BMCR 1995.11.16

1995.11.16, Small, ed., Methods in the Mediterranean

, Methods in the Mediterranean : historical and archaeological views on texts and archaeology. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 135. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995. 294 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9789004095816.

Like most collections, this one presents some challenges to the reader, and more to the reviewer. There is a significant range of expertises in the authors; a considerable range of approachabilities; a wide range of readabilities. None of the essays is ‘bad’ from my standpoint; several could have been improved substantially by rigorous copy-editing.

To dispense first with the least important quibble: Brill would do well to engage copy-editors whose skills in English are greater than those exhibited here. The computer spell-checker is no substitute for the human eye, particularly when that is properly connected to a vigilant mind. My favourite misprint is the title offered for a book, David Whitehead’s Demes of Africa (p. 111 n. 40), particularly since on the same page the town Oinoe ‘certainly almost enjoyed full deme status’—was it the enjoyment that was only ‘almost’? Another editorial irritant is the use of the current buzz-suffix ‘ality’, which rarely adds anything to the functionality of the root word which more appropriately fills the task assigned to it, as this sentence demonstrates. There are only a few cases in which a misprint really challenges the reader to guess the sense of a passage. But misprints are so common (averaging about 1.8 per page—decimals always make statistics look more convincing) that in many places my mind found it easier to ‘correct’ the text of a difficult passage than to wrestle with the words as given and work out the author’s intended meaning. Did the authors not have the chance to see their texts in final form before that became irrevocable? If this is the case, it is unfortunate.

At several points along the line I was tempted to wonder whether there had been a contest among the authors to see who could use the longest and/or the most obscure words. The combination of vocabulary heavily laced with technical terms, with the poor proof-reading already noted, makes for more challenge than I have time for. There is much of value here. I do not regret that I undertook to review the book. I am quite certain, however, that had I not undertaken the review, I would quickly have abandoned some of these essays.

The book begins with a 22-page Introduction, in which there are general remarks, a statement of purpose for the volume, and short commented summaries of the articles. Part I, ‘Setting an Historian-Archaeologist Dialogue’ has two articles: Stephen Dyson’s ‘Is there a text in this site?’ and Charles W. Hedrick Jr.’s ‘Thucydides and the beginnings of archaeology’. Dyson’s is the heavier read of the two—the in-joke of its title gives some warning of that (see p. 26 n. 4)—but is lightened by humour. Dyson is familiar with theoretical writing in both archaeological and literary worlds; and his text is largely devoted to an attempt to define and explain the kinds of ‘text’ that an archaeological investigation can elicit. p. 27: ‘The primary task of the archaeologist is that of establishing meaning in material culture, in itself a kind of reading.’ p. 43 Dyson laments the failure of most archaeological site directors to complete the grand synthesis which is meant to be the crowning publication of a site. Although his solution is not fully articulated, he appears to recommend quick publication, including the courage to speculate openly in print.

Hedrick contrasts Herodotos’ and Thucydides’ uses of material evidence, giving Thucydides the palm for his nearness to 20th-century archaeological approaches. Hedrick’s fondness for tight definitions occasionally leads him into problems. p. 71 ‘The appearance of an excellent tool is regarded as irrelevant; or better, as entirely dictated by the efficiency of the tool’s function, and hence as meaningless.’ This notion, derived from Aristotle, appears here as though it were a human absolute, rather than something governed by each specific society. We might mention Akhilles’ shield, or Aeneas’, or Roland’s sword Durandal—or Lt. Worf’s personal weapons, the Klingon ritual arsenal. Specifically, Thucydides is praised for his focus on artefacts as means of gaining or maintaining power (for example Athens’ fleet); and the mediation of power becomes for Hedrick a primary purpose of Thucydides’ history.

Part II ‘Specific Mediterranean Features’ begins with J. Ober’s ‘Greek HOROI Artifactual texts and the contingency of meaning.’ Its first segment translates the text of one such horos -stone, ‘I am the HOROS of the Agora’ HORES 1 EIMI TES AGORAS—a more specific and complex text than the usual one-word inscription HOROS—and clarifies its meaning. This text is true only so long as the boundary of the Agora remains where the stone was placed, and only so long as the stone remains in its position—unless stone and boundary are moved together. Object and text are context-dependent. The stone, by ‘speaking’, becomes the watcher. The existence of a boundary implies certain actions (or refrainings from action) for persons encountering the stone. [Wisely, Ober does not address the case of the unlettered person encountering such a verbose stone!] Thus, the message, apparently simple and straightforward, carries implications far beyond its obvious declared meaning. And the stone marked simply HOROS, because of its simplicity, can be used and re-used in private, state, or religious contexts—each context requiring a different set of responses from the ‘reader’. This leads to a wider discussion both of the uses of horoi in the Greek world, and of literary occurrences of the word. There is much here of interest to archaeologist, historian, epigrapher, and student of ancient literacy—and much that brings the rather opaque abstract terms of literary theory into very concrete sense. I was particularly grateful for Ober’s generous offering of definitions, e.g. p. 93. Simply telling me that some theorists would call a horos a ‘performative constative’ would not tell me very much. Here, the term is accompanied by a lucid explanation ‘that which is grammatically a statement of fact (a truth claim with a referentially clear subject) is also an action. That is to say, the statement does something, it performs a significant and obviously recognizable social function.’ With this explanation, I have learned something significant about the language of contemporary speech act theory, and have been prepared for further excursions into Ober’s views.

R. Bruce Hitchner contributes ‘Historical text and archaeological context in Roman North Africa: the Albertini tablets and the Kasserine survey’. Modern knowledge of the history of Roman North Africa has been developed primarily from literary and epigraphical evidence, with some contributions from the buildings and monuments of significant towns. Rural North Africa, lacking such durable and visible monuments, has suffered both neglect and misinterpretation until recently. Hitchner’s case-study demonstrates effectively how a well-conducted surface survey can supplement (and sometimes correct) information derived from inscriptional evidence. Here, since the area covered by the surface survey is not the same as the territory covered by the inscription, it is essential that Hitchner establish the validity of the parallels he proposes. 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.

David Small’s contribution, ‘Monuments, Laws, and Analysis: combining archaeology and text in ancient Athens’, highlights differences between standing-monument cemeteries (e.g. the Kerameikos at Athens) and cemeteries which do not use conspicuous above-ground markers. Each type can contain burials with significant richness; but the standing monuments remain visible (and thus influence family social standing) much longer than do burials whose wealth is completely concealed at the time of burial. The study of cemeteries in 19th-20th c. U.S. demonstrates some of the differences between the two types of cemeteries. Small uses this study as a basis for re-examining the cemeteries of Athens and, with them, some interesting aspects of status demonstration in Classical Greece. It is particularly unfortunate that this article suffers worst of all from the perils of uneven editing. For example, at p. 170, I have not succeeded in decoding the apparent sentence “The charge that subventing these civic affairs [liturgies] was an unfair burden on the elites is a popular elite response to such expenditure, which should not be taken as a universal sympathy in Athens’. Or, p. 171, ‘… I side with [names] who argue strongly for the benefits of analyzing both the archaeological and textual record as independent evidence that can make itself amenable to middle range theorizing’. Replacing “itself” with “themselves” and making “record” plural makes the sentence conform more closely to syntactic norms. Definition of “middle range theorizing” would go some way towards making it understandable. The final paragraph (p. 173) before the Conclusion is clearly meant to be central to the author’s argument. As printed, unfortunately, I find it incomprehensible.

Part III ‘Cross-cultural Views’ starts with Peter Kosso’s ‘Epistemic Independence between textual and material evidence’. I found this the most difficult read of the volume; but I found also that Kosso’s uses of technical terms often clarify them—even in the absence of formal definition—and thus dissipate some of the opacities of the preceeding essays. Spotty editing again gets in the way of comprehension: p. 185 ‘There are similar examples within archeology where two evidential claims are based on separate, though of the same type of artifacts of separate but similar sites’. Revising the latter part of the sentence to ‘based on separate artifacts of the same type found on separate but similar sites’ yields sense; but there is no guarantee that it is the sense the author intended.

The final two articles are Brian Hesse’s ‘Husbandry, Dietary Taboos and the Bones of the ancient Near East: Zooarchaeology in the post-processual world’ and Paula Wapnish’s ‘Towards establishing a conceptual basis for animal categories in archaeology’. Both of these writers are hard scientists (when did archaeology get easy?). However—perhaps because Hesse and Wapnish knew that they were writing for a readership of humanists—both papers are models of lucidity. Though there is ample use of technical terms, contextual clues are offered in abundance; and where context alone cannot be expected to assure comprehension, both authors are generous with definitions.

I agreed to review this book for two conscious reasons: 1) its title made it sound like a book I ought to have read; and b) I shall be teaching a course next term intended to prepare students to go on archaeological digs, and felt it advisable to read enough on theory to be able to recommend books on archaeological theory. I shall certainly include this book on the bibliography for that course, though it will not be on the list of required readings—at least, not the book entire. Too much of it is written in language which many undergraduates are likely to find daunting and frustrating. It will be clear from what I have written, which essays I am most likely to recommend to my students.

My general recommendation: get your library to buy the book if it can afford to; get it on interlibrary loan if it can’t. We do need bridges between archaeologists of all stripes and the practitioners of other specialties in the study of ancient societies. It ought not to surprise anyone that this book does not supply all the bridges we might wish to have. It is certainly better to have some bridges than it is to have none.

  • [1] Ober gives a note on this unusual form for the word.