And I understood now that Greek used to have an aspirate, which is why it was an ephimerida and not an epimerida. These are dumb things in retrospect, but it was a revelation to feel that you understood a language and its history rather than simply using it to order souvlakia (still the best thing you can do in any language is order meat on a stick).

I wanted to take ancient Greek because in my addled teen brain I thought it was a kind of family tradition. My father learned ancient Greek in school, my grandfather had taught me my first words of Homer. So it was with some surprise and interest that I read James Nikopoulos’ thoughtful article “On not wanting to know ancient Greek.” In some ways, it sounds like we have a lot in common: we both spent our summers in Exarcheia, we were both raised and educated in the US. But my family saw the language of ancient Greece as something relevant to us. And while my family’s vacations were largely vacation-y, we spent a lot of time surrounded by antiquity: going to archaeological sites and museums, visiting my uncle, who worked as an architect on archaeological projects. I’m not sure that we talked about it much, but it was there, all the time.

And it’s still with me. I’m a professional Classicist – sorry, James – that works on the earliest Greek we have, in the Late Bronze Age. I really derive pleasure from showing students the connections between the Greek words they know and the ones they see in radically different forms in Linear B; that they actually know this word from 14th c. BC Knossos:

4_4_Image2

(It’s to-sa, as in τόσα, “so many,” as in τόσα σουβλάκια [but sadly in this case it’s actually feminine plural, τόσαι]).

On the other hand, I share James’ worry that the Greek language “shouldn’t have to pretend it ever stopped being itself,” and the same goes for Greece. I do find its antiquity endlessly interesting, but if I’m being honest the reason I have gone back every summer since I can remember is the place as it is now and as it has been. I can’t imagine living without it.

And I share James’ regret that I don’t know Greek better, in all its forms. But I’m working on it.

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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…

Archaeological futures III

[This post is a continuation of two other blog posts: part one and part two.]

I think that a basic structure of the talk I’m giving at Smith College is coming into shape. I’ll start with a brief description of the accelerating sophistication of archaeological methods since I began as a student in the mid-1990s, focusing first on the proliferation of archaeological sciences and their integration into Mediterranean archaeology and the proliferation of data produced by archaeological projects. (I’ll hopefully use data from Corinth Excavations to get a quantitative sense of the increase in data produced).

This leads to the issue of data and digitization. One of my big take-aways from the Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future book was a more clear sense of how this proliferation of data has encouraged archaeologists to go digital, for a couple of different reasons, two of which I’ll highlight here: (1) The quantities of data are so immense that digitizing them (or better, creating them digitally to begin with) is an elegant solution to basic storage and dissemination needs, and (2) the types of data are so divergent, largely because of the increase in specialist and scientific studies in archaeological projects, that integrating these data are a significant hurdle, and digital integration is again a good solution.

A couple of personal anecdotes come to mind here. The archaeological survey that I was trained on, EKAS, started fieldwork with a “fully functional GIS” – that was exciting in 1999. When I was planning a survey in 2011 (WARP), one of the first things that I did was to think about the GIS and how we could integrate all of our data within it. Although I haven’t exactly been successful at pulling in non-archaeological data to the GIS framework, it still remains the basis for much of our analysis. When I write papers about WARP – as I was this week for a paper I’m giving tonight – I usually write on my desktop and keep my laptop reserved for ArcGIS (I run GIS on my laptop because it’s that indispensable to me). When I started excavating at Corinth in 2004, on the other hand, Corinth Excavations still used hard-bound notebooks, although they had become increasingly form-driven (we used a stamp). To figure out what had been excavated in my area prior to 2004, I had to flip through two or three different hard-bound notebooks. They proved to be not very well-written or illustrated, and I found myself increasingly frustrated by the fact that I was “digging blind.” (Actually that is why I was put there, to figure out what was going on and to “clean up” the interpretive knots created by past supervisors who hadn’t done such a good job).

One of the best arguments for digitization and born-digital data is (in my opinion) to give supervisors more interpretive tools in the field, by allowing them to call up previous years’ work easily on their computers or tablets in the field (additionally reference works and scholarly literature in the field can be extremely useful). This is a way to bring everything that we can to bear on solving interpretive problems in the field. I stress this point because if archaeology is anything, it is that: thinking through problems in the field, at the trowel’s edge (to use the excavation metaphor). 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.

In that respect, digital technologies have the ability to help us bridge the field/library divide that is such an important structuring device of archaeological discourse, so much so that it even made it into an Indiana Jones movie (note: Vere Gordon Childe didn’t spend most of his time in the field). On the other hand, there can be a tendency, at least in some writing on “digital archaeology,” to emphasize the importance of data collection in a way that seems to separate it from interpretation. The word “data” appears 1619 times in the Mobilizing the Past book, “interpret*” only 164 times, and the general tone of much of the discussion focuses on interpreting data that have already been collected, thus reifying the field/library divide as it is being transformed into a field/computer lab divide. The section entitled “Interpretation” in the introduction to the Mobilizing the Past book is less than two pages long and focuses on a discussion of Bill Caraher’s “slow archaeology” work – in the same chapter, we get more words devoted to Apple’s famous “1984” commercial. Likewise Roosevelt and his colleagues briefly discuss the importance of interpretation trench-side in their introduction, but at no point is their born-digital system described as improving interpretation, nor do they talk about interpretation very much at all. In fact, I only see one contribution to interpretation in the entire article: an assertion that technologies that model space in three dimensions would aid in interpretation. This is how they describe their system (emphasis mine):

Conceived and designed before excavation commenced, the system was ‘‘born digital’’ (Austin 2014: 14), operating with integrated databases and aiming for the production of high-quality data with manifold improvements in accuracy and efficiency.

I don’t want to linger too long here, since I’ve already made my feelings clear. This is not a criticism of the tools or practices of digital archaeology, but rather of its discourses. But discourses are important: they reveal what we value and what we don’t.

What I want to say, then, is that we’re barely realizing the potential of our new digital tools, but that to make them work for us, we need to avoid this obsession with high-quality data, efficiency and accuracy. All those things are wonderful, but they are all a means to an end: productive interpretations and analyses of research questions. It’s true that high-quality data aren’t just produced for us but for future generations of archaeologists, but I think it’s a mistake to think that if we just produce the highest-quality data then one day someone might make interpretive hay of them. Our primary goal has to be productive interpretations in the here and now.

“Digital archaeology,” if that is even a thing, then, is at once an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunities are obvious, and they’ve encouraged even the most skeptical of us to become digital archaeologists in a very meaningful way. The opportunities are made very clear in the Mobilizing the Past book and in the article of Roosevelt et alii. The challenge is to unthink data and methodological sophistication as ends in themselves.

Let me end with another personal anecdote, which reveals that I am as guilty of this as anyone. When I started working on EKAS, I was extremely suspicious of defining “sites” in the field. I still am. What I wanted to do was to plug all of the artifactual evidence into the GIS and produce maps that would help us to understand artifactual distributions better and to define “sites” (if that’s we wanted to do) in the computer lab. I still think that’s a better way of doing things than declaring “ooh, there’s lots of stuff here” and defining a site on the fly. The on-the-fly way of doing things is data-poor and isn’t meant to require a lot of thought. You might feel rushed to make a decision as you pace back and forth trying to decide if it’s “really” a site while your undergraduate field walkers look at you impatiently, waiting to get on with it. The GIS-y way of doing it is data-rich and involves more thinking. In fact, that’s the value of the digital way of doing it: you can display and comprehend more evidence than is easily comprehensible when you’re in the field. So on the one hand, there is a separation made between fieldwork and analysis, which is something I’ve argued against. On the other, that separation gives you more information and more time to contemplate your decision-making. It gives you a little more information, and a bit of space to think.

Climate and Collapse in the LBA Mediterranean

Through my Twitter feed I was recently alerted to a new article published in PLOS-ONE entitled “Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis“, co-authored by D. Kaniewski, E. Van Campo, J. Guiot, S. Le Burel, T. Otto, and C. Baeteman, all of whom are geologists and/or environmental scientists working in France and/or Belgium. The authors argue that the collapse of various states in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the LBA can be attributed to an environmental stimulus, specifically a 300-year drought. The new evidence for this argument is a core from the Larnaca Salt Lake near the important LBA site of Hala Sultan Tekke, which shows that the area slowly transitioned from a Mediterranean woodland to a dry steppe over the course of the LBA in two distinct steps:

The first step was recorded at 1450–1350 cal yr BC, and a second step was reached at ca. 1200 cal yr BC. The drivers of environmental changes for the second step are quite different as no fire activity or changes in the lagoon are attested. The agricultural activity, rich around the site, also strongly declined since 1200 cal yr BC. The PCA-biplot (Fig. 4) indicates that agriculture only became one of the main components of environmental dynamics since ca. 850–750 cal yr BC.

The authors then compare this development to Gibala-Tell Tweini in northwest Syria, where evidence for a long drought correlates with the core evidence from Larnaca. So the authors conclude that

Both proxies [Larnaca and Gibala-Tell Tweini] reveal a hydrological anomaly for the 1200–850 cal yr BC period, indicating a similar, although not uniform, drought event, recorded both on the island and on the continent. The onset of the drought event seems to be chronologically close to the LBA crisis and the Sea People event.

From this, their ultimate conclusion is that

this study shows that the LBA crisis coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-year drought event 3200 years ago. This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia. The integration of environmental and archaeological data along the Cypriot and Syrian coasts offers a first comprehensive insight into how and why things may have happened during this chaotic
period. The 3.2 ka BP event underlines the agro-productive sensitivity of ancient Mediterranean societies to climate and demystifies the crisis at the Late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition.

Here is where the authors and I part ways. My main problem lies in the gap between the first and second sentence. Even if we accept the modest conclusion that “the LBA crisis coincided with the onset of a ca. 300-year drought event,” why do we need to link the two causally? This is a post hoc ergo propter hoc-esque logical fallacy. This is especially so since we don’t have evidence for a large-scale drought. The two proxies they are using are under 250 km apart. This might seem like a long distance, but it’s positively tiny considering that they are using them to explain a collapse that spans the Greek mainland, Anatolia, the Levantine Coast, and Egypt. Mycenae on the Greek mainland, for instance, is about 1200 km away from Gibala-Tell Tweini in Northwest Syria, and almost as far away as the Hittite capital Hattusa, which is about 1000 km away from Egypt. Even if we were 100% sure about the 300-year old drought in Cyprus and Syria (unlikely given that we have only two proxies), can we really use the drought to explain the collapse of the Mycenaean political order some 1000 km away?

The rest of the concluding paragraph is, frankly, a guess. We don’t have evidence that allows us to claim, for instance, that “This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socio-economic crises and forced regional human migrations at the end of the LBA in the Eastern Mediterranean and southwest Asia.” Even worse is the claim that “The 3.2 ka BP event underlines the agro-productive sensitivity of ancient Mediterranean societies to climate” since it claims to show what it assumes. That is, the authors assume that drought led to collapse (I say assume because they don’t actually know that), then they claim that this shows that these societies were prone to collapse because of droughts! This is called begging the question.

I could go on and on, but I don’t want to belabor the point. The Mediterranean is climatically heterogeneous. Even if it weren’t, it is a huge stretch to assume that a drought in one part of the eastern Mediterranean can be used to extrapolate another drought elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Even if it could, we can’t be sure that because the two “events” (they’re really processes, of course) are simultaneous or nearly so, that one explains the other. I’d concede that the drought contributes to our understanding of the collapse, but it’s simplistic to argue that this climate shift caused political collapse. In general, I’d add that the authors naively accept many archaeological and historical arguments as facts — the “Sea Peoples” are a big historiographical problem, for instance — and they clearly aren’t totally comfortable with the archaeological scholarship on this very difficult problem.

What all of this shows is the weakness of research that isn’t really interdisciplinary. If the authors really wanted to argue that climate and political collapse in the LBA were interrelated, they should have brought historians and archaeologists on board. They didn’t, and the results were as predictable as if I (an archaeologist of the Greek LBA) had tried to write an article interpreting their palynological analysis.