Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.13

Michael Shanks, Classical Archaeology of Greece: Experiences of the Discipline.   London and New York:  Routledge, 1996.  Pp. xiii, 199; 44 figs.  ISBN 0-415-08521-7.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Susan I. Rotroff, Washington University in St. Louis
Word count: 2633 words

In the spirit of self-reflection, let me say where I stand in writing this review. I am a classical archaeologist, trained in the most traditional modes of the discipline and engaged in research at a rather conservative excavation. Because of this training and experience, I know a lot about classical archaeology. Because it is an interest of mine, I also know something about archaeological theory, and I look for ways in which I can use new approaches in my own work (currently, the study of Hellenistic cooking pots). Michael Shanks, of course, is one of the chief voices of the postprocessual archaeology which developed in the 80's in response to processual archaeology, the New Archaeology of the 60's.1 The New Archaeology, with its view of archaeology as a science and its emphasis on law-like generalities, held little appeal for many classical archaeologists, with their close ties to philology, ancient history, and the history of art. The postprocessualists, however, have stressed humanistic interpretation and the links of archaeology with history, themes which might find resonance in the traditional practice of classical archaeology. Shanks's earlier work was almost completely within the realm of prehistory. Now, however, as he tells us in his introduction, he is writing a book on the early Greek polis.2 We may imagine, then, that he has given considerable thought to the ways in which this newer archaeology may provide insights into the Greek past.

Shanks describes the volume under review as "a guide to a discipline and its objects" in which he aspires to "give some insight into why the discipline which deals with ancient Greece has come to look the way it does" (p. 1). Chapter 1 (A Search for Sources) presents a deceptively accessible facade. It reads like a Michael Woodish Search for the Protocorinthian Aryballos, as Shanks wanders over the Corinthian landscape, identifying wild flowers and archaeological traces, encounters the eccentricities of the Corinth excavation team and the British School at Athens, then briefly discusses the little perfume jars that brought him to Corinth. The chapter is illustrated with photographs and drawings of the site, conveying something of the flavor of the writer's journey. The tone is decided popular and care is taken to explain names and terms that would be unfamiliar to non-professional readers. We are thus prepared for something of an ironic travelogue -- but that is not at all what Shanks has in mind.

Chapter 2 (Cities and Sanctuaries, Art and Archaeology) is not so much about sites as about traditional art history and stylistic analysis. Shanks summarizes earlier research on Protocorinthian pottery, which throughout the book serves as a case study,3 then expands into a lengthy discussion of typology and classification, which leads him to Beazley and connoisseurship. He presents statistics to demonstrate that Beazley's method has not born much credible fruit in the study of Protocorinthian pottery (p. 35) and points out that Beazley's personae "are just another set of classificatory taxa which mean very little" (p. 36). Touching briefly on the interpretation of figures (iconography and iconology), he then sketches the formation of the great European collections of antiquities and the "Big Digs" of the foreign schools of archaeology in Greece. Finally he complains briefly about the subordination of classical archaeology to history, with artifacts simply the illustrations of a text that has already been written.

The interests and ideologies that have motivated and supported the study of the Greek past take center stage in chapter 3 (Greek Myths and Metanarratives). The aim here is to show how the history and material culture of ancient Greece have formed part of various overarching narratives, for example, the scenario that casts Greece as the cradle of European civilization. Shanks traces the development of the notion of Hellenism from the 16th to the 18th century through the activities of collectors, antiquarians, and early travelers, and the writings of Winckelmann. He then embarks on a lengthy summary of the thesis of Michael Vickers and David Gill that the figured pottery so admired today was not highly regarded in its own day, but is rather a down-market reflection of gold and silver vessels.4 This amounts to another case study, since Vickers and Gill also showed how 18th-century values still pervade our understanding of Greek pottery. Their thesis also maintains that what we thought was "art" is in fact not "art" and hence the case may be taken to illustrate the subjectivity of artistic evaluations (and that the present's view of the past may be distorted). Shanks then returns to collectors and early travelers and their role in the formation of taste, "a central concept in the construction of Greek artefacts as art" (p. 65), and a discussion of romanticism and neo-classicism. He then shifts to the modern world, with an analysis of the tourist experience and two pages on "Modern Greeks into the Past", a disappointingly superficial treatment of a fascinating subject that would seem to lend itself to the postprocessual program, with its emphasis on ways the present makes use of the past. (Shanks alludes to the uneasy relationship between the Greek past and present repeatedly in illustrations [e.g., Fig. 7.2, an almost illegibly small reproduction of a 1992 poster of the National Tourist Organization trumpeting the Greekness of Macedonia] but never comments on them.) The chapter ends with a critique of Bernal's Black Athena project, taking Bernal to task for what seem to Shanks naive and outdated views of culture and cultural change.

Chapter 4 (Scholarship and Discourse) delves more deeply into the "practices, practitioners and products" of archaeology (p. 7). Classical archaeology is characterized as a conservative field dominated by powerful institutions and resistant to change, but a field in which dissident voices have sometimes managed to be heard (Schliemann is cited as an example). After a lengthy "interlude" on classical rhetoric as a theory of discourse, Shanks returns to the arguments of Vickers and Gill, showing how those archaeologists used rhetoric to persuade their readers of one particular vision of the past. There is discussion of paradigm shifts, epistemes, and the post-modern condition, leading ultimately to the important question of objectivity. For all the conservatism of classical archaeology, views of the Greek past have changed; Greek pots are no longer called Etruscan urns. If this is so, there is no objective "past the way it was and is for all time" (p. 118).

Chapters 5 and 6 move beyond Greek archaeology as it is to Greek archaeology as it might be, informed by the practice and philosophy of postprocessualism. How, when you really get down to it in the trench or museum storeroom, can you use archaeological materials to reconstruct past society? Chapter 5 (Rudiments of a Social Archaeology) begins with an analysis of the nature of archaeological sources. Many, perhaps most, archaeologists view material culture as an expression of the immaterial -- of behavior, or, more ambitiously, of ideas. For Shanks this is "invalid as an assumption," although he concedes that it is "quite legitimate" to use the pot as an expression of its society, maker, or date. He adds, though, that "no interpretation or explanation of a pot can be attached to the pot forever, claiming to be integral or a necessary condition of experiencing the pot." The pot maintains its "equivocal materiality, its mystery and uncertainty" (p. 124). Turning to specific examples, Shanks discusses four recent studies in the processualist mode that take an understanding of ancient society, and particularly the rise of the polis, as their goal: Anthony Snodgrass's Archaic Greece; Ian Morris's Burial and Ancient Society; the 1991 AJA article "Pots and Politics" by Catherine Morgan and Todd Whitelaw; and James Whitley's Style and Society in Dark Age Greece.5 While he has some nice things to say about each of them, they are, in his view, overly reductive, too narrow in their definitions of social context, and they fail to give sufficient attention to style and aesthetics.

Shanks refuses to write a prescription for a social archaeology of Greece, though he ends Chapter 5 with a call for what he terms a "'prehistory' of Classical Greece" (p. 155), freed from textual sources and the need for a homogeneous narrative account. In Chapter 6 (Some Topics and Issues in a Social Archaeology of Classical Greece) he sketches some areas that such an archaeology might explore. Discarding the pursuit of fine-grained chronology as unnecessary, he urges instead a more careful analysis of the nature of archaeological time (a, for me, difficult theme that he develops further in the final chapter). The ancient economy is an important issue, but Shanks reiterates the view that pottery was not a significant part of it and advocates turning to other archaeological data, such as floral and faunal remains. He also considers the utility of various models (such as the core-periphery model) that have been applied to the classical Greek situation. In the realm of style, Shanks commends Francois Lissarague's study, The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet,6 which "has shifted attention to the consumer of the artefacts and images" (p. 164). Of religion and ritual he says only that they cannot be separated from other functions of society. Survey archaeology and the ever-fascinating manuring debate are held up as exemplary ways of making greater sense of the past.

In the final chapter (Archaeology, Classics and Contemporary Culture), Shanks reiterates that classical archaeology needs to be more aware of the metanarratives in which it participates (Hellenism, the history of the West, etc.). Stressing that "archaeology is as much about the present as about the past" (p. 172), he advocates the construction of "effective history," a history in which "the independence, difference and life of the past [answer] back with a challenge to the present" (p. 2). Such a history avoids veneration or condemnation or appropriation of the past and above all refuses to impose a neat and satisfying homogeneity upon it. It is instead pluralistic, admitting a variety of truths, each, apparently, equally valid -- a view which, of course, raises the hackles of both traditionalists and processualists, who see archaeology as a rational or scientific endeavor to reconstruct an objective past that actually once existed. Shanks poses the question: "How can this apparent impasse be avoided?" (p. 173) but the concluding pages do not seem to me to provide any answer. Shanks is convinced, though, that Classical archaeology is a rich field for the ongoing investigation of the relationship between the past and the present.

We do need new ways of apprehending the archaeological past. Theoreticians may provide them, but it is often a struggle to apply their theory to one's own particular program of research. We also need to be aware of and critical of what we are doing in our investigations of the past. This book under review addresses both needs, which is why I think every serious student of classical archaeology ought to read it. It will not be an easy read, though, for various features combine to make this a peculiarly inaccessible book. Shanks claims to be writing for "anyone who shares a fascination with the material traces of those who created and lived in the city states of Greece and who wishes to understand what archaeologists and others make of them" (p. 6) Greek archaeology and its history are clearly presented, but the discussions of theory would be difficult to follow if one did not already know something about modernist and postmodern discourse. To cite a single and very simple instance, "thick description" is invoked from time to time, but the phrase is never defined; Shanks assumes that the reader already knows the term or that it is self-explanatory.

Shanks contends that we should not write narratives of the past, and he has extended this directive into the writing of this book. He does not reach conclusions by means of linear, logical argumentation, but rather presents a collage of facts and concepts, leaving the reader to intuit the connections between them; it may take several readings to grasp the underlying logic. Shanks simply does not write clearly, and he assumes considerable patience and determination in his reader. The illustrations present another constant irritant, for they rarely refer directly to anything in the text. A picture of an Athenian tourist shop called "Socrates"; the entrance to Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas; weeds in a rubble wall on Acrocorinth: witty images, perhaps, but what purpose do they serve, placed here without comment? The most blatant disregard for relevance comes in a discussion of Ian Morris's variability scores for Athenian burials. Instead of the table summarizing those scores, Shanks reproduces Morris's graph of relative entropy scores; anyone trying to make sense of the graph from the text or vice versa will experience nothing but frustration. The figure is not, then, an illustration, but functions purely symbolically, as an icon apparently standing for "quantification."

Classical archaeologists are painfully aware of some of the concerns foregrounded by postprocessualism, although most remain unaware of a body of theory that might help in making sense of them. Anyone who has worked in Greece knows full well that there are multiple views of the Greek past, that the past participates in several (often conflicting) metanarratives, and that the past is constantly enlisted in political, cultural, and ethnic causes of the present. That archaeologists in the present cannot interpret all facets of the archaeological past, or that those interpretations -- and hence the past as perceived in the present -- are heterogeneous, have changed, and will change, is not news. Nor is it news that what you see depends on where you stand. The fragmentary state of ancient Greek material culture ensures that the pluralism that Shanks champions will always exist, and postprocessualism may offer Classical archaeologists who care to engage the intellectual issues of such a pluralism a framework for doing so.

Classical archaeologists are unlikely to accept, however, that there are no discoverable and objective facts about the past, nor are they likely to discard their texts. It would be an interesting exercise to construct Shanks's "prehistory" of classical Greece. To what degree would that past resemble the past (or pasts) documented by the texts? Would both be equally valid, even if there were substantial written records that were in conflict with the "prehistoric" past? The fact is that we do have historical sources however inconvenient and difficult they are to interpret, and we must take them into account.

I agree with Shanks that too many archaeologists continue to take classification, typology, chronology, and stylistic analysis as a final goal. I would hope, however, that there is a place for another kind of pluralism in archaeological scholarship. Huge collections remain unstudied and unpublished, and there is an important role for scholars with the expertise and will to organize this material and make it available through some form of publication (electronic or otherwise). And, if some of those scholars produce little more than classifications, dates, and catalogues, they, too, have made a contribution. In and of themselves such studies may be pretty dull reading (and writing), but this is grist for the mill of the future, when scholars will use it to answer questions that we have not yet thought of asking.

For me, the chief frustration of this book is Shanks's vagueness about what, precisely, a postprocessual classical archaeology would look like. He writes all around the issue, he tells us what it isn't, but he never quite articulates what it is. It seems that it must, by its very nature, defy definition. Perhaps, though, it is best to view this book as a prolegomenon to Shanks's forthcoming volume on the early Greek city state. With that in hand, we can evaluate just what postprocessualism -- or, at least, one postprocessualist -- has to offer classical archaeology.


1.   He has written and co-edited several important books: e.g., with Christopher Tilley, Social Theory and Archaeology, Albuquerque: U. of New Mexico Press, 1987 and Re-constructing Archaeology, 2nd ed., London and New York: Routledge, 1992; and I. Hodder et al. eds., Interpreting Archaeology, London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
2.   Art and the Early Greek City State: an Interpretive Archaeology, forthcoming from Cambridge U. press.
3.   This and other comments on Protocorinthian are drawn largely from his "Style and the Design of a Perfume Jar from an Archaic Greek City State," Journal of European Archaeology 1, 1993, pp. 77-106.
4.   M. Vickers and D. Gill, Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
5.   A. Snodgrass, Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment, London: Dent, 1980; I. Morris, Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City State, Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1987; C. Morgan and T. Whitelaw, "Pots and Politics: Ceramic Evidence for the Rise of the Argive State,: AJA 95 (1991) 79-108; J. Whitley, Style and Society in Dark Age Greece: The Changing Face of a Preliterate Society, Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1991.
6.   Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1990.

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