Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.01.03


RESPONSE: Small on Kilmer on Small et al.


I accept your offer to comment on the recent review of Methods in the Mediterranean (Brill 1995) in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review [95.11.16]. The review was disappointing, not because of the negative comments it contained, but because the review said nothing about the book. Anyone reading the review, upon finishing it, would know little more about the book, than when he/she started. The fault in the review stems directly of the fact that the book was not read by a scholar who was familiar with the subject matter, and, if I am interpreting the reviewer correctly, read for the wrong reasons.

At the outset I have to say that I hold no grudge against Professor Kilmer, who, I am sure is a careful scholar. But he is the wrong person to review a book on theoretical issues underlying approaches to joining texts and archaeology. Kilmer's interests are mainly philological, as evidenced by his criticisms of the number of typographical errors, the contributors' use of syntax, and the unfamiliar (to him) terminology. In fact, nowhere is the mismatch of the reviewer to the subject of the book more evident than in his statement that "... Hesse and Wapnish (two contributors) know that they were writing for a readership of humanists...". Nothing could be further from the case. As outlined in the liner to the book's jacket, the volume was purposefully written for social scientists: archaeologists and historians who are wrestling with the effective combination of texts and archaeology. The terminology and phrasing that Kilmer cringes at, are common to the dialogue between these two groups, and, as the editor, I make no apology that the book is part of this specialized conversation. To be an effective reviewer, Kilmer should have been comfortable within this terminological context.

Not only is the reviewer a poor match for the subject of the book, but he chose to review it for the wrong reasons. Kilmer says that a major factor in his choosing to review the work was that he was looking for a book to give undergraduates who are planning on going on a dig. I hope not to sound exclusive, but the debate within the book is not yet theirs. The volume is meant for a graduate and post-graduate readership, inside and especially outside Classics, -- a readership that is thoroughly familiar with the methods and theory behind combining texts and archaeology.

Kilmer's inappropriateness as a reviewer for the work is witnessed again and again in the fact that he missed the fundamental issues that the book addressed. He glossed over the introduction, referring to it as "general remarks", when the introduction actually set the argument for the book, i.e. the problems inherent in the effective theoretical conjoining of texts and archaeology in the Mediterranean. For example, the ineffectiveness of the current theoretical dominance of ancient history was an important and controversial argument that was completely overlooked.

This superficial approach marks most of the rest of the review. Dyson's contribution is the first to apply deconstructionist approaches to excavation, used in other archaeologies (Hodder and Tilley), to Classical research. His contribution is not a focus on the fact that some excavation reports remain unfinished, as Kilmer would have us believe. Hedricks' contribution lays the initial groundwork for attributing meaning to artifacts, as seen in the analyses of Herodotus and Thucydides. As an historian, he is one of the first to struggle with the concept of independent meaning between texts and archaeology. Kilmer's analysis which focuses on Hedricks' ("... fondness for tight definitions ...") completely misses the importance of Hedricks' contribution.

Kilmer's review of Ober's work is little better. Ober's thesis, the important issue of the context-dependency of social meaning for artifacts, is glossed, and the review instead turns towards observations on the effectiveness of Ober's definitions. Hitchner receives similar treatment. The combination of text and survey archaeology in research in Roman North Africa is creating new methodological approaches. But the reviewer's insights are limited to "The combination of epigraphical evidence with the finds of the surface survey contributes much more to our knowledge of the economy of the region in question than either can provide on its own." -- a rather obvious statement.

The theoretical foundation of my own contribution was also missed. New approaches to the combination of texts and archaeology in ancient Greek studies assume that social strategies seen in one context (namely courts of law) can be transferred to others. The use of comparative ethnoarchaeology shows that the cemetery context in ancient Athens could not incorporate the same social strategies that historians have documented for other contexts. Current methods of combining texts and archaeology in the study of ancient Athens are then flawed. Kilmer's remarks are limited to the fact that I present some "... interesting aspects of status demonstration in Classical Greece.", and the fact that he does not like my use of syntax.

The contribution that comes closest to the theoretical foundation of this book was Kosso's. He argues that, in the quest to join texts and archaeology meaningfully, scholars should not assume that textual and archaeological evidence are automatically independent. They can stem from the same source. Kosso has made a major contribution to theoretical studies of this issue which started with work in Mesoamerica and continues in American historical research. Kosso's particular argument is an important corrective to the leading theoretical approach to combining texts and archaeology in America -- and it is important that it comes from studies of the Classical past. Kilmer's comments are limited to his own difficulty with understanding Kosso's terminology.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the review however was Kilmer's analysis of the contributions of Hesse and Wapnish. Both archaeologists are working at the cutting edge of the issue. Hesse looks at the implications of the combination of texts and archaeology in postprocessual archaeology, which is a theoretical approach that has eschewed the question of the place of textual evidence in behavioral and cultural reconstructions. Wapnish shows how examining textually-constructed social meaning for artifacts aids the effective combination of archaeological and textual material. As I wrote in my introduction, she is creating a new productive path that could be applied to several texts outside the Mediterranean as well. Kilmer's review of these two contributions does not at all touch upon what they wrote, but mentions only that they were well-written.

I must admit that I am not familiar with your reviews nor I am aware of the method that you use to match reviewer with book. But I do know that it is unfortunate that those who read the Bryn Mawr review, would walk away without ever knowing what the book was about.

Yours sincerely,
David B. Small