Classical Archaeology in the early 21st Century: it (more than ever) takes a village.

Several days ago, Dimitri Nakassis posted a question on social media, asking colleagues to chime in on the future of classical archaeology. Many of our responses focused upon such matters as the inequitable expectations of archaeological compared to philological classicists (whether in undergraduate/graduate education or professional expectations), the still-yet unresolved ‘Great Divide’ between ‘classical’ and ‘anthropological’ archaeologies, and the ideological ties between classical archaeology (and classics in general) and elite power structures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The responses were such that the good Dr. Nakassis blogged some of his initial ideas, which I’ll summarize:

  1. Archaeology and Classics increasingly are tackling similar questions. When the words du juor include ‘performance’ and ‘network’, the lines between textual and material evidence blur.
  2. Given the technological revolution, we are bombarded with a bevy of new tools, applications, and data. The ‘common core’ of skills expected for a well-rounded classicist – if there truly ever was such a thing – is waning in comparison to the waxing of these new approaches.
  3. These new applications beg new processes of analysis and interpretation, further distancing the classical archaeologist from the traditional processes of exegesis as practiced by their other classical colleagues.
  4. The educational system has not changed to reflect the new realities, and is in a loop that reinforces an outdated paradigm. Simply put, degree requirements for undergraduates reflect what is desired for entrance into graduate school. Graduate education is focused upon developing the skills necessary for obtaining a job in academia. Jobs in academia privilege those who can teach the courses need to provide students the skills to get into graduate school and earn a professional degree. Repeat.


What now? Some thoughts.

Same as it ever was: The study of the material past is inherently a collaborative process, and we’ve moved far away from the time when a single person had all the skills under their belt to address a question. Our work has been collaborative for several generations. The fact that there are more tools and approaches at our feet today than 40 years ago increases the need for collaboration, but it’s not a new problem. The size of the tent has just increased.

Vote ‘No’ on the nuclear option: The study of the material objects from Mediterranean civilizations has been institutionally situated (in North America, especially) within the broader study of the classical world. This is not going to change, nor should it, necessarily. Nor is the study of other archaeologies found within anthropology programs going to be easily separated from the 4-field approach to that discipline. To effectively break all of the archaeologists out of their respective captivities in classics, anthropology, art history, geology, other cognate disciplines would be overly disruptive and, if not done uniformly, disadvantageous to the rising practitioners of the craft.

Archaeology is archaeology: Despite its disaggregated state within the academy, archaeology is a thing unto itself. Certainly, classical archaeologists require specific knowledge of their chosen laboratory just as those who work on the Maya. However, there is a common set of theoretical and methodological tools common to the study of the material past, regardless of whether one works in Peru or Perugia. How those approaches are applied differ based upon the question asked and the particular environment in which one is working, but at the core we’re increasingly pulling from the same basic play book. This calls for a focus upon the noun (archaeology), and less upon the adjective (‘classical,’ ‘anthropological,’ ‘Mesoamerican,’ ‘Byzantine,’ etc.).

The biggest question for me, then, is how to enable the acquisition of new applications and approaches within institutional structures that are centuries old.

Breaking the Cycle: We should be focused upon developing programs of study at the undergraduate and graduate level that ensures that archaeologists – of whatever ilk – have:

  • a baseline understanding of method and theory.
  • a cross-cultural understanding of how societies are constructed – from hunter-gatherer systems to complex state systems.
  • an appreciation for the broader intellectual traditions and datasets available – that a regional study in Mexico could hold implications for work conducted in central Italy and vice versa.
  • an understanding of ethics and best practices, realizing that their academic interests will often impact local communities and their engagement with their own history and self-identity.

These components are not easily found wholly within a single traditional department of Anthropology or Classics. The current and near future academic landscape would suggest that working towards this end to be a foolish enterprise.  Collaborative, interdisciplinary programs are the way in which these skills are best pushed forward.

At the undergraduate level, archaeology majors/minors should be done in concert with ‘cognate’ majors, such that students are able to matriculate into graduate programs that will demand a knowledge of the 4-field approach to anthropology or the tripartite adherence to Altertumswissenschaft.

At the graduate level, seminars and qualifying exams should focus (in part) upon questions of archaeological method and theory, in addition to core elements of ‘traditional’ disciplines.  An eye towards credentialing budding scholars in fields of study outside of their home discipline would be strategic.

In the Mediterranean, CAORC institutions are often the ‘gatekeepers’ for those pursuing research and advanced study in those regions. These need to open the entrance requirements for aspiring students beyond the traditional disciplines that they have normally depended upon. My most familiar experience is with the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA), which up until recently required a competency in ancient Greek. The ASCSA has recently diminished the importance of ancient Greek as a qualifying element into their regular program, which is a positive step forward. However, the entrance exam’s continued focus on the traditional divisions of classics (literature, history, and archaeology) means that students trained outside of the classical tradition will be under-represented as ‘regular members’. Davis notes that the current ASCSA mission calls for a broad approach to Hellenic Studies, which is being pursued positively in a number of ways. Still, more can be done.

Hiring practices in higher education should angle towards collaborative appointments between cognate disciplines. In the current environment of higher education, the days in which a program could gain (or replace) a line that is wholly bound by their programmatic needs is fast disappearing. Joint appointments or posts that easily fill needs across several programs are increasingly de rigueur if not already the prevailing practice.

Programs should open their curriculum. This means credentialing by formal coursework or by alternative means professors found in other departments for courses that count within their major. That course in ‘state formation’ found in the classics curriculum may be just the thing from which an archaeology student – regardless of cognate discipline – could benefit.

All of these suggestions require leadership at the programmatic, departmental, and college level in higher education. This means an active involvement of archaeologists as Directors, Chairs, and Deans. This is not good news for most, but changing the structure of the system means being involved in the often inglorious duties of curricular reform and programmatic administration. We have to be at the table. Fortunately, many are up to the task – archaeological research is inherently collaborative and interdisciplinary, and a practice that when done well yields a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. Applying these skills in an area of the academy which increasingly requires a capacity to see both the forest and the trees is to the benefit of all.

Fortunately, many of these suggestions are already afoot. It is a matter of recognizing where these are occurring, learning from successes and failures, and urging others to follow suit.

I’m certain that others will be putting their thoughts down over the coming days, and I look forward to reading about their perspectives. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I’m more than happy to throw down some ideas that work towards greater collaboration and dialogue across the (hopefully) increasingly porous borders of our respective academic silos.

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AquaTerra on GitHub

aquaterra_imageNewhard, Levine, and Phebus (2014) presented a LCP model that incorporated both terrestrial and marine costs to assist in exploring the connectivity between places. Developed in ArcGIS ModelBuilder, the initial model was streamlined by Nicola Buescher, Christina Carmack, Caleb Whitaker, Zach Campbell and Thomas Mims. The model is now available via GitHub as a Python script.

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Contributions to the SAA Blog Carnival: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Blogging.

As a prelude to the Society for American Archaeology panel on blogging at their annual meeting in April, a blogging archaeology carnival is being operated from Doug’s Archaeology.  Every month, participants are asked to write on a particular theme, using the Twitter hashtag #blogarch.  For December, Doug has asked us to write on the ‘Good, Bad, and Ugly’ of blogging.

The Good:
My experiences with blogging have been mostly good.  My posts tend to be of three types – either the presentation or relating of information (such as re-blogs of the 3D Mediterranean archaeology series managed by Bill Caraher), updates on research initiatives, or the posting of soapbox-type comments.  When I first started blogging, it was with the intent of being a conduit of information about archaeology and informatics.  Mostly, I saw the need not for adding additional content as much as collating and disseminating the good works of others.  Over time, I’ve found that the most satisfying (and hopefully more productive) is the rant.  Within these posts, I afford myself the luxury of thinking about where I think the field of archaeology is going, how it’s affecting the world around us, or other such themes.  The blogging is an effective tool for me personally to organize my thoughts, to put them into a communicative medium, and then move those ideas into actionable items – whether it be a presentation, article, piece of curriculum, or new collaboration.  It is my hope that the ideas expressed are helpful to those who catch wind of them.

The Bad:
As is appearing a common theme, lack of response or comment is disheartening.  However, I see this more as a misapplied expectation.  This is not a social media event, where posts are ‘liked’ or commented upon frequently.  I do hope for comment, to start a discussion, debate – all out war on a topic if possible.  However, I realize that this is not going to happen, in all likelihood.  Rather, blogs seem to be more of place for information, comment, and opinion.  They seem, in my experience, to be a place where ideas are expressed, but not necessarily directly commented upon.  If I’m looking for that type of exchange online, it appears that I get more of that from social media.

Another ‘bad’ would be the time it sometimes takes from other more ‘important’ writing – that of articles, chapters, and books that are still the mainstay of academic measures of ‘productivity.’  Contributions to the discipline do not include Tweets or blogposts – nor should they, necessarily.  Rather, I would hope that the process of blogging – the process of sharing ideas and information – would lead to additional, more substantial contributions.

Overall, I have no ‘ugly’ experiences to report.  Much of what I’ve experienced to date has be ‘good.’  The ‘bad’ that I’ve experienced stems more from misappropriated expectations and a personal (outdated, possibly?) sense of productivity.  In sum, the process of blogging has brought me into more regular contact with those that I’d see possibly by happenstance on an annual basis.  It’s provided a venue for sharing ideas, promoting successes and triumphs, and consolidating thoughts.

Blogging good.

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Reflections on the EAA 2013 Roundtable on “Ephemeral Landscapes”

pilznIn September, the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) held its meetings in Pilsen, Czech Republic.  I attended this meeting, and participated in a roundtable on ‘Ephemeral Landscapes,’ organized by Martijn vanLeusen, Andrew Bevan, Kayt Armstrong, and Wieke deNeef.  The workshop was well attended, and a lively discussion was held on the state of landscape archaeology and geospatial applications.  As we are on the cusp of the AIA meetings in Chicago, I present my thoughts and general takeaways.  These are my own ideas/impressions and I am not representing anyone but myself in these thoughts.

The following papers were presented:

The excavation of a hunting thicket in Roissy (France)
by Jean-Yves Dufour (INRAP, France)

Minor and off-sites: the Pisa South Picenum Project  (The Marches, Italy)
by Simonetta Menchelli (University of Pisa, Italy), Marinella Pasquinucci (University of Pisa, Italy)

The detection of rural activity patterns through intensive archaeological survey. Some experiences form south-west Iberia
by Luis Sevillano Perea (Merida Institute of Archaeology, Spanish Research Council (CSIC), Spain), Victorino Mayoral Herrera (Merida Institute of Archaeology, Spanish Research Council (CSIC), Spain)

The intersection of theory and practice in “marginal” mountainous landscapes: the investigation of past human-environment interactions in the southwestern Alps
by Kevin Walsh (University of York, UK), Francesco Carrer (University of York, UK),Florence Mocci (CNRS, France)

Laying bare the landscape: large-scale rural archaeology in the upper Thames valley, England
by Roger M Thomas (English Heritage, UK), Chris Gosden (University of Oxford, UK),Morrison Wendy (University of Oxford, UK)

Developing interpretative frameworks for ephemeral artifact scatters: a geoinformatic example from central Turkey
by James Newhard (College of Charleston, USA)

Uncertainty and persistence: rural signatures and archaeological survey
by Andrew Bevan (University College London, UK)

During and after, there was quite a bit of discussion between the audience and speakers, bringing out several themes in my mind.  Some of these I see as providing interesting and fruitful areas for concerted attention, others are time-worn issues that seem in no real way currently solvable (if they even need solving).

Data interoperability.  Work from the Upper Thames brought this point to light.  In this region, Thomas noted the wide variety of projects and studies, initiated over a span of decades, and the complexity that arises from the perspective of data mining.  It is in no way an isolated case.  Developing systems for integrating divergent studies is an imperative – especially for areas where there is intensive activity from multiple entities.  The conversation moved into discussing ways in which methods could be streamlined.  On one level, this is a valid discussion.  On another, I feel the need for caution.  If we focus excessively on streamlining methods, we enter into a morass where people start championing specific approaches and run the risk of stifling innovation in method and the exploration of new avenues of investigation.  Another point against methodological standardization is the fact that this is a field of already tremendously deep datasets – how would earlier projects be integrated?

Rather, systems of integration should be pursued that are able to lay over individualistic approaches.  Geospatial applications, with their capacity to statistically smooth divergent datasets, may be an area where these systems can be best developed.  As opposed to thinking of methods standardization that could run the risk of standardizing research questions and ignoring local needs (whether dependent upon terrain, material, or legal strictures), I would suggest looking towards the idea of data standardization.  The issue then becomes a matter of statistical standardization, a matter that is not unique to archaeology, and for which there may be solutions residing in other disciplines such as biology, geology, sociology, to name a few.

Ethnographic and historical analogs.  The use of historical or ethnographic analogy was often addressed in the papers (Menchelli, Newhard) and within the ensuing discussion.  The overriding consensus appeared that analogs should not be used as strict proxies, but rather as guides for developing further questions, and possibly tipping the balance towards one interpretation over another (barring other evidence to the contrary).

Greater rigor in assigning functional attributes.  In this area, we are starting to see some movement.  There are beginnings of stating some criteria, and then assigning function based upon those stated criteria.  We’ve been doing this for some time, but the definitions have been very generalized (it’s a biggish spread of pottery, must have been a farm house…).  The capacity to integrate geospatial elements is yielding new developments in making these criteria more complex and explicit.  We’re moving from a practice of inductiveness to deductiveness, which should yield opportunities in the future for stronger systems of data collection and analysis.  We need not concern ourselves with offering explanations for every observed piece of antique detritus, but be intent upon describing and assigning function to as much as possible, with an explicit argument stated for those assignments.

Lack of theoretical approaches.  Within the presentations – and even continuing into the discussions – there was a general lack of theoretical paradigms.  Despite this, there was in the air scents of several broad approaches.  Speaking generally, there was a close cultural historical approach (Tiber), the more positivistic/quantitative approach (Spain, Calabria, Antikythera), and more reflexive, open perspective (Turkey- although still highly positivistic/quantitative).  Phenomenological contexts appeared least represented, although such approaches would have been possible.  Although theory and method cannot be separated, in my opinion, the subject of the workshop was methodologically focused, leading to a lessened focus upon theoretical approaches.

Geospatial applications.  Underlying most, if not all, of these issues is the need for an extensive application of GIS and other spatial applications.  Data interoperability and functional modeling, in particular, are issues where intensive use of geospatial applications are inherently required, and should be included within the basic toolkit of any person involved in the practice of landscape archaeology.

Overall, I view efforts to consolidate methods to be a red herring that would move us away from more effective contributions.  A sense of best practices have generally been in place since the days of Plog, Plog, and Wait (if not earlier), and what we should be encouraged is refinement and development of technological tools and analytical techniques that build upon the general methods of the past.  Areas of growth reside in the areas of data interoperability and developing/encouraging systems that seek to describe and explain archaeological signatures in a structured and systemic fashion, with an eye towards allowing a variety of theoretical approaches to be brought to bear on the data.

Filed under: Academia, Conferences, State of the Field Tagged: geospatial, GIS, heritage management, informatics, modeling

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3D Archaeology at Çatalhöyük

Reblogged from The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World:

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 This is the twelfth in a series of posts exploring 3D modeling in Mediterranean and European archaeology. For more in this series click here. We hope these papers will start a discussion either in the comments of the blog or on Twitter using the #3DMedArch hashtag. 

Maurizio Forte, Duke University


Digital documentation and visualization in archaeology include digital applications of computer graphic rendering and simulation involving data, models and spatial information produced by different integrated technologies of data capturing, virtual reconstruction and visual communication (Forte 2010; Forte and Kurillo 2010; Forte and Siliotti 1997; Forte 2012).

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The Work of Archaeology in the Age of Digital Surrogacy

Reblogged from The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World:

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This is the tenth in a series of posts exploring 3D modeling in Mediterranean and European archaeology. For more in this series click here. We hope these papers will start a discussion either in the comments of the blog or on Twitter using the #3DMedArch hashtag.

Adam Rabinowitz, The University of Texas at Austin

I’m very glad that Bill has run this series of 3D Thursday blog posts, because they have demonstrated with particular clarity that field archaeology is at a turning-point in its engagement with three-dimensional visualization.

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Publishing archaeology in the 3rd and 4th dimensions.

Read Andrew Reinhard’s post in Bill Caraher’s series on 3D applications in Mediterranean Archaeology.  Very good ideas to consider.

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Acropolis Museum on Google Maps

Reblogged from res gerendae:

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I’m not sure when this went up on the internet, but no one has pointed it out to me before, and so therefore I offer you the following post.  I just discovered that the Acropolis Museum in Athens is featured in the Google Cultural Institute (a division of Google of which I was hitherto unaware), and it has a page…

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Three- and Four-Dimensional Archaeological Publication

Reblogged from The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World:

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This is the ninth in a series of posts exploring 3D modeling in Mediterranean and European archaeology. For more in this series click here. We hope these papers will start a discussion either in the comments of the blog or on Twitter using the #3DMedArch hashtag.

Andrew Reinhard, Director of Publications, American School of Classical Studies at Athens

I have been the Director of Publications for the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) for just over three years, and am responsible for publishing our quarterly journal, Hesperia, as well as excavation monographs for Ancient Corinth, the Athenian Agora, and affiliated sites, plus Hesperia Supplements on special archaeological topics, as well as guidebooks and limited series.

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3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology: What are we doing, anyway?

Reblogged from The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World:

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This is the eighth in a series of posts exploring 3D modeling in Mediterranean and European archaeology. For more on this project click here. We hope these papers will start a discussion either in the comments of the blog or on Twitter using the #3DMedArch hashtag.

James Newhard, Associate Professor, Department of Classics, College of Charleston

I come to the topic of 3D imagery from the perspective largely of the ‘end user.’ While I’m involved with projects that are capturing and using 3D imagery (such as the…

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