BMCR 2006.05.10

Prehistorians Round the Pond: Reflections on Aegean Prehistory as a Discipline. Papers presented at a Workshop held in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, March 14-16, 2003. Kelsey Museum Publication 2

, , , Prehistorians round the pond : reflections on Aegean prehistory as a discipline : papers presented at a workshop held in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan, March 14-16, 2003. Kelsey Museum publication ; 2. Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 2005. xix, 179 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0974187313 $19.95.

There is an ongoing discussion with regard to the relevancy of archaeology beyond the academic realm, largely due to the influence of post-processual approaches in archaeological thought and the rapidly changing socio-political and economic circumstances around the globe at the advent of the 21st century. Prehistorians Round the Pond can be viewed as part of this broader trend. The book is the outcome of a call “to resituate Aegean prehistory within a more self-conscious and self-critical context” (p. xvii). All papers serve this purpose, either by exploring the statistics of the field to ascertain its presence within academia (Chapters 2-5), or by expanding a self-reflective discourse to related fields such as classical archaeology (Chapter 6), modernism (Chapter 7), and contemporary world politics (Chapters 8-10).

The book opens with a short preface by the editors; seven essays follow comprising the written form of the papers delivered at the workshop. The third part of the book is devoted to commentary on the ideas presented with three more essays of wider scope than the preceding seven and based to a great extent on the material presented there. The book ends somewhat abruptly with no conclusion offered by the editors; the last commentator, Yannis Hamilakis, includes important points raised at the workshop, although his essay is not intended as a formal conclusion

The preface and first essay are both composed by the editors. In the preface, the three editors define the aim of the workshop and consequently the book as the encouragement of “discussion of the status and nature of Aegean prehistory, broadly defined as a discipline” (p. xvii).

The first chapter is entitled “Reflections on the ‘Aegean’ and Its Prehistory: Present Routes and Future Destinations” (authors: Despina Margomenou, John F. Cherry, and Lauren E. Talalay). One of the most interesting ideas presented in this essay is to be found in the discussion of terminology employed to label Aegean prehistory courses in American universities. This idea of language as a charter of signification is, I believe, a very promising realm of exploration for Aegean prehistory and can perhaps reveal more than any numerical assessment with claims to objectivity. This essay revolves around self-reflection and is characterized by the use of anthropological terminology (reflection, empowerment, objectivity, the Other), which is refreshing, considering that it originates from practitioners of Aegean prehistory, where one does not encounter anthropology very frequently, as the authors note. The authors introduce the papers to follow by stating their intention to “consider various objective ways of evaluating the current state of the field” (p. 1). They are particularly interested in the definition of the disciplinary boundaries of the field and its politics (p. 2). They begin by exploring the reasons why prehistoric archaeology of the Greek world has been established as “Aegean archaeology” and the ideology that underlies this term. They point out the existing confusion regarding the geographical borders of the Aegean: is it mainland Greece and the island of Crete? Or perhaps coastal Anatolia too? And what about interactions with the West? (pp. 2-3). The authors use illuminating examples to indicate this confusion, derived from “mainstream” archaeology.

The determination of the disciplinary boundaries of Aegean archaeology is an even more burdensome task: a brief overview of academic courses on Aegean archaeology in American and European universities (including Greece) indicates that there is no agreement on the subject matter. The relation of Aegean prehistory to classical archaeology on the one hand and anthropology on the other is explored next. The former is briefly summarized in this essay (pp. 6-7) and thoroughly analyzed subsequently by Bryan Burns (Chapter 6). The relation to anthropology is explored by a scrutiny of traditional antithetical pairs, such as New World vs. Old World and anthropological vs. national archaeology. They conclude that borders are not as strictly defined any more, both geographically and methodologically (p. 8). The issue of identity, predominant in “national archaeology” and all Greek archaeology is from its inception “national” and a carrier of identity-laden ideology, is also raised and explained in more detail in Chapter 4 by Stelios Andreou and Chapter 7 by Artemis Leontis.1 The conclusion is that “the two archaeological paradigms — the art-historical or traditionalist and the anthropological — met in the Aegean, as it was envisioned by the Greek modernists” (p. 12).

After tracing the past and present of Aegean archaeology, the authors proceed to delineate its future: it is to their credit that they do not discuss “the future” in abstract terms; rather they are preoccupied with the theoretical practicalities. The question then is: is it worthwhile for current and futures students of Aegean archaeology to pursue careers in this field? To answer this question one does resort to numbers (of practitioners, courses taught, academic departments, publications, and awards given to Aegean archaeologists). They point out that the statistics compiled “should be treated as only a partial analysis, bearing in mind the obvious fact that programs of academic teaching and scholarship also exist in many places outside the USA and UK” (p. 13), setting the stage for similar endeavors to follow. Funding is also a consideration, largely originating from the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (ινσταπ while Aegeanists fail to attract funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF). . The trend is a call for methodological expansion and collaboration. The conclusion is that fluidity is a good thing. The future lies in Aegean archaeology as a multi-vocal discipline. (p. 16).

In the second essay (“‘Just the Facts, Ma’am’: Surveying Aegean Prehistory’s State of Health”), John F. Cherry and Lauren E. Talalay present a neatly outlined series of graphs and statistics. The central axis of the paper is whether Aegean prehistory is marginalized. This issue is explored by an assessment of the number of articles in academic journals, papers presented at the AIA meetings, and dissertations in universities in the US and UK. I would only note briefly that the fallacy of objectivity which underlies such endeavors entails a certain amount of positivism, which is not in itself a bad thing; it simply needs to be indicated, especially in the frame of a self-reflective discourse. The line of argument in this essay revolves around an agonizing question and a comforting answer. Question: Is Aegean prehistory marginal? Answer: After all, no. Thus, the authors compile, admirably so, statistics on how many Aegean-related papers have been published on academic journals of the last generation, but reject a qualitative study of change in topics in the articles they survey as “beyond their current scope” (p. 25). On the contrary, I think that precisely this should be the scope if self-reflection is indeed sought.

From the review of journals, there emerges the fact that “not surprisingly, the publications of the various foreign schools generally reflect their fieldwork endeavors rather than the degree of enthusiasm for Aegean prehistory itself: these are, after all, primarily ‘journals of record.'” (p. 27) BSA stands out markedly: 44% of the articles are devoted to Aegean prehistory (p. 28). Papers delivered at the AIA meetings are reviewed because, “these meetings … represent the largest and most influential annual conference for our field” (p.33). The authors characterize the 14% showing for Aegean prehistory-related talks as “very respectable” (p.33)but conclude that “these AIA talks are neither particularly self-reflexive nor highly theorized” (p.35).

The survey on doctoral dissertations is somewhat biased and the authors point out the narrow focus on the US and UK only. The conclusion is a steady presence of Aegean prehistory among archaeology dissertation topics. The discussion could have been more profitable if the authors included parameters such as the presence of Aegean archaeology in the non-academic press, to indicate relevancy for a wider public. The conclusion is that, in sheer numbers, there is no evidence for decline.

Tracey Cullen’s contribution (“A Profile of Aegean Prehistorians, 1984-2003) moves from figures to people: Chapter 2 discussed the rumor of marginality of Aegean prehistory in terms of academic presence; in Chapter 3, marginality is explored in terms of “intellectual vitality or professional standing” (p. 43). Cullen’s survey criteria are: residence, citizenship, gender, professional affiliations, research interests, fieldwork location(s), published work, and conference papers. The author believes that “to assess the relative contribution and status of the field within the larger discipline — be that classical archaeology or world prehistory — we need to know more about Aegean prehistorians themselves” (p. 44). She derives her study material from the International Directory of Aegean Prehistorians and AIA directories and questionnaires. The picture is one of diversity among Aegean prehistorians. I would claim that this is equally true for a great number of academic disciplines and professional fields; moreover, it is not related to the appeal of Aegean prehistory; rather it is the outcome of a great mobility of researchers and professionals, characteristic of the last decades of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century.

From the chapter, we learn that Aegean prehistorians reside primarily in Greece, the υς, υκ; men predominate; the professional affiliations of most Aegeanists are academic; most are happy with their job, but men seem to be happier than women (79% and 62% respectively); with regard to research interests, apart from a notable — and very welcome — diversity, a rather intriguing and indicative fact is that “more than a third of the respondents (150 of 405) felt constricted by the standard categories and wrote in ‘other’ interests”; most excavate/ have excavated in the Mediterranean, especially Greece and Cyprus, with Italy and Turkey following; Aegean prehistorians publish well and men publish more than women. Cullen concludes with a call for continuing data collection regarding the background and professional experience of Aegean prehistorians, which would indeed increase a self-reflective discourse in Aegean archaeology.

The fourth essay, by Stelios Andreou, entitled “The Landscapes of Modern Greek Aegean Prehistory,” is a very interesting discussion of the relation between an increasing awareness of national identity among the Greeks and the ideology underlying the formation of prehistoric notional landscapes at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. He begins with the important remark that “the use of the terms ‘Aegean prehistory,’ ‘Aegean archaeology,’ and ‘Aegean civilization’ is not very common in Greek archaeological circles, and they are not always meaningful to the Greek public” (p. 74). Andreou presents a linear narration of the development of prehistoric research in Greece (mostly ideological, disciplinary, and methodological, rather than in terms of fieldwork and sites) through its most prominent figures. Necessarily he begins with the still influential “prehistoric landscape” of Tsountas. Central to the work of Tsountas was the idea of cultural unity and its justification through fieldwork and the interpretation of finds from the Neolithic down to his own time and place (modern Greece). Then follows Evans’s idea of the Minoan civilization (“his reconstruction of Minoan Crete as the cradle of Western civilization,” p. 78), which contradicts the notion of Tsountas, although essentially his contemporary. Andreou explores the opposition: Tsountas and ethnic land vs. Evans and European land. The next hallmark is the decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s. Here too one witnesses an opposition of views: to Greeks, national identity is another part of unity; to non-Greeks, it is a link with classical Greece, which remained the ideal.

At present, he too sees diversity as one of the main features of a thriving academic discipline (cf. Chapter 3). In his conclusion, Andreou emphasizes the very pragmatic issue of future unemployment awaiting future Aegean prehistorians as well as the lack of flexibility that characterizes the Greek Archaeological Service, the dominant factor in the shaping of the future of archaeology in Greece. Problematic aspects are infrastructure problems in Greek universities; encouraging signs are the interdisciplinary character of recent projects, a tendency toward a more interpretative archaeology, and attention to categories of finds thus far neglected.

The fifth paper, by Jack L. Davis and Evi Gorogianni, “Embedding Aegean Prehistory in Institutional Practice: a View from One of Its North American Centers,” narrates the story of Aegean prehistory as practiced in their home institution, the University of Cincinnati (UC). This sets a good starting point to discuss the issue of institutional policies and their effect on the practice of archaeology. The authors examine the specifics of Aegean archaeology as it has been taught in UC since the beginning of the 20th century; its main practitioners and their fieldwork; also, the sometimes uneasy relationship between UC and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). They employ Bourdieu’s sociological research to support the need for an examination of the epistemology of Aegean archaeology. They conclude by stating the need for self-reflection in the archaeology of the 21st century.

Focus on UC is justified, as it is “a center of graduate education for Aegean prehistory in North America” (p. 94). They provide an extensive history of Aegean archaeology as taught at UC, starting with the inception of the department by William T. Semple and discussing the courses taught by Carl Blegen and Jack Caskey. A notable fact is that “at UC the term ‘Aegean Prehistory’ has itself yet officially to be applied to the PhD degree granted by the Department of Classics” (p. 102). At present, there is an expansion of UC fieldwork outside the Greek borders to include Turkey, Albania, and Cyprus as well as a preferred use of “Bronze Age” instead of “Aegean” for UC courses and programs. Notable is the timely observation that “for the foreseeable future the shape of Aegean prehistory there will continue to be molded by the needs of PhDs to find employment in classics” (p. 104).

Bryan E. Burns in Chapter 6, entitled “The Aegean Prehistorian’s Role in Classical Studies Today,” presents a stimulating case. He calls for a re-orientation of classical studies. Burns explores the connections and divisions between Aegean prehistory and classical studies. He refers to the role of Aegeanists. Most prominent among them is Colin Renfrew whose seminal Emergence of Civilisation (1972) bridged the divide between prehistorians and classicists. Burns’s discussion revolves around an examination of the alleged continuity between the Bronze Age and classical antiquity. Arguments of continuity were employed early on at the time of Percy Gardner and Arthur Evans in the first two decades of the 20th century in a quest for the Origins of the subsequent classical era in order to justify the practice of prehistoric archaeology in the Aegean, implying that it cannot be practiced as an autonomous discipline for its own sake. These arguments included the recognition of surviving elements of Homeric traits in the classical era and the historicization of myths.

Burns argues that what is much needed is a redefinition of the discipline of Classics, to allow for broader issues, which is a very appealing idea indeed. He discusses issues of anthropological interest, such as complexity and the study of time, as well as the way anthropologically informed classical archaeologists have treated them, from which Aegean prehistoric research could benefit. He then proceeds to show with two striking examples (continuity of cult and continuity of sports, undoubtedly two of the most ideologically charged domains of classical studies) how the idea of continuity has been manipulated by traditional research, while evidence does not really support such claims. Burns rightly insists on the fallacy of analogical reasoning based on similarities in artifacts and advises against a quest for origins or continuity at the expense of discovering the peculiarities of each culture. The most significant contribution of Burns’s paper is the realization that “there are limits to what we can know about the past, especially the prehistoric past” (p. 123). His suggestion is then to “push those limits” by re-assessing our methodological toolkit.

The last paper delivered in the workshop, by Artemis Leontis, (“Greek Modernists’ Discovery of the Aegean”) is wisely placed last in the series, since in a way it frames the ideology of the modern era; Aegean prehistory must be viewed to a certain extent as a product of modernism, especially Early Cycladic archaeology and art, which forms a substantial part of the author’s discussion of archaeology. Leontis explores the idea of the Aegean as a topos in Greek literature and visual arts, from the first decades of the 20th century down to the likes of poets Odysseas Elytis and George Seferis, painter Yannis Moralis, and architect Dimitris Pikionis: the Aegean apart from a body of water, and perhaps above it, is landscape. Especially with regard to Pikionis, whose influence on architecture still lives on, Leontis discusses at considerable length his idea of the “timeless” qualities of Greek/Aegean elements of style. Leontis states: “I have now surveyed a wide range of sources in order to make several points” (p. 144). Still, my objection is that the survey attempted is rather unbalanced and inconclusive: for the examples stated, one could state as many, which would draw the reader to different directions. For instance, in juxtaposition to Odysseas Elytis, one might consider the recently deceased poet Manolis Anagnostakis and his dismissal of the Aegean idea(l) as presented by Elytis.

The third section of the book, entitled “Commentary and Response,” begins with a contribution by Colin Renfrew (“Round a Bigger Pond”). The great prehistorian starts by stating his optimism and continues with his geographically and historically justified but politically charged and rather problematic objection to a somewhat narrow definition of the Aegean as provided in the first essay. This is not a forum to argue whether “the great cities of the Ionian Coast” should be termed “Aegean”; simply starting from Renfrew’s comment and his subsequent discussion of nationalism, ethnic identity and what he loves about modern Greece, I remind myself and the readers of how archaeologists are forced by the circumstances whether willingly or not to position themselves with regard to current affairs, not just to interpret the past. This then extends the idea of the “pond” further: it is the global village as Renfrew puts it, but not merely geographically; the pond is first and foremost political and if archaeology fails to acknowledge this, any such discussion shall never relate to the world outside academia.

Chapter Nine, by Michael Fotiadis (“On Our Political Relevance?”) begins with an extensive discussion of death statistics regarding the 2003 invasion of Iraq to indicate, as the author explains later, the association between archaeological practice and contemporary politics. His stance can be summarized in the following statement: “Being irrelevant to matters of violence and death in our time, and to the politics that govern them, can serve as yet another measure of our discipline’s standing, its centrality/ marginality in the contemporary world” (p. 162). Fotiadis has published a series of well-researched papers on the politics of archaeology (several are listed in his bibliography), dealing especially with the issue of archaeology, national identity, and nationalism. This is a realm which he knows well and his opinions are thought-provoking. Here, he once more explores the issue of the past as a charter of nationalism at present. A critical point that Fotiadis makes is that the concept of the Aegean, although initially conceived and perceived as a unity, turned out to be fragmented and heterogeneous. In the final essay, entitled “Whither Aegean Prehistory,” Yannis Hamilakis generously opens paths for new directions in a comprehensive dialogue on archaeology as a discipline. He presents the idea of a relation between the Institute for Aegean Prehistory as the principal funding source for projects in the Aegean and the predominance of the entity “Aegean prehistory”; he comments on the modernist idea of the Aegean presented by Leontis and points out the another facet of the post-war Aegean: that of political exiles in Greece and their turmoil. Hamilakis moves on to examine the issue of the alleged homogeneity of Aegean prehistory to conclude that a) there is no such thing and b) it would make more sense to discuss excavation finds along the lines of life circles or cultural biographies. I must argue, though, that such a research methodology is not an option without a preceding paradigm shift. The nomenclature of Bronze Age chronology with its rigid divisions and refined subdivisions definitely encourages the process of homogenizing otherwise heterogeneous records; it is from the use of time in Aegean archaeology one should start, I believe, if we are to distinguish differences for what they are. Hamilakis calls for a scrutiny of the concept of civilization. Indeed time (or history?) has shown the term to be obsolete and unnecessarily charged when employed to justify colonial and other (mostly territorial) claims. On an optimistic note, in his discussion of future prospects for Aegean prehistory, the author assumes that future graduates will get more chances of employment if they expand their expertise to cover broader anthropological issues. This might be so in the future. For the time being, though, Aegean archaeology as a whole, not solely its prehistoric component, is haunted by an identity crisis. Practitioners still strive to prove it a distinct scientific discipline with its own rigid rules and procedures to such an extent, that there does not exist the kind of self-awareness and confidence required in order to move away from narrow disciplinary definitions. Hamilakis, concluding, calls for a shift away from the premises of colonization and nationalization which will then lead to greater fluidity in archaeology as a whole.

On the whole, the book raises important points, if repetitively. The overall appearance indicates a somewhat low-budget production. On the other hand, the book is easy to read and navigate and serves its purpose practically, although without much of an eye to detail or aesthetic pleasure. The cover illustration for Prehistorians Round the Pond, namely a picture of a Mycenaean terracotta figurine engaged in a circular embrace/dance/prayer, is witty and sets the tone for the content of the book, which is written with humor.


1. A fairly good idea can be formed by the way archaeological news is presented in the 19th century Greek press. See Sofronidou, M. 2003. ” Η αρχαιολογική είδηση στις εφημερίδες,” [Archaeological news in newspapers], Ph.D. diss., Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki; also, Archaeological events in Greek press 1832-1932.