Monday, April 12, 2010

Dumbarton Oaks: Archaeology Conversation First Impressions

Dumbarton Oaks (DO) hosted a conversation this weekend addressing the achievements and future challenges of Byzantine archaeology. “Byzantine Archaeology in North America” was in many ways a momentous events, highlighting Dumbarton Oaks’ institutional ability to muster up a huge intellectual community that has limited venues for conversation (the Byzantine Studies Association of North America annual meeting being the other, and by design the more democratic one). The last time such a conversation happened at DO was 1978, marking the moment when DO turned its back to “big digs” and, according to some, turned its back to archaeology more generally. The prime mover behind the recent attitudinal shift within DO is its new director, Margaret Mullet, and all credit must go to her and the organizers, Michael McCormick and John Haldon.

Although it was a gathering of incredible intellectual caliber, I must confess, that I left Washington a little depressed, partially because the issues that I think of prime importance were never addressed. My 15-minute contribution “Archaeology as Critical Practice” failed to generate discussion and I feel this is largely my fault for missing the target. I overviewed four moments of critical engagement with Byzantine material culture, I. aestheticism, 1850s-1920s, II. stratigraphic positivism, 1920s-1960s, III. processualism, 1960s-1980s, and IV. post-processualism (1980s-now). I argued that half of DO checked out in Period II (Antioch vs. Corinth) and all of DO checked out in Phase III (after the 1978 collapse). Despite the archaeological topic, the majority of the audience did not seem engaged with archaeology’s internal discourse (methods, ideology, theory). But this is OK. More important than what was said or not said at the conference is what will unfold in future conversations. In order to start this conversation, I begin with self-reflecting. I pose a series of comments as first and most immediate thoughts. I organize them into two related headings, Archaeological Reality and Institutional Honesty.

1. Archaeological Reality

One question that surfaced the whole weekend was whether Byzantine (or medieval, or whatever we call it) archaeology is in any way special. What much of the conversation revealed is a fundamental shift in archaeological definition. Up until the 1960s, archaeology was defined culturally rather than methodologically; it was defined by cultural typologies. So, we had classical archaeologist focusing on classical civilization, or Christian archaeology focusing on Christian civilization. The methods of cultural formation were supplanted in the 1960s with a concern for critical, self-reflective practices. Practicing archaeology broke from cultural, ethnic, or geographical definitions. An autonomous discipline was formed, whose theory and methods could be successfully applied across the cultural and geographic board. This also meant that one could not privilege one historical layer over another when excavating or surveying a site, producing not only a discussion of archaeological ethics but also the foundations of diachronic projects.

When I train my archaeology students, I anticipate that most of them will not excavate Byzantine sites. Many will dig other periods and other places, and many will become contract archaeologists in the U.S. (in America, archaeology is not a federal discipline, it is officiated by the state government and executed by private companies). Historians find this difficult to understand because their cultural definitions rely so much on the knowledge of the culture’s languages (to read the primary texts) and textual histories. The modern archaeology student learns a different language that springs from the natural and social sciences. A Byzantine archaeologist has no disciplinary niche, and must hence become a little bit of a historian, linguist and art historian (based on the unique model of Classical Studies).

As a result of method-driven archaeology, you have two kinds of people. Those trained as historians/art historians who pick up archaeology in the field, and those trained as archaeologists that pick up Byzantium in the field. The former were represented at the DO conversation but not the latter (with the exception of Sue Alcock). It became a little depressing for the trained archaeologist to hear so many speakers begin with “I am not an archaeologist.” What was missing from the table were the majority of scholars who are not self-defined as Byzantinists but who have actually made the greatest contributions to our field.

This concern over “Byzantium” and the need to define a cultural-type, whether we call it Byzantine, Post-Byzantine, late-antique, medieval, Islamic became a central question. My counter-argument was that the need for cultural-types is the historian’s anxiety not the archaeologist’s. The archaeologist should make distinctions arising from the material record and not the other way around. The transition from terra sigilata to glazed pottery or from mega-basilicas to mini-cross-in-square churches needs no label. From the ceramics point of view, Joanita Vroom has published a typology of 48 pottery types from 500 to 1900. The cultural label has been a primary target of archaeological discourse precisely because it recycles imperial or national agendas.

2. Institutional Honesty

Although we academics spend entire careers analyzing and deconstructing historical institutions, we have a hesitancy to articulate power-structures, modes, traditions, oppressive structures, exclusivities, propaganda, ideologies of our own traditions. I urged everyone in the conference to read Louis Menand’s new book, The Marketplace of Ideas. The book is rather normative, analyzing the origins of the humanities in the United States and the extra-academic motivations that shaped them. Anyone studying American academic history will find nothing new or original in the book, but it is a wonderful and succinct summary. From my perspective, it answers half of the questions raised at DO. Ultimately, any crisis of Byzantine Studies is situated in a larger context. Menand’s book is a MUST because it articulates the crisis of today, particularly from the perspective of redesigning general education at Harvard. So, first, we need to raise the bar by contextualizing our Byzantine problems more broadly in North American institutions (and sadly what Frankfurt has to say become less important). DO is a product of a different era (the Cold War) and it must now address the era of capitalism. It must deal with the drop of undergraduate majoring in the humanities. DO is a product of the baby-boomers and the Cold War. The director of DO alluded to the perception of DO as a “cash cow.” Well, that is a reality that must be reckoned with. Harvard is capitalistically powerful despite its endowment reduction, but what does that mean for Byzantine practices?

Clearly, DO has functioned as a gate-keeper thanks to its financial patronage. We need to examine this historically. Robert Nelson, Helen Evans, Glenn Pierce and others have began a historiographical critique of Byzantium as a constructed art-historical discipline. DO lacks institutional self-reflection. Consider the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, which is most admirably confronting its colonial heritage and its Byzantine archaeology. Its very director, Jack Davis, has been publishing profusely not only on his scholarly expertise (Bronze Age, surveys, etc.) but on the history of his institution. This kind of soul-searching has motivated my own research, but I owe the inspiration to others. Despite all the cutting-edge Marxism in Byzantine history, there is little socio-economic critique of the academy. How does super-structure relate to base in Byzantine Studies? DO's earlier debates about the city were in many ways about the Soviet Union (Ostrogorsky, Kazhdan, etc.) What is the role of ideology in Byzantine block-buster exhibitions today? What happens when corporate sponsors outside the U.S. finance exhibitions in New York? What happens when Greek tobacco pays the bill for Glory of Byzantium? Why is Serbia not Byzantine all of a sudden? What does it mean to sell Byzantium to a consumer? What does it mean to have the Greek media magnate manage the EU funds devoted to scanning American excavation notebooks?

DO must also confront what Bob Ousterhout called “the elephant in the living room,” antiquities that have entered DO’s museum in suspicious ways and are challenged by the host countries (Turkey, Peru). Such conversations should not be forced by political pressure, they should evolve from intellectual inquiry. The Archaeological Institute of America has defined an ethical code that its members must adhere to. My archaeological ethical code is much stricter than the one of my museum colleagues and I cannot be evasive when I represent American archaeological ethics to the international community. The museum curator and art historian has greater liberties on that front.

DO must also confront its own archaeological lineage. The 1978 collapse started the conversation, but nobody dared to comment on it. The 1978 DO meeting was not as civil as the one 32 years later. Blood was spilled. I know this because my own mentor was caught in the carnage. His relationship to DO has been forever damaged. But his stories are now my stories. My mentor’s narratives inform my own narratives, although I had nothing to do with DO for my entire academic career, a fact which undoubtedly reflects that situation.

Jim Russell’s “Last Time Around” did not reveal the conversation that ensued in 1978. And I am sure that, at some level, revisiting 1978 (and the Angeliki Laiou years that followed) is still traumatic for many of the key players. But these are stories that formed me indirectly and are consciously or unconsciously trickling down to my own students. I want to know the full story. I know that DO is conducting an oral history project but I want those narratives to influence the debate today. With enough historical distance, what happened behind the fortress of DO’s leadership and its Senior Fellows will be ultimately part of our story. There diaries, secret histories and excavation notes the future historian will be able to consult. But I would rather have those issues addressed now, when they can be used for making critical decisions. It can be done in a constructive way (see how Brown University dealt with the discovery of its slave past). The American School is doing it extremely well, so that we are learning precisely how Alison Frantz and other archaeologists engaged with the Cold War. It’s time for DO to turn its attention to its rich history. I wish I had passed through the institution to be able to do it. My focus is the American School. I would also very much like to hear from the younger scholars who had to deal with the pieces after 1978. Robert Ousterhout and Sharon Gerstel, who presented the achievements of Turkey and Greece, had to deal with the collapse. Each on his/her own way, managed to create semi-archaeological identities that reflect post-1978 DO. Their tactical engagement with archaeology is a success story of the 1978 collapse, but also a reflection of its limitations. Just as much as I would like to hear more about the Striker-Mango conversation, I would like to hear what it must have been like for Bob and Sharon to work as junior scholars within that environment.

Transnational issues must also be confronted. DO’s international engagement calls for a few observations. During the last quarter of the 20th century, American institutions turned their back to Byzantine archaeology (for an entire host of great reasons; DO is perhaps a big part of the story). The deficit was filled masterfully by Great Britain, which pioneered both archaeological methods and theory (the two always go hand-in-hand). Looking at the archaeological landscape at DO this weekend, I could not help to notice the celebration of this British tradition. Jim Crow reported on the view from Edinburgh, but it would be myopic to pretend that Byzantine archaeology in the U.S. today is not partially a transplantation. The fact that the new director of DO is British speaks volumes of national sensitivities pro/con material culture. Let’s be institutionally honest. Christopher Lightfoot brought a British project to the U.S. and welcomed the new financial support (he told the story very well this weekend). John Haldon brought the lessons of one of the most successful archaeological curricula from Birmingham to Princeton. Richard Hodges brought the British experience in the Balkans to the University of Pennsylvania. Guy Sanders, the director of American excavations of Corinth, is not only the greatest living Byzantin archaeologist but also British. This is fascinating. To me, this illustrates an American deficit. It is a direct reflection of DO’s rejection of archaeology. The issue was not just “the big dig," everyone dealt with that. A good question for our day may also be the following. What happens when institutions with lots of money but weak archaeological traditions invest their resources on departments with strong historical traditions. In other words, what happens when you throw historians lots of cool toys? What kind of trickle down effect can we expect?

My request for institutional self-reflection and transparency is not just my own style of asking questions. It emerges from contemporary archaeological practice, occurring under the umbrella of physical and cultural anthropology. The myth of “objective viewer” has been shattered. In every discipline, including the sciences, we have analyzed the modernist project. We have understood how the myth of interpretive autonomy (New Criticism in literature, Processualism in archaeology) is a product of specific socio-political agendas. Post-structuralist theory in literature and Post-processual theory in archaeology are confronting the dichotomies of subject/object, emic/edic, insider/outsider in enriching ways. DO’s resistance to such theory can only be read politically. Does the institution feel a theoretical threat? The conference this weekend avoided all the critical archaeological issues, the topics that I teach in my classes, the topics that all my other colleagues deal with in/out of archaeology: Post-Colonialism and Nationalism, Gender, Globalization, Environmentalism, Neo-Imperialism. What happens to the political discourse at DO? Having members of the diplomatic core attend receptions is interesting, but it cannot substitute for substantive discussion over our American geopolitical reality. To quote Howard Zinn’s memoir, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

Let’s face it, Byzantium was a bubble constructed between the late 19th and 20th centuries. The bubble was created because the empire’s territory fit the geopolitical boundaries of the western world as it was sliced and resliced by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, two World Wars and a cold one . Byzantium was "discovered" only when it mattered. It served both the military radar (Cold War) and the aesthetic radar (exoticism). It formed the limes of modernity. Those boundaries have shifted further east to the Islamic World and China. Sure, Byzantinists should feel anxious that their academic positions are replaced by recent areas of geopolitical heat. The erosion of Byzantine studies, however, reveals the fragility of its construction. Archaeology as a contemporary discipline tackles these very issues. With or without “Byzantine” as a preface, I am thrilled to be an archaeologist in the 21st century. I relish in learning about DOs role as intellectual gate keeper in the second half of the 20th century, but I hope it will engage with archaeology more constructively in the 21st century.

I want to point attention to another thought-piece reflecting on the workshop. See Veronica Kalas' posting on Facebook.

1 comment:

Nauplion said...

Kostis, This is a dense and important discussion. Whether or not you were adequately heard at the DO conference, I'm glad you were there. Between us we have 80 years of acquaintance with DO. We will be working over your essay here for a long time.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States